Chapter 23: Humanities
The best and oldest furniture should not be rearranged;
Leave it just the way it is, there is no need for change.
The best and straightest arrow is the one that will range
Out of the archer's view—
………………………………….('Furniture', by Horslips)
Once upon a time, long, long ago in the fabled and mythical land of Japan, there lived a Kaitou. He was a Brave and Heroic Kaitou; you could tell this because of his hair, which defiantly refused to lie down and submit to the tyranny of combs and brushes. This Brave and Heroic Kaitou had many friends and many enemies; sometimes he had trouble telling them apart (since the friends could be quite frightening and the enemies were capable of being very helpful when they felt like it), but for the most part he was able to keep his head straight and deal with the world in an arguably sane manner, at least if one went by accepted clinical definitions.
The Brave and Heroic Kaitou had a Lady Fair. You could tell that she was Fair because of her demeanor ("Kaito! If you flip my skirt one more time I'll HURT you!"), her beauty ("Uh, Aoko-kun? Didja know that you've split your jeans again?") and her gentleness ("Hide the mop! Hide the mop!") While occasionally she required rescue, she was generally very much able to take care of herself; after all, she was a Lady Fair.
…and she lived with a dragon. But never mind about him.
The Brave and Heroic Kaitou also had Minions; they were short, brutish and nasty—wait, wait, that's wrong; short, yes, but not brutish. And 'nasty' only applied to one in particular, and if you called him a Minion to his face he would probably shoot you point-blank with a tranquilizer-dart and that would just make it awkward for everybody.
Right. Anyway, he had Minions. Or fangirls. One of those.
One day the Kaitou and his Lady Fair set out upon an adventure. They visited many strange and interesting places, blew up several of them, fought the Hoards Of Darkness, and caused a lot of havoc all over the countryside. However, eventually it was pointed out to the Kaitou that perhaps it was time to buckle down and do some Serious Heroing. Or Else. So he packed his bags, sharpened his monocle, ironed and pressed his cape and girded his loins in preparation for visiting Ye Olde Family Castle.
"Kaito? Why are we visiting your family anyway? And what's with this 'girding your loins' thing?" asked his Lady Fair as they set out.
The Brave and Heroic Kaitou shrugged. "We need my family's blessing; it's in the Handbook," he explained. "And ALL the good Heroes gird their loins before going adventuring, though I'm not sure why."
"But… I mean, does it involve cross-dressing or armor or what?"
Another shrug. "Beats me. I just changed my socks and figured that'd do."
And so they set off. Ye Olde Family Castle was a good piece away, but eventually they got there. The Lady Fair went on ahead to take tea with her Significant Other's family while he worked his way through the Castle's defenses like a good little Kaitou. Ninjas were fought, nightingales were floored, fish were avoided, zucchini was puzzled over, and eventually the Brave and Heroic Kaitou made his way to the Crack Of Doom and—whups, sorry, wrong story—that is, eventually the Brave and Heroic Kaitou made his way through all the trials that his loving kinsmen had placed before him to test his mettle and met up with his Lady Fair, who had been eating popcorn and cheering him on all the while…
A turn to the left, down the steps, two more turns and then down the hall. "What're they like Aoko?" The Inspector's Daughter's hand was warm, clasped in Kaito's fingers. His palms, on the other hand, were sweating.
You couldn't say that he was nervous; no, no, of course not, Kuroba Toichi's son would never ever admit to being nervous—he was a showman, he was a magician, he was at home in the limelight. What you COULD say was that he was so full of trepidation, anger, anticipation and a thousand other emotions that his pulse was doing a good imitation of a jackhammer.
'Nervous' just didn't do the moment justice. It was way too relaxed a word.
Footsteps slowing beside him, Aoko hesitated, fidgeting with her obi-tie. Man, she looked pretty— "They're…. nice. Kind of, um, strange, but… nice. They've treated me really well since Jii-san brought me here." One last corner; and then a partially-open door loomed before them as she continued in a voice that only quivered a small bit. "Your great-aunt is a little overwhelming, but once you get used to how she talks—"
"Huh?" Kaito scowled, dragging the dusty fingers of his free hand through his hair in an attempt to comb it down; it only stuck up worse than before. "How does she talk?"
The door opened—
And a precise, rather clipped woman's voice spoke: "'Quo me cumque rapit tempestas deferor hospes.' Or, in our native tongue, 'Whereever the storm carries me, I go a willing guest.'—Horace, of course. Welcome, my dear boy, welcome." Light flooded into the darkened hall, and the two standing there blinked against the glare of candles.
"Like that," muttered the girl beneath her breath, hiding behind Kaito.
It was like walking into another world. It WAS another world. Before, there had been the overgrown gardens and the tunnels and the ornate, antique rooms and the chill of the iei portraits and-- Kaito had honestly not known what to expect, but at the very least he had thought things would be… well….. traditional-looking, all ricepaper screens and lacquered wood and stuff; he hadn't been expecting a humongous round dinner-table, of all things, laden with covered dish after dish, lit with candles and set with European-style place-settings— For one vivid moment, the thief's heightened senses were captured entirely by the scents of food (it had been way too long since the dumplings outside the Nightingale-Floor room, after all); but he shook it off, straightening and putting on his best Poker Face to greet the people who waited beside the table.
He had a reputation to uphold, after all. Sort of.
The beaming, elderly woman had to be Great-Aunt-Whoever; a tiny little thing, all delicate bird-bones and formal black furisode marked with what Kaito had come to recognize as the Kuroba crest: four overlapping stylized feathers against a circle of white. She wore a great mass of interwoven silvery braids rather than the traditional hairstyle you'd expect with an outfit like that; dark, clever eyes smiled at him as she drew them both across the threshold and into the circle of candle-light. "Delightful timing," she murmured appreciatively; "The very stroke of midnight. Your father would have been so proud..."
A small figure (almost as bird-boned but a lot more energetic) popped out from behind Great-Aunt-Whoever. Reddish-brown hair of a decidedly curly nature framed a face full of mischief, with snapping black eyes and a grin that damn near wrapped all the way around. "We'vebeenwatchingyouandwe'reREALLYgladyou'rehere!!! Ittookyouwaytoolong!!! And--" (she took a great gulp of breath) "—andOjiki-samasaidyouwereaRealKurobaandKaiji-niiwantedtogoaheadandeat—" (gasp) "--butObaa-samasmackedhishandandmadehimwait—"
Blink, blink. "Uh—"
THWAP! A folded fan thumped the girl on the forehead from behind Great-Aunt-Whoever (how could someone so small manage to hide anybody?) and she yelped; it flicked away, tucking itself into the obi of the young man who stepped up to the woman's other side. "Behave, Brat. Guests. What'd Ojiki-sama tell you?" he drawled out in a rather lazy way, fixing Kaito with a somewhat cool gaze.
"OW. Um… toslowdown?" (Deep breath.) "—to slow down so other people could understand me and not go into ep—ep—epoleptish fits?" She looked to be about nine or ten.
"That's 'epileptic', but you've got the right idea." The young man smirked a bit, then bowed—with a florish. "Welcome, cousin."
So showmanship does run in the family. Big surprise there, thought the thief, palms still sweating. This guy was someone he might have expected: black hair, a rather handsome and very Japanese face… except for the dark blue eyes. Kaito had seen those eyes often enough, peering out of his own mirror; apparently they ran in the family along with the showmanship-gene. He looked to be mid-twenties, maybe… A long, lean body, taller (Kaito noted with faint annoyance) than his own height by a good few centimeters; strong hands, callused here and there in odd places, paint-stains under the nails-- The thief eyed the fan tucked into the other's obi warily, resolving not to allow Aoko to get her hands on anything similar.
Reflexively he bowed in return. "Ahh— I'm—"
--and suddenly a THIRD person had pushed her way past Great-Aunt-Whoever and he found himself enveloped in his mother's arms.
She was sniffling; and she seemed smaller than before, somehow; how long had Kaito been able to rest his chin on his mom's head like that? He couldn't remember. Awkwardly, gently, her son returned the embrace. "Hi, 'Kaasan. It's okay—hey, you weren't worried about me, were you?" Arms tightened about his shoulders as he forced out a chuckle. "C'mon, you and Dad didn't raise me to get taken down by big rocks or ninjas, did you? Or zucchini, even." Kuroba Hikarue's son stepped back just a little, smiling down into his mother's face with an effort. "I promised I'd be okay; and like I said, I always keep my promises… 'Sides, if I didn't, Aoko'd beat me up. Right, Aoko?"
The Inspector's Daughter opened her mouth and then shut it, abruptly turning scarlet. The child watching them scowled, crossing her arms. "Ojiki-sama said nobody could hit you 'til you got used to us. How come SHE can hit you but nobody else can?" she complained.
Kaito grinned at her—'Mika', wasn't it? She reminded him a bit of 'Yumi-chan, only older and way skinny-- as a bubble of wickedness welled up inside. "That's 'cause nobody else can kiss as good as Aoko does either; she gets special privileges." There was a squawk from beside him, and he ducked just in case.
"…oh, thanks tremendously, cousin. Ruin my reputation, why don't you?"
Kaito blinked; What--?? Wait, 'reputation? Putting that together with 'kiss' made his eyes suddenly bulge; he straightened up and stared past his mother in horror at the young man who had called him 'cousin'. It was only now that he realized that the other's hair was spiky with damp, and that there seemed to be a bruise on his chin— At Kaito's pop-eyed look, the young man half-grinned, sharp eyes gleaming. "No big deal… You did pretty well for somebody who wasn't raised here." He bowed neatly a second time. "I'm Rakkaiji, by the way; hajimemashite, Kaito-san." Thin and rather on the pale, bony side, but with that characteristic Kuroba profile--
"Uhhhh… right…" He could hear Aoko muffling a laugh. "Err. Sorry 'bout that—the kiss and everything. And the fish."
