A.N: This was written purely for my own amusement. You have been warned.
Disclaimer: I don't own DCMK.
Summary: During a party at Akako's, Kaito and Shinichi stumble over a strange book. In retrospect, they should have known better than to open it.
Pairing: KaiShin [KaitoxShinichi]
Warnings: It's long and possibly kind of weird.
The Witch's Book
When the invitation had arrived announcing a party to be held at the house of one Koizumi Akako, Kaito had immediately declared in no uncertain terms that they were not going. For his part, Shinichi wasn't much of a party person, but this particular party was being held for Nakamori Aoko's birthday and as her friends he felt they were somewhat obliged to be there.
"She'll be really disappointed if we don't at least show up," he reminded his partner for what had to be the umpteenth time. "We don't have to stay long."
"But Shin-chan, it's Akako's house!"
Shinichi frowned slightly. "I thought you two were getting along now."
"Well, technically we are," Kaito acquiesced. "But you never know when she might change her mind. Besides, have you ever seen her house? It's creepy as hell."
"But what about Aoko?"
"We can go see her tomorrow."
"That won't be the same and you know it. Come on Kaito, it's just a few hours."
In the end he'd had to resort to bribing the magician into agreeing to go. Even so Kaito had disappeared into the bedroom to 'get ready' and hadn't come out yet by the time they were supposed to leave. As he knew Kaito was fully capable of changing his entire appearance including facial features in under two minutes, Shinichi could only assume he was stalling. As a result they were almost a whole half hour late to the party (well, actually, they were thirty one minutes, twenty two seconds, and five milliseconds late—or so Hakuba had felt the urge to inform them).
Shortly after dinner Kaito disappeared claiming he was going to the restroom and never came back. When he was still gone half an hour after that Shinichi went looking for him. Akako's house was large and built like a maze—all dark corridors and dim lights that left visitors feeling the constant need to look over their shoulders every few seconds. It wasn't long before Shinichi realized that he was hopelessly lost. It was weird because he could have sworn he'd remembered every turn he'd taken properly, but when he tried to retrace his steps he found himself in halls he'd never seen before. It was almost like the house had rearranged itself after he'd passed through.
But of course that was impossible.
It was more likely that he'd simply misremembered the way. Either way it seemed unlikely that he was going to be finding anybody any time soon. He was seriously considering taking out his cell phone and calling someone in the living room to come and find him when he heard movement from inside a room whose door was slightly ajar.
Relieved, he hurried over and pushed the door the rest of the way open—to see Kaito standing in front of a large, oak desk which was the centerpiece of what appeared to be some kind of study. The magician turned when he heard the door open and grinned.
"Oh, hey Shin-chan! What are you doing here?"
"I was looking for you," Shinichi replied, a hint of exasperation creeping into his voice as he crossed his arms. "You've been gone for nearly a whole hour now!"
"Really?" Kaito looked honestly surprised. "I could've sworn it was only twenty minutes."
Shinichi leveled him with a disbelieving look but decided to let the matter drop. "What are you doing in here anyway?"
"I was passing by on my way back when I saw all these books in here." He waved a hand to indicate the shelves all around them. "I was just curious so I thought I'd take a look around. After all, I've never seen a witch's library before."
Shinichi would have pointed out that this seemed like just the kind of poking around that might incur said witch's wrath, but Kaito had already turned away, wandering over to the desk where a single, blue book lay closed on its dark, polished surface.
"Tales of Endora," he read off the cover as he picked it up for a closer examination. "Huh, I've never heard of it before."
"I'm sure there are lots of books in the world you haven't heard of before," Shinichi replied, glancing nervously towards the door. "I think you should put that back. They're going to start wondering where we are soon. You don't want Koizumi-san to find you nosing through her stuff, do you?"
"Just give me a second," the magician replied, flipping open the blue book for a peek inside. He'd just caught a glimpse of an ink drawing of a castle beautifully rendered with the finest detail before his vision suddenly filled with an explosion of gold light. He dropped the book in surprise as his ears rang with his own and Shinichi's startled cries, but he never heard the book hit the table. Instead his ears filled with the sound of rushing wind before everything went white.
He could feel the warmth of sunlight on his face. A soft breeze brushed past him, carrying with it the smell of grass and spring blooms. That was…odd. Clearly he was outside. That was grass he was sitting on.
Indigo eyes opened a fraction to peer cautiously at his surroundings. Determining that he was alone, Kaito sat up straighter and opened his eyes fully to gaze in mixed confusion and wonder at the sunbathed scenery around him. He was indeed sitting on soft, green grass which appeared to be carpeting the circular center of a courtyard of some kind. The warm, hard surface against which he had been leaning was the pedestal of a statue depicting a European dragon with its white, marble claws wrapped protectively over a faceted sphere of polished quarts. It was beautifully crafted and utterly foreign.
Where in the world was he?
And how had he gotten here?
Turning, he took another look around the high, stone walls of the courtyard. There were arches in two of the walls. Through one he could see an even bigger courtyard dominated by a fountain whose gently bubbling waters danced with flecks of gold in the sun's light. Through the other he could see another statue much like the one he had woken beside along with what might have been a set of stone tables and chairs. And if he looked up he could see that all these courtyards spread away from the towering turrets of a castle.
Was this some kind of dream?
He pinched himself and winced. Nope, not a dream. But then what had happened? The last thing he remembered was opening that book in Akako's study and seeing the ink drawing of—of the castle he was looking up at now.
"Okay, this can't be good," he mused aloud. Then again, this didn't really prove anything one way or another. So it was a castle, there were lots of castles all over the world, many of which served as models for hundreds of fictional creations. Granted, most of them probably weren't in as good condition as this one obviously was, but there had to be a few that were well maintained. And there was the occasional eccentric who might build a new one here or there. How he'd wound up at one without his knowledge was a puzzle, but he had been in Akako's house.
Well, since he was here, he might as well look around.
Wandering into the courtyard where the fountain laughed, he brushed a hand over the rim of the basin, noting how clean it was. Catching the flash of color in the water, he leaned forward and looked down to be greeted by his own reflection as it wavered in the water. That was when he noticed that he was wearing clothes he'd never seen before, let alone bought. Admittedly they were rather fine clothes but still…no normal person wore clothes like these around. They were far more suitable for a dress party—or Halloween.
"Sir!" an unfamiliar voice rang out across the courtyard.
Straightening, Kaito glanced around to see a rather harried looking boy running through another archway, waving at him with the relieved expression of someone who had finally found what they were looking for.
"Yes?" Kaito inquired as the boy skidded to a stop and saluted. It was a bit bemusing to be saluted, but hey, he wasn't going to complain. What was strange however was the way the boy didn't seem surprised to find him here. "What is it?"
"The queen requests your presence in the throne room," the boy replied. "Your bride has arrived."
If Kaito hadn't been the superb actor that he was, he would have gaped like his least favorite animal. "What?"
"It would probably be best if you went now," the boy added, face flushing in embarrassment as his gaze fell. "It took me twenty minutes to find you."
Gathering his wits back about himself, Kaito offered the messenger a reassuring smile. "Don't worry about it. We'll leave now."
The boy nodded and turned. Kaito followed after him, his mind racing. Queen? He didn't know any queens. And what was this about a bride? There had obviously been some kind of mistake.
The messenger led the way through several more courtyards before they actually entered the castle. As they walked along the long, stone halls, Kaito noted that this was clearly a well inhabited place. There were people everywhere. And every last one of them paused in whatever they were doing to bow to him as he passed. This was starting to feel more and more surreal by the second.
The throne room itself was a magnificent chamber with high ceilings and ornate pillars. It was mostly empty but for a small gathering standing near the thrones. Kaito's eyes went automatically to the regal woman on one of the thrones who was obviously the queen. She was tall and elegant and everything that one might imagine a queen should be. She was also the only one facing the door and therefore the first to see the new arrivals.
