Warnings: Sonoko x Makoto, Ran x Shinichi, Sonoko x Ran. Nothing graphic.

Part 3 of 3. Hopefully I did it justice. :)

As usual, Detective Conan still belongs to Aoyama Gosho, not to me. (But only 3 more days until volume 79 comes out! A copy of that will definitely belong to me.)

# # # Chapter 3 # # #

But I don't see how it matters, when either way Ran gets hurt just as much.

Conan ran up the stairs as fast as his short legs could carry him, trying to outrun Sonoko's accusing voice (when she didn't even know it was him that she was accusing!) as it reverberated through his head.

He paused briefly at the door to the office on the second floor, not even really knowing why. What would he even say if he burst in there, after having told Ran that he was going upstairs to work on his homework? Even if he hadn't promised Sonoko he wouldn't tell Ran anything?

Would he beg her not to leave him? How selfish was that, when even he could see that Sonoko was absolutely right?

Tell her that he was, in fact Shinichi, that he'd never abandoned her? When he'd spent so long hiding that precise fact for reasons that were still completely valid? Was he really going to throw everything he'd done to protect Ran away just because he was afraid?

He dashed up the second flight of stairs at a slightly less frantic pace, returned to a hopefully normal-seeming walk as he passed through the common areas of their small apartment (though from the beer cans scattered on the table in front of Mouri-san and the eagle-eyed attention he was paying to the TV, Conan suspected he could have run through screaming at the top of his lungs and not rated more than a brief glance), just barely resisted slamming the door to their shared room, and unfolded his futon just enough to throw himself onto it face-first.

Part of his mind observed that he was currently doing an excellent impression of a proper childish sulk.

The rest told that part what it could do with its observations, because really, he'd kept his cool in front of Sonoko (which had been easier than he would have expected, if this were a thing that it had ever occurred to him to expect, perhaps because he had still been so blindsided by the whole idea that he hadn't quite gotten around to sorting through his own reactions yet), and not burst back into the office to say something (probably an extremely unwise something, because all the options were) to Ran, and really wasn't that enough being adult for the evening?

Sonoko loves Ran. He prodded the thought gingerly, like a sore tooth. No, that's not right – that much has been obvious for years. Sonoko is in love with Ran. That's the new part.

His thoughts felt like they were whirling at twice their normal speed, never quite settling, perhaps because the only thoughts that seemed coherent enough to have a chance of settling were invariably the ones that he kept trying to shove away.

Like, I wonder if Ran loves her back. Could fall in love with her. Would want to fall in love with her, rather than having to put up me anymore.

Like, I wonder if she'd be happier if she did.

Like – and this got the boot even faster than the rest because it rang just a little bit too true – I bet it would make life easier if she did.

He was fairly certain that if he were one of those histrionic characters that sometimes showed up in the dramas Sonoko liked to watch (… and just when he'd been trying to stop thinking about her), he'd be screaming into his pillow right now. Well, his comforter, since he was still flopped sideways across his futon, so his pillow was still an arms' reach away. (Or more. He hated being this short more than he hated almost everything else about having been shrunk. Except maybe elementary school. Except even elementary school had the rest of the Detective Boys to watch out for, and Haibara to trade quips and speaking looks with while Kobayashi-sensei wasn't watching, so it wasn't as terrible as it could have been. And there was simply no advantage to being short.)

I love Ran. I am in love with Ran. Yes, I confessed on the spur of the moment because I didn't know what else to say to get her to listen to me, but I still meant it. I still mean it. And even if it makes things a little bit harder – even if it means taking a few more risks – even if it makes it damn near impossible sometimes to pull myself away, even knowing that my secret's at risk if I stay – it's worth it. To me.

But what if it's not worth it to her, too?

Is it really right of me, to ask her to stay?

He flopped over and stared at the ceiling. Stop it. You're just depressing yourself. Think about this logically, if you can. Question 1: even if Ran knew about Sonoko, would she feel the same way? You know she loves you – you'd better realize at least that much, after all the dancing around each other you've done, after her confession in response to yours, after all the dates you've been on and especially after all you've seen of how she acts when you-as-Shinichi are not around to see.

On the other hand, this is Ran. I could easily see her having enough room in her heart to be in love with us both. More than enough. … Would I be okay with that? With sharing her?

That thought he prodded even more gingerly than the rest, not entirely certain he wanted to know how he felt. But he wasn't going to get anywhere if he just sat here avoiding all the thoughts he wanted to avoid (especially given how many of them there were), so he persisted, at least far enough to come to the conclusion that he didn't really like the idea very much. But if it was what Ran wanted …

He wasn't sure, honestly. If it was what Ran wanted, then maybe

And there I go, jumping to conclusions again. Why are emotions so hard? He considered, for a moment, calling up Hattori and pouring his complaints out to his other best friend. Maybe he'd have some bright ideas. Right. The guy that even I think has the emotional sensitivity of a brick wall. Not to mention that even if she hadn't said so outright, Conan was more than capable of translating 'Don't tell Ran' to 'Don't tell anyone'.

… The more he thought about that, the more he wished he hadn't agreed. He was already keeping so many secrets from his best friend and girlfriend (For how much longer?) (Shut up); he hated to add another one. Especially not one that was already hurting Sonoko and that would hurt Ran, too, if she ever learned (and in particular, if she ever learned how long Sonoko had managed to keep it a secret from her).

Who am I kidding? It's hurting Ran already. Even he had been able to tell that something was off about Sonoko (though he'd never really considered that), and for all that they'd grown up together, Conan's attitude towards Sonoko most of the time had always been somewhere between amused tolerance and irritation. Bosom buddies, they were not. (Except those rare cases when Ran got in over her head and it was up to them to pull her out. Because they might not be terribly fond of each other – even less so now than before – but it was Ran. And maybe that should have been his first clue?)

But Sonoko was Ran's best friend. There was no way that she wouldn't notice that there was something off, something bothering her friend. And she wasn't dense enough to miss the way that Sonoko would either deflect or just outright refuse to talk to her about it. Conan thought that might actually be more hurtful to Ran, especially in the long run, than just coming out and telling her.

She probably doesn't want to risk screwing up their friendship. And I guess it would be pretty hypocritical of me to deny that as a valid reason to hesitate, wouldn't it?