"I know somebody that's gonna get jeaaaalous if they find out you got kissed—" Kuroba Rakkaiji mock-swatted at the laughing girl with his fan again; she dodged it this time with ease. "Kaiji-nii's got a boyfriend named Ken," she confided to Kaito and Aoko, who both blinked (eep?). "And when he hears about this he'll—"
"Mika-chan. Enough, please."
The words came from beyond the table, and all five of the other people in the room froze, and then turned as one towards the six as he wheeled himself forward.
'Wheeled-- The old-fashioned cane wheelchair made tiny creaking sounds as it rolled across the wooden floor; Kaito paid them little notice, all of his attention fixed on the man in the chair itself. It was like looking into a mirror, one where you paid for your look with time and trauma—
He looks like me… sixty years away, after a lot of bad road and rough audiences.
White hair, thick and springing up in barely-tamed disarray—'Yumi-chan, thought Kaito, would've said that it ate combs just like his. A thin, mobile face, lined deeply with both laughter and sorrow but still very much alert and aware; dark blue eyes—well, one dark blue eye. The other was covered with a patch, and the white creases around it explained something of why. Strong magician's hands (thief's hands) gripped the wheels of the chair and maneuvered them as he moved forward, the silk of his black crested haori rustling with the effort. "Kuroba Kaito, welcome… My name is Kuroba Kuehiko, and I am the master of this estate. Welcome to Gonin Kurou."
'Five Crows', the name whispered; it felt old, like four of the five coins that had led him there. Kind of a weird title for a family estate, thought the thief as he bowed silently. There were only four feathers in the crest— Kaito's eyes must have strayed towards the emblem as he straightened up, as the lined face quirked in a sudden smile of understanding… He glanced at the old woman waiting so patiently to one side. "You must be very weary, Kaito-san; would you prefer an explanation first, or rest and sustenance?"
Great-Aunt-Whoever shot her husband a reproachful look. "Tsk. ''All beginnings are hard,' said the thief, and began by stealing an anvil.' —From the Dutch, you know. Why not both? Sit down, all of you—We held dinner for your arrival, you see," she explained as she shooed the lot of them before her towards the table. Despite his exhaustion and the chorus of growls that were beginning to resound in his stomach, the young thief had to smother a grin at seeing such a tiny woman herding her charges like so many chickens. There was a scraping of chairs and a clatter of silverware; and a few minutes later, Kaito (with a distinct Mad-Hatter's-Tea-Party feeling) found himself passing platters and filling his plate with an assortment of victuals. He exchanged a bewildered glance with Aoko, shrugged once, decided not to look a gift dinner in the mouth and dug in.
But while his appetite was busy being satisfied, his mind was perfectly free to speculate.
So—we've got Great-Aunt-Whoever (what IS her name, anyway? Don't think anybody ever said), Great Uncle Kuehiko, and cousins Mika and Rakkaiji. And mom and Aoko. And I guess Jii and his brother Shunmei are around somewhere… These people are all related to me? ALL of 'em? I wonder if there're any more? It was kind of bewildering, going from a hardly-any-relatives status to just the opposite; even as he served himself a slice of really good roast beef (he resolved to hunt down the cook and make friends ASAP), Kaito snuck a look up from beneath his lashes at all the weird people eating with him…
…who were all sneaking looks back. ALL of them. At the same time. That wasn't just bewildering, it was downright daunting. And completely unfair.
Unless you happened to be 1412, the Kaitou Kid, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, who was good at dealing with 'daunting' and who ate 'unfair' for breakfast, no matter how worn out he was. Right. The personage in question swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and cleared his throat. "Ah—Nice place you have here," he said with as much aplomb as he could muster. "About that explanation--?"
Glances were exchanged between the Great Uncle, the Great Aunt, and the older of the two cousins (Mika-chan was too busy filching items from Rakkaiji-san's plate to care). Wow, thought Kaito, a little frazzled; Long silence…
Great-Uncle cleared his throat. "Where to start," he murmured; and the young magician felt Aoko jump slightly beside him at the way his voice held Kaito's own intonation, right down to that little drawl at the end that told the ones that knew him that he was stalling for time. He had a damned good Poker Face, too; very, very good. "I suppose we could begin with who we are," the man said slowly, "or what we do—"
"Or we could discuss why they've come here," suggested Great-Aunt Whoever brightly, watching with dark, smiling eyes. "Could you please pass the potatoes, Rakkaiji? Thank you, dear. And you can put those cookies back until you've eaten something more substantial, Mika."
"—or we could (munch, munch) talk 'bout what they do, since we already (crunch) know who they are—" put in Mika-chan as she reluctantly traded the platter of cookies for a dish of vegetables.
"…or we could ask them how they managed to see the infra-red beams in the falling-rock trap; I'm very interested in that in particular," murmured Rakkaiji-san softly, eyes fixed on Kaito's own.
…..Nnnngh. Toichi's son flinched internally.
"—or," put in the elderly man firmly, "we could talk about the Kuroba clan's history." And that calm, single dark blue gaze slid nonchalantly across Kaito and Aoko's faces, telling nothing and seeing everything— Or so, thought Kaito sharply, he'd bet the old man would like to think. But Kuroba Toichi's son was no slouch in the Poker Face department himself.
And Kaito'd be damned if he'd let that Rakkaiji guy unnerve him into talking about… things he didn't want to talk about yet. If ever. At all. "History's great," he said cheerfully, snagging a roll from a passing platter; "We're all about history, right, Aoko?"
"History, then." Kuroba Kuehiko drew a deep breath, stirring his tea with a spoon; silver clinked against porcelain, ringing like the clear chime of an ancient bell. "Long, long ago, in a much more turbulent time than this, there was a small clan who served a Daimyo…"
Long, long ago, in a much more turbulent time than this, there was a small clan who served a Daimyo, a great lord. How long they had served him, nobody knows now nor knew then; they were his family's shadows—spies and bodyguards in times of trouble, thieves when it became necessary to acquire goods or status or the downfall of an enemy, even knives in the night when waking up in the morning with one's throat unslit was less than a certainty. For the most part, though, they were thieves.
The clan had no name; it was safer that way. Even their name belonged to their Daimyo.
These were troubled times, filled with small wars; lives were short and often ended in violence. To serve a great lord was no guarantee of living to old age, such as it was—you were far more likely to die choking on your own blood or rotting in some enemy's cells.
But there was honor in service, and those of the nameless clan served their lord well.
Understand, please: beyond one's family ties, there was no mythical law or organization among the kaitou of the land. Oh, the different clans knew about each other of course; they had their own private wars sometimes, when one slipped through the others nets or made the others' lord lose face. That was just… business, the way things went. And occasionally there were marriages, one clan to another, and if techniques of stealth or trickery passed from one clan to another by way of children or dowry, well… that was just business too.
The kaitou clans were not shinobi; they were small, usually no more than a dozen strong or so, and did not war against each other unless their particular tasks set them at cross-purposes. That was the one unbreakable rule, that you did not strike against your own kind without cause. Shadows were created to follow the light, not to strike out on their own. And so between clan and clan there was peace, more or less; otherwise, they would have decimated each other—their skills made it far too easy to kill.
Time passed; times changed. Perhaps eight centuries or so ago, the small wars that had always been a way of life grew larger and began to devour the life of the land and its people. Crops grew less plentifully, and many children starved to death in villages too weak or unprofitable to be protected by one lord or another. In the fields, even the crows grew thin.
Time passed; times changed, and much for the worse.
The great stronghold that had cradled the shadow clan's Daimyo and his family was shattered in siege; the ruling family fell, their lord was slaughtered despite his servants' efforts, and what remained of the kaitou clan—eleven souls, so it's told—fled tto the rocky northern country where only bandits and lawless men lived. To be without a home was terrible thing; but to be without a purpose was even worse—what were they to do, turn to farming or to soldiery? They had always served a lord; it gave them something to pit their wills against, a target and an audience—and even in those days when there was little difference between 'entertainment' and 'destruction', what was a kaitou without an audience?
"Got that right…"
"Indeed, Kaito-kun. 'Let a man practice the profession he best knows'— that's from Cicero. Kuehiko, would you pass the butter, please?"
"Of course, my dear. Now, to continue—"
Traveling by night to avoid the constant skirmishes troubling their ruined land, eventually the small family found an abandoned stronghold in wild territory to the north. It was a harsh place, cold and remote, but the hunting was good enough to keep them alive and at least it was shelter; and there were small villages nearby with which to trade. Had they been left alone, the shadow clan might have settled down and perhaps faded into history as just one more faceless group of refugees lucky enough to have found a haven… but that was not to be.
They were, so to speak, small fish in a very large, very troubled pond, despite their skills—and they WERE skilled, even among the kaitou clans. In particular, they were known for their cleverness in the ways of disguise, their ability to think under pressure and their tricks of thievery; shinobi might be more useful, might be better at killing, but the family were skilled even in that. There were none who—
"Wait, wait, you mean kaitou back then were assassins sometimes?"
"If necessary, when their lord had required it of them. Less true shinobi and more jacks-of-all-trades, actually, but... Spies, thieves, and assassins, yes. "
"You dislike the notion, I see. Tell me, Kaito: If the man who shot your father was here before you now and you were given the chance to end his life, what would you do?"
"I— don't know."
"Why don't you go on with the history-lesson, Kuehiko dear? We'll talk about that later."
"Yes; we will... As I was saying—"
It was one of the clan-head's four sons who first saw the smoke from a burning village on their near horizon; he ran and told his father, Yogarasu, whose name meant 'night crow'. They had scarcely been in their new refuge a season and already the greater wars had grown fat on the smaller ones' misfortunes and ventured out into the northern lands like prowling monsters, eager for prey. War had followed them; first would come more refugees, then the armies that drove them. And while the family was very good indeed at staying hidden, for how long could they manage such a trick? Winter was coming.
They sat in counsel that night, talking softly together in what remained of the stronghold's largest hall. Yogarasu the clan-head laid out their options before his family—should they attempt to remain in hiding, should they seek service among the warring armies moving so inevitably towards them, or should they run again?
Running again would have solved so many problems… and what could less than a dozen kaitou do against warring armies?