"Ah, Kaito, there you are!" the woman exclaimed upon seeing him, dashing the magician's idea that they had mistaken him for someone else. She rose from her seat and in moments had dismissed most of the occupants of the room as she waved Kaito forward. "Come and meet your future bride, the Princess Charlotte."
The girl in question turned and curtsied. Now, the ability to appreciate beauty was something Kaito had always considered one of his virtues, and it was undeniable that the young lady was very beautiful. But the fact that he was being told by all these total strangers that she was apparently supposed to be his bride was making it hard to appreciate anything. Not that he had anything against her personally—how could he? He had no idea who she was!—but everything else aside he already had a significant other he was very happy with, thank you very much. Shinichi was very tolerant in regards to a lot of the things he did, but he was fairly sure the detective would not be happy if he came home married.
Well, he may not want to marry her, but there was no need to be rude. Stepping forward, he bowed and took her hand, placing a kiss on the back of it.
"It is a pleasure to meet you my lady," he said. "I hope your journey was a peaceful one. However, I am afraid that I cannot marry you. I am sorry that you had to come all this way."
There was a moment of absolute silence. The princess stood with her eyes wide in surprise and a rather comical expression of confusion. Then she grew pale and turned to the queen who gave Kaito a disapproving glare before hurrying to the young woman's side. She lowered her voice as she guided the girl a few steps away. Murmuring what sounded from its tone to be words of comfort to her, the queen eventually called for a servant to show the young lady to her room. Once she was gone, the queen turned back to Kaito with a severe frown.
"And what, may I ask, were you thinking to say such a thing to the poor girl?"
"I spoke only the truth," he replied, not at all perturbed by the severity of her gaze. "I never agreed to marry her."
"It was arranged when you were born," the woman replied as though this was something he should know.
"Well, then obviously I had no say in it. You can hardly expect me to be happy with that."
"Must you be so difficult? Why could I not have had a more obedient son?" she added to herself, not noticing the start her words gave said 'son'. "Anyhow, if you do not want to marry her, you have to find someone else of royal blood. It is your duty as the crown prince, as you very well know."
It was? He did? Even with his skills Kaito was hard pressed not to gape. As it was he wasn't given any time to protest this presumption. The queen was apparently a very efficient woman. Once she had decided, it took only half an hour for Kaito to find himself with a traveling pack and a horse—saddled and bridled and with a page holding the stirrup to boot—before he was pointed down the road and instructed by his supposed 'mother' to find himself a princess to marry since he wouldn't marry the one she'd picked.
"I suppose you could go to Kuur," she'd suggested after asking him again if he would reconsider. "I hear Princess Lucinda is a beautiful and accomplished young lady. Though I believe her brother has thus far turned away all her suitors."
Kaito had listened and waited without comment as she went on listing other possibilities. He wasn't interested in any princesses. He didn't particularly care how beautiful they were supposed to be or how beneficial a marriage alliance with one of them would be for the kingdom. On the other hand, arguing would likely prolong the time he had to spend here so he listened patiently and nodded and smiled until she finally wished him a safe journey and let him go.
He was just a few hundred steps past the city gates when he noticed a sign at the fork in the road. The road to the left was labeled "Kuur" and the road to the right said there were "Deep forests ahead". But it was the sign pointing back the way he had come that caught his attention. The name there read "Endora".
Endora…Endora… Where had he seen that name be—oh… Indigo eyes widened slightly as Kaito took another long look at the sign. Yep, it was definitely the same name that had been printed on the cover of that book.
The castle was one thing, but this was one too many coincidences. Well, in some ways, it explained a lot. So it seemed that if this wasn't an extremely realistic dream or hallucination, he might actually be inside the witch's little, blue book.
That…was not a comforting thought.
"Well, this is going to be…interesting," he remarked to the horse he'd been given who snorted and flicked its tail. Shaking his head, Kaito turned their steps towards the forest.
Shinichi groaned and opened his eyes. That was odd. When had he gone to bed? He couldn't even remember going home… Come to think of it, this didn't feel like his bed. It was too soft. Brows furrowing in confusion, he sat up and looked around. He was, as he had expected, sitting on a bed that was not his. It was a large, four poster bed covered in thick, fluffy white blankets with elaborate patterns stitched in gold thread. The curtains that hung around the bed were gauzy and also shimmered gold in the sunlight pouring in through the room's one large, round window.
His first thought was that Kaito had to be the one behind it. It wouldn't be the first time the magician decided that it was time they had a vacation and spirited him away without asking. But in those cases Kaito was usually present when he woke up (because A, Shinichi would want an explanation lest his next greeting be a soccer ball to the face, B, they were both paranoid people and he knew Shinichi would be uncomfortable waking up alone in a strange place, and C, these getaways were usually his way of arranging them some alone time together, therefore not being there would defeat the point). On the other hand if it wasn't Kaito, then where was he and how had he gotten here?
More importantly, who had changed him into pajamas?
Feeling greatly disturbed, he climbed quickly—or as quickly as the too soft mattress would allow—out of the bed and commenced a thorough search of the room. Everything in it was of extremely high quality and spotlessly clean. He couldn't find his clothes anywhere, but there was a large closet full of what looked to him like theater costumes. Certainly no one dressed like that anymore.
Sitting back down on the edge of the bed, he debated whether he wanted to pick a costume or go out in the pajamas. The upside about the pajamas was that they were a nice, plain white. The problem of course was that they were very clearly pajamas. On the other hand most of the costumes were dresses. The few outfits he'd found that weren't still had enough embroidery to be hung on a wall as artwork. So it was up between feeling ridiculous or feeling under dressed.
And he still had no idea where he was. His phone had gone AWOL with his clothes and this room didn't have one. Frowning, he stood and made his way to the window. The sill was so deep that he had to climb onto it in order to see anything other than sky. As he'd suspected this room was a fair ways above the ground.
Blue eyes widened as he looked out and down on a sprawling city that looked like it had gone back in time.
Stunned, he didn't have much time to ponder the sight when he was interrupted by the sound of someone knocking at the door.
He jumped, scrambling off the windowsill and wishing he'd put on one of the ridiculously gaudy outfits. Reaching out, he snatched the hand mirror off the table. It had a sturdy handle and some decent weight. In lieu of the lack of kickable things in the room, it would have to do in case he had to defend himself.
He braced his feet as the door opened—and in walked an elderly woman a head shorter than he was decked out in a less elaborate version of the costume dresses he'd seen in the closet.
She didn't seem to notice either his surprise or the fact that he was holding the mirror like a weapon. Instead, she exclaimed, "My lady, you must hurry and get dressed or you'll be late!"
Shinichi stared at the woman for a moment before looking quickly down at himself. No, he hadn't suddenly turned into a woman. Next he glanced behind him and around the room, but there was no one there. Nonplused, he turned back to the woman, lowering the mirror slightly (confusing or not, she didn't look or feel dangerous).
"Are you talking to me?"
She gave him a funny look. "Of course. Are you feeling all right?"
"Uh, yeah, I'm fine, but I think there's been a mistake—"
"That's good. Now hurry up and get changed," the woman instructed, completely ignoring the detective's protests as she bustled past him towards the closet. "So what would you like to wear today? Let's pick something nice shall we? You need to make a good impression."
Shinichi realized with horror that the little old woman actually intended to help him dress.
"Uh, excuse me, but I'd rather pick the clothes myself," he said hurriedly. "Could you please wait outside?"
She turned to give him a puzzled frown and for a moment he thought she was going to insist on staying, but after a few moments she relented and inclined her head. "All right then. But do be quick."