He flopped back over, burying his face in his covers. What do I do? He once again considered and promptly discarded screaming. Either it would be completely muffled and he'd just feel silly, or someone would actually hear and come to investigate, and how would he explain himself then? (He couldn't even decide which would be more awkward – Mouri-san or Ran herself.) Ugh. I can't even decide what I want, much less having any idea at all how I'd accomplish that desire.

I just don't want Ran to be hurt any worse than she has been already.

And dammit Sonoko, isn't that the reason you did that in the first place? Can't you see that refusing to tell her is going to hurt her just as much as telling her would have?

His inner Sonoko point-blank refused to listen to reason. Which was … pretty accurate, honestly.

Maybe I could give her a call as Shinichi, try to convince her to reconsider. Maybe she'd listen to someone who is old enough to know what he's talking about. … Because that would go over so well. Me, Ran's boyfriend, trying to convince her to confess her feelings? … I'm not sure I'd even be able to go through with it. This emotion stuff is hard enough when I'm directly involved.

Besides, how would I explain away knowing? Conan telling me? I don't really want to see how close she can come to kicking my ass at this size. Just happening to be passing by on the street as she and Conan were having their conversation? That street was empty enough that even Sonoko would probably have noticed if I was really there. And how would I explain away being in the neighborhood but not dropping by? Especially since even if she said nothing else about our conversation, I'm sure Sonoko would be the first to mention to Ran that I'd been here without seeing her again, and then I'd get yet another talking-to on that subject.

And come to think of it, do I even have her phone number? He rolled over again – back the direction he'd come from, since otherwise another good roll would have sent him off the edge of his futon onto the ground. And yeah, there's no way he'd hurt himself by falling all of a couple of inches, but it was the principle of the thing. He pulled both phones out and held them up, Shinichi's in his far hand so that he could hide it under his pillow temporarily if necessary, and scrolled through his contacts lists in tandem. Su … There, Suzuki. Then blinked and suppressed the urge to laugh. How did I manage to get her crazy uncle's cell phone number, but not the number of Sonoko herself?

Though that was really the least of his issues – in a pinch he could 'borrow' Ran's phone and copy the number over.

I suppose I probably should rectify that matter. If we're going to end up seeing more of each other. He shook his head. Stop that. Stop acting like it's inevitable when you don't know if Ran ever will learn, and even if she does, you have no idea what she'll do with the knowledge. She may turn down Sonoko completely.

Or she might kick me out of her life instead.

He curled in on himself, as tightly as he could manage – and he supposed that was one benefit to being so small and young and comparatively flexible; it made it a lot easier to make a very small ball of himself – and clutched both phones, and tried his hardest to push that thought away.

Because if Ran ever did make that choice, he wasn't sure he could even blame her for it. And then what – continue my life as Conan, right here, watching her be happy with someone else? Watching that someone else be there for her, the way I've never really been able to be?

There was wanting your loved ones to be happy even if you were not, and then there was just pure masochism, and Conan was pretty sure he knew which one that was.

Dimly, he heard the door to the apartment shut. So either Mouri-san had left, or Ran had returned (and given that the show the former had been watching was due to run for at least another 30 minutes, and the TV sounded like it was still blaring as loudly as ever, he knew which one he'd bet on). He listened more closely, but heard no sign of the raised voices that typically accompanied Ran finding her father and his usual chaotic mess in front of the TV.

Curiosity wrestled briefly with the urge to stay curled up and wallow in his insecurity some more, but in the end it was really no contest. He tucked both phones safely away once more (taking special care, as always, with Shinichi's), and headed for the door.

He found Ran in what, if it hadn't been in clear view and on the way, would probably have been the last place he'd think to look for her: leaning against the closed door to their apartment, her shoes not even off yet, dazedly staring into the distance with a lost look in her eyes and a slouched posture that made it look like she was laboring under some terrible weight.

And Conan realized with a sinking feeling in his stomach that felt a little bit like disappointment and fear and a lot like relief that the question of whether Ran would find out was apparently moot, because he could think of nothing else that had happened in the past hour that could have put that sort of look onto her face. (At least not anything where her immediate second reaction wouldn't have been to shake her initial reaction off and go drag her father off to fix things.)

He wondered for a moment how she'd heard, then memory helpfully pointed out a half-open window just above where he and Sonoko had held their conversation, such a typical occurrence that he'd barely paid attention to it at all except to briefly appreciate, as usual, the way it improved the room's smell.

I guess I should have kept my voice quieter. But I had to get her attention somehow, or she really would have left. He brushed the thought away. Now was not the time to deal in 'what if's. And at least this saved him from needing to worry, anymore, about whether it had been the right thing to promise Sonoko he wouldn't interfere. Even if it did open up a whole host of other problems that he'd been trying his best not to think about.

So keep not thinking about it. There's still not really anything you can do. It's in Ran's hands, now.

He took a step forward. "Ran-neechan?"

She blinked and looked down, jarred back to the present. "Oh, Conan-kun." She pushed away from the door and began sliding her shoes off, acting like she hadn't just been standing there almost deaf to the world. As she looked down at him, the emotions flashed across her face so clearly that he almost felt like he was reading her mind. Irritation covering a sliver of betrayal that made him feel suddenly uncomfortable and guilty for his previous misdirection – Why did you lie? – an opened mouth that made him think for a split second that she really was going to call him on it; mouth re-closing with a flash of insight and guilt of her own – I can't ask him why he went to talk to Sonoko without admitting I was listening – followed by weariness and confusion that edged towards panic – he was less sure of this one, given his own state of emotional compromise, but he thought it was probably What am I going to do? – followed by the slamming on of a mask of fake happiness worse than he'd seen in quite some time.

(And that was saying something, given how very many of them he'd seen. And how great a percentage of those he had caused. … Sometimes he didn't entirely blame Sonoko for probably hating him.)

"How's the homework going?" She asked, voice as falsely cheerful as her smile. "Do you need any help?"