But there was no time to reach a decision; before many hours had passed, news was brought from the nearest village that the first of the refugees had arrived, bearing tales of horror. War, yes—
--and disease. Plague. Death had arrived, and it had brought friends.
That very nearly was enough to make the clan pack up and flee. Only the knowledge that winter was already clutching at their heels stayed them, that and the realization that northward lay only greater wilderness and less of a chance of survival. In the ruined keep, at least, they had shelter and good hunting; now they had to find a way to remain safe…
"I like this part. It's just like one of those manga stories—"
"Perhaps, Mika-chan, but this was real, you know."
"I know. I still like it, though."
"Hush then, and listen—"
It must be remembered that these were not your usual frightened refugees. They were not displaced farmers, nor soldiers, nor fleeing nobles—they were, instead, people with a heritage of weaponry and stealth, trickery and the art of acting in secret. A straightford defense of their new territory was impossible, due to a lack of numbers; they were too few. And so, when Yogarasu proposed that they defend their ruined home using the tools of their trade, the suggestion was accepted with enthusiasm.
And thus began what the Kuroba family archive calls 'The Great Trick.'
"You see," said the old man with the eyepatch meditatively as he leaned back a little in his chair, "they were desperate. Eleven men, women and children were hardly a warlike force powerful enough to expel the armies that were soon to arrive. But if they could make them turn away of their own accord…"
It began simply, with rumors in the village sake house. There had been strange things seen in the forest to the north—flitting lights, pale somethings that rustled in the bushes—nothing too dramatic. Most of the listeners had scoffed, too busy drowning their worries in liquor to pay much attention. Later on, staggering home, if several of the worst drinkers saw some odd glowing things moving among the heavy undergrowth beyond the fields, their sodden minds would barely retain the images for when they sobered.
However, their wives would remember their drunken ramblings when they staggered in, and would repeat them to the neighbors the next day. There was a saying back then that continues to this day: 'Gossip is the mother of many children.' A week was all it took for the entire village to have heard the rumors.
And then there were the noises.
A messenger riding between villages was the first to hear the voices; he was also the first to carry the rumors beyond the nearest town and to the next, and the next, especially after something had called his name from the darkness and then followed him for quite some distance, laughing…
The rumors spread; a headless body had been seen walking among the trees—or no, was it that a bodiless head had been witnessed flying there? Or maybe both; who could say? Somebody had definitely seen SOMEthing, and the bluish lights that had danced here and there among the overgrown ruins at the edge of the forest had been glimpsed quite clearly by a passing priest and his acolyte—he had warned the townsmen to avoid the old stronghold, it was clearly haunted.
Stay away, said the village elders to the younger men. If a priest gives such a warning, it should be enough for you. Stay away, and tell your children to do so as well. We have enough trouble coming towards us already without angering the spirits.
And that they did—trouble, that is. It came first in the trickle of refugees, some of them whole but many wounded, some ill and some dying. They came on foot or carried in wagons, begging for what food the locals could spare them; they crowded the local Inari shrine, and they brought sickness with them. The first few to try to pass through the forest had been warned, but they tried anyway. They stumbled back babbling about glowing red eyes and flying things among the trees, and they went around the forest and ruins on the western road, seeking healing in the larger shrines that lay towards the far coastline.
Trouble arrived again when the first riders of the advancing armies came through; they, too, were warned off from the forest, but they had heard of the ruins there and their leader had sent them to scout out a possible permanent camp there—ruins had wells and walls that could be refortified and built up. The scouts returned with their horses white-eyed and snorting in terror, ropy foam lathering their bits; bright sparks had burst beneath their hooves, smelling of sulfur, and evil-visaged creatures had leered at them seemingly from behind every thicket—
"Firecrackers, huh? And lots of long-burning fuses for the sparks and smoke; cool. So… what you're telling me is that these kaitou guys were freaking out the locals and trying to scare off any intruders? To keep isolated from the fighting and disease?"
"Of course. They were tired, you see; their lord had died, he and all his family. They had lost many of their own, and what do you suppose any of the other daimyo would have done if they had known that they were there—skilled thieves and spies, perfectly capable of slipping through an army of soldiers like shadows? It doesn't matter that this was so long ago, you know, or that their methods were less technological than our own; 'primitive' does not mean 'stupid.' Their primary goal was survival, and they had to depend nearly as much on luck as on skill."
"Mmmhmm… Tricks—smoke and mirrors—things don't change all that much, do they? Must've been pretty rough…"
"It was; and their luck could not hold out forever." The older man regarded him somberly over his tea.
The tale had taken rather longer than expected, and Kaito snuck a look at the ornate clock ticking on the wall. A little after one a.m…. Dinner had progressed on to dessert, and now he sighed and surreptitiously slid down a little in his chair. All the stress of the very long day and night, all the weariness… it was as if it had been just waiting for him to relax before pouncing, and now—
"—and perhaps," said Kuroba Kuehiko softly, "the rest of the tale should wait for later tomorrow—or, actually, today," he added, glancing at the clock as well. "You've had a very long day, and I suspect that rest would do you more good than more history just now. Hm?" With a grunt, the older man wheeled himself back from the table; Great-Aunt Whosit (Kaito still didn't know her name, but his cousins seemed to call her 'Obaa-sama') moved with remarkable silence for a woman her age to slip behind him, resting thin hands on the wicker of his chair. "I think we would all benefit from a late morning; 'Early to bed, early to rise' was not written for this family. Hikarue, my dear, would you mind showing your son and Aoko-san to their rooms? I know that you have many questions, Kaito, but… perhaps it would be best to ask them with a clear mind?" he said quietly, his single-eyed gaze resting calmly on his guests.
"I… yeah; I guess it would. But I will have my answers. I've earned them, haven't I? And I've been waiting for them for a long time," answered Toichi's son softly as he rose from his seat; beside him Aoko flinched a little, and her hand involuntarily sought his.
"Fair enough. I only ask that you hear the rest of the family history first. Humor an old man in this, please; it may make things clearer."
The young thief nodded. History seemed harmless enough.
"Goodnight, then. We'll continue when you are both more rested." The single blue gaze was steady. "And Kaito? If there is any doubt in you of your welcome here-- Please know this: we have been waiting for you to ask your questions for a long time also. There are things that we've been waiting to say; and we too are tired of waiting. Sleep well."
"'Sleep well,' yeah," muttered Kaito, padding down the polished wood of the hallway. "As if. Is everybody in this family a practicing Zen Master of Inscrutability?"
"Well, you would know if anybody would…"
"Thanks bunches, Aoko." He flicked a glance sideways at her, fighting back a smile; God, it was good to be able to talk to her again; and his mom too, for that matter. Mom looked tired; well, they all were. It had been a long, long day.
The twists and turns of hallway were dizzying, a little bewildering to his weary senses; Kaito tried to keep track, but even he had limits. "Where're we going?" he asked, stifling a yawn.
"You've been given a room in the East Wing," murmured his mother; "I'll be right down the hall from you, and Aoko is in the room next to yours." She paused, turning to him and brushing a gentle hand across his forehead. "You need to rest, Kaito."
"Yeah, no sh—Um, sorry. I mean… right. Rest. Rest good." And he gave her a lopsided grin, the best he could manage at the moment. "Think I could sleep for a week, but… you s'pose they've got something as mundane as a shower around here?" He raised one arm and sniffed suspiciously. "I think I could use one, what with ninjas and chimneys and all that stuff. I probably smell like one of Nakamori-keibu's smokes… Aoko, what d'you think? Pipe or cigar?" An annoyed hand swatted at him, and he swayed a bit as he ducked, still grinning; that was better. Kaito felt his world click a little more into place—there was nothing like being threatened with bodily harm by somebody important to you to make you feel like everything was okay again… mostly okay again… sort of okay again… at least approaching a general state of okayness again…
Right, 'sway' had just turned into 'tilt'; when had the hallway developed a slanted floor? "Maybe I'd better skip the shower—"
Two hands grabbed him from either side, and he steadied himself against a wall. "I'm fine, I'm good, just a… little tired." A lot tired, tons of tired, absolute loads and heaps of tired, but he had been through big rocks and fire and fish and zucchini; a few zillion metric buttloads of tired wasn't going to stop him now, he was the Kaitou Kid, he was International Criminal 1412, he was—
--being steered around what his blurry eyes saw to be a corner, then down a few tilting, unsteady steps and towards a door; it opened and a well-known voice said quietly, "I'll take him from here if you wish, Hikarue-sama."
And sure enough, it was him. One more piece of the world slid into place as strong, wrinkled hands pulled Kaito in through the door. The young thief had just enough energy to half-turn/half-waver back towards the two women in the hall—"Hang on, Mom, I need to (yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawn) talk to you first!"—but his heart wasn't really in it, and considering that the last time he had felt this ragged he had had a hole in his shoulder, maybe this was a good thing.
"Kaito, you baka, let her go. She's exhausted," said Aoko fiercely.
"She is?" He peered muzzily at his mother; things were beginning to grey out around the edges. "Mom? Have you been doing okay? They've been treating you right?" Silk rustled as Kuroba Hikarue attempted a smile for her son, nodding; he blinked, rubbing at his eyes. "You look kinda stressed." Kaito frowned; she looked worse than stressed, she looked—pale, tense and more than a little worn. "What's wrong?"
His mother shook her head. "Nothing, just… I'm so glad to see you, I—" The woman drew a deep breath, looking away as they moved through the dimly-lit hall. "I had forgotten how they would test you… I was with Aoko for part of it; you did very well, dear." For a moment her smile was real as she glanced back at him. "Very well; I'm proud of you, and your father, he—"
"—he would've been proud too." And then the smile faltered as she looked past him towards Jii, who still waited patiently just inside the room. "There are things we need to talk about… Your uncle…"
"Huh? What 'bout him?"
"Tomorrow…" Kuroba Hikarue drew a silent breath; her fists clenched, almost hidden by the long sleeves of her black furisode. "Your great-uncle is a very good man, Kaito, but… he's also… very… persuasive about certain things. Promise me something, please? Please?"