He shut the door behind her with no small amount of relief. Once he was sure it was firmly closed (why didn't it have a lock?) he dove into the closet and quickly extracted the least fancy set of clothes that wasn't a dress. He wasn't sure what was going on here, but right now he had more pressing problems. The last thing he wanted was for the woman to decide he was taking too long and barge back in to 'help' while he was still changing. He'd just finished fastening the last overly decorative clasp when, as predicted, the door opened again and the little old lady was back.
Shinichi opened his mouth to once again mention that he was sure he wasn't the person she thought he was, but she was already ushering him outside. She had frowned slightly at his outfit but apparently decided that speed was more important. She half pushed half dragged him down long halls lined with decorative suits of armor and hung with colorful, woven tapestries. It was, he soon realized, really a castle. Not one for display or an entertainment venue but one that people actually lived in too by the looks of it.
The old lady herded him into what looked like an extremely fancy private dining room. Most of the seats already had people standing by them.
The man at the head of the table glanced towards the door as the newcomers arrived and smiled. "Ah, Shia, do come and meet his Highness."
Shinichi glanced back at the old lady but she was already gone. So that meant this man was talking to him. So Shia had to be the name of the person the old lady had taken him for too. He could only assume he looked a lot like this Shia they all thought he was. Annoyed as he was with this, he was also hungry. And it looked like they were about to have breakfast. So he walked to the one open seat at which point the man who had called to him sat and everyone else followed suit.
Immediately a door on the other side of the room opened and servants began to come in bearing trays upon trays of food. The aroma was enough to make Shinichi's stomach rumble even if it did look like way too much food.
He was pulled form his thoughts as the man who'd called him in began talking again. "My dear, this is his Highness Leon of Candiberry," he introduced, gesturing to the young man seated across from Shinichi.
"It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Lady Shia," the person in question added, inclining his head.
Shinichi twitched at the address. He would have objected, but the two deluded strangers had already moved on in their conversation. Apparently his input was unnecessary.
Shinichi frowned at the food that had been placed before him (there was definitely too much of it). With each passing moment he was finding it harder and harder to believe the handful of scenarios he'd scraped together to explain his situation. With the way everyone was acting… It was like they really didn't know he wasn't this Lady Shia and couldn't hear or see anything that contradicted that belief. But how was that possible?
Three days on the road and Kaito was starting to think he'd picked the wrong path. He'd seen nothing but forest for almost all of those three days. It was a good thing he'd been given a decent amount of food for his journey because there sure wasn't anywhere to spend the considerable amount of money he'd also been given. On top of the sneaking suspicion that he might have to turn around and spend another three days trekking back, it was boring as hell with no one but the horse to talk to (despite this being a story book, his horse showed no signs of developing an affinity for human speech, usually it just stared blankly at him before turning to peruse the vegetation nearby). On the fourth day however he was greeted by the sight of a gleaming, medieval city spread out below him in the cradle of a lush, green valley. It seemed to stretch on forever.
Finding an inn to stay in for the night was easy. With his horse in the stables, he was free to explore the city streets. There seemed to be a fair amount of festivity going on as though the entire city was setting up for a major holiday. When he'd asked about it he'd been told that the princess would be getting married soon.
"I don't suppose you know any witches?" he'd also asked his friendly informant.
The old man chuckled like he'd just made a good joke. "None as you'd want to meet. Take my advice lad, stay away from witches."
He got the same answer or a variation thereof from everyone he asked. He was on his way back to the inn when the entire street suddenly erupted into cheers. Following the path of waving arms, he saw four carriages trundling up the street, each being drawn by a pair of tall, well bred horses. Their coats gleamed under the afternoon sun to compliment the brilliant red and gold of the carriages they pulled. Picking through the voices of the crowd, Kaito surmised that at least one of the carriages probably bore the Lady Shia everyone was talking about. He was just about to leave them to their fun when he came to an abrupt halt and jerked his head around. For a moment he could have sworn he'd caught a glimpse of a familiar tuft of hair in one of the carriages. But by the time he'd turned to get a better look the carriages were already too far down the street.
Whoever it was had been ducked down in their seat, but he was sure he'd seen correctly. He'd recognize that hairstyle anywhere. Did that mean Shinichi had been pulled into the book with him then? Or did this story simply happen to have someone with the detective's odd hairstyle?
"To the castle it is then," he murmured to himself, gaze still trained on the spot where the carriages had disappeared around a corner.
Shinichi was sure he was about to go insane. Four days. He had been in this castle where everyone thought he was someone he wasn't for four days now and he still had no idea how or why he was here, not to mention how the hell he was supposed to get away. If he wasn't being chaperoned around by servants he was being forced to accompany "his Highness" on tours of the city or at other assorted functions. The guy might have good manners, but other than that Shinichi had found him to be something of a non-personality. He couldn't remember the last time he'd met such a boring person. It just made it worse that this one couldn't tell the difference between Shinichi and the girl he was apparently supposed to be engaged with (which was just sad). It was like a really bad nightmare and an even worse joke all rolled into one. The only time he was ever alone was when he was in his room or his appointed reception room right before or after an official meeting. The few times he'd managed to slip away he'd always been spotted before he could make his escape. It was like someone was always lying in wait by his chosen escape route so that he had to wonder if they were watching him even in those moments when he seemed to be by himself. The only bright spot on the horizon ws that he'd managed thus far to avoid being put in a dress, though frankly by this point he had the feeling that no one would notice if he ran around naked for all that they had acknowledged only the bits of the things he did that suited them. It was like there was a script everyone else was following that he wasn't privy to and every time he stepped beyond the allotted wiggle room the rest of the cast strove to cover for him by not noticing.
Shutting the reception room door firmly behind Leon and his entourage, he leaned his back against it for good measure and let out the sigh he'd been holding back all day. With every passing day he was beginning to care less and less about the how and the why. All he wanted was to go home. He missed his books and the freedom to go out whenever he wanted. He even missed going to class. But what he missed most was a certain magician with his warm smile and mischievous indigo eyes. More than anything else at the moment he wished he could feel Kaito's arms around him and just forget about all of this.
Closing his eyes, he drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. He was not going to fall apart. Just because his entire life had vanished overnight and he was now stuck in a world that seemed determined to make him fill in for a noble girl he didn't know despite the mismatched edges was not a reason to lose his head. There had to be a way to make everything go back to normal.
He had to believe that.
Only…sometimes…sometimes he couldn't help but wonder if he was the one who was delusional.
Shinichi's brows furrowed. Had he heard something? Lifting his head, he looked slowly around the room. The first thing he noticed was that the window was open. Had it been open earlier? He didn't think so. But then…
Blue eyes moved on to scan the rest of the room and he realized with a jolt that he was no longer alone. In fact there, dressed in finery that made him fit right into their setting, was the one person he'd wanted most to see.
"Kaito!" he exclaimed. He had never been so happy to see the magician.
For his part Kaito was more than a bit surprised when Shinichi threw his arms around his neck in what had to be the most enthusiastic greeting he'd ever seen the detective give anyone. He automatically wrapped his arms around Shinichi's waist with a rather bemused smile. "Well, it's nice to know you missed me, and I am most certainly happy to see you, but what are you doing here?"
"I don't know!" Pulling away from Kaito, Shinichi began to pace around the room, running a hand through his hair in agitation. Coming to an abrupt stop beside the table, he picked up the teapot. "Tea?"
The magician blinked then nodded. "Sure."
He pulled out a chair and sat down as Shinichi poured them each a cup of tea. He was concerned to see that the detective's hands were actually shaking ever so slightly. What had happened to him to agitate him this much? Kaito waited patiently as the detective downed his cup and poured a second. When he seemed to have calmed down he cleared his throat.
"So what's going on?"
Shinichi's brows furrowed. "I don't know," he said again. "I just woke up in this castle and every time I try to leave someone stops me. They tell me this place is somewhere called Madure, but that's about all I can get them to tell me. Half the time no one seems to even hear what I'm asking! And for some reason everyone here seems to think I'm this person called Shia."
