The Magic Bullet Murder Case
Mirror and Image
He never was what you'd call a religious person. Oh sure, he celebrated Oban, Golden Week, and all the major holidays. There were even some Western celebrations that he always supported, such as Christmas and its focus on family and the spirit of giving (not KFC romance like Japan's media portrayed.....). But he never really spent a lot of time pondering his soul or the way the gods worked. The way he saw it, given his chosen night job, any religion that existed would pretty much view him as corrupt and label him a tarnished soul. He didn't particularly agree with that outlook on himself, but most religions didn't look too kindly to thieves, so he took the philosophy of "You don't bother it; it don't bother you."
There were, however, two goddesses that, while he didn't exactly worship them, he did owe and respect them. The first was a goddess that had been with him through his whole life, even before he set out on his night job. That was the goddess of luck. Whatever name she went by, no matter the religion, he worked hard to stay in her good graces and she replied in kind. Ever since he was a little kid, things tended to work in his favor. Not all the time, but just enough for him to notice and appreciate. When he started his current job, he noticed it even more strongly, and he reciprocated in kind, treating his luck with the proper respect and appreciation it deserved.
The second goddess he bowed to was one he didn't pay much attention to until he started his current career path. Tsukiyomi, the moon goddess. Before he'd started on his path, the moon was just a lovely aspect of nighttime. His father always seemed to love the moonlight. Growing up, he recalled random times when he, his father and mother would picnic under the full moon or would drive home late from something, watching the glowing orb as it rose through the dark sky. But when he'd learned just how important the moon really was in his line of work, he started giving Tsukiyomi the respect and appreciation that he probably should have given her when he was a child. After all, it was her gentle luminescence that determined if he had gotten what he was after or not. That deserved something.
This didn't make him some sort of fanatic. He knew he couldn't do any of what he did without all the hard work that he himself put into it. There was a reason why he was good at what he did, and it had to do very much with all the planning and preparation that he did. He got what he put in. If he tried to half-ass it, his ass would be fried, but that didn't mean that he didn't acknowledge Tsukiyomi and his luck when things that were suddenly wrapped in a hand-basket postmarked for hell miraculously turned around and started working.
So whenever something went his way, or when walking down the street at night with a bright moon above him, he made sure to bow and offer a polite compliment to the two goddesses.
It had worked out for him so far.
Kaito yawned as he stretched back. The moon was already sinking through the trees. He'd just spent the night researching a large sphalerite said to have a red glow in the translucent, diamond-like stone that was to be worn as part of a costume that a Mexican rock singer would wear at a concert the following month at the Budokan. That, in itself, wasn't enough to draw Kaito's eye. After all, sphalerite was known to (albeit rarely) have a red iridescence depending on quality. But this little Mexican stone had a few legends around it about extended longevity. Nothing confirmed, but enough to catch Kaito's eye. Besides, he could do things with a rock concert. Lots of interesting things with a rock concert if he planned it right.
Of course, Kaito was still a little annoyed that he hadn't yet found a jewel for a proper heist in Osaka. He had promised a personal invite to the Osakan detective Hattori Heiji, but nothing had showed up that was really worthy of inviting a sharp mind like tantei-han's. Plus, the kendo star was still in physical therapy after being shot in the hip while trying to save tantei-kun from a deranged child-psychologist-turned-drug-dealer from a couple months back in the fall. Kaito could be patient, but he was keeping an eye on the jewels of Osaka. Lady Luck would smile on him when the time was right.
Another yawn and stretch and Kaito decided it was a good idea to turn in for a couple hours of sleep before he had to get up for school.
The Walk to School, as defined by Kaito, was uneventful and completely normal.
The Walk to School, as defined by one Nakamori Aoko, was extremely irritating and embarrassing. Especially when Kaito, her best friend for years, flipped her skirt up in front of a crowd of people while waiting for the light to change. She may not have had a mop handy, but Kaito had dodged her book bag, slid around her fists, flipped her skirt again and tickled her sides in one shot, before he was once again gleefully dodging her furious thrusts.
Really, Kaito loved mornings like that. Plenty of exercise on the way to school, and a smile on his face that would easily last the rest of the day.
"Really, Aoko," he drawled. "Unicorns panties? I never pictured you as the mythological-type."
"You," she growled. "Will. Die."
"Seriously!" he sniggered. "Why put designs on panties unless you want people to see them?"
"Aww, come on Aoko! I'm just helping you to show them off!"
At that point, she degraded into her father's vocabulary.
Kaito, of course, took out a pad of paper and started to take notes.
"Oooooh, is that even possible?"
"You just made that one up didn't you?"
"Wait, you can make my name sound like profanity?" Kaito promptly stopped evading, knelt in front of her, hands clasped in front of him like a figure in devout prayer, bringing the policeman's daughter up short. "Aoko, the miracle has happened. You have surpassed your father!" He then bowed dramatically to her feet and leaned forward to kiss her shoes.
Aoko, naturally, didn't know what to make of this and was turning about ten shades of red in embarrassment. She kicked at him, though without the ferocity of before, and Kaito recognized the peace offering. He stood and smiled at her. "You know," he grinned madly. "I think we're actually early to school for a change."
Aoko let out a huff. "Only because you had us running at top speed when we didn't even need to hurry," she grumbled as they got to their shoe lockers and changed.