"What?" Her son blinked again, trying to fight off weariness one more time. He reached out, brushing back his mother's hair from where it had tumbled over her forehead (and just how had she gotten to be so small all of a sudden?) "Promise you what, Mom?"
Aoko watched them both, mute. Her hands twisted together unconsciously.
"Promise me… Promise me that you won't make any decisions right away, that you'll take time to think, Kaito—" Her eyes were so desperate, full of something she wanted so badly to tell him. "Just promise me that you won't make any choices, any choices, without going off to think about them first. Please?"
Everything was beginning to distort around the edges now; Kaito was starting to find it hard going, just keeping track. He opened his mouth to answer—
"Kuroba-sama? Perhaps you had both wait until you're more rested for that, don't you think?" asked Jii quietly from behind, and Kaito turned to stare at him as well, perplexed. What the hell? "There will be plenty of time tomorrow."
"I… suppose so. Tomorrow…" she tried to smile again; it didn't quite work. "Today, really." Very gently his mother touched him on the check, just the faintest brush of her hand. "Sleep. We can talk later."
"…Uh… Okay, Mom….."
As the door closed between them, the last thing he saw was Aoko, turning away and walking beside his mother, speaking quietly. After that, the fatigue that he had been fighting off tooth and nail finally descended; he was aware of Jii steering him towards the white softness of a bed, of his voice bidding him goodnight—
"Jii? Where've you been, anyway?"
"Here, of course, waiting; I told you that you would make it. Where else would I be, Young Master? Rest now."
--and that was all.
The blue kimono hung on its meter-long wooden rod against one wall, white maple-leaf pattern vague and dim in the shadowy room; and Nakamori Aoko wondered why she was still awake.
She was exhausted too, though not so much from physical activity (she hadn't had to fight ninjas) as from stress. Watching Kaito…
His family had made her welcome. That had been unexpected; she was a cop's daughter, after all, the cop's daughter so far as 1412 was concerned. But they had accepted her in as if she were all the more suitable because of that, which made no sense whatsoever…
Staring up into the dark, Aoko mentally smacked herself on the forehead. Kaito's family. KAITO'S family. Remember? And you're expecting them to make sense
They hadn't even attempted to conceal their matter-of-fact knowledge of what he had been up to, his father's history, or their own talents in those kinds of things. It wasn't that they had come straight out and said 'Hello! We're a family of professional thieves! We do illegal things for a living and we're thrilled beyond words to welcome an international criminal into the fold!' or anything, but when they idly chatted at breakfast about the latest upgrade in security systems and rearranging their stolen-item retrieval schedule, it kind of got across that maybe, just maybe, they had something in common with the Kaitou Kid.
The young woman closed her eyes tightly. To any police ancestors I have up in Heaven, I apologize profusely. I meant well, but I think I've fallen into bad company.
Kuroba Hikarue had been—a little distraught when she arrived; mostly nerves about Kaito's upcoming 'entrance exam', she recognized now, but there was something else… something wrong. Something unnerving the woman—and Kaito's mom was made of strong stuff. It was worrying.
Whatever it is, I guess I'll find out tomorrow. Today. Aoko pulled the covers up around her a little tighter, turning over to burrow into the pillow. This place… it's so full of secrets. Everybody seems awfully nice…
…but I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.
That troubling thought chased her down into sleep.
"G'nite 'Kaiji-nii. 'Kaiji-nii? You didn't booby-trap Kaito-niisan's room, did you?"
"Of course not, not on his first night here. Later, maybe….. Wait. Mika, you didn't—"
A door slammed. "Mika! Open that door right now, brat!!" Sulkily, the door slid open a crack. "Did you or did you not booby-trap Kaito-san's room?"
"…………………." The door started to close again.
"Remember last week, when you did that thing with the frogs? Do you want me to hang you up on a coat-rack for the rest of the night?"
"…..You're no fun at ALL. And anyway, Obaa-sama caught me in his room and made me clean it up. And those frogs were cold and needed someplace warm to sleep so I don't know what you're so upset about. G'nite."
"Goodnight, brat." Two doors closed, and there was a long moment of silence. Then: "—wait-- WHAT the hell— AAAGHH!! MIKA! WHAT THE #$&/!! DID YOU DO TO MY BED?!?"
A door-lock clicked firmly shut, followed by the sound of giggling.
There was water running somewhere; he could hear it, smell it, feel the dampness breathing cold on his skin. Mud underfoot; a river? No; long grass swaying around his legs, the scent of many green things, of brackish water and a faint taint of stagnancy. Marshes? Maybe.
( I can't see—)
Wait, now he could. Fitful moonlight, broken by clouds. Yes; a marsh. There were trees in the distance, though…
…and people running.
(A heist? Who got robbed?)
It was, he reflected as he moved soundlessly through the brush, a sad thing when people-running automatically meant people-stealing-something to his brain. Maybe it had something to do with genetics. It didn't HAVE to be a theft; people-running could mean a fire, an accident, a—
--hoard of armed soldiers on horseback waving swords—
Kaito dove for the nearest bushes. (What the hell?)
This was a DREAM. Right. That would explain why the bushes were passing right through him… Fascinated despite the thunder of hooves all around him, he waved one hand and watched leaves slip painlessly from side to side.
(Weird… I'm a ghost. Heh; I'm haunting my own dreams. Do I have feet? Huh; look at that. Thought ghosts didn't HAVE feet… Like I said, weird.)
Not weird enough to distract him more than momentarily from what was going on, though. The horsemen charged past; what were they chasing? Scrambling to his feet, Kaito stared after them; there was a small figure in the distance where the land sloped up into trees and boulders, just barely visible as a black blot in the moonlight. Dammit, he needed to be closer—
(WHOA—) and he was in the middle of the horsemen as they reined in, rocky ground underfoot instead of mud. He wheeled about, shaken; time and the world had stuttered, shoving Kaito forward. How the hell had THAT happened?
(Never mind. Somebody's about to die.)
The black figure—no, blacks and grays, he could see that now, a weird ninja-ish sort of outfit complete with a swathing head-scarf—was backed up against a huge chunk of rock, weapons of some sort in his hands. They did not shine; the metal had been darkened, and somehow Kaito knew that this had been deliberately done. But they were small, just knives; and there were half a dozen horsemen with big fricking swords—
--and there was absolutely nothing he could do. Nobody looked at him, nobody paid the least bit of attention as he dodged weaponry, horses and riders. He wasn't there, not to them.
(It's a dream, it's just a dream, I'm not real, no, I'm real, they're not real)
And just then… just for a second, he saw the masked man's eyes. They seemed to lock onto his own for a moment, saying nothing, saying everything… before the fight really began.
Two of the soldiers went down, samurai-like helms tumbling as they choked on their own blood, knives embedded in their throats; Ninja-san was playing for keeps. The other four crowded forward, and then there was a blur of metal and movement and blood flying, a confusion of voices and the screams of horses and men—
(I don't want to see this, I don't want to see this, I don't want to see this)
--there was that moment of distortion again as he was shoved forward. No horses now; nothing, not even bodies. Just the boulder, all splashed with blood. There was blood everywhere, actually; it pooled blackly on the ground, blotched the rocky surface where Ninja-san had had his back set, streaked in drying rivulets here and there where it had splashed. But the body was gone. Kaito crouched where he was, hands clasped protectively over his head, and listened to the lonely whine of the wind; and all he could think of was that moment of eye-contact, that one shared glance.
Because if there was one thing he was sure of, it was this: The man had seen him.
What the hell was up with that?
What the hell?
Oh. He was…
…was like crawling out from beneath a rock. One that had the HMS Titanic perched on top of it, with King Kong crouched on the deck juggling massive tanks. Wearing great big heavy lead boots.
Faint light filtered in through white cotton sheets and Kaito curled tighter, burying his face in his pillow. "Five m'r minutes—"
"I'm sorry, Young Master, but you really should get up," said a familiar, apologetic voice. There was a rustling, and the young thief burrowed even deeper into his covers as he felt them tugged at. "It's after noon…"
"Mmfgl! N'gettin' up! G'way!" He yanked the covers completely over his head, snuggling into warm dark.
"Young Master, please get up. Your breakfast—errr, lunch—is waiting…"
"Fk'ff!" Pillow, mmmmm… Drowsiness descended again, pulling the blinds down over his consciousness…
There was a sigh. "I'm sure you'll forgive me for this when you wake up properly." Somewhere in the muzzy depths of Kaito's brain, a cell or two raised their heads and looked at each other warily. That note of warning-- Should he worry?
Covers rustled; there was a faint draft, a clink and rattle of something against glass, and then—
"I did warn you, Young Master," said Jii apologetically from a safe place across the room out of Kaito's reach. A flung pillow crashed against the wall beside his head, and he coughed. "Perhaps you might wish to get out of bed now?" Kaito's reply (another flung pillow and a stream of muffled imprecations) just barely missed the elderly thief as he ducked. "You've clearly been among low sorts as of late; wherever did you learn that last phrase?"
A tousled head emerged from the bedclothes. "From Nakamori-keibu," said his charge grumpily, scratching at stubble. "It's one of his favorites. What time did you say it was? And what the #$&!! did you just put against my feet?"
"Ice cubes." Jii rattled the half-empty glass cup in his hand. "I've long been fond of iced coffee in the morning… or the afternoon, as it were. And it's just past twelve."
The glass rattled again as it was placed on a bedside table. "I wouldn't worry about the lateness of the hour too much; what with your exertions and the time of your arrival, it's quite understandable." He lifted a cover from a tray waiting on the same table, and the delectable odors of coffee and toast dragged Kaito's eyelids up from half-mast to full attention. "And besides… in this house, odd hours are considered anything but 'odd'. Toast?"
"…is there jelly?"
The next few minutes were spent decimating the contents of the tray while Jii sipped his cold coffee; biting off the crust of his third slice, the younger thief eyed his elder as he rummaged through a nearby closet and laid out jeans, underwear and a sweatshirt (all belonging to Kaito; he supposed that someone had burglarized his home again, only this time without bombs. He was going to have to install a revolving door and a mat that read 'Housebreakers Welcome.') "Jii? What's with the valet act? Have you been reading Jeeves Saves The Day again?"