Kaito blinked. "You mean—"
"Yeah." He leveled a look at Kaito that just dared the magician to laugh. There were a lot of decorative suits of armor in this particular castle with nice, rounded helmets.
The corners of Kaito's mouth twitched but other than that he showed no outward signs of amusement (but oh he was rolling on the ground inside). "I see. I guess that's why you're here then. It has to be the role you got put in."
Shinichi paused at that. "…What?"
"I know this is going to sound crazy," Kaito said, expression growing serious, "but I'm pretty sure we're inside that book we saw in Akako's house. I woke up in the courtyard of a different castle. On my way out of the city the sign said I was leaving Endora. That was the name on the book."
"So…you mean we've been turned into characters in that book," Shinichi said slowly. Bizarre as it sounded, it would make a lot of sense. He'd already been thinking there seemed to be some kind of script everyone was privy to but him. "So the reason no one here can tell I'm not this Shia person is because—"
"To them, you are. It's the role you're playing. Your character."
For some reason, this declaration caused Shinichi to pale several shades. His cup fell the couple centimeters to the table as he dropped it and shot to his feet. His chair toppled over backward but he didn't seem to notice.
"You have to get me out of here before they actually make me marry that guy!"
Kaito choked and spat his mouthful of tea back out, though he had the presence of mind to turn his face away from his companion (if Shinichi hadn't been so agitated he would probably have been surprised considering how much control Kaito usually had over his reactions). "What? What are you talking about?"
"This Shia person's supposed to get married in two weeks to this prince from the next kingdom over. The whole entourage is already here!"
Kaito stood up abruptly and left his half empty cup on the table. "We can leave the way I came in."
Poking his head out into the corridor, he looked left and right to make sure no one was coming before taking Shinichi's hand and leading the way back towards the small side door he'd used to come in. They made their way quickly and quietly along the many long halls, pausing at the corners to check for obstacles. There were a few near misses when they almost ran into castle servants, but they eventually made it to the door without incident. A little work from Kaito and the outer gate too was open. Shinichi was just beginning to feel relieved when everything around them seemed to blur and suddenly they were no longer walking out of the gate into the city but into the gate towards the castle they had just left.
They both halted in their steps. Trading looks, they turned in unison and tried again with the same results.
"I don't think we're going to be able to leave like this," Kaito observed. His grip on Shinichi's hand tightened. "I think…maybe we have to find a way to work with the story."
"But the story says I'm getting married," Shinichi pointed out.
"Well, actually, it told me the same thing," Kaito admitted.
"But I told the girl I wasn't interested and mother dearest said I had to go and find someone else," the magician cut in before Shinichi could finish his startled (and slightly indignant) exclamation. "So they packed me off and I found my way here."
"I've tried talking to them already though. They just ignore me." He grimaced at the memories. It had been driving him up the wall.
"Ah, but perhaps you weren't talking to them the right way," Kaito countered, warming up to the idea. "Maybe my character was supposed to be searching for the right princess to begin with."
"Doesn't that just mean they aren't hearing me because the character I'm playing is supposed to marry this Leon guy? That doesn't help at all."
Kaito twitched but he refused to be derailed from his idea (though he was feeling a distinct urge to hunt down this Leon person, superglue him into a carriage, and pay the driver to not stop until he reached the next mountain range over. Appealing as the thought was, time was of the essence). "No, but if this story was written for two characters to begin with, then you'd be the person I'm looking for and the story would be how we managed to live happily ever after—since this seems to be a fairytale book and all."
Shinichi turned the idea over in his head. It did make a certain kind of sense, provided they weren't playing people from different stories in the same book. "So what are you thinking about doing then?"
"This is…most unusual," the king of Madure said dubiously, looking over the young man who had requested an audience with him. "You did hear me did you not? When I said that it has already been decided that my daughter is to wed the prince of Candiberry?"
"Madure owes Candiberry a great debt for the aid they offered us after the earthquake last year. Therefore I cannot reasonably even consider your request," the king pointed out. "I am sorry that you came all this way for naught."
"But what about Lady Shia? She told me herself that she was never consulted about this agreement. Isn't her happiness at least worth reconsidering the options?"
"Are you implying that I am incapable of making the lady happy?"
Both the king and Kaito glanced around to see that Leon of Candiberry had entered the throne room. Or at least that was who Kaito assumed the guy was. Indigo eyes narrowed as he looked the newcomer over and promptly decided that he didn't like him.
"I simply wished to point out that a marriage based on repaying a debt may not be a particularly happy one. Especially when it was arranged by others."
"Now, now," the king began, but Leon was actually nodding.
"I agree that choice is important in such matters, but it is also a fact that there is a debt to be paid."
"Surely there are other ways to pay debts," Kaito pointed out. "Is there nothing else that could serve the purpose?"
The other considered his question for a long moment before he spoke again, his tone careful. "Since you insist, I have a proposition. If you can get the Firebird Ruby from the black dragon's lair and bring it back here before the end of the month, we will consider the debt paid and I will relinquish my right to Lady Shia's hand. Of course, whether she will accept your proposal after that will be her choice."
"Of course," Kaito agreed (not to be arrogant or anything, but he was pretty sure that there was no chance in hell in any universe that his Shin-chan would like this bland stranger more than him). "I accept your terms."
"You idiot! You just agreed to go steal treasure from a dragon!"
"But it's all for a good cause. And the dragon probably stole it first," Kaito reasoned, "so it can hardly complain."
Shinichi paused for a moment, turning what the magician had just said over in his mind. "Kaito, I'm not worried about this being a theft, I'm worried about how you might accidentally get yourself eaten."
"That would be stupid. Why would I do that? Have a little faith in me Shin-chan, you know me better than that. Besides, it's not like they asked me to slay the dragon or anything." He smiled reassuringly before his expression morphed into a sly one that made Shinichi narrow his eyes. "Aren't you supposed to give me something?"
"Oh, I almost forgot." Shinichi handed him a map.
Kaito blinked. "Not exactly what I had in mind. I was thinking more, you know, something for luck?" he hinted.
The detective just gave him a blank look. "You don't need more luck. You're already the luckiest person I know."
"With the kinds of people you associate with most, that's not hard to manage, but I guess you're right. I suppose I'd better get going huh? The sooner I get back, the sooner we can get out of here."
Shinichi nodded reluctantly (he really didn't want to say goodbye). "Yeah… Just—be careful. We don't know what could happen here, and you don't have any of your props."
Indigo eyes softened. "I know. I'll be careful."
Shinichi hesitated a moment, glanced around to make sure they were still alone, and stepped forward to give the magician a hug. "You can ask me for something when you get back."
Kaito had been on the road for a whole five days before anything interesting happened. By that time he had reached the foothills of the mountain range his map told him he was supposed to follow. The ground had grown hard and uneven and civilization sparse. Therefore he was a little surprised when there, some distance ahead of him, he saw what looked like an encampment off to the side of the road. There were people cooking at scattered campfires and others moving in and out of rough shacks. A closer look told him that the shacks might once have been actual houses, but time and lack of care had run them down and apparently no one had bothered to fix them.
One of the women at the campfire nearest the road spotted him as he approached and stood up to call out. "Sir! If you're thinking about heading to the spring, you should turn back. There's an ogre living up there these days and none of those who have dared to venture near have returned."
"I thank you for your warning my lady," he replied as he came to a stop beside her fire, "but I need to pass this way."
"We all wish we could reach the spring, my lord," the woman replied with a sigh, "but it simply is not safe."
"Actually I simply need to pass through," Kaito corrected, "but I am curious. What is the spring of which you speak?"