The magician shrugged. "Well, it gives me some time to read the newspaper." Said paper appeared in his hands with a puff of smoke.
"Idiot," Aoko mumbled as they continued down the hall to class.
Kaito, who wasn't listening to her, snorted. "Snoring Kogoro made the news again," he mumbled absently. Of course, that meant that tantei-kun was well and thriving, still chasing after murders like a lost puppy, so there was no need to check in on him. Frankly, after his last visit, when his favorite critic had been in the hospital after bleeding out two pints of his own blood, Kaito had rather deliberately kept his distance. The fact that the compacted detective had figured out that it was him who'd been watching (read: stalking) him was a good reason to back off. At least until he finished the heist he was planning. Then he'd drop by to annoy the little shrimp and see if he noticed any faster, now that he knew who was watching.
Frankly, the whole case with the poisoning of the children of Beika had weirded Kaito out on a lot of levels. The largest level, of course, had been his shattered Morbidity Meter after seeing the diminutive detective bleeding into a bucket, kicking over said bucket as a distraction, and then to have tantei-han shot and rolling in tantei-kun's blood. Massive Ew and Massive Morbid. Kaito still shuddered when he thought about it. But another creepy aspect of the whole incident was his interactions with said shrunken sleuth to begin with.
They had... talked. It hadn't just been banter and counter-deducing and Run The Hell Away. When tantei-kun was slowly breaking from all the pressure, Kaito had gotten him help, pushed buttons to make him see what he had, and it all culminated with him actually leaving his own life to take up residence in the squirt's school to keep an eye on him. That last conversation they'd had, Kaito felt he revealed more of himself than he probably should have, despite all the layers of the Poker Face that he'd worn (and needed to wear whenever he confronted the midget...).
It was strange being able to talk with a critic. There were usually too many walls in between them to have something approaching anything even like a conversation. But tantei-kun had said that he'd respected Kaitou Kid. That what Kaitou Kid did was brilliant. Not even the half-British snoop had ever acknowledged him like that. The shrimp had felt safe in his arms and it had sent Kaito's ears burning. He was starting to view tantei-kun as a friend, not just some challenge or rival, and that could enter some very dangerous territory. So Kaito had backed off. A little distance did a phantom thief good.
He'd just finished reading the paper, cover to cover, when Aoko yelled next to his ear.
"Hakuba-kun! Good morning!"
"Geeze, Aoko," Kaito grumbled, putting a hand over his ringing ear, "can't you learn anything about volume?"
Aoko shot him a glare, but said nothing as Hakuba Saguru, half-British detective extraordinaire, came over with a polite smile. "Good morning, Aoko-kun. Kuroba-kun."
"Yo," Kaito waved a hand, sniggering. He had no reason to laugh, he just felt like it. And it was all the more gratifying to do so as he watched the British snoop almost automatically start looking around for something to spring on him. Ahhhhh, how Kaito loved that reaction.
"Behave," growled Aoko.
"Awww, but I haven't done anything!"
Kaito gave his best innocent smile.
Several students backed away.
"Hey, Aoko, what's Kaitou-kun done now?"
The magician turned his innocent charm over to the bespectacled girl. "Absolutely nothing, Keiko-chan. Nobody will believe me though, can you believe that?"
Aoko's mop connected with empty air as Kaito reappeared standing on his desk. "Oh, you want another mop-battle already?"
Hakuba merely looked up with a cocky grin. "Your agility, Kuroba-kun, never ceases to remind me of someone."
Aoko, Keiko, and Kaito rolled their eyes as one. "He's not Kaitou Kid," Aoko stated flatly.
"It's been disproved repeatedly," Keiko sighed.
Kaito merely hopped down to his seat and shot a glare. "Can't you at least have some, oh I don't know, evidence?" Because as long as there wasn't evidence, Kaito would never have to worry.
"Don't worry," Hakuba said with a smile. "I'm quite sure I'll have it some day."
"Anyway," Keiko smiled. "I was asked to grab Yoshistune-kun and Hameru-kun and take them to the nurse. Let the teacher know when she takes attendance for me, okay?"
"Of course," Aoko replied, waving her off. "We have Katanaka-sensei first today, so it won't be a problem."
Kaito glanced at his watch and decided he had enough time to work on his latest gadget before class started.
"Hakuba-kun?" Aoko turned to the detective. "Kaito and I are having a study session in the library after school today, would you like to join us?"
"He doesn't have to!" Kaito retorted, digging through his bag for the loose pieces that always seemed to get buried in the bottom.
"He needs it, Kaito," Aoko shot back. "He was in England for the past two weeks and needs to catch up." The policeman's daughter turned back to Hakuba. "Is your mother doing better now?"
"Fit as a fiddle," the blond replied. "It was just a common cold; she really didn't need me there." He glanced at Kaito, who was still digging through his bag, and gave a soft, less arrogant smile to Aoko. "I think she just wanted an excuse to have me visit. She wasn't that fond of my choice to come back here to Japan."
"I'd imagine not," Aoko said sympathetically.
Something about his best friend offering sympathy to Hakuba rather grated on Kaito's nerve for some indiscernible reason, so he sat up and produced what he was looking for with a flourish. "Ah! Found it at last!"
Both Hakuba and Aoko blinked.
"Kaito.... Are those...?"
"Bullets. And an Enfield bullet chamber, if I'm not mistaken."