One grey eyebrow went up. "You weren't raised here, of course; you wouldn't know, then…" Jii cleared his throat. "It's customary among the Kuroba clan for 'active' members of the family—those engaged in felonious pursuits—to have a personal assistant, not so much to act as a servant as to… smooth the way. To act as backup, as I did for Toichi-sama and for you more recently." He coughed, picking up his cup again. "Of course, the 'valet act' as you call it is optional." Dark eyes twinkled as the other eyebrow went up. "My brother Shunmei assists your great-uncle and has for a number of years; your cousin Rakkaiji has an assistant as well, as do several others living here on the estate—"
Kaito blinked. "You mean there's more of 'em?" He poured another cup of coffee.
"Of course; distant cousins, adoptions, trainees… While the clan is much smaller than it would have been had the cataclysm that I told you of not happened, still— Ah; let me get that for you, Young Master…" Jii reached for the coffee-pot.
His charge gave him an annoyed glance and moved it out of reach. "Can it, Jii; drop the 'I am the buttling butler who buttles' thing, I don't like it. No more picking up after me or playing babysitter, okay?" He scowled. "I don't need a flunky following me around, and I'd rather have a partner than a servant anytime."
The twinkle in Jii's eyes grew. "As you wish," he murmured… and Kaito wondered briefly if he had just been had. The old man nodded at a door off to the side of the room. "There's a bathroom complete with shower through there, if you wish to make use of it… which you might. I fear that last night's activities were not kind to your personal hygiene. A certain air of smoked haddock—"
"Yeah, yeah, got it; excuse me Mister Clean. Back in a few."
The shower felt wonderful—and if the rest of the house was antique, at least the facilities were up-to-date. European style, polished brass, lots of tile… and lots of hot, hot water; mmmm. Kaito tilted his head back, letting the flood run down his face and down his chest. Grime he hadn't noticed the night before (man, he must've been a great sight—and smell—the night before at the dinner-table) grayed the water running down the drain, streaked the suds swirling around his feet. Weariness was mostly gone; as the young thief scrubbed at his back with a brush he had found hanging in the bath, he could feel the burn of overused muscles in calf and thigh and bicep, but… no scrapes. None of the scratches or bruises he had managed to collect.
Weird. Really weird. Good-weird, but still… weird. With all this family shit going on, I haven't thought much about the whole Pandora Gem thing. Too busy dodging big rocks… and Oh Boy, speaking of which: those infra-red beams. I saw 'em, they know I saw 'em, and they want to know about it, don't they? 'Course they do. That Rakkaiji guy especially—'Cousin Rakkaiji'. Heh. Sharp; got a chip on his shoulder, maybe. Why? What's he think, I'm gonna step in and kick him out on his ass? Not bloody likely, as Hakuba'd say.
He turned off the tap, toweling off and beginning to dress.
This house… With his brain clearing under the influence of a few hours' sleep, caffeine and a dose of hot water, Kaito could damn near feel the weight of history bearing down on him. Everywhere there was what he was beginning to think of the family 'influence', their mark; even the fluffy white towels had the four-feather mon woven into the fabric.
It's mine, too—my mark, not just theirs. That's the weirdest thing of all. Well, next to the zucchini and finding out I kissed Cousin Rakkaiji.
Never mind all that, though… There was that stuff with his mom and Great-Uncle-WhatsHisName… Still attempting to comb his hair, Kaito paused as he stepped out of the bathroom. "Jii?"
"Over here." The old man had ensconced himself in an armchair at one end of the room; the book that he had pulled from the shelves there had 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' printed in gilt English lettering along its dusty spine, and despite himself the young thief chuckled. "Studying the opposition?" he asked, plopping down on the end of the bed.
"Indeed. One should know one's enemy; it makes the game that much entertaining."
"Guess it does… or at least gives you more material to tease 'em with." Kaito ran the comb through his hair one last time, making it stand even more on end as he went through memories hazy with fatigue. "Hey, Jii? Tell me: Why was Mom was so freaked last night—something about my uncle?" He poured a last cup of cooling coffee, watching Jii out of the corner of one eye as he did so.
'Watson, you know my methods—' C'mon, Jii, give me something to work with.
And Jii was dithering. "Err. Your uncle." Wrinkled hands picked up Kaito's clothing from the night before (it had been left draped over the end of the bed); they folded the haori, unfolded it, turned it around, refolded it… "What did you think of him?"
--andstalling for time. "Seemed like a nice guy. What's Mom's problem with him?" Time he wasn't going to get from Kaito…
"—ahh—Perhaps she should tell you herself—" The black haori got refolded a third time…
"Uh uh." Kaito leaned back against the bedpost, hands clasped behind his head; he hadn't been in much of a shape to notice details about the room when he had crashed the night before, but it was a nice antique-looking four-poster, carved with—guess what?—flying birds. The wood creaked as he propped himself upright, giving his friend a rather hard stare. "Spill it, Jii. What's the deal here? Is he trying to make her move in or something, or—" He had an awful thought. "—is he trying to get me to stay? Not that this isn't all sorts of interesting, but…"
Jii avoided his eyes. "He is the head of your clan, Young Master. His wishes carry a lot of weight among your family—"
"…which, I might add, I didn't even know existed a month ago," said Kaito flatly. "So that's it, huh? No way; I may have a place waiting for me here, but who says I want it right now? Last night in the iei room I said—" He hesitated; what had he said exactly? "—I said I'd pay for what I needed, said I was with the family, that I'd back 'em up if they needed me… but I didn't say anything about moving here, did I? He can try to persuade me to if he wants to, but he's gonna have to give me a hell of a lot more reason than the old blood-is-thicker-than-water thing. I already have a home. AND a life, one I need to be getting back to—and so does Aoko." The young thief raised an eyebrow. "Her dad's probably all twitchy about her being gone anyway—you want him banging on the door one morning, demanding we fork over his daughter? I steal gems, not people."
"Mmph." The old man's lips twitched. "I'd like to see him attempt to locate this estate. Young Master, if he were to show up through some truly astounding piece of tracking work, he would find nothing more than a perfectly legitimate family holding, owned by one Kuroba Kuehiko, a retired businessman spending his declining years peaceably in the bosom of his kin."
"Oh yeah? What kind of business?"
"Quite legal ones."
"No, really, Young Master." And Kaito could recognize a distraction when he saw it in the making; this time, though, he let his friend run with it. "The Kuroba clan has quite a number of valid, lawful trade ventures. Museum-grade and private reproductions of artifacts—you'll meet Hisui-san later, he's wonderful with them, although I understand that young Rakkaiji-san's been handling that area lately—restorations as well, and then there's Yunagi-san's security checks; she's been training little Mika for the past six months or so. Other things too, couriering goods between two parties and—never mind; you'll see when you tour the workrooms. Suffice it to say that the clan is quite affluent. " The old man smoothed his moustache and chuckled. "One has to pay the bills somehow, after all… in ways that can be verified during, say, a tax-audit. And if there happen to be other, more profitable pursuits that take place 'under the table', ehh well… secrets are a way of life here."
"Hmm." Skeptical eyebrows saluting, Kaito was about to pursue this line of conversation when there came a knock on the door. "Kaito? Are you awake yet, or do I have to come in there and get you?"
Aoko's voice had a certain threatening quality, mixed with a generous dose of long-suffering; apparently she had been awake for quite a while. And she had inherited her father's authentic Policeman's Knock. "I wouldn't make her wait, if I were you," murmured Jii gravely; "Aoko-san does not strike me as being long on patience."
"You're not the one she's gonna strike," muttered Kaito, rolling his eyes as he headed for the door. "Secrets. Right. God, what I wouldn't give for somebody who'd throw me a straight answer or two—"
As it turned out Aoko wasn't alone. "Hi!" said Mika-chan from beside her, fidgeting in place. "We didn't think you were EVER gonna get up. Are you ready?"
"Ready?" The thief blinked. "Ready for what?"
Beside her, Aoko fought back a smile. She still looked a little appeared a little worn, but the simple black sweater and jeans that she was wearing today made her look more like the Inspector's Daughter he had grown up with and less like the beautiful young woman who had greeted Kaito the night before—okay, no less beautiful (and wasn't that a nice thought) but a lot more familiar. "Mika-chan's going to show us around," she explained.
"Oh yeah?" The young magician eyed them both, eyebrows slowly climbing. "Gonna take us on a Grand Tour, huh?"
Behind him Jii cleared his throat significantly. "Mika-chan knows quite a lot about the Kuroba Clan and its members; she'll be a very good source of information, I should think."
"Oh yeah?" Kaito beamed. "Information is always good." She really was a cute little thing, now that he was seeing her without a fog of fatigue wrapping everything, all skinny arms and legs and great big eyes—a lot like Ayumi in some ways, or how she'd be in a few years. "Works for me, Chibi-chan. Let's go! Where first?"
Dark eyes crinkled in a freckled face as the girl considered; Jii and Kaito joined them in the hallway, sliding the door shut behind them. "Obaa-sama said I should show you the outside first, so you'd know how the grounds are laid out. I'm not sure why--?"
Dark blue eyes widened fractionally, but Kaito nodded. "That'll be fine. Lead the way, Oh Exalted Mistress of the Kuroba Clan." Mika giggled and headed down the hallway, her tour-group close at her heels. And beside Aoko, Mika's cousin nodded to himself.
It's to reassure me, Mika-chan… or maybe to lull me into a sense of security. A kaitou always likes to know where the exits are.
"This place," muttered Aoko, staring up into frost-touched trees, "is huge I had no idea it was this big—"
They had been through the greenhouses; they had followed the outer wall along formal, somewhat overgrown gardens; they had climbed up into towers and been shown views that stretched on and on—and then they had walked alongside MORE walls. Funny thing; there hadn't been but the one gate, the one she had come in through… But when Aoko had mentioned this, Mika-chan had looked at her and said, "There are lots of gates, but you have to know how to find them."