Now the woman looked surprised. "Haven't you heard? We only ever get travelers these days who seek the spring. The sick and their loved ones have always come here for it. Just one cup of spring water will cure any ailment. But lately an ogre has taken up residence in the valley of the spring and people have been coming less and less. Now, with this plague going around…" She let out a quiet sigh, shaking her head slowly. "But I suppose if you do not need the spring water, then just turn right when the road forks and you will pass by the valley with no trouble. That road is longer than the one which goes by the valley of the spring, but for safety's sake I would recommend you take it."
"I see…" The magician glanced back at the decrepit houses and the people moving sluggishly around them. "I'm sorry, but you said a lot of people here are ill?"
She nodded. "That is why most of us are living outside now. We take turns visiting the sick indoors, but it is safer for us all if those who have not yet caught ill do not stay in such confined spaces with them."
"But don't you have any doctors?"
"If only we did. We have never needed doctors, so none here have ever sought to learn the healing arts." She stopped as an old man called out to her. "I'm sorry, but I have to go. I wish you luck on your journey. Remember, take the right hand road." That said, she offered him a tired smile and hurried away.
It took half an hour to reach the fork in question. Once there however, Kaito paused and looked down each road. He knew this world was fictional, but it still felt like it would be wrong to just go his merry way without at least checking things out. He was sure Shinichi would agree. With that in mind, he tethered his horse to a scruffy but tough looking plant and took the left hand road.
The path rose gently beneath his feet as the surrounding vegetation shrank then disappeared altogether to be replaced by rugged walls of rock. Half an hour into his journey, an opening appeared in the cliffs to his left. The road continued forward past it, but through the opening Kaito could see a small, rocky valley. The soft bubble of water echoed through that valley, announcing it to be what he was looking for. Creeping to the edge of the opening, he peered down.
Without his glider or any kind of climbing tool, there really was only the one way to approach the spring. Of course, that was also the footpath that the ogre he'd heard so much about was supposed to be guarding. Scanning the boulders scattered around the area, it didn't take his practiced eyes long to pick out the snake in the grass, so to speak. He pondered the scene before him for a moment before making up his mind.
Stepping out into the middle of the path, he looked down into the valley. "Hey! Ogre-san!" he called out, his voice echoing from the surrounding cliffs. "I want to talk to you!"
There was no response.
"There's no use hiding," he added. "Your horns are poking out. Come on, you're not afraid of me are you?"
That got a response. What had appeared to be a collection of boulders among other collections of boulders stirred and surged upward to become a monstrous figure whose rough, gray skin made it look like it had been carved from stone. It was really quite hideous.
"Afraid?" it roared. "I shall never be afraid of a mere human!"
"Then don't hide next time," Kaito admonished, hiding a grin. Ah, simple minds. "It gives the wrong impression."
"I was not hiding! I was waiting for the next foolish human to seek to steal from my spring."
"Ah ha, that's exactly what I wanted to talk to you about. You see, I need to get some water from the spring in this valley. I thought I should let you know before I took it since it's in your yard and all."
The ogre bared its teeth at him. They were very long and very yellow and looked in desperate need of a dentist. "I will never let you take water away from my spring! It is mine and I need it to lure my prey. If I let you take any, I would be letting my next few meals escape!"
"Is that really how you want to live the rest of your life?" Kaito shook his head in pity. "No offense, but I think you could really use a change of pace."
The ogre scowled and drew itself up. "When people come for the water of the healing spring, I eat them. I don't have to do any work and my meals bring themselves to me. What better way could there be to live?"
"But don't you get tired of eating people?"
The ogre snorted. "That's a stupid question. Wouldn't you get tired of eating the same thing for every meal? It's not as though you humans taste all that different from one to the next. But food is food."
"Well then, why don't you stop eating people and eat something else? It's not as though you have to eat people," Kaito pointed out. "Like you just said, food is food."
"Ch, can't you see that there isn't anything else up here?" The ogre waved one hairy hand at the rocky cliffs all around them. It was clearly very barren. "I've been going hungry often enough as it is what with how people have been coming less frequently lately."
"Ah, but that's precisely why you need to change your ways," the magician replied. "If things continue the way they are, eventually people will stop coming altogether and you'll starve."
"And I suppose you have a solution," the ogre sneered in disbelief.
Kaito only grinned. "Of course. You see, it seems to me that you are underestimating your resources. As you said, people value the water from this spring, that's why they keep coming to you despite the danger of becoming your dinner. Therefore, it stands to reason that they would be willing to trade for it."
"Trade?" the ogre repeated slowly, looking interested despite itself.
"Yep. You could get all sorts of new food you've never even dreamed of. If you play your cards right, cultivate a good relationship with the people near here, you might even be able to get some professionally cooked dishes. Us humans can make a lot of different tastes with just a few ingredients. You might even find some favorite recipes and people can get them for you special for maybe a reward of an additional jug of spring water."
"I see, I see," the ogre mused, nodding at each point the magician brought up. "But do you really think that would work?"
"Of course! In fact, if you swear never to eat people again, I'll even help you get started. I happen to be in contact with a whole village of people who are in need of your spring's healing waters. I can help you begin a trade with them. If things go well, they will naturally want to spread the news to their neighbors. You won't even have to do any of the advertising yourself."
"I'll do it!" the ogre announced decisively. "So how do I start?"
To say the villagers were surprised to see Kaito when he returned would have been, well, frankly it would have been an overstatement since very few of them had bothered to notice him on his first pass through. The woman he had spoken to however was certainly surprised to see him come back. What did shock everyone else however was the news he had brought.
"This has to be a trick," one man declared. "The beast lied to you so that you would bring the news to us and we would go and be eaten."
"I suppose it's possible," Kaito consented, "but I doubt that that's the case. I am very good at telling when someone is lying, and I believe it was being honest."
The debate wound on with no end in sight until an old man with a walking stick hobbled up to the front of the crowd and volunteered to bring a roast chicken and go with Kaito to see the ogre.
"I do not have much time left in me anyway," he said by way of explanation. "This way, if I do not return, you know this was a trick."
Personally, Kaito thought it would have been wiser to send a fast runner to test the waters, but the old man was persistent. Then it was back to the spring where the ogre was waiting seated on a boulder by the water's edge. Kaito was mildly surprised to see that it had arranged the other rocks nearby so that the area resembled a kind of sitting area. Who would have thought the ogre had a creative streak?
The two humans sat down. Kaito was amused to note that the ogre looked more nervous than the old man. The two were eyeing each other, clearly unsure of what to say.
The magician watched them squirm for a few more minutes before taking pity on them and clearing his throat. "Now that we're all here, why don't we get down to business?"
Ducked down in the space he had discovered between two of the rose bushes in the castle garden, Shinichi listened intently to the servants' departing footsteps. Once he was sure they had all gone, he let out a quiet sigh of relief and relaxed. Or at least he relaxed as much as his current location would allow.
He had been told that morning that the rest of Leon's family would be arriving today and from the commotion earlier he had the feeling that they had just fulfilled that promise. With all the new arrivals Shinichi was beginning to feel greatly outnumbered. The worst part of it all was that they were all coming in anticipation of the Candiberry prince's wedding. It was frustrating how everyone just assumed it was going to happen anyway, because of course no one asked Shinichi what he thought about the whole thing. Forget that he was supposed to have a say in this.
On top of that he had no idea how Kaito was doing. This place didn't have phones after all and what he'd seen of the postal system was practically nonexistent, relying mostly on human messengers. All he could do was trust that Kaito could take care of himself and hope he didn't cause too much mayhem wherever he was.
Still, he'd spent a few days holed up in the library studying the kingdom's maps and historical texts because he had to do something even remotely reminiscent of being useful. He'd discovered a lot of folktales regarding magical creatures and places from all over these fictional lands, but he couldn't tell which bits were fact and which were just fanciful thinking.