The magician put on his best patronizing tone and gave a flat glare. "Wonderful deductions, detective." But he turned to reassure Aoko. "They aren't real bullets. Not even those fake Hollywood cartridges. I was thinking of trying a variation of the Magic Bullet Trick."
Of course, his "variation" involved swapping real bullets with fake bullets under a sniper's nose, but he didn't need to say that. Kaitou Kid was non-violent, so Kuroba Kaito doing a "violent" type of magic trick would help separate identities.
What he wasn't quite expecting were the classmates now crowding around him.
"Magic Bullet? How's that work?"
"Don't those American magicians Pen and Teller do that trick?"
"I saw it on youtube!"
"Wait, wasn't there also a video on youtube explaining how it works?"
"Yeah, you need a lot of assistants."
"Kuroba-kun, you're the only one in your magic act right? How would you do a trick like that without assistants?"
"How do you do any of your tricks?"
And in all the fuss was almost a dozen classmates asking Kaito how magic was done and other miscellaneous questions that were irrelevant and off topic. It was Hakuba, however, who grabbed one of Kaito's fake bullets right out of his hand and inspected it more closely.
"Kuroba-kun. This is a real bullet."
That, naturally, made the class back away. Kaito paled, snatching the bullet right back and inspecting it. "Shit," he growled. "Shit! It must have gotten mixed in with my fakes. Damn it. And I was being so careful."
The idea of switching live bullets out for harmless fakes appealed to Kaito in a great many ways. But he needed to work out how to do it properly first. There was no way in hell he was going to practice the trick with live ammunition, but part of the trick with the Magic Bullet was that a real bullet was used initially and it came with the materials delivered from a magician he emailed back and forth in Canada. No doubt one of his pigeons mixed it in when he wasn't looking.
With a puff of smoke, a notecard box appeared and Kaito quickly dumped everything into it, snapping it shut and producing a scarf from Hakuba's sleeve to tie it shut and bury under all the books in his bag. "I'm not touching that damn thing until I get home."
Aoko reached over and put a hand on his arm. "It's okay, Kaito. It's not like you had an actual gun on you. There's no way that bullet can go off in the middle of class."
Kaito rolled his eyes, but Hakuba interrupted before he could explain.
"There are ways for bullets to work without guns, Aoko-kun. The principal is that the hammer of a gun strikes the primer of a bullet, which causes the ignition of gunpowder to set off the bullet."
Understandably, she paled. "So just a strong force on that bullet will make it fire?"
"There's more to it than that, Aoko," Kaito sighed, running a hand through his messy hair. "The primer of the bullet is a very specific and small part that would have to be hit with a great deal of force. You're right; that's not likely to happen here in school. But there's no way I'm taking that risk."
"Which is why it was a good idea for Kuroba-kun to bury them. Less risk that way."
"You're both sure?"
"Yes," the said together.
Aoko gave out a small sigh of relief. "Then are real bullets used in this Magic Bullet trick of yours?" There was worry crossing her face.
Kaito waved her worries away. "The Magic Bullet is another one of the old switcheroos. Present and authenticate the bullet, switch, carry out trick, all done."
The door slid open and the stern face of Minagami Kakeru. The karate champion aimed a poisonous glare at Kaito, but he'd grown used to that and completely ignored it, manifesting a dove in his hand to scold it for dropping things in his bag where they didn't belong. Minagami-senpai narrowed his eyes, but went to his little sister Junko, and spoke quietly with her.
"Geez," Aoko muttered into the magician's ear. "He's still angry over that?"
Kaito shrugged. "Who cares? I apologized and he wouldn't accept. That's his problem." A while back, Kaito, while dodging Aoko's mop, had done a quick-change into the elder Minagami and said something; Kaito couldn't remember what. Minagami-senpai had been angered and the magician had apologized, but the karate champion had refused to accept it and had treated Kaito horribly since. Not that Kaito ever really cared what people thought of him.
"Kuroba Kaito, please report to the office. Kuroba Kaito, to the office, please."
Kaito, Aoko, and Hakuba all looked up at the announcement. Then Aoko and Hakuba looked at Kaito.
"What'd you do this time?" Aoko flatly asked.
Kaito blinked. "I don't know."
"I'd have thought," Hakuba said with smug arrogance, "that you'd have learned that your 'innocent' routine doesn't work."
Jaw dropping, Kaito protested. "Really! I have no idea what this is about!"
"Come on," Aoko swiftly reached out and grabbed the magician's arm.
"A wonderful idea, Aoko-kun. Kuroba-kun would need an escort to ensure no further harm to our fellow students." Hakuba grabbed his other arm
"Wait a minute!" Kaito protested. He let them drag him out of the room.
"Kaito-kun? Aoko-kun? Saguru-kun?" The two law-abiders looked away from their struggling charge at Katanaka-sensei as she blinked at them.
"Sorry, sensei," Aoko gave a bright smile. "Kaito was called to the office and we're making sure he doesn't get lost on the way. Oh, and Keiko had to bring Yoshitsune-kun and Hameru-kun to the nurse. She should be back quickly."
The young teacher smiled back. "Alright," she said genially. "But don't let Kaito-kun get too roughed up, alright? We are rather responsible for the wellbeing of our students here."
"He will be returned in one piece," Hakuba reassured her. "Though when he'll be back is questionable."