"I'm almost done." He replied, ramping up his own perkiness in automatic response. (Sometimes it made Ran feel better. Though he suspected this time was beyond his abilities.) He was also lying through his teeth, though not in the way Ran probably suspected – he'd long since finished it; all that was left was to do a final check of his answers to try and ensure that he wasn't showing skills too far above his current grade-level. He got enough attention already for things he couldn't help (and yes that involved helping solve murders, which he didn't think he could give up if he tried); he didn't need to attract official attention at school for being some sort of genius prodigy child on top of it.

Though at least my kanji scores are much better than they were first time around. Heh. That much he'd compromised on, since he knew himself well enough to know that he wouldn't be able to effectively hide the fact that he could read a lot better than most other members of his age-group. Plus, if he couldn't occasionally indulge in the new releases from his favorite light novel series (when they came out, not the weeks or months later it would take him to find an excuse to hide away for long enough to read them in secret), he really would go insane.

Haibara, on the other hand, appeared to have convinced everyone that she read high-level scientific journals "for the pictures". He still wasn't sure how that worked, other than to acknowledge that she could pull off a damn good innocent look when she tried. (Though it never ceased to amaze him that it actually worked, because really, hadn't these people ever met Haibara?)

"Oh. Okay." She gifted him with another of those terribly fake smiles, and Conan couldn't tell whether she'd just decided not to call him on it, or whether his response hadn't even really registered.

Shoes off, she stepped out of the entrance hall, then stopped, seeming to have lost whatever impetus had driven her towards attempting to act normal. He took another step towards her, honestly starting to worry, even as the more rational part of his mind pointed out that it was getting late, and that she was probably tired in addition to the emotional shock. "Ran-neechan? Are you all right?"

She blinked again, smiling down at him with a smile that was more sincere, but also a lot more sad. "Yes, I'm fine. I –" she shook herself, apparently thinking better of whatever she'd been about to say, "— I'll be fine."

He shifted to the side of the hallway to let her pass, watching as she silently passed the living room, her father still cheering Yoko-chan on, completely oblivious, and with an over-enthusiastic sweep of his arms knocking several of the beer cans that had been on the table to the floor; went to her room, and quietly but firmly shut the door.

Conan just stared after her; if she'd been around, Ran might have been surprised at how strongly the frustration was written across his face. You're clearly not fine.

But maybe you will be. Eventually. I hope. … Since that's apparently all I can do.

# # # # #

Conan couldn't precisely say that the next several days made him wish he was Shinichi still because, well. He always did. Even when concentrating fully on some other task, there was usually some small part of him, not buried nearly as deeply as he'd prefer, that would occasionally flare up with bouts of useless frustration – at his height, at his apparent age, at his comparative lack of manual dexterity, at having to dumb himself down during school, at not being to tell Ran who he really was, at a hundred thousand things both big and small that all combined to grate slowly but constantly on his patience.

But they were definitely on the more frustrating end of the scale, because although even as Shinichi he would have been almost as powerless to affect the situation (in any way he felt he had the right to affect it, at least), at least he would have been there at school with Ran and Sonoko, and had some idea of what went on between them.

Instead he had to make do with what he could deduce based on Ran's attitude returning from school and the fact that Sonoko had not come back over. Though he didn't have enough information to be able to say with any level of certainty whether her continued absence was her idea, Ran's, or both.

On Ran's part, that first night's sleep had done her a world of good in being able to fake normality; Conan was fairly certain that her father didn't have a clue that anything was wrong. Conan himself wasn't sure he'd have caught all the cues if he hadn't already been watching her more closely than normal and already known about the problem she struggled with.

And she still clearly struggled – she returned from school just that little bit sadder than usual; there was always that brief pause between arriving back to office or apartment and her sealing the mask back in place with the same iron resolve that he'd grown uncomfortably familiar with from being the one who was there to help deal with the fallout that Shinichi always seemed to leave in his wake when he once again disappeared from her life. (He wondered if it was strange that a part of him hated Shinichi, for many of the same reasons that Sonoko did. It didn't really seem healthy to hate himself, especially when he knew, the way Sonoko did not, exactly why he couldn't stay. But perhaps that gave him even less leeway, because knowing how much effort he put in made it even easier for him to pointedly wonder if he was doing enough.)

From that, he could deduce that the situation was still unresolved; surmise further that it was likely still in the same uneasy equilibrium as before, with Sonoko knowing but not knowing that Ran knew, and Ran knowing, but not knowing what to do about that knowledge, since he suspected any change in the status quo, positive or negative, would affect Ran's behavior somehow.

So he could not say he was entirely surprised when, the evening of the third day after White Day, Shinichi's phone vibrated. (Okay, so there might have been some flailing involved. And he might have fallen off his futon, where he'd been lying reading manga. And there may have been a panicked rush to the door to triple-check that it was already shut. But intellectually, he wasn't surprised.)

Once he'd made sure that he was as alone and safe from discovery as it was possible to be given that he and Ran were both currently in the same apartment, and in fact if she was in her room, were only a thin wall away from each other, he dug out Shinichi's phone and examined the text message he'd just received.

Is now a good time to talk?

Short. To the point. Utterly lacking in clues as to the subject of the conversation, except insofar as it could hardly be anything but something to do with White Day.

(Though a small part of him hoped that the subject would be nothing more than her reaming him out for the text message he'd sent in the early hours the morning after, with a picture of a box of white chocolate against a deliberately blank background, accompanied by profuse apologies that this was the best that he could do because he just couldn't break away at the moment.

The box itself had been hidden in the back corner of the closet until he could figure out what to do with it; Sonoko's package in the mail slot had surprised him sufficiently that he had failed to slip his package in in the morning; he was too personally curious about the mystery package to want to distract Ran with his own gift when he got home from school, and after that he hadn't precisely been in a proper state to deal with it … nor had it really felt right to, with Ran so deeply distracted by Sonoko's gift. It hadn't seemed quite right to do nothing at all, either, though, so … he'd compromised. And hated himself all over again, because it seemed like he was always compromising, and that those compromises always seemed to end up hurting Ran.)

As a yes or no question, it really should have been easy to answer. Yet he found his traitorous finger hesitating above the 'reply' button. It took far more effort than it should have to make himself finally press it, or to type out his own response, almost as short.

I'm sorry, but I can't get away right now. I should be able to steal some time to give you a call tomorrow afternoon, if you'll be free then?