"My lady, I have been looking for you everywhere!" a familiar voice exclaimed and he suppressed a groan. Turning around in his hiding place, he looked up to see the old lady who usually organized his day looking down at him disapprovingly. He thought sourly that she must have some kind of built in Shinichi-radar. Or maybe he was just that bad at hiding…
"Look at you," she said, clucking her tongue as she helped him out of the niche between the bushes and began straightening out his clothes. "All covered in leaves! You cannot go to an audience like this my lady. Now hurry and go change or you're going to be late. You can't make a good impression if you're late," the woman instructed. "I know the young lord isn't going to be there, but it's just as important to show his family what a fine young lady our princess is."
Shinichi made a mental note to be late to everything from now on. After all, the last thing he wanted was to make a good impression. He shuddered at the thought. Now there was an idea. Could he make a bad enough impression to make the Candiberry lot decide he was unfit for marrying?
The first thing Kaito heard was the shouting. Giving his steed a nudge towards the commotion, he soon came upon the fringes of a rather rundown looking town. It was at the plaza at the heart of the town that he found the source of the cries.
A small crowd had gathered in the center of the plaza around a single, withered tree. There was a distinct divide in the crowd signaling the presence of sides. At the heart of the crowd stood two men. One carried a large axe. The other stood between the axe bearer and the dead tree like a mother bear shielding her cub.
"We've waited far too long already!" the axe bearer was shouting to the collective murmur of agreement of half the crowd. "Do you really suggest that we let everyone starve for the sake of a damned tree?"
"But we still need it!" the other spokesperson retorted equally vehemently. "If it sprouts again—"
"If! If! You can't make us all bet our livelihoods on something that might happen! If we cut it down now we can at least get a good price for the wood! Maybe even get enough to hold us all over the winter while we come up with another solution. If we listen to you we'll all starve before the end of the year!"
"But once you cut it down, it will never grow again! You know that. Do you really want to take that risk?"
Angry murmurs broke out again as people agreed or disagreed with the speakers. Curious, Kaito slid off his horse and made his way into the crowd.
"Hey, excuse me," he said, tapping a woman on the shoulder. "I couldn't help but notice that everyone here seems really wound up. What's going on?"
"You're not from around here, are you?" The woman looked him over with curious eyes before she let out a sigh and waved a hand at the dead tree. "Do you see that tree?"
Kaito nodded. It was kind of hard to miss. "I take it it's special somehow."
"It is the last golden apple tree in existence," the woman replied, a note of pride creeping into her voice before her shoulders sagged. "Or at least it was. It hasn't sprouted for two years. We used to rely on it for all our income. It bears fruit only once every thousand years, but its leaves have always been considered treasures of great value as well. I suppose we relied too much on it, but the land around here isn't all that good for farming or livestock and we don't have any mines or game. It was our only reliable resource. Now that it's stopped sprouting…" Shaking her head, the woman turned away. "We're probably all going to have to find new homes soon."
Kaito looked from the woman's depressed figure to the argument that had escalated into a war of the shouts all around them. Up by the tree itself it was beginning to look like the axe bearer was on the verge of putting his tool to use on his opposite number.
Deciding he would much rather not see that, Kaito stepped forward, bent his knees, and sprang. Doing a neat flip over a startled member of the crowd, he landed between the axeman and the tree lover with his hands outspread. The cries of surprise his move had elicited brought the argument to a momentary halt.
"Who the hell are you?" the axeman demanded in surprise. For the first time since Kaito's arrival, everyone in the area seemed to be in perfect agreement.
"Good evening," Kaito said, projecting his voice so that everyone could hear him. "Sorry for the sudden intrusion, but I could not help but hear your debate."
"And what of it?" one townsman demanded a touch defensively.
"I just wanted to offer you my help," the magician replied with a soothing smile. "You see, I happen to have some water here from a spring that is supposed to heal all ailments. Perhaps it can help your apple tree."
Everyone went silent. Glances were tossed from person to person, some dubious, others hopeful. It was the tree lover who finally spoke.
"What would you want in return for this water?"
Kaito considered this for a moment. He didn't really want anything, but it would sound suspicious to say that. "A hot meal and a bed for the night would be welcome," he said instead. "You see, I am on a quest and it has been many days since I have had either." Not entirely true, but they didn't need to know that.
"Is that all?" the man asked in surprise.
Kaito shrugged. "Well, you see, I can't actually promise that it will work for a tree. The spring water I carry is usually used on humans. So do we have a bargain?"
The tree lover looked around at his fellow townsfolk. No one else seemed to want to say anything so he turned back to Kaito and nodded. "I would be grateful for any help you might be able to offer."
Kaito nodded and made the glass bottle of spring water appear in his hands with a flourish. Ah, he'd missed those gasps of awe.
Pulling the cork out of the bottle, he stepped up to the tree and upended it over the roots. The ground grew damp as it absorbed the liquid. In moments it was almost impossible to tell that any liquid had been spilled at all.
Everyone's eyes moved up towards the barren branches of the apple tree as an expectant silence fell. If a traveler had passed by right then, he might have thought that the plaza was full of statues rather than living humans. Kaito was beginning to wonder if he'd been wrong about the water after all when a little girl in the crowd cried out.
"Up there! Up there!"
No one could tell where exactly she meant, but everyone's eyes leapt to the higher branches, skidding this way and that along skeletal limbs in a mad search for something not dead. More cries joined the child's as, one by one, the townsfolk saw the slim sliver of silver that had appeared at the far end of a branch. Then, as though the combined force of their hopeful gazes had flipped some kind of switch, the branches burst into glittering, shimmering life.
The celebration in the little town that day lasted all through the night and well into the following day. The excitement only doubled when someone discovered that the tree had not only sprouted leaves but also eighteen golden apples. Kaito joined in on some of the festivities but his heart just wasn't in it. In the end he retired early with the thought of getting an early start.
He hadn't seen Shinichi in over a week now.
Operation Make a Terrible Impression wasn't going as well as he'd hoped. Shinichi had spent a lot of time thinking about how to make the worst impression possible. For some reason, when he tried to think of examples, Kogoro kept coming to mind. He could certainly remember lots of moments in the older detective's behavior that he had thought were less than appealing. The problem was he just couldn't bring himself to emulate the man. The idea was just too mortifying. So in the end he'd drawn up a list of bad manners.
At meals he reminded himself to take large bites and chew with his mouth open (which, frankly, was a lot harder than it had any right to be). He'd spilled juice all over the queen of Candiberry and dropped a bowl of raspberries on the king's foot (which he still felt bad about, considering it was a waste of good food and the poor man had been wobbly for hours afterward). He had also so far succeeded in being at least ten minutes late to every gathering. That at least wasn't hard.
At that point he began to run out of ideas. If only he'd thought to ask Kaito before the magician had left. He was sure Kaito would have had ideas to spare. On the other hand, it might not have made a difference. Everyone around him seemed to be taking every weird thing he did in perfect stride. Mostly they didn't seem to notice. When he did something that was impossible to ignore, they might gasp and exclaim but inevitably they would forget about it. It felt like he was throwing pebbles into a lake. The water would ripple, but it always eventually went back to being still like nothing had happened at all.
He was starting to really, really hate this place. It was like a large, well decorated cage with elastic bars designed just to taunt you into thinking you could make a difference before pulling you back into place.
Scowling, Shinichi took a sip from the teacup one of the servants had just handed him. He didn't miss the fact that he had thrown a teacup of the exact same design across the room the other day in a fit of frustration. Only the pieces had long been swept up and even the stain the tea had left behind was gone, miraculously done away with by the story no doubt.
His head jerked up abruptly as his ears gave his brain a kick and his gaze zeroed in on the prince seated across the small, veranda table whom he'd been ignoring up until that point. "What did you just say?"
Leon paused in his monologue to offer him a smile. "I just thought you might wish to know that Mother has proposed a seafood theme for the wedding. But if you would prefer something else, I am sure there is still time to change it."