Katanaka gave a small chuckle. "Well, at least class will be quiet for a change."
Kaito, who had had enough of being manhandled (albeit, willingly) and spoken about like he wasn't there, decided it was time to do something. So, with a puff of smoke, he disappeared from his captors, flipped Aoko's skirt, pulled Hakuba's jacket around so that it was backwards and buttoned, and reappeared down the hall.
"I'll make it on my own!" he called down to them, and went in the opposite direction of the office.
Once class was started, an assignment was given requiring students to work in groups while the teacher walked around to help. During the chatter and work, a figure went to Kuroba Kaito's bag. Only one item was removed. But that one item's removal would make Kaito regret ever leaving his bag unguarded while he went to the office.
Hakuba inspected his reflection in the mirror and adjusted his sleeves so that a half-inch of their pristine white peeked out from the crisp black of his jacket sleeve. Perfect. Kuroba had seemed to make it his mission over the course of the day to reverse various aspects of his apparel just for the sheer joy of seeing the British detective come back from the restroom looking immaculate once more. After all, Hakuba understood the importance of appearance. Being half Japanese, half British, and having both parents extremely public and wealthy somewhat lent oneself to being conscious of how one looked. While his coloring was perfectly acceptable in England, his Japanese features tended to get the odd looks from time to time. And while in Japan, his color and height clearly labeled him as a foreigner, despite his clearly Japanese face. In order to be accepted by either side, he always put forth his very best.
It was with this same meticulousness that he approached anything in life. It wasn't that perfection was expected of him. Far from it; he understood that his parents loved him and each other, despite their careers keeping them all apart. They loved him as he was. Hakuba himself put the goal in front of himself to present himself as precisely and promptly as possible, because he never wanted to seem like a disgrace to either his mother or father, even if they never saw him in that manner.
Another glance in the mirror and Hakuba brushed down his uniform, ready to face the day. Again.
An eyebrow twitched. The reason? One Kuroba Kaito: primary suspect as International Phantom Thief 1412, also known as Kaitou Kid. Well, primary suspect for Hakuba, at least.
"Kuroba-kun," he greeted.
"So, Aoko suggested I come collect you in order to do our study session." The magician grinned widely as he latched himself onto Hakuba's arm, much the way both he and said policeman's daughter had (tried) to escort Kuroba to the office earlier that morning. "Consider yourself collected!"
"Weren't you saying how I didn't have to come this morning?"
"So? That was this morning! This is now!"
Hakuba sighed as the possible-thief dragged him down the hall. Earlier that morning, when he'd helped Aoko escort Kuroba down to the office, was one of the few times where he'd really "caught" the Kaitou Kid. Of course, that was because Kuroba had let himself be caught. If he truly hadn't wanted to go to the office, they'd have never been able to lay a hand on him. More circumstantial evidence, along with mannerisms and body language, painted a clear picture for Hakuba on exactly who Kaitou Kid's alter ego was. Absolutely none of it, however, would stand up in court.
Therefore, Hakuba bided his time. Kuroba would slip eventually, and then there would be no more doubt.
With a hard yank, the magician spun him around the corner towards the library and Hakuba felt something odd. Looking down, he saw that his clothes were perfectly normal. Except....
With a free arm, he pulled at his black jacket and found that his crisp white shirt had been put on backwards and his white shirtsleeves still extended a half-inch from his jacket sleeves.
Hakuba sighed. His clothes were getting rumpled with all the pulling off and putting on. "Kuroba-kun, would you mind terribly if you refrained from touching my clothes?"
Ever playful, Kuroba only smiled and put his hand on Hakuba's shoulder. "Why, Hakuba! Are you scared I'll touch something I'm not supposed to?"
The British detective said nothing. Kuroba's teasing, after all, was nothing compared to the refined wit and razor sharp tongue of one of his aunts back in England. He merely offered a flat stare that seemed to make Kuroba laugh all the more.
"He's scared you'll touch his heart," a breathy, smoky voice offered.
Both turned to see the dark red hair of Koizumi Akako.
"Koizumi-kun," Kuroba greeted coolly. Another puzzle for Hakuba. The magician was always bright, open and friendly to everyone except for the popular young woman. Even those who treated Kuroba poorly, such as Minagami-senpai, were often greeted with Kuroba's attempts to make them smile, laugh or ease whatever tension existed. Koizumi was the only one that Kuroba did no such overtures for. It made Hakuba wonder.
The redhead turned to the British detective, though she was still speaking to Kuroba. "He doesn't know the strength of his own heart. He views it as too weak and fragile to handle a friendship with someone such as you, so keeps his professional distance." She turned to the magician. "The same way you are keeping a professional distance from someone else. But yours isn't a fear of friendship. Yours is a fear of how desperately you crave it."
Kuroba rolled his eyes. "Koizumi-kun, as always, you make absolutely no sense. Hakuba and I are going to study with Aoko. Do you mind?"
Koizumi leaned into Kaito's personal space and he continued to look at her with a small, blank smile. "That person is a danger to you. You could have the friendship you so desperately crave with me."
The magician took a step back, letting go of Hakuba, and gave a formal, polite bow. "Sorry you have wasted your time, Koizumi-kun, but Hakuba and I must be going." Without waiting, Kuroba sidestepped and continued down the hall. Hakuba also gave a polite bow to the redhead before following, his thoughts pondering.