That message dealt with, he then composed and fired off a request to Haibara to find an excuse to bring him over to the Professor's house tomorrow sans the rest of the Detective Boys, in roughly the same amount of time that it had taken him to gather the nerve to press 'Send' on his message to Ran.

He then flopped gracelessly back onto his futon (which was really beginning to become a bad habit), and waited for the responses. Neither took long; both were assents – Haibara's coming with a rider to the effect that she looked forward to hearing the latest developments in his own personal little romantic comedy. He huffed something between a sigh of relief and a laugh. This particular development might surprise even you.

Phone tucked safely away again, he stared at the ceiling and attempted to decide whether it would be better to curse himself as a fool or a coward.

He decided to cover his bases and go with both.

# # # # #

"Congratulations." Haibara deadpanned. "I believe your life has now officially moved from 'romantic comedy' to 'daytime drama'."

Conan rolled his eyes. "Thanks so much. Could you at least attempt to pretend you're not laughing at my pain?"

Haibara smiled, innocent with a side of shark. "Why, I have no idea what you mean. Though if I was terrible enough to take enjoyment from your self-inflicted emotional problems, I'm sure you'd be discerning enough to figure it out no matter how hard I tried to hide it. So really, not hiding it at all seems like a good way to conserve effort on both our parts." She paused, for a moment, finger to her lip in a clear mockery of a thinking pose, before raising it as though to emphasize her point. "Also. It's a lot more fun this way."

Conan sighed and gave in. "Fine. Whatever. Is the Professor's old study still unoccupied? I'd like to have some privacy."

"Completely abandoned." She affirmed solemnly. "No one's even been there in months." Too solemnly. Up-to-something solemnly.

When he entered the room, it was clear why; given there was still a while yet before he had been planning to call Ran, Conan gave in to his urge to turn on his heel, leave the room, and hunt down Haibara (who'd returned to her section of the lab to fiddle with one of her computers and quite blatantly minimize several windows in rapid succession when she heard him coming). When his intentionally loud stomping into the room failed to stir even a hint of her attention from the computer screen, he cleared his throat pointedly. "If you're going to plant listening devices," he declared, "You should at least make sure to dust the entire room, so that it's not blatantly obvious exactly where you've been."

Haibara turned around in her chair, gifting him with an approving smile (in a manner that never failed to feel condescending, though he hadn't entirely decided yet whether or not he thought that was intentional). "I see that the emotional mess you've been wallowing in hasn't interfered too badly with your mental faculties." That was definitely condescending.

"… So now that I've passed your paranoia test, can you point me towards a location that's actually private?"

"Oh, don't worry, the listening devices in the old study are all fake." Haibara said blithely. "I just planted them there to see how you'd react."

"Right." Conan responded, not even attempting to hide his disbelief. "And I'm sure if I opened up the windows that you minimized when I entered, I wouldn't find anything remotely resembling a computer program tracking the contents of those bugs in real time."

"Do go ahead." Haibara said brightly, pushing her chair away to make the offer even clearer. "I don't mind at all."

Conan eyed her for a long moment, then shook his head and sighed again. "Never mind. I'm sure whatever you have set up, its primary purpose in life is to horribly embarrass me and make me sorry I ever asked."

"… Would I do something like that?" Haibara asked, playing up the wide innocent eyes to the point that even Conan might have been tempted to believe her, if not for the fact that he knew very well the keen, gleefully malicious (though rarely outright harmful) brain that rested behind them.

He turned back towards the door. "Never mind. I'll just borrow the professor's bedroom or something, I guess."

"That's bugged, too." Haibara said absently.

Conan whipped his head back around to stare at her. "Seriously? Is there anywhere in this house that isn't?"

She shrugged. "About half the entrance hall. The kitchen isn't bugged specifically, since it's open to the living room bugs." A considering face. "A couple of other small dead spots. But otherwise, no, not really."

Conan thought, not for the first time, that Haibara took paranoia to an all new level. He thought it made a good reminder to himself of how not to deal with the fear that seemed to be Haibara's constant companion. (Not that he himself was necessarily all that much better at dealing with it. But he at least seemed to have avoided the worst of her paranoia. Except when they really were out to get him.) "… So basically, you're saying that even if I'd gotten rid of the blatantly obvious – and apparently fake – listening devices in the old study, you'd still have been able to listen in because the normal ones would have already been there."

"Do you really expect me to answer that?"

"… No, I guess not. How long has all this been going on, anyway?" Then he thought back to other conversations he'd had with Ran, on recovery days from taking one of the temporary antidotes or sometimes, like this time, simply conversations he had a suspicion would be sufficiently long and fraught that it would be best to have more than a wall separating the two of them. "… Never mind, I'm probably better off not knowing." He had to admit to grudging respect – however she'd hidden however many bugs she'd hidden, she'd done so well. He'd never seen a sign of them before, nor detected any electronic interference –

He narrowed his eyes at her suddenly. "Those are pretty amazing bugs of yours, to not cause any interference. If they exist at all."

Haibara simply flashed him an enigmatic smile. He had a hard time imagining a less helpful response, although he had faith that Haibara could, if challenged, come through with one. Forget it. Either they exist or they don't. And if they do exist, they're at least several months old, judging from the dust levels of what wasn't touched recently in the study – in which case I've already had plenty of conversations near them without knowing.

He sighed, giving in. "Just … don't listen too closely? Or mention the contents of our conversation, ever, especially to me?"

"Of course!" She looked indignant. "What do I look like, a voyeur?"

He could have responded in a number of ways. None of which would have made meaningful contributions to the conversation, particularly since he knew that by this point, he was mostly just prolonging the conversation because it was an excuse to not make the phone call.

I think you've used up your cowardice allowance already, haven't you?

So he restrained himself to rolling his eyes at her again, and was treated to an appreciative slight widening in her smile (very slight, but with Haibara you took what you could get) as he turned to leave.

"Good luck." She said as he crossed the threshold – so quietly that he almost thought he'd imagined it; certainly quietly enough that he strongly suspected she'd outright deny having said anything if he responded in any way. So he let himself smile a smile of appreciation that she couldn't see (unless she really had bugged the entire house and was currently looking at his face from bugs placed in the hallway, he supposed), but did not turn back or otherwise acknowledge her comment.