"Wait'll you see the rooftops," said Kaito softly to her as they followed behind Mika across a path strewn with fallen leaves. "I'll take you up there this evening and show you; it looks like a city." His feet whispered through the debris while hers crashed, and she winced just a little; she hated being so noisy.
Glancing up, the Inspector's Daughter caught Kaito's eyes on her for just a second; understanding flickered behind mischief. Deliberately a footfall went CRUNCH!, and he began stepping in a sort of crash-cruncha-CRASH-cruncha pattern, matching in time with Aoko's steps; he grinned when she started stomping in time—and she almost laughed as Mika-chan turned right around in her tracks, eyes wide. "You're NOISY!" she said accusingly.
"Uh huh. You wanna play too?" He scooped up a stick from the ground, breaking it in half and handing the pieces over. "Here." The girl took them with a bemused look and clicked them together tentatively. "That's the way," said her cousin encouragingly.
They started back down the path; Crash-cruncha-CLACKCLICKITTYCLACK!-stompa-Crash!-cruncha-- "WE'RE noisy," said Mika-chan with a certain glee. "I was taught to never be noisy unless it's part of a disguise, and I'm still learning disguises." Deliberately she crashed her way through a drift of frost-rimmed debris, clicking her sticks together in double-time. "You're good with disguises, aren't you? Shunmei-kun told me some of the stuff Jii-kun told him that you did…" She paused, ankle-deep in leaves. "…um,andIwantedtoaskyouifyoucouldteachmehowtobeaphantomthief…?"
Aoko blinked. Uh oh.
Those large, dark eyes… Aoko had done the chibi-eyes herself on her dad as a kid. Sometimes it had worked…
And Kaito had paused as well; the improvised Six-Footed Dead Leaf Marching-Band temporarily ground to a halt. "Uh—probably not a good idea, Mika-chan, or not just now." He scratched his head. "I'd hate to screw up your training. And," he added slowly, "I'm not sure how long I'll be here. Maybe later, okay?"
Mika-chan bit her lip. "But you're here now. You went through the Test, and everybody said that you did great. Why would you want to leave? Aren't you glad you're here with us? I won't get to do the Test until I'm a lot older, and if I started learning NOW how to be a—"
Thin fingers brushed bangs back from the girl's forehead. "You're only, what? Ten? You've still got plenty of time. Jii said you were really good with the ninja-type stuff, right?"
"Ten and a HALF." The girl kicked at the leaves in front of her. "And I am good— Ojiki-sama says so. Last year I hit more targets than anybody at New Year's when we did matches. Me and Yunagi-chan were WAY better than the others, and Rakkaiji-nii's teaching me to climb walls and things." She looked up from the leaves through long black lashes, still pouting a little. "Can you climb?"
Aoko rolled her eyes, stifling a comment. Beside her, Kaito shrugged slightly. "Oh… pretty well. What kinds of things are you climbing?"
Her sulks forgotten, Mika-chan grinned and kicked the leaves again. "I'll show you; it's neat."
And, a full twenty minutes of walking later, they saw that she was right.
"Oh, maaaaaaaaaaaaaaan….." Eyes lighting up, Kaito craned his head back. "How high is this?" he asked, staring up at the craggy wall rising above them. They had taken a staircase down… and down… and down… and exited to a tunnel that sloped even further downwards, finally exiting into afternoon sunlight at the bottom of what seemed to be a very deep hole indeed. From opposite the tunnel a small natural cave took in the thin trickle of water that rained down over the ledge high above their heads; it was nothing like either Aoko or Kaito had ever seen, and the Inspector's Daughter fought back a shiver of incipient claustrophobia. It was such a DEEP hole, and the sunlight was a long ways above…
…and apparently acting on Kaito the way catnip acted on a cat. She had seen that look on his face before, and he had already shucked his shoes and stuffed them inside his jacket. "OH no. Kaito, don't you dare!"
"Huh? What?" Her friend paused in the process of flexing his now-bare-feet in preparation for a climb; standing on one foot with the other wiggling in the air, he looked like nothing so much as a jeans-wearing flamingo. "Why not?"
"No ropes. No net," she replied, eyeing the rough limestone mistrustfully. "And I'm not sure if your mom has enough life-insurance for this sort of thing." Mika giggled, already barefoot herself. "…and…" added Aoko a little sadly, "…I can't come with you. I'm not a—um, a—"
"—highly-trained professional thief with an adoring fandom that numbers in the thousands?" suggested her friend with an angelic smile; she could nearly see the halo.
"…actually, 'wall-climbing idiot' was what came to mind. Who do you think you are, Spider-man?" Her fingers itched for a mop, but she glanced at the rough stone a bit wistfully; it'd be nice, being included in SOMEthing, not just being an onlooker— (and Aoko hastily stifled a thought about how much like her the other women who had been brought into the Kuroba clan must've felt, since those women had come in as brides and obviously therefore had nothing in common with her, right? Right.) "If there was a rope or something, maybe I would come with you; it looks sort of fun. I've heard about the climbing-walls that some gyms have, though I've never tried them. But—"
"—But there are ropes, and harnesses. Nobody'll let me climb without one yet," pointed out Mika, tugging something nylonish and heavily buckled from where it dangled in the shadows of the wall; its line swayed from wherever it was anchored fifteen meters or so above, making the harness look like a huge black spider with inclinations towards bondage. "There's climbing-gloves too, AND shoes. If you'll help me put my harness on, I'll buckle yours…"
…which was how Aoko found herself gripping cold rock a few long minutes later, digging toes in with crazed determination and wondering Just WHY did I think this was going to be fun?
"Keep going, Aoko! Halfway there!" said the cheerful voice to her left, from where Kaito clung upside down on the wall like a wooly-haired bat. Bat. Right. I'll show him what a bat looks like close up and personal, the kind the Tokyo Spirits use in their games. Sweating, the Inspector's Daughter climbed a little higher and plotted to practice her swing…
…after she reached the top. DEFINITLY after she reached the top.
"C'moooooooon, Mika-chan's almost done!"
"Hey, Chibi-chan? What're those?"
They had stopped by an outcropping of what looked like ruins, once again butting up against the thick outer wall; grey stones with traces of mortar, a doorway and lintel, the blunted outline of what might have been a firepit once upon a time. A bamboo basket containing adzuki buns and several warm thermoses had been mysteriously waiting for them (Kaito had glanced mistrustfully at the treetops, muttering something about 'food ninjas') and the three had settled down for a snack.
"That's something Obaa-sama and Ojiki-sama said I needed to show you," the girl answered, young voice suddenly serious in the way that only a child's could be. "They want me to tell you the next bit of the story."
"Ah… okay." Kaito made a bun vanish from the picnic basket; the damp, cool air around the ruins smelled of wet leaves and the sweet steam of the tea in the thermos as he tilted it back and then passed it to Aoko. "Go ahead, then… we're listening."
Later on, remembering, Aoko would recall the history that they were told in the voices in which it was told in. Kuroba Kuehiko's careful old-man tones had been more suited to the tale than Mika's higher, childish ones, but somehow by the time she had heard the whole thing it had blended and become all of a piece: a chorus, not separate verses. One whole song made up of solos…
"See—when the army finally got there, their scouts came back and told about the stuff they'd seen—you remember, all the lights and scary things? And then later on when people decided maybe they should ask the scouts more questions, nobody could find them anywhere… Ojiki-sama said that he thinks the scouts never came back at all, that it was just some of the clan in their place. I don't know. Anyway—"
"What happened to the real scouts, then?"
"They got killed. But nobody in the army knew that, they just vanished." Ten-year-old nonchalance shrugged, dismissing the scouts, who seemed to be of supreme unimportance. "Anyway— later on, bad luck started happening to the army. You know? Like… tents burned down and the horses got loose… and the food turned out to be spoiled, and-- I remember, Ojiki-sama said that one morning everybody's fires wouldn't light, no matter what… and on the next day, when they lit they all burned blue and green. That kind of stuff." Mika tilted her head. "I know how to make fires burn blue and green; you use salt…"
Kaito passed the girl the second thermos from the basket; it proved to have hot chocolate in it. "What happened next?"
"Um." Mika frowned. "The army sent people to look at the ruins—these ruins, they were a lot bigger then—because they thought maybe they could build a permanent camp here. But the people they sent never came back; their horses did, though, and they had handprints burned onto their hide." She shivered. "And they smelled like sulfur, and nobody could ride them; so the soldiers had to kill them... And the next day they sent some men with weapons to look at the ruins, but they disappeared too; later on they found them in the river with handprints burned all over them too."
At that, Aoko shivered. And Kaito swallowed. "Guess my ancestors were assassins after all," he muttered half to himself, and he wrapped his arms around himself as if he were cold.
Munching prosaically on a redbean-bun, Mika went on. "After that, nobody'd go into the forest until the army's priests went in first. So—I'm not sure if I really understand this, but—anyway, there were these sort of magician guys called onmyoji… I saw a movie called that last year, but Rakkaiji-nii thought it was really crappy—Anyway, they sent some onmyoji to look at the ruins. They didn't come back either, and—"
Her new cousin whistled softly. "So the body count was climbing… I wonder where all the people who vanished ended up at?"
The ten-year-old girl looked up at him. "Oh—well, you know the sinkhole? Ojiki-sama told me that when his grandfather was a kid, some of their bones were still down there at the bottom. They'd crumble if you touched them, though… I guess they've been buried somewhere, because I've looked and looked but I've never found any of them. I'd like to've." Mika sniffed, aggrieved.
"Oh. Whoa. –So what happened next?"
Another sniff. "I'm trying to TELL you." Aoko watched, bemused, as the girl produced a large coin from one pocket, worn smooth and featureless with tarnish; she set it to walking through her fingers in an exercise that the Inspector's Daughter had seen performed over and over throughout her lifetime. "Next, one of the army's generals decided that there must be rebels hiding in the woods, so he sent a really large bunch of soldiers to kill them. They never even made it to the ruins, because—" (the coin slipped through small fingers; without thinking about it, Aoko snagged it out of the air and passed it back.) "—thanks, Aoko-san, you're awfully fast for a normal person—anyway, because as soon as they got close to the trees everybody started getting sick and falling off their horses, and then the horses wouldn't go any further, and— So they turned around and went back and told the general what happened."