The conversation had been... odd. Koizumi was, if nothing else, extremely perceptive, despite her claims of sorcery. If he were entirely honest with himself, Hakuba would agree that he was worried (not scared) of any sort of friendship with Kuroba. After all, the possible thief was very likable in his own contrary sort of way. Hakuba had to work to keep his professionalism and distance, to not let his guard down. Because if he did, then he may falter in making the arrest; in capturing Kaitou Kid. So instead, he observed the charismatic Kuroba, looking for slips and similarities so that he might finally obtain evidence.
If (without ever admitting it out loud) Koizumi's comments about his feelings on Kuroba were true, then there was the possibility that her comments on Kuroba and some unnamed person were also true. But it made no sense without some sort of context on whom Koizumi was referring to that was a danger to Kuroba. Was that person a danger to Kuroba as Kuroba or as Kid? What sort of danger was he or she, and why did Kuroba seek friendship with someone who was dangerous to him?
As always with anything in regards to Kuroba, Hakuba was left with more questions than answers.
Hakuba glanced back at the alluring redhead. What did she know that he didn't, and how did she know it?
Koizumi was her own set of mysteries, something that Hakuba pondered when his attention wasn't on Kaitou Kid and his alter ego of Kuroba Kaito. She claimed to be a sorceress, and if the girls in class were any indication, she was a real one because her charms supposedly never failed. Of course, Hakuba remained completely nonplussed on that account, because he knew that the power of belief and placebos were the most likely cause of Koizumi's "effective charms". Similarly, he couldn't argue that she definitely had the male population of their school rather effectively under her thumb. Except Kuroba and himself, of course.
The redhead looked at him and their eyes locked for a brief moment. She was definitely an interesting character. If he didn't require all his wits and focus on his magical classmate, he wouldn't mind studying her.
Koizumi raised an eyebrow at him and both bowed to each other at the same time, the redheaded "sorceress" turning to go about her business as Hakuba turned to continue following Kuroba into the library.
Aoko was in a back corner of the library, in sight of the door but far enough away from the normal mass of students so as to provide some level of privacy. She waved them over with a cheerful smile, books spread out in front of her on the circular table.
Kuroba lowered his voice in respect of the library as they approached. "Hey, Aoko. I collected our table ornament here," he pointed at Hakuba.
The detective merely gave a smug smirk. "Aoko-kun, thank you once again for your kind invitation."
"No problem," Aoko shrugged. "Let's take a look at how much you were able to do while in England and Kaito and I will try and fill you in."
As they sat, Hakuba took notice of Kuroba, like he normally did. The magician sat with his back to the window on one side of Aoko. He shoved a chair over and put his feet up on it, simultaneously looking utterly relaxed while giving himself plenty of room to move as the energetic possible-thief was want to do. Hakuba sat on the other side of the policeman's daughter, pulling out his own books to start comparing notes.
Things actually went fairly well. With Aoko to act as intermediary, the private Kid-vs-NotKid war was temporarily shelved. Hakuba was able to catch up on the work that he had missed while visiting his mother and the three of them started perfecting their current studies. Hakuba would only admit under extreme duress that he was impressed that Kuroba and Aoko could remain so intelligent despite their frequent disruptions during class. For someone clever enough to be Kaitou Kid, this wasn't a surprise, but it spoke very well of Aoko that she did so well despite the chaos that she and Kuroba could induce in class.
Aoko really was someone admirable. She was intelligent and strong and not at all like the girls that Hakuba normally came across in Japan, whose purpose seemed to be to come across as someone who needed protection. The British detective hated this sort of traditional view that the woman's only place was at home and taking care of the children. Aoko didn't fit this mold; instead she stated what she thought and if you didn't like it, tough. It was an unfortunate aspect of both halves of his heritage, the unfailing commitment to tradition and propriety. While Hakuba approved of traditions, that didn't mean that one ignored how things changed. And viewing anyone as second class or beneath you just because they were different was something that he couldn't stand. His biracial status made him aware of how stupid it was to judge anyone without getting to know them and their character.
The three looked up to see Minagami Junko there, blushing and glancing back and forth between Kuroba and Aoko.
"Hey, Junko-chan," Aoko smiled brightly. "What can we do for you?"
"I... I..." Her high cheekbones getting redder, the karate practitioner gave a small sigh and bowed. "I apologize for my big brother's deplorable behavior. None of you deserve his bad temper. I'm sorry."
Kuroba shrugged. "Not your fault."
The girl blushed even harder.
Well, speak of the devil. Minagami himself walked over, taking his little sister's arm. "You," he said pointedly at her, "shouldn't disgrace yourself by associating with him," he jerked a thumb to Kuroba.
Scowling up at her brother, Junko hissed, "Onii-san! You're being rude!" She glanced at their table again. "I'm sorry--"
Minagami pulled at her arm. "You have no need to apologize to him or anyone who's with him and neither do I."
"Hey," Kuroba stood easily to his feet. "Look, I've already apologized to you," he said with a small smile. "And I've done so repeatedly. You don't want to accept it, that's your choice," and with a wave of a hand, a potted flower appeared on Minagami's head. "You should treat your family a little nicer, however."
The stoic upperclassman, however, wasn't expecting it and shifted, making the flower tip over and the pot shatter on the floor.