Just past the threshold he paused, considering where to go given his new maybe-knowledge. But really, assuming he was going to stay inside the house (and going outside to talk just opened a new can of worms), the entire house being bugged (if it even was) was, insofar as it affected his behavior, effectively equivalent to it not being bugged at all. So he headed back to the old study, because at least it was situated such that his voice would be unlikely to disturb either of the other occupants of the house, and there was a nice big comfortable chair there. He suspected he'd want that comfort.

Once he'd kicked off his slippers and curled as deeply into the chair as he could go (and that was one benefit to being small, he supposed – sitting cross-legged in a chair was a lot more comfortable when his knees weren't in constant competition with the arms of the chair for space. Still wasn't worth it, though), he pulled out his phone, gave himself one long moment to indulge in a final bout of indecision and Really Not Wanting To Do This, took a deep breath, and called.

She picked up halfway through the second ring – must have been waiting impatiently since she got home from school – and Conan's mind suddenly blanked. "Um. Hi, Ran."

"Shinichi!" She sounded … glad with a side of relieved, he thought. Not a straight-up breakup call, then. Probably. I think she'd sound sadder and more determined if that were the case? He didn't regret never having been in a relationship before Ran – had never been interested in anyone but Ran, really – but he did sometimes wonder if maybe he'd be able to understand her better if he actually had more experience dealing with other girls. "Um. Thanks for calling. I know you must be busy."

"Things are a bit hectic right now." He said, with what he hoped was the right level of offhandedness. "I can always make time for you though. Um. You wanted to talk about something?"

The other side of the line was silent for long enough that he found himself having to resist pulling his phone away from his ear to make sure that the call was still connected.

"… I hate to – I mean, I know this is a terrible thing to ask of you. And I really hate to. And I won't blame you if you tell me to shut up and go away. But, um …" Her voice, initially quiet, became enough quieter that he had to strain to hear. Didn't think he would have been able to hear, if not for the fact that the room he sat in was relatively well sound-proofed. "… could you pretend, just for a little while, that you're just my best friend? Because I really need a friend's advice right now, and I don't know who else to turn to."

Conan opened his mouth to give his typical response – what he probably would have said if he hadn't known any of the context behind what he expected this conversation to be about – 'Did something happen between you and Sonoko?' – but then just as quickly killed the response. There was attempting to maintain the fiction that he wasn't there, seeing the majority of her life even as the role in it that should have been his languished unfilled, and then there was just petty cruelty. And he tried to avoid the latter as much as he could. "I'll do my best." He said instead. I hope my best will be good enough. Because as much as I am fond of my logic and my deductions, I don't know that I can separate my emotions out entirely. Not when you're concerned. Not when I'm so afraid that – stop that. Counterproductive. Focus.

"… Thank you." She said, sounding relieved again. Then fell silent again. Conan waited long past the point at which he'd usually impatiently break in and try to push the conversation along; he could barely believe that she was actually talking to him about it, so he definitely didn't want to do anything that might prompt her to change her mind. (And if she still saw him as one of her best friends, if he could at least keep that, then maybe it wouldn't be so bad, even if worst came to worst? … Who was he trying to kid, when he couldn't even fool himself?)

He leaned further back into the chair and closed his eyes, easily sketching a mental picture of Ran, expression conflicted, growing more and more frustrated as she tried to figure out what to say, where to start, unable to quite decide on the best way to put it. Maybe she'd gotten up and started to pace – he'd seen that a few times, with particularly animated conversations with Sonoko. Though there hadn't been any of those lately, either.

"… You're not coming back any time soon, are you? Not permanently." When she finally spoke, it came almost as a surprise; when the meaning of her words sunk in, it felt almost like she'd driven a knife through his heart. "… Do you think –?" She made a disgusted noise. "I'm sorry, that's not where I meant to start at all. It just –" She halted herself again, and when she next spoke, her voice just sounded very tired. "Now that I've said that much, I suppose I might as well at least finish the thought. Will you ever be back? For good?"

"Of course!" Tumbled out of his mouth before his brain had a chance to double-check it, driven as much by Because if I stop believing in that much, at least, I'm not sure what else I'll have to keep me sane as by the borderline hopelessness in Ran's voice. "I will, I just –" Now he was the one stopping mid-sentence, trying to come up with the words. He pulled his knees up to his chest, resting his chin on his free arm as he stared blankly at the far side of the room. "I want to come back. I just … can't. Not now. And this case is so big … I don't know when I will be able to, just that it won't be forever." I won't let it be forever.

"Is this case really that important?" Ran asked. "More important than –?" She bit the last word off with a gasp, and he could almost see the mortified look on her face, that she'd almost said what he suspected she'd thought plenty of times before (because whatever else you might call what he'd done, it sure as hell wasn't fair), but never actually said outright. But then she apparently decided that if tonight was going to be a night for uncomfortable questions, she might as well go all out. "… More important than me?"

A shiver crawled down Conan's spine, making him wish for a blanket that he could use to cover himself and pretend it hid him from the rest of the world. He closed his eyes again and rested his forehead against his arm, knowing what his answer was, and hating it, and himself, and maybe even hating Ran a little bit for asking (except how could he ever hate Ran?), and hating himself more for feeling the need to respond honestly, now that his honesty had been so baldly requested, rather than deflect her with another pretty lie. (Because really, there were enough of those littering their relationship already.)

"… Yes." It was barely more than a whisper, but he'd said it. "Yes." He said again, at a closer to normal volume. "It's more important than you. It's more important than me. It's more important than everything, and I'm sorry."

Silence on the other end of the line, and Conan cringed, waiting for the blow to fall.

"I hate this." Ran said, quiet and intense and he thought it might have actually made him feel better if she had shouted. "I hate it, I – why couldn't things be easy, why couldn't you be normal, why couldn't I just not care –"

She paused, maybe just to take a breath, but Conan found himself pulled into treating it as an opening, with a divorced-from-himself feeling of If she's saying all the things we usually pretend to ignore, maybe I can too. "Are you … tired of waiting?" And that was so unfair, especially when he knew about what Sonoko had done, even if she didn't know that he knew, but he'd wanted to ask for so long because really, how could she not be tired? He honestly couldn't understand why she hadn't kicked him out of her life a long time ago, had mostly managed to convince himself to accept it and not question his good fortune, but there was always that tiny, niggling part of his brain wanting to know why.