Aoko turned a red-bean bun around in her fingers; the shadows were lengthening and it was getting colder outside, with the promise of snow breathing through the air. "Something in the air, maybe? A trap?" she wondered aloud.
The other two nodded; Kaito flicked a glance at the trees off to their left. "Probably. Wonder if there're any natural gas pockets around here? That'd be perfect." The young thief looked thoughtful, leaning a little further back so that he settled comfortably against Aoko, watching the way the shadows fell from the trees with a faint frown in his eyes. Tilting his head back until it bumped against Aoko's, he sighed; and for a moment she regarded her new position as a backrest a little indignantly. But then her friend's warmth began to seep through his jacket, and she gave indignation up in return for practicality.
And besides, she thought to herself, he felt nice. Warm, but not like he was crowding her; he always gave her room to breathe.
"Dunno… about the gas, I mean." Mika-chan got up, kicking at leaves as she stretched. "So… then one of the generals decided to set fire to the forest. He said that if there were rebels in it, they'd either come out or burn, and if there were ghosts then they could put the fire out themselves…"
"…and so they lit arrows and shot them at the trees. And the trees caught on fire and kept burning, but then the fires turned all different colors and—"
Aoko blinked. "Wait, you mean like… blue? And pink?" Behind her Kaito muffled a laugh, still watching the trees, and she elbowed him in the ribs.
"I guess so. I don't know how to make pink fire yet. –and then the fires all went out at the same time, and the next morning the general was found dead in his bed with a big red handprint on his face… I wish I knew how they did that, but I don't. And… after he died, nobody wanted to come into the forest anymore. And for a little while nobody did."
Silence. Kaito and Aoko looked at each other. "Oh..." said Aoko softly.
Mika shrugged a nonchalant ten-year-old shrug. "You already said that. Anyway—"
"—anyway, don't you think it's time for someone else to have a turn, Brat?" The voice came from overhead; startled, Aoko shielded her eyes against the late afternoon sun and peered up.
"Wondered when you were gonna speak up," muttered Kaito under his breath as Mika stuck her bottom lip out in a pout. "Afternoon, cousin—Rakkaiji-san, right?"
"Correct." The older member of the Kuroba clan cocked one eyebrow as he smiled slantwise down at all three of them; the late light glinted from his eyes, and without a wasted motion he slipped free of the branches and dropped lightly down beside them. "Kaito-san and… Nakamori-san? Yes—" Those eyes; they were the same improbable, implausible blue as Kaito's, and they surveyed the three coolly as Kuroba Rakkaiji crossed his arms, leaning back against the trunk of the tree.
And Kaito, improbably, implausibly, found himself mistrusting those eyes, that look. There was just something about the guy—
"Your turn, huh?" Toichi's son met the indigo gaze squarely, a slanted smile of his own flashing in response almost in spite of himself. He could appreciate good showmanship (and a good entrance) even if he didn't quite feel like swearing undying faith in the showman. Maybe it's because I know he's a Kuroba, thought Kaito in a cranky little twist of irony. We don't tell the truth, do we? Not with our faces or our words, or... not right away, anyway.
Kind of a sobering thought, that one. What was that saying about a taste of your own medicine?
Whatever. Not getting us anywhere. "So," said Kaito with his best (worst) charming grin as he fished around in his memory of the morning's discussions. "What's this about a workshop? I hear you do a lot of, uh, stuff for the family--? Repros, museum replicas, that sort of thing?"
"Oh, yes--" Kuroba Rakkaiji smiled back with just a hint of fang. "That sort of thing. Follow me, please, and I'll show you around. And afterwards I'll pick up the tale from where the Brat here left off--"
"I am NOT a brat!"
Kuroba Rakkaiji shrugged one shoulder, turning away from the ruins without a backwards glance. "Sssh, or I'll tell our new cousin what you tried to do to his room last night."
Slipping through a gap in the rocks, Kaito's older cousin moved across the carpet of dead leaves, silent as a shadow. And in the sulky silence that followed, Kaito felt his poker face sliding imperceptably into place. Now, why? he wondered, as he and his companions trailed after Rakkaiji-- and then his brain caught up. "What did you do--? Mika-chan? Does this have anything to do with zucchini?" he asked suspiciously; the girl sparkled at him angelically, large dark eyes a perfect picture of innocence before she bounced on ahead towards the building that showed dimly through the trees.
The muffled laugh came from just over his shoulder, and the young thief glanced back; Aoko had both hands over her mouth. "Oh, go ahead and mock me while I'm down, why don't you," muttered her friend beneath his breath. "Did I ever boobytrap your bedroom? I mean, ever?"
The Inspector's Daughter stopped snickering. "Kaito... two words for you: banana peels. Do I have to remind you of the rest?"
"Oh. Well. If you're going to bring up ancient history and all that--"
"Kaito, you put them in my SHEETS. Three days running! You're lucky I didn't kill you," she hissed, trying to keep her voice down. They passed into the deep shadow of the stone building's doorway and into a stairwell, and Aoko's eyes flashed momentarily as silver as mercury as she dropped to a whisper. "You're lucky my mom didn't kill you when she found out you'd been sneaking into my room. If she hadn't thought you were such a cute kid, she probably would've told Dad, and he would've just shoved you into a sack and kicked you off the nearest bridge." Below them Rakkaiji-kun called out a cautioning word concerning the roughness of the stairs. They were dark, lit only by a small handful of incongruously-modern red LEDs placed a few meters apart; but the young woman made her way down the steps, negotiating the turns and uneven drops without effort. Following behind, Kaito wondered if she even realized what she was doing. "And if I tell Mika-chan about it and she pulls it on you, it'll serve you right, won't it?" From two steps below she glanced back at him, paused-- and Kaito realized that his eyes must be as luminous as hers. "But I won't tell," she said softly; and he smiled. Damn, but Aoko could be awfully sweet sometimes...
"--or at least not now. I might need it for later. You never know."
...for a hyperactive, mop-wielding, homicidal daughter of a crazed police detective, anyway. Kaito winced, muttered "Yes, dear," and trudged along at her heels.
The stairs weren't all that long, but they were very dim, despite the tiny lights; several times the small group paused on their way down (Mika had managed to scoot into the lead, after all), and at one point Rakkaiji (who had been explaining something about the history of this part of the estate in a cool, distant manner) turned around to emphasize a point-- and went abruptly silent, pausing in place with one hand spread-eagled against the wall. With his altered vision, Kaito could just make out his expression; that meant that Rakkaiji, of course, must have been in near-pitch blackness except for the faint red glows of the LEDs. And that meant...
"Kaito-kun? ...Is that you? Your eyes..." Mika-chan was peering around past her older cousin; she sounded ever-so-slightly scared, and even though Rakkaiji said nothing at all, his expression spoke for him.
Okay, thinking fast here... "Sure it's me-- well, depending on what color eyes you're seeing," Kaito said casually; he felt Aoko stiffen in front of him as the penny dropped. "I mean, if they're blue, it's me. Whatcha think? Nice effect, huh? You wouldn't believe what I had to go through to get them to glow like that." A little twist of the words, a bit of playfulness, a touch of preening; Thank God I'm an expert at voice manipulation, he thought with no particular feeling of pride; he was just that good.
"Blue, yes..." said Rakkaiji-kun carefully; "...and silver. Interesting."
"And while I can understand the, ahh, shock value of having eyes glow like that during a-- 'heist', right--? I have to wonder why Nakamori-san's are like that as well." Rakkaiji's tone was mild, interested yet polite; apparently Kaito wasn't the only Kuroba that excelled in voice control. "That glow... like droplets of silver; beautiful, Nakamori-san. And I assume that whatever you've both done to yourselves allows you to see in a different spectrum than most people can?"
Oh, he's good. Double dammit! "Err--"
"The infrared lines from outside-- the bit with the falling rocks; you remember?" said Rakkaiji-kun helpfully; "and... can you see in the dark? That'd account for the luminescence; animals whose eyes are reflective usually have excellent night-vision." He cocked his head to one side, hand tight on the stair-rail. "How do you-- ahh; but no, I'm not being a very good host, am I, trying to pry all your secrets from you like this... while the Clan is showing you ours?" He smiled; and Kaito was uneasily aware that the bastard knew he could see his face. "Never mind. We'll have more of an actual give-and-take later on, hm?"
"'Kaiji-nii, don't be a jerk," said Mika-chan sternly from behind her cousin. "You're being evil again." She peered past his elbow. "You both look like cats, sort of... or tanuki, only their eyes reflect back gold. Can you really see in the dark, Aoko-chan? I wish I could." Dark eyes, pupils black-on-black in the near-lightless stairwell squinted at the Inspector's Daughter. "It'd be great for when I start night-training." One hand tracing the wall, the girl turned around and started back down the stairs.
For a long moment her older cousin stood where he was, that polite little smile of his in place. "I really hope that you can come to trust us in the future, cousin, Nakamori-san," said Kuroba Rakkaiji softly. "We've all a lot to gain and very little to lose. And--" he hesitated; for the first time there was a faint tinge of uncertainty in that smooth expression. "--I think that maybe, if everything I've heard about your current problems is true, you may need to ask us for help sooner than you think." He too turned to continue on down the stairs, leaving them behind in the dark.
That goddamned, smug little-- who the hell does he think he is?!? "Rakkaiji?" Kaito's sharp-edged voice made the other pause, almost out of sight at the landing below. "Has it occurred to you that I've managed just fine without any of the goddamn Clan for several years now? I earned my reputation, y'know-- it's not all my father's, not anymore." Between them, he heard Aoko's breath catch a little.