"Kuroba," Minagami growled. "You continue to try and disgrace my family. Leave us be!"
Aoko rose to Kuroba's defense. "Hey!" she shouted. "He may be an annoying idiot magician, but Kaito hasn't done anything other than his usual magic or jokes! He's not disgracing you, senpai, please stop saying he that is!"
Hakuba stood, ready to say something, else Junko's red face burst from embarrassment.
Kaito, however, beat him too it, draping himself around Aoko's shoulders. "Don't worry about it, Aoko. Kakeru-senpai's just being contrary. I know all about being contrary, so as long as he says to stay away, I'll understand what he contrarily means, and keep sticking close by. And if he asks to hang out, I'll be nice and contrary and hang out! See, matter settled!"
"Hardly," Hakuba muttered, but the desired reaction was a small spattering of giggles from the other students in the library, effectively reminding the fuming Minagami that they were in public. Hakuba loved it when propriety set it.
"Kuroba," he growled quietly. "I swear... Some day..."
Whatever the upperclassman was going to say, however, was cut off by a teacher weaving through the desks and shelves. "Junko-chan, Kakeru-kun, I'm glad I found you together! I wanted to talk to the two of you about that karate tournament the two of you will be entering."
Minagami had composed himself and turned. "Of course, Katanaka-sensei. Come on, Junko." And with a firm tug on her arm, the siblings met the young teacher partway and left the library.
The three sat down at the table once more.
"Poor Junko-chan," Aoko said after a moment. "It's really too bad that her brother is such a jerk."
"And domineering," Hakuba added. "He runs her life very efficiently. To say nothing of the traditions they live by."
Kuroba shrugged. "She'll get away from them when she graduates. She's too shy to stand up to him, so she'll do better once she's on her own. It'll be hell for her in the meantime." A puff of smoke and the flower and broken pot were gone. "I believe we were looking at derivatives?"
Hakuba frowned. Something about the confrontation didn't set well with him. And he wouldn't know what until much later.
Aoko closed the door behind her, not bothering to call out a greeting, since she knew her father wouldn't be home until much later that evening. Hakuba had departed after their study session to head back to his lab to work on something and Kaito had hung out with her for a while before saying he wanted to work some more on his variation of the Magic Bullet. Aoko hadn't minded, since it gave her a chance to do some shopping. She unloaded her grocery bags in the kitchen, put things away and went upstairs to change.
Finally, no more skirt, she thought to herself as she slipped on her favorite jeans. She had always been too much of a tomboy to have the patience and propriety for such evil things as skirts and dresses. Frankly, all that 'girly' stuff never really caught her eye as a child, especially when climbing trees and running around the park was so much fun. With only her father raising her, she'd never had much in the way of feminine influence. Oh, Aoko understood that there were times that she had to look nice, like for a party or special occasion, but if given the choice, she'd never battle with makeup, hairspray, or tights.
Heading back downstairs, Aoko went towards the kitchen when a small pulsing light caught her attention. Surprised to see a message on the answering machine, she pressed the play button.
"Aoko. I'm going to be even later than usual tonight. I'm having dinner brought to the station. Don't wait up."
Typical. Just typical. She went and bought all that food to prepare her father's favorite dinner, but he wasn't going to be home. She scowled at the answering machine, hoping it would somehow spontaneously combust. If only she had a mop handy....
And all at once, her anger dispersed, leaving her feeling rather empty. Like her home. Another dinner for one, she thought glumly. Instead of going to the kitchen, she went to the living room and sank into the sofa. One more dinner alone. You'd think I'd be used to it... She stared up at the ceiling, listening to the silence of her home. A clock ticked, the heater rattled, and the compressor for the fridge droned on.
Under most circumstances, Aoko would just sigh, get herself dinner, and watch television or listen to music or do something to fill up the silence. That day, however, she just didn't have the strength. It was Saturday; the following day was usually her father's day off and she just had to last. Then the house wouldn't be so quiet. So lonely.
"Aaaaaargh!" Sitting up in a huff, Aoko stormed over to the entryway, put on her sneakers, grabbed her coat, scarf, and hat, and stomped outside into the cold winter air. The frigidness cooled her sharp steps but didn't stave the anger at herself. She wasn't going to let herself feel sorry for herself, so she was going to distract herself, and if there was one person she could count on for a distraction, she was going to see him.
It wasn't a long walk next door and, while she had a set of keys and had been told constantly that she had an open invitation, she still knocked politely.
"Come on in, Aoko-kun!" called a light alto voice.
Smiling, Aoko opened the door and toed out of her shoes. "Thanks, Obaa-san!" she called. Her winter wear was tossed onto the sofa and she followed her nose into the kitchen. "Smells delicious," she said.
"Thank you," Kaito's mother said with a kind smile. "Kaito only just got home. He should be down in a minute."
"Sure thing," she replied. As was customary whenever Aoko barged in at dinner time, she felt it was her obligation to set the table, so she headed for the cabinets and drawers to start pulling out plates, cups, and silverware.
"Hey Mom!" a voice called from upstairs. "Did I just hear Aoko?"
"What do you think, you idiot?" Aoko called back smiling.
"Ack!" With a loud series of thuds and swears, Kaito appeared in a heap at the bottom of the steps.
"Now, now, children," called Kaito's mother from the kitchen. "I just replaced the vase from last time. Please wait a month before you partake in battle again."