"Yes!" And that was almost a shout. "No! I don't –" she muttered something that sounded like a curse and Conan blinked. Ran rarely cursed (and even more rarely since he'd shrunk, since she did a better job than most people of remembering to restrain her language around the small child he appeared to be). "I am tired of waiting. I've been tired of waiting since that night you didn't come back. I want you here, safe, where I can see you, where you can't just run off and leave me wondering if you're okay or if I'll even ever learn if you're not. But I'd still wait for you forever, if that's what it takes. As long as you'll come home someday, I will wait until that happens."

"Ran …" Thank you and I'm so sorry tangled in his brain, strangling his voice.

She sighed. "At least, that's what I always thought. What I still think. I think. But – I'm so confused right now, and I can't –"

If he hadn't known, right about now he'd be interrupting, asking her what on Earth she was talking about and reminding her to get her thoughts in order and start at the beginning (condescendingly, she'd probably say, though really he didn't mean it that way – it was just good advice, is all). And this was why he was such a terrible actor, because even knowing that, he couldn't quite make himself do it, couldn't divorce himself from who he was well enough to have a hope of accurately portraying who he could have been.

She laughed, suddenly, with a little choke to it that made his throat tighten in response. "I know, 'get my thoughts in order and start from the beginning', right?" And he was so proud of her in that moment (even if he was aware that she'd probably see the pride as condescension too). She sighed. "Okay. The beginning. Um. Remember you promised, okay?"

"I'll do my best." He repeated. I just hope it's enough.

"Well, I guess the beginning was probably a few weeks ago, that night that we had a date at the same time as Sonoko and Makoto-san …"

She gradually painted a picture of the following weeks for Shinichi; Conan allowed himself a brief mental pat on the back for already having noticed most of the things she'd mentioned, though being Ran she downplayed just how upset she'd been.

"And now she gave me a White Day present anonymously but I just happened to overhear Conan confronting her about it so I know it was her, and I know she doesn't really expect anything from me because of it but I want to respond somehow because the fact that she feels like she needs to hide this from me is tearing me apart and I want my friend back, but I don't know how to respond, especially since she doesn't know that I know, and I don't know what to do." She paused to take a breath, then continued, miserably, "And I don't know why I'm even talking to you about this, because it's got to be the worst thing ever to ask your boyfriend how to deal with someone who wants to be your girlfriend, but I didn't know who else to ask."

Oh Ran … "I must admit, it does seem like a strange choice." He said, deliberately lightly. "Though not so much because of the boyfriend aspect of the problem as because I'm well-known to be even more terrible at dealing with matters of the heart than you are." But before she could figure out how to reach through the phone and strangle him for being flippant, he continued, "But I'll help however I can."

… And it was actually gloriously true. All his worries about what to do, about what impact this might have on their relationship (please please let it not spell the end of our relationship) … it was surprisingly easy to shelve them, and concentrate on Ran. Because ultimately, she was the important part. And he never could stand to see her sad. (Had to see far, far too much of that as it was.)

"… Thanks." She said, with a weight that said that she wanted to say so much more, but that no other words could adequately express the depths of her relief. "I don't know what I would do without you. Especially now that Sonoko's –" She cut herself off.

He could almost see the way she was probably hugging herself, now, and that mental image allowed him to finally release his own curl and lean forward. "I think the first question is," he said, "how do you feel about Sonoko?"

Stunned silence. Conan pulled his phone away from his ear briefly to give it a puzzled look. What had he said wrong now? He'd thought that much, at least, was obvious.

"What do you mean, that's the most important thing?" Ran said angrily. "What about you? What about us? Are you just going to let us go, just like that? And this could ruin Sonoko. And what would my father think? And our friends? And … and …" she spluttered.

"I'm not going to just let us go!" Conan almost shouted, half-standing, gripping the arm of the chair with whitened knuckles. So that was the trap. "I love you, idiot, and the only way you're getting rid of me is if you tell me to get lost. But you asked me to wear my best friend hat, and I did." He settled back down, forcing himself to loosen his grip on chair and phone (if he wasn't so physically weak, he thought he might have broken it), and continued wearily, "I stand by what I said. The questions of what is appropriate, what the consequences are, whether you think they're worth it – those are all things that can be addressed after you know what you want. Anything else is borrowing trouble."

Though the fact that she was borrowing trouble in the direction of what might happen if they were in a relationship … Stop that. Best friend hat.

"I … you're right." Conan rolled his eyes. You don't have to sound so surprised.

When she fell silent again, he did his best to suppress his urge to push her to continue the conversation. If she hadn't even thought that through yet, it would probably take a bit of time. (Though how could she not have –? But even as he wondered that, he knew; it was just another manifestation of the way she always seemed to put others' desires and needs before her own. She'd almost certainly, given her objections to his question, been thinking about this situation primarily in terms of how her potential actions might affect the other people in her life.)

He thought, for a moment, his patience had been rewarded when she sighed. "I just … I don't know." She said, frustration evident in her tone. "I feel like I should just know these things, but …"

"You can take the time you need." Conan hoped he sounded encouraging rather than the frustrated he himself felt, hanging in the balance. (It wouldn't be right to try and affect her decision, even if he hadn't promised to act as best friend rather than boyfriend. He'd have his chance to make his case later, he hoped, but not before she figured out what she actually wanted. After hanging her out to dry for this long, she deserved at least that much from him.)

"Thanks, Shinichi." She said, sounding relieved, so hopefully that really had been the right thing to say. "I … thanks a lot. For being there for me like this, even when I'm being all stupid about this whole thing. I know it must be hard for you, and I know it's unfair of me to ask, but –"

"What else are best friends for?" Conan interrupted, wanting to cut off the spate of apologies before Ran got too far into them. "And even if nothing else, I'll always be your friend. For as long as you'll let me."

"As long as –" Ran repeated, sounding suddenly preoccupied. "Shinichi? Did I tell you about note that Sonoko left with the chocolates? There was this strange line in there about watching my back."

No, but I was there to read it myself. Conan made an encouraging noise.

"When she was trying to suggest other possibilities for who might have given it to me, she suggested that it might be one of the other people in karate club based on that line, but now that I know that it was Sonoko, it doesn't really make sense. Unless she put it in there as a red herring?"