Rakkaiji did not turn around. "Oh yes; I know that, Kaito-san. I know all about you, all your heists, all your battles with Nakamori-san's father, all the things you've stolen, all the things you've given back; and I've often envied you your chance to use your talents in such an active way. Me? I've used mine for things within the clan grounds only; I very rarely ever leave." The emphasis on the word 'active' was unmistakable, but it wasn't... wasn't what? Bitter? Sarcastic? No, instead it was almost sad.
"Really? Why not? You seem like a pretty bright guy-- and there's plenty of room out there for more than one phantom thief; it's a big world, lots of stuff to see, lots of stuff to steal... Not that I particularly want any competition, but hey, if you want to go, then go; what's keeping you?"
"...A very weak heart, actually."
Kaito blinked; Aoko said it for him, faintly: "What?"
And now his cousin's tone turned a little bitter. "You heard me. A thin spot in the left ventricle's wall, if you want the gory details; I was born with it. My little ninja role-play earlier? That was my limit, and I didn't feel all that great afterwards, I can promise you. If I'm careful I can manage here pretty well; I have a personal doctor on staff, not much stress, lots of peace and quiet... but out there? My lifespan'd be-- " He laughed softly, and Kaito was momentarily glad that they couldn't see his face. "--let's just say 'short' and leave it at that, okay? I found that out before I had to leave University; too much stress, too much physical activity and... well. That's why I volunteered to play ninja; I don't get the chance all that often." He shrugged. Oh yeah; definitely bitter.
Aoko bit her lip, looking back over her shoulder at Kaito. "I'm sorry, Rakkaiji-kun," he said softly.
No wonder he's envious. Stuck here in this huge, moldering place, fantastic as it is-- I'd go insane, completely bugnuts. Shit. Poor guy.
The hand gripping the stair-rail tightened into a fist, white-knuckled and just barely visible in the dark. "Sorry? Why? I'm still alive, aren't I? And if my doctor's right, I might even make it to thirty before I die." With that, he slipped soundlessly around the corner and into the dimly-lit hallway beyond.
The two behind him looked at each other in silence. Feeling each like ten kinds of louse, they silently followed.
The workshop was everything anybody could have imagined (that is, if 'anybody' consisted of an amalgam of Arsené Lupin, Leonardo da Vinci, MacGyver and just a touch of Rube Goldberg); acres of countertops, chemicals, microscopes, an x-ray setup in its own closet, paints, composites, mineral compounds, cutting and polishing wheelss... Everywhere pieces of unfinished reproductions sat, leaned, hung, glittered or reclined; it was enough to make even Kaito's purpose-driven fingers itch.
He wanted to camp out in the place. He wanted to play with the gadgets, supplies and lovely mechanical toys until his eyes were blurry. And the replicas, oh the replicas... Of course, it was all fake, every single shiny gemstone and gleaming piece of--
"Hey! I stole that one once! The real one, I mean!"
Rakkaiji (who seemed to be treating the previous conversation as if it had never happened, barring a certain tightness around the eyes) smirked. "No, actually you didn't. You stole a copy." He glanced around the room, frowning.
"Did NOT." Kaito's pride was wounded; he crossed his arms, glaring over the faceted sapphire ring that sparkled in its jeweler's clamp. "I know a fake from the real thing--"
"--even if it's another sapphire?" His older cousin's smirk widened. "You can take a low-grade piece of corundum, treat it with heat and a variety of chemicals, and produce a pretty decent stone; it won't be as good as the one you use it to replace, but it will fool the eye... and the hand, too." Every variety of gemstone had its own 'heft', the feel that said 'this is the real thing' to an expert touch; it wasn't all looks. "You could tell the difference with a jeweler's loupe, but most thieves are a little too busy trying to get away with the goods to stop and admire the facets, aren't they?" He laughed, plucking the glittering bit of jewelry from its clamp. "This one-- the owner, Fushibara-san, had three copies made the first time around, fifteen years ago; I was still learning to cut on high-grade quartz at that point, my father did the work. This's a new copy; guess your heist made Fushibara decide to up his security. So I'd put that one back on your 'must have' shopping list if I were you."
Visibly sulking, Kaito opened his mouth to offer a scathing retort-- and then paused, almost shocked; he kept forgetting, he didn't have to steal anything anymore He had found what he'd been looking for.
How was the family going to take that?
The young magician blinked, still a little stunned by the enormity of the thought; No, nothing, he meant to reply, but what came out of his mouth was, "What else do people do around here? It's not-- this place, it's huge; how many people live here, what do they do? Where are they? All we've seen--" The questions came bursting out, as much of a surprise to Kaito as to Aoko, whose eyes widened a fraction. "All we've seen has been you, Mika, the aunt and uncle, Jii and his brother and your housekeeper. There's got to be more people here than this..." He waved his hands, trying to remember. "Jii said something about-- he mentoned some names: Hsui, somebody named Yunagi--"
Rakkaiji tilted his head to one side, considering. "You don't want to know much, do you? All the Kuroba Clan secrets in one day." He shrugged one shoulder, sitting down on one end of a workbench piled high with what Kaito realized belatedly were rolls of painter's canvas; an easel nearby held a half-finished work, something that could have come out of a Dutch Master's studio... except for the fact that the oils were still wet. "That's cousin Eichi's work," said the other casually; "You'll meet him tonight; and actually, I thought you'd be meeting my assistant, Uyeda... he was supposed to be here when we arrived, but he must've been called away. Yunagi-chan should be back in time for dinner as well; Yakumo, Nanase and Li should be back at the main house-- they were working on an outside project, but..." He shrugged a second time, hands in pockets. "Some of them've been around, watching from a distance; we have surveillance cameras all over this place... not that I need to tell that to you. Some of them have been out working or whatever; we thought it'd be easier for you to get used to things a bit at a time without everybody crowding around." One corner of Kaito's cousin's mouth twitched upwards in a sardonic little smile. "Everybody's curious about the famous Kaitou Kid, of course; they all want to meet you. All of them."
From across the large room where she was examining some gizmo that Mika-chan was showing her, Aoko's head lifted; she was obviously listening, and Kaito saw her lips form the words that had popped up in his mind as well. He said it for them both: "All of them?"
Rakkaiji gave him a raised eyebrow and an almost sympathetic look; it broadened, however, into a smirk after a moment. "Just pretend you're putting on a performance, why don't you? There isn't a Kuroba that's lived that can't manage to--" There was a faint beep; mid-sentence, Kaito's older cousin paused and fished a cellphone out of his pocket and flicked it open. "Rakkaiji here, what-- Uyeda? What's wrong, I thought you were going to meet us for--"
He stopped. The young man blinked, his eyes widening; automatically they turned towards his new cousin's face as the hurried voice on the other end of the line continued. Kaito couldn't quite make out what the other was saying, but it was easy enough to tell that something, a major something, was wrong.
Really, really wrong.
"...I see. I-- no, tell Obaa-sama that we'll be at the main house as soon as possible. You'll be there? --fine, and they'll--? Good. We'll see you there." Slowly the thin fingers clicked the phone closed; for a long moment, Kuroba Rakkaiji simply sat where he was, visibly regathering himself. Kaito had seen cops do that after being shot at... or, conversley, before they had had to shoot their own guns--
"What?" He felt a faint touch on his shoulder; Aoko had come up behind him (he had heard her, of course, but she had this way of slipping under his radar) and was peering apprehensively around him. Mika-chan was still rummaging around on a table, but she paused and looked their way; Kaito could just see her beyond a stack of boxes. "What is it?"
Something was wrong, something was--
His cousin's own version of a Poker Face had slammed down; that couldn't be good. As apprehension began to knot Kaito's shoulders into rigidity, his hand automatically reached out and slid into Aoko's. "What?" he demanded.
Rakkaiji sighed, standing up. "I-- there's no easy way to say this," he muttered, casting around for words. "Kaito-san... that was my assistant, Uyeda; apparently one of our people that's been keeping an eye on your home just called, and..." The older member of the Kuroba clan hesitated.
"What dammit?" Aoko put a hand on Kaito's elbow.
"...I'm sorry, but your house in Ekoda," his cousin said quietly, "burned down last night."
To Be Continued...
Ysabet's Notes: Okay-- first thing, NO KILLING THE AUTHOR, OKAY? No chainsaws, bullets, knives, explosives, carnivorous beasts, smothering-with-pillows, burning at the stake, fatal defenestration, beheading, smashing into a bloody pulp with a piano and/or safe, R.O.U.S.'s, spiked pits, or any other method that you've thought of. No, not even you, Icka. Got that? right.
See-- there was this tribe of pigmies down in the Amazon, and they decided that I was the Avatar Of Waaka The Jungle Goddess, so they kidnapped me and forced me to lie around for a WHOLE YEAR while they fed me rare desserts and gave me food-massages. So I couldn't write any Windfall. Really! I mean, who takes their laptop to the Amazon? Uh-- why was I in the Amazon in the first place? I, um, I... won the lottery! Yes! And a free trip to South America! Only the plane went down in a hailstorm and crashed in the jungle, and then the pigmies showed up and... uh... they had SPEARS, huuuuge ones! It was terrible, I tell you, terrible!
Okay, actually? Dunno. This has been both a creative and uncreative year; some of this chapter was written ages ago, some of it in the last few months-- I've written less this past year than ever, but now all of a sudden it's picked up (due primarily, I think, to having my brain eaten by an RPG community called dominoeffect; it's improved my writing no end and gotten me enthused all over again, thank gods) and I'm writing again. So... to those of you who've hung on during my trip to the Amazon, I mean, my shameful and disgraceful hiatus...
Thank you very, very much. Won't do it again, I promise.
And to those of you who're new or relatively new: Welcome aboard! I'm a flake, but I did promise that the story wasn't dead. In the time that I've been writing this thing, I've dealt with the ending of a 15-year marriage and lived through breast-cancer; what, did you think that a mere year of brain-deadness would make me drop it? Not a chance. (For one thing, my flatmate Icka would hurt me, and she knows where I live.)
Okay, next chapter: Did it really burn down? Yes, it did. How and why? Wanna see? Well, then, I'll show you...