"Don't worry, Obaa-san. I'll abstain as long as he doesn't start it."
She gave a small chuckle before taking pity on his floored form. Offering her hand she helped him up, ignoring his mutterings of how he wasn't always the one who started it. Aoko squeezed his hand rather firmly and he took the hint to shut up.
She smiled as they sat down for dinner. Kaito, outside of her father, was probably the only person she understood completely. That probably came from being friends for so long, but it was nice to know someone so well. Keiko would come in as a close second, but Keiko tended towards boy-crazy. Aoko knew she was being a late bloomer in that score. Boys were just people, the same way girls were. Someday she'd probably start to look around and actually notice a guy, but for now those senses hadn't awakened in her and that was fine with Aoko. It made her life blissfully uncomplicated. No who-loves-who debates to angst over. Instead, she'd just hang out with her best friend Kaito; the two of them would continue to try and introduce Hakuba to the concept of human interactions.
"So, Kaito, how'd your research go this afternoon?" she asked.
The magician scowled. "Horrible," he grumbled. "I went to all the usual places and they just didn't have what I was looking for."
Not liking seeing her childhood friend upset over anything, Aoko suggested, "Well, why not talk to some magicians in town? Maybe one of them knows this Magic Bullet trick of yours and you can--"
"No son of mine is going to be working with bullets, magic or otherwise, at all," Kaito's mother stated firmly with a clink of her teacup. Silence hovered around the table as both teenagers looked in shock at the woman. Kaito's mother was never this firm, normally taking a sort of kind-chastising tone that usually worked wonders in putting the magician in his place.
"Kaito," she looked at him sadly. "I understand and encourage your love of magic. But your father always made it a point to stay away from the more 'dangerous' brand of magic. The kind where you shoot people or drive spikes through them and miraculously come out fine. He always said that kind of display dirtied the real magic." With a small sigh, she sat back. "Magic is about inspiring wonder and fascination. That kind of dangerous magic is risky and it also inspires the audience to fear for the practitioner on at least a small level. It's for adults who like more of a thrill of adrenaline and isn't appropriate for children at all."
Standing, Kaito's mother came over to Kaito's chair and leaned over to hug him. "You take after your father so much, my sweet, sweet boy. So draw in an audience for the thrill of wonder and not the thrill of fear. Make sure that everyone's safe, and above all else, include yourself in making everything safe."
Aoko looked down at her plate, feeling extremely out of place. In many ways, Kaito's parents had been her parents while growing up. With her mother gone and her father often away, she'd essentially grown up in Kaito's house. She loved the magician's parents as much as her own and it had hit her just as hard as Kaito when they'd learned that his father had died.
Kaito's mother had been understandably inconsolable. She had cried, wailed and screamed out her grief late into the night. Aoko herself had been a ball of tears, but little Kaito had just stood there, his face slack in shock and Aoko hadn't been able to help herself as she pulled him into a tight hug and kept sobbing that everything would be okay. Because when she had lost her mother she had felt her world collapsing, but things were okay. And that night she had been right back in that world-shattering pain, but that time, she knew it would be okay because she'd been through it before. And Kaito had her there to help.
She had lost two parents, in a way. Aoko didn't know what she would do if she ever lost her father or Kaito. Because she would be right back in that pit again and even if she knew that everything would be okay, she had to wonder what star she was born under that would make her lose so much.
But her father chased after Kaitou Kid, a non-violent, extremely irritating, and annoying thief. Kaito was a stupid magician who took risks, but never beyond what he knew he could handle.
Aoko continued to find her plate fascinating as she heard a hitch of breath from Kaito that almost sounded like a sob. A small cough. "Sorry, Mom." His voice was so quiet. "Don't worry. That trick won't be in my arsenal."
She wondered how he made his voice sound so steady after all that. She was still fighting back her own tears. Even after all these years, being reminded of the Great Kuroba Toichi had a lot of emotion attached to it. Mostly because Kaito usually buried his pain so much that Aoko just couldn't help expressing what he should be expressing. But to cut through his defensive walls enough for him to almost break said something on how his mother's little speech affected him. How much it meant to him.
And to her. Because she missed her pseudo-father just as much. Kaito's mother didn't speak of magic often, but when she did, it was like Kaito's father was in the room with them.
Aoko rubbed at her eyes, clearing away any vestiges of her tears. A quiet, deep breath, a large smile, and she looked up. Kaito was still wrapped in his mother's embrace, his face oddly sad and happy at the same time. "Why don't I get some dessert?" she said quickly. "I saw some cherry pie in the pantry and I think that should round off dinner nicely." She stood up and went to the kitchen, clearing her plates as she did so.
For all that she knew Kaito like the back of her hand, she understood that there were things he kept very private. Most anything that dealt with his father in any way fell very heavily under the Private Category, because Kaito always strove to be the happy fool who made people laugh. He never shared his pain, and sometimes it just hurt to watch him bury it all. So she smiled for him. It was the least that she could do. He was her best friend, after all.
Sniffling, she bustled about the kitchen she knew as well as her own and sliced the cherry pie she had spied earlier. While she heated the three slices in the microwave, she went to the freezer on a whim and pulled out some chocolate ice cream. One healthy scoop for each slice with a little whip cream and, instead of a cherry on top, she pulled out some strawberries. It was a rather odd combination, but Aoko wasn't really thinking properly, she was too busy putting on her happy face for Kaito.