"I don't think so." Conan said slowly. "She didn't really expect to be recognized, she just wanted to do something nice for you on White Day. So I think anything she put there would have been sincere." He tipped his head back, pushing against the cushions as he thought. "… I can't really think of anything offhand that she could have meant, though, so my guess would be that it was supposed to be an oblique reference to something of significance to the two of you. An event, maybe, or a conversation?" Because regardless of what she'd said, Conan suspected that in her heart of hearts, Sonoko had wanted Ran to recognize her gift for what it was, even if she'd convinced herself otherwise because she was afraid of the potential repercussions.

"Huh. Maybe …" Ran said. And then "… Oh."

Curiosity stirred. "You figured out the reference?"

"Maybe." Given how distracted Ran sounded, Conan mentally translated that to 'Yes', and raised his eyebrows. Must have been a pretty interesting event, if it took her that little time to place it.

Unfortunately, she seemed disinclined to share with the class. Which of course just made him more curious. "So …"

"I think." Ran said abruptly, then stopped. "… I think I need to think about this some more. I don't …" A pause. "I just don't know. But … thanks. For listening. For helping. I'm glad I called."

"I'm glad I could help." He responded. "I hope you –" what? "—good luck."

"Thanks." And he could hear a small smile, a real smile, in her voice, and if this could make her smile for real again, he thought it was probably worth it. "Um. Good luck with your case. I hope you solve it soon." Her voice became suddenly fierce. "I know you'll solve it someday. Because you're Kudo Shinichi, and there's never been a case that you couldn't solve."

I'm not so sure. This one might be too much even for me. But if he wasn't even willing to admit that to himself, he sure as hell wasn't going to admit it to Ran. And the Even if I do come back, will you still want me here? that had snuck into his thoughts as counterpoint was just petty and unfair. So he just said "Thanks." In response, trying to let his sincerity shine through without muddying it with any of his doubts, and hoped that was good enough. "… Until next time?" Though he couldn't quite eliminate the hesitation in his voice that turned that into a question.

"I'll call again, once I've figured things out more." At least Ran sounded sure of herself. "If you're not too busy."

"I'll make time." He promised.

"Okay. Um. Bye." And Conan was left with a dial-tone and the sinking feeling that he was right back where he started. But at least Ran seemed happier. And like she was really thinking. He sighed, as he clambered down off the chair and back into his slippers. I just hope I did the right thing.

Haibara did not 'just happen' to meet him on the stairs as he passed by the lab, another piece of circumstantial evidence pointing towards her comments about having thoroughly bugged the entire house being an elaborate pack of lies – he doubted she'd have been able to resist doing so if she had been watching or listening to the entire thing. Unless she was just trying to throw him off by making him think that …

Who knows. He shrugged mentally as he slipped out of the house – no sign of the Professor, either, which was just as well. He wasn't really in the mood to deal with other people at the moment. Especially not people who knew the reason he'd been there at least in broad strokes and would probably want to know how it went. You can never tell with Haibara.

Heck. The whole thing could have been an elaborate setup just to give me something to think about other than my current romantic troubles.


# # # # #

For two weeks, Ran thought, and Conan watched. She didn't share any of her thoughts with her diminutive companion, not that he'd honestly thought she would – he seemed to have mostly put her off his scent, as far as the question of whether he was actually Shinichi was concerned, but there was still a lingering something that had caused her to become a lot more closemouthed around him when the subject of Shinichi and her feelings about him came up. "Just in case", perhaps. (And if so, he could hardly blame her. She was right, after all.)

More than once, wandering by her half-open door in the evening he'd catch her, textbooks open, pen still in hand but forgotten as she gazed at a framed photograph – one of her and him-as-Shinichi, if he recalled correctly. The first time he'd been so struck by the sight that he'd stopped and stared; stayed there long enough that she'd noticed him and, after absently accepting his completely transparent excuse for being at that end of the corridor, gently but firmly shooed him away, closing the door behind her. After that, he'd made a point of continuing on his fictional business quickly enough that she didn't notice him again.

She'd also gone digging for old photo albums, particularly of their elementary school days, even going so far as to raid his old home. Conan didn't need any gentle reminders to make himself scarce when he saw those coming out – yes, he'd proven himself to be a different person from Shinichi several times, yes, he was pretty sure that Ran had either completely given up on the notion or decided to pretend to until he got up the courage to tell her himself … but the last thing either of them needed right now was yet another round of "Conan-kun really does look identical to Shinichi at that age, doesn't he?"

He waited and watched, as Ran cycled through all sorts of emotions, often too quickly for him to keep track of them all, much less have any hope at all of correctly deducing their source. He could tell, however, that chief among them, forming the underpinnings of everything else, was determination. And not, he was glad to see, grim determination – Ran clearly was doing her best to figure this out, but not just as some sort of chore. She was doing it because it was important – to her, to him, to Sonoko. Because she wanted to know.

At the two week mark, he called her one night as Shinichi. They had a nice talk, about Ran's life and Conan's made-up cases and even more made-up personal life (or lack thereof), and though he'd meant to ask her if she'd come to any conclusions, in the end he chickened out, she made no mention of the subject, and he ended the call glad for the opportunity to catch up but mostly frustrated that he knew no more than he had known before.

After three weeks and one day, she sent him another text – Can we talk again? – as he was playing in the park after school with the rest of the Detective Boys. Or rather, Ayumi, Genta, and Mitsuhiko were running around playing like the kids they really were, while Haibara lounged on a nearby bench with a scientific magazine in hand ("No, really, I like looking at pictures of chemical compounds. Aren't they beautiful in their simplicity?") and he stood nearby, keeping one eye on them, one eye on her, and only just enough attention on the soccer ball he was bouncing around to keep it from smacking him in the head when he wasn't looking.

Haibara looked up from her magazine when he fished the phone out if his pocket, raised an eyebrow when she saw which phone it was, and rolled her eyes when she saw him hesitating over the contents of the message. "Your girlfriend wants to talk again, right?" She said blandly, freeing one hand from the magazine to make a shooing motion. "Go on; you'll be a hopeless distraction otherwise. I'll ride herd on the kids. Tell them that she needed your help with the grocery shopping or something if they ask."