"I thought the wedding was being put on hold until the end of the month."
"Oh, you mean the arrangement with the Endorian. There's hardly any point to waiting. He won't be coming back."
Shinichi frowned. "You don't know that."
"No one ever comes back alive from the black dragon's lair. People have been trying for nine hundred years. It's not possible."
"And you proposed that challenge knowing all this?" Shinichi demanded incredulously as anger slowly began to bubble up inside him alongside a sickening sense of anxiety.
"I'm sure he knew it too," Leon replied with a dismissive wave. "I'm sure he's gone home by now."
Shinichi stared at the prince's unconcerned face feeling somewhere between numb and outraged. If he hadn't sounded like he one hundred percent, honest to goodness believed that Kaito had gone home, Shinichi would probably have kicked him. Not trusting himself to speak, he stood up and walked back indoors without a backward glance. What he really wanted to do was go after Kaito, but he knew he couldn't. The book wouldn't let him. So instead he went back to his room.
An hour of silent stewing later he felt a lot calmer. This was a book, right? So the main character couldn't just get killed. It would make a rather anticlimactic story. On the other hand, no one said the book couldn't be a tragedy. Still, it didn't seem to be that kind of story… And, well, Kaito was Kaito. If there was one thing he was good at, it was bending reality to get his way. So the dragon had been fending people off for nearly a whole millennium. If anyone could break its track record, it would be Kaito. After all, he was a master thief.
But that didn't mean Shinichi was going to forgive and forget that he was currently living with people who had sent his partner off to deal with a thousand year old dragon without so much as a heads up. If they could ignore him, he could do the same.
As if on cue, a knock came at the door.
"It is time for dinner," the old lady's familiar voice called through his door.
"I'm not hungry," he replied.
"But my lady, everyone is waiting for you."
"I'm not going," he snapped, turning to glare at the closed door.
There was a long moment of silence before he heard a sigh. "You must eat something, my lady. It is not wise to skip meals."
Shinichi let out his own quiet sigh, feeling a little guilty for being the cause of the worry he could hear in her voice. The old lady had, over all, been nothing but kind to him. And she had nothing to do with any of the decisions that had been made. It wasn't right of him to take out his frustration on her. "I'll eat later."
"Would you like me to bring you something?"
He listened to her fading footsteps before moving to the window. Climbing onto the incredibly deep sill, he sat with his arms around his knees and turned to stare out across the city below. It wasn't as bright as the cities of the real world, but he could still see the orange gleam of firelight here and there in the darkness.
Please be okay.
It had taken a great deal longer than he would have liked, but here he was. The barren plateau before the black dragon's cave was completely devoid of hiding places, but what really struck Kaito as worrisome was the fact that he didn't have to look very hard at all to count at least a dozen human skulls in various states of charred blackness. And that was just on the ground near him. He was fairly sure that even Shinichi hadn't seen this many dead people in one place before. And the creature responsible for all of it was lying sprawled across the threshold of its home cavern, its black scales glistening in the sunlight like polished obsidian. Frowning, the magician reviewed his options. The sheer number of skeletons lying around this place made it very clear that a lot of people had tried and failed to approach the dragon's horde. So it seemed the horror stories he'd heard in the last town he'd passed through had had some basis in fact. That meant the conventional methods were out of the question. So what was conventional? One, trying to slay the dragon (not smart, but traditional), and two, trying to sneak past the dragon (his own first thought, but one look told him it would be too risky. The dragon had positioned itself in a way so that anyone trying to sneak into its cave would have to crawl over some part of its body first, and he didn't have any tools with him to help him get around that). So what did that leave him with?
He could try to trick the dragon into leaving, but surely out of that massive headcount lying around in bits out there, someone had thought to try that. Was there something he could do that someone else might not have tried? Or that someone else might not have had the ability to try? There was a thought.
He did a quick inventory of his supplies and grinned. Perfect. Now to approach without being fried. On second thought, maybe he should stay on the edge and just shout. From here he could easily make a quick escape if things started looking hairy.
It turned out that shouting was unnecessary. He had no sooner stepped onto the plateau when the dragon moved. Yellow eyes burned as the creature's head rose, its serpentine neck curving and making the spikes that grew along its spine stand out. Firelight glowed behind ivory teeth as a low rumble made the earth tremble. In moments the temperature in the area had risen several degrees.
"Do not think I did not know you were here, Human. So what are you here to steal?" a voice like thunder hissed and rumbled through the air.
Looking up into the dragon's malevolent yellow eyes, Kaito's mind raced. He had the distinct impression that if he didn't make the right choice here the story might very well allow itself to be a tragedy instead of a happily ever after. Luckily, it looked like the dragon was willing to talk.
He settled for a deep bow and a humble tone. "I am sorry, my lord dragon, but I am not here to steal anything."
"Humans are always trying to take things from me," the dragon spat, baring its teeth as sparks danced along its jaws. "That is the only reason humans ever intrude upon my home. Why should I believe you are any different?"
"Well, while it is true that there is something I need which only you have—hold on, hear me out," he insisted, raising both his hands palm outward in a placating gesture as the dragon reared back, jaws beginning to gape open and fire beginning to spill forth in small streams. "I'm not going to try and just take it. You see, I want to trade you for it."
The dragon paused at that in apparent surprise then snorted. "What could you possibly have that I would want?"
Sure now that it wasn't going to just roast him on the spot, Kaito snapped his fingers and made the two golden apples the people of the apple tree village had pressed upon him appear in his hands. "These are from the last of the golden apple trees that bears fruit only once every thousand years. They will never go bad or lose their luster, and it is said that they bring good fortune."
The dragon dipped its head down slightly to get a better look, obviously intrigued despite itself. Kaito lifted the two apples obligingly higher to make them easier to examine.
"I have never seen anything like these," the dragon said eventually, the tip of its tail swishing this way and that as it thought. "They must be very rare."
"There were only eighteen harvested this millennium," the magician agreed.
"But why would you wish to relinquish something so valuable?" the dragon demanded, suspicion rekindling in its sulfurous gaze.
"But you see, while these apples are indeed incredible, there is a ruby in your horde that means a great deal more to me, not because of its own value but because it is the only thing that can help me get back something very important to me. And as it would be unfair of me to demand that you part with one of your jewels without giving you something of comparable value in return, I am offering you these."
The dragon hummed thoughtfully, its entire body going still as it thought. Finally it lowered its head in a courteous nod. "I accept your offer. Place those here," it gestured to a spot before it with one long claw, "and then you may choose one jewel from my horde. The rubies are on the east side," it added as an afterthought.
"I am eternally grateful," the magician said, bowing again and moving carefully to set the apples where the dragon had instructed. He could feel its sharp eyes follow him as he walked into its cave. It lifted its tail to allow him passage. The first stretch of cave was fairly plain, but then the walls and ceiling opened out and he was standing before a veritable ocean of gold. It was…well, breathtaking in every sense of the word. But what caught his eye was the glitter of red right where the dragon had said it would be.
Padding over the shifting, clinking heaps of gold, he stopped in front of the mound of rubies. Indigo eyes scanned each stone before landing on a rather large specimen that appeared to have something milky inside it. Reaching down, he picked it up and peered into its crimson depths. For a moment all he could see was pale threads of white laced through the rubies insides. He would have called them flaws, but the longer he looked the more the threads seemed to come together to form the shape of a bird with outspread wings. The description he'd received on the jewel had claimed it had a firebird inside it. This certainly seemed like a good fit.
He smiled to himself. This had certainly been a lot easier than he'd thought it would be. Now to get back to his detective.