She had just put her last strawberry in the whip cream when tears came to her eyes again. Sniffling, she buried her face in her arms. "Dammit," she scolded herself. "Not now. Not when he needs me..."
Cold fingers invaded her sweater and chilled the small of her back before tickling her sides.
"YIPE!!" Turning quickly and swiping the offending hands, she glared at her best friend. "Kaitooooooo!!"
And came up short.
He was slouched, hands buried in his pockets, like always, but his face was blank. No half-smirking smile, like he normally did when hiding things, or grieving eyes like moments earlier. Just blank, he like hadn't decided what expression to make yet. "I'm not really fair to you, am I?" he said quietly.
Aoko blinked, not sure what he meant. "Huh?"
A shrug. "My dad. I'm not the only one who misses him."
"You know you've been there for me since the night he died?" He gave a small, sad smile. "Saying everything would be okay. Always trying to help me through the grief because you've been there before." The smile faded. "I haven't really done a good job of being there for you."
Aoko said nothing, her jaw somewhere on the floor.
"I mean, I've been so caught up in looking up new magic tricks, trying them out. Couple months ago I was out of town for a while to help Mom with anemic relatives. I've kinda been taking you for granted, haven't I?"
She picked up her jaw and let out a sigh. "You idiot," she muttered with a small grin. "I'll always be there for you. Best friends, remember? You'll get retribution if you ever take me for granted."
He had the presence of mind to wince. "Now can you help me bring in the pie, or are you going to try and stick your cold hands up my shirt again?" He smiled more genuinely and grabbed a pair of plates while Aoko grabbed the third and the tea kettle to refill their cups. As she followed her best friend in, she couldn't help the warm glow that had spread through her.
After Kaito had entertained them all through dessert, (which involved dis-and-reappearing doves, juggled plates of ice cream covered pie, and the show stopping arrival of the TV remote in Aoko's forkful of pie - she had nearly chipped her teeth on it so she believed herself justified at implanting the device in his forehead since a mop wasn't handy) and they had played several board games together (under the express condition that Aoko rolled the dice for Kaito so that they all had a fair shot at winning), relaxing around the kotatsu.
Feeling warmed and full, Aoko had bid them all goodnight and headed back down the sidewalk to her own home. It was getting late and her house looked friendly and inviting with the lights on. Kaito, being the gentleman, escorted her to her front door, despite her repeated protests that she'd be fine walking a few hundred feet down the street.
She was surprised to see her father just getting out of his shoes when she opened the front door, and he looked rather surprised as well.
"Aoko, I'm glad you still up. I was going to wake you."
"Dad? I thought you'd be home later. Is everything okay?"
Her father shuffled out of the entryway to give her room with a sigh, clamping down on his pipe. "I tried to get out of it," he grumbled. "But I just came home to pack a few things. My boss is sending me to a conference out in Sendai for a few days."
All the warm feelings she collected bled out of her. "But dad! Tomorrow's your day off! What about--" she cut herself off. He had tried to get out of it. But when your boss says jump, you say "How high?"
"I'm sorry, Aoko. I'll make it up to you, I promise."
He'd said that many times before. And he was sincere.
"When's your flight?" she asked, putting on a smile. "Or will you take the train? I can make a snack for you."
"That's alright, honey," her father leaned in and hugged her. "My flight is in a couple hours. I wish they didn't spring this on me today. I've got enough time to pack and haul my sorry ass down there for all that airport shit you have to go through."
"Why don't you take a shower, dad? I'll pack you a bag."
"That sounds marvelous," her father said, his fatigue creeping into his voice.
He ruffled her hair and she pouted at him before he turned and headed upstairs.
Aoko stood there in the entryway.
Deep breath. Turning to lock the door, her eyes widened when she saw that Kaito was still there. "Sorry," she said, a smile appearing on her face. "I guess I can't invite you in for tea. I'll see you Monday at school." She closed the door, not willing to get emotional in front of her best friend for the second time that evening. Come on Aoko. Cheer up. Why are you so mopey today? Get a grip, this doesn't usually bother you!
But she couldn't shake the feeling that, somehow, she was going to lose someone close to her again.
Author's Note: And we're back. Sorry for the delay. We told many of you to expect this around New Year's, but our beta-reader took November off and we were pushing hard to get our usual 5-chapter buffer set up. So we're a little later than expected. -.- Gomen yo. At least you all had The Price of Truth to keep you entertained in the mean time. ^_^ With our buffer in place, we shall be continuing our every-two-weeks update schedule. Of course, given the title of this story, (and the teaser), you probably already know at least a little of what's going to happen. But hopefully we'll have plenty of surprises as you read. Writing Kaito, as always, is fun. Writing Aoko or Hakuba, however, is a different matter. Aoko is a bright and happy personality, though easily frustrated, but when you REALLY look, she's often left alone. That makes her very easy to slip into angst/brooding, and that's out of character for her. We try not to pile it on too thick, but she's bound to feel alone once in a while. Bleh. And don't get us started on Hakuba. There are SO many different interpretations of him in the fandom that trying to lock down what even his basic personality is like was entirely too difficult. We've struggled with him throughout this story and the next. Meh. .
In any case, the story has started, and certain seeds have been planted. Now to just watch them grow.