Standing back, Shinichi inspected his handiwork. It wasn't a perfect barricade, but it was the best he could do with the furniture available in his room. Luckily, he had only one door to deal with. On the other side of the door they were still knocking and calling for him—they being the team that had been called in to fit him. What they wanted to fit him for, he shuddered to think, but either way there was no way he was letting any of them cross the threshold of his room. And he had brought in enough books to last him for at least a couple days. They were stacked neatly in the corner beside the basket of food he'd snuck in the night before.
Giving the barricade one last inspection, he picked up a book and moved to the window. With all the furniture now up against the door, he was left with only the windowsill to sit on. With the warmth of the sun pooling around him where he sat, he settled down into a more comfortable position and began to read. The noise at his door faded into the background of his thoughts.
It wasn't until well into the afternoon that the noises outside his room suddenly stopped. He glanced across at the barricade. Had they finally given up? About time! Maybe now he'd have some peace. He turned back to his reading but a moment later his ears picked up a new noise.
It sounded like surprised shouting and it was coming from outside. Curious, he leaned against the sun-warmed glass and peered downward, trying to see what was going on. His room was fairly high up, but he could still make out the people swarming around in the courtyard below. There was someone on horseback in the middle of the mess.
The rider dismounted in the middle of the courtyard and looked up and Shinichi caught a glimpse of indigo.
He dropped the book he'd been reading and jumped off the sill. Running to the door, he began to drag the furniture he'd spent that morning piling there away. He cursed his own thoroughness as he lugged the desk back towards its original spot inch by inch. Had everything been this heavy in the morning? Of course, he'd been pushing then, not pulling. Scowling, he squeezed into the narrow space between the door and the desk, braced his feet against said desk and his back against the door, and pushed as hard as he could. The desk resisted for a few seconds before surrendering and sliding slowly away. Once there was enough room, Shinichi let his feet drop and pulled open the door.
There was no one lying in wait outside and he saw no one as he raced down the hall towards the front hall. That too was deserted when he arrived so he made his way to the throne room. Sure enough, the place was packed and abuzz with chatter.
"I can't believe he actually did it," one guard was saying, his voice full of awe and more than a hint of respect.
"I can't believe he actually went!" one of the servants replied. "I was sure he went home. I would have."
"But what about the wedding?" someone else wondered. "We've already done so much preparing…"
"Don't worry, there's still going to be a wedding," another assured. "It just means the groom might not be Prince Leon. It's up to Lady Shia to decide now."
"Oh, that's good. Do you think she'll choose the Endorian?"
One of the servant girls giggled. "I would. You don't meet someone who'd face a dragon for you every day."
Shinichi blushed slightly when he heard that. Focusing his attention on weaving his way through the crowd, he eventually spotted a familiar mop of brown hair. His face broke out into an irrepressible smile and he picked up his pace.
At the sound of his voice, the magician turned just in time to see Shinichi slip on the too-long hem of one lady's dress. He dove forward on instinct and caught the flailing detective before he could hit the ground.
"Maybe I should stay away more often if you're going to be this happy to see me every time," he remarked, helping Shinichi back to his feet.
"Shut up," the detective snapped, but there wasn't any heat to it. He shifted uncomfortably for a moment before relenting and giving the magician a quick hug. The magician's arms closed around him in response, keeping him from pulling away. Not that he was really trying.
"Well," Kaito remarked, turning his head to level a smirk at the Candiberry party, "I think that answers the question. So sorry you had to come all this way."
"So…does that mean it's over now?" Shinichi wondered aloud, looking around at the walls of the throne room. Everyone else had left to see the Candiberry entourage off and send messengers to Endora, leaving the two of them alone for the moment.
"I think so," the magician agreed.
"But then why are we still here?"
"Hey," Kaito said suddenly, brightening. "Does that mean we're getting married? According to the story, we're supposed to get—ow! Shin-chan~, why did you hit me?"
"Focus!" Shinichi snapped, blushing furiously. "In case you haven't noticed, we don't seem to be going back. That means we still have to find a way out of here!"
"Aw, don't you want to marry me?"
"Kaito, first of all, we're only eighteen, and second of all, this is a make believe story. In a book. As in it's not real."
"Hmm, well, it would be preferable if we were in the real world. Does that mean you'll marry me if I ask you when we're older?"
By now Shinichi was sure he was never going to get the blush off his face again. "Can we talk about this after we figure out how to get home?"
Content that Shinichi hadn't said no, Kaito agreed. "But you know, fairytales usually end with the prince and the princess getting married and living happily ever after. So it's entirely possible that it's not over just because we solved the 'his Highness' problem and that's how we're actually supposed to end the story. And with the way things are going I still think it's most likely that we have to end the story to go home."
Damn, he was right. "Do you think the story would accept an elopement?" he asked hopefully.
"I don't know. It doesn't sound very fairytale-esque—'and then they ran away'." He paused a moment before his face split into a grin. "Aww, do you have stage fright?"
"No," Shinichi grumbled, looking everywhere but at the smiling magician. "I was just thinking how stupid this book is."
In the end however Shinichi had to give in. It was their best bet and the rest of the castle was already swinging back into the motions of preparing for a grand ceremony. He found himself being pushed into the clutches of the fitting team he'd been avoiding all day and Kaito went in search of the culinary squad to inform them that no seafood would be served after all. The next few days were pure chaos. People were pouring into the city from all over both Madure and Endora so that the city was beginning to feel like it was going to burst at the seams. Everything whirled by and it seemed like only a blink of an eye had passed before The Big Day. All Shinichi could really remember of that blur was his extremely long, extremely vehement argument with and eventual loss to the seamstresses responsible for his clothes. That was why he was now standing in front of what felt like the entire population of both kingdoms in a dress.
Kaito was grinning at him as the priest talked with that gleam in his eye that told Shinichi he was laughing behind his Poker Face and all around having way too much fun with the situation. Not for the first time and probably not for the last, Shinichi wondered what was wrong with him that had made him fall in love with someone who derived unwholesome amounts of amusement from embarrassing people in general and him in particular. Maybe it was genetic. After all, both his parents were crazy, some of it might have passed on to him.
His thoughts were drawn kicking and screaming back into the present when Kaito cleared his throat and nudged him. All talking in the hall had stopped.
That was when Shinichi realized they were supposed to kiss. In front of all these hundreds of people. Who were all staring with rapt attention and showing no signs of looking away any time soon. Kaito must have sensed something of his thoughts as he wrapped an arm around the detective just before Shinichi could make a run for it.
"Just close your eyes," he instructed in a whisper before bringing their lips together.
"Am I interrupting?" a calm, female voice inquired.
Shinichi's eyes flew open and he would have jumped if Kaito wasn't still holding onto him. Both boys turned to see—Akako watching them from the open doorway of the study room where they had first seen the Tales of Endora.
"Well, you should come downstairs when you're done," she continued, the corners of her mouth quirking up in an amused smile before she turned around, red hair swirling around her slender frame. "It's almost time to cut the cake." And she was gone.
Kaito blinked. "Funny, I was expecting her to be more upset to find us in here."
Shinichi, who had turned bright red the moment he'd seen the witch in the doorway, just shook his head and glanced back towards the desk. There lay the book that had started the whole thing. It was lying closed though neither of them had closed it. Had all that really happened? Or had it been an illusion of some kind?
"Don't think too hard about it," Kaito advised, draping an arm over his shoulders and beginning to steer him towards the door. "When it comes to Akako, I find it's better to just take things as they come and leave it at that. Frankly I don't think we really want to know where it all comes from."
"I guess…" Shinichi agreed reluctantly. He'd never been good about leaving these kinds of things alone, but Kaito did have a point… This was probably one of those very few mysteries where the answer could very well be worse than the unknown. He'd be happy as long as nothing like it ever happened again.
"So Shin-chan, where do you want to go for our honeymoon?"
A.N: It's a lot longer than I intended ^^U I think I might do a picture for this, but it'll have to wait until after I move. If I do, I'll put the link in my profile. Anyhow, have a good weekend!