"Thanks, Haibara." He smirked. "Enjoy your pretty pictures."

He suspected if she had been anyone else, that would have earned him a stuck-out tongue. "They're very informative pretty pictures." She said with great dignity. "Now go."

He left.

Lacking a comfortable chair in a well-known, secure (even if he still hadn't been able to pry out of Haibara whether or not she'd been kidding) location, Conan did the second best thing: headed deep into the sad excuse for a wooded area that this park possessed, found a tree that looked at least nominally hidden from casual view from all directions, and clambered his way up until he was safely high enough that he ought to be safe from prying eyes as well. Now he just needed to make sure that he kept his voice low enough that no hapless passerby would wander by and wonder why a tree was speaking in a voice adult enough that its owner had had no right trying to climb it.

He hesitated far less this time before pressing the call button – there was only so long he could be nervous about the outcome, he'd found, before he got fed up with the whole thing and just wanted to know already. Besides, this problem had made Ran look more consistently actively engaged in the world around her for longer periods of time than he'd seen in a long time. So whatever happened, he couldn't entirely regret it.

"Shinichi?" Ran's voice sounded surprised. "That was – really fast."

"You caught me at a good time, this time." He said, trying to settle himself into as comfortable and stable a position as he could manage on his chosen tree branch, bow tie wrapped securely around his phone to give himself a spare hand. "What did you want to talk about?"

Ran took a deep enough breath that it was clearly audible. "I've decided. I, um, I think …" She stopped. Exhaled (also audibly), then took another deep breath. When she spoke again, her voice was firmer. "I've decided. I still don't know for sure – I know that she's my other best friend, that she's been there for me" even when you weren't didn't need to be said, but it hung between them nonetheless, "that she makes me laugh, that … when I think of losing her, or even staying as we are with her backing away from me 'for my own good', it hurts almost as much as the thought of losing you …" Another sigh. "I don't know what that means, exactly. I don't know if it's enough. But I've decided that … I think I want to give it a try."

… He hadn't really expected it to hurt this much. He'd thought he'd prepared himself, he'd thought he'd been ready, he'd thought he'd convinced himself that it didn't matter as long as she was happy – because really, he'd expected it to go this way from the very beginning – but now he just wanted to shout something accusatory, to throw his phone across the room (which would work even less well in this case, since 'across the room' involved other trees and quite a considerable drop), to do anything but take a deep breath of his own and say (in what he hoped was an encouraging, best friend-ly voice), "I'm glad you've made your decision. But … aren't you saying this to the wrong person?"

"But." Ran said on the heels of his last word, almost interrupting. "But … not if it means losing you."

Conan blinked. "What?"

"Not if it means losing you." She repeated. "I think … I might have feelings for Sonoko. And knowing that she definitely does have feelings for me … I want to give it a try. To see what will come of it. If anything. But. I know I love you." She barely tripped over the word at all; more than Conan suspected he could manage outside the privacy of his own head when he wasn't emotionally overwrought. "And … I guess I'm greedy, because I don't want to give that up. I won't. So." She hesitated. "Um. I guess I'm … asking for your permission?"

Conan felt almost dizzy for a moment from sheer relief. (Not the best idea, this far up a tree.) He scrambled to put his thoughts in order, before the silence grew too long and Ran started trying to fill it from nerves. (She had to be nervous – Conan knew he'd never have had the courage.) "I … well, I'd be lying if I said I hadn't hoped for a different answer." He said slowly (all this honestly was painful, but he suspected it was the only way they'd be able to make this work at all. If they did). "And … I can't promise that I won't turn into a jealous monster over this. Though if I do, you have my full permission to smack me down for it."

He took a deep breath. "On the other hand … Sonoko and I probably know best that you have a large enough heart to hold both of us and have plenty of room left over to spare. So. If she's okay with sharing you with me …" he trailed off, but then stopped and made himself finished the sentence. "If she's okay with it, then I'm willing to give it a try."

"Really?" Ran sounded almost giddy. "You don't mind? Or, well, you mind, but … you don't mind?"

Conan couldn't help an answering smile – not when he honestly felt a bit giddy himself. She may like Sonoko … but she still likes me, too! She said she didn't want to give me up! "I want you to be happy. And if this is what makes you happy … well, I have no idea how it'll work, or if it'll work at all. But I'm willing to give it a try."

It's been too long since you've been honestly happy. And I know that's my fault, and I'm so very sorry, but there's not anything I can really do, either, not that I'm willing to do, so … if Sonoko can help make you happy … That, in and of itself, will make everything else worth it. I hope.

"I have no idea what I'm doing, either." And he could hear her grin. "But I guess we're all going to find out!"

She ended the call without even bothering to say goodbye; he gave the phone one last fond smile before tucking it away and making his careful way back down to the ground. Coast clear. I guess we will, at that.

# # # # #

April 14th.

Conan woke up to the buzz of an arriving text, checked his normal phone – nothing – then gathered his clothes to head to the bathroom to prepare for the day – Mouri-san still appeared to be asleep, but he was no longer snoring, which could mean anything. It was best to be cautious.

Once outside, he found a note taped to the door in Ran's handwriting, explaining that she'd left early to run a few errands, but that she'd left enough breakfast for both of them ("as long as you share like you're supposed to, Father!")

He raised an eyebrow, resisted the urge to pull his Shinichi phone out right then and there, and walked faster than usual to the bathroom, where he dumped his clothes on the toilet seat as soon as he entered, nudged the door shut with his foot, and pulled his Shinichi phone out. One new text, from Ran.

I left something at your house this morning. I hope you enjoy it, next time you stop by.

The other eyebrow raised of its own free will, and he resisted the urge to just run over there in his pajamas. Don't act suspicious. Wait a few days. I know you want to know now, but it won't kill you to wait. … Probably.

So he put his phone away again, dressed, ate breakfast, went to school, and did his best to act completely normal. (And if even the rest of the Detective Boys agreed with Haibara that he was far more fidgety than normal, that just meant they were all imagining things.)

Back home that afternoon, he flipped through the news channels on the TV in an attempt to distract himself from the worrisomely sane sounding voice in the back of his head pointing out that it really wasn't that far at all to get back to his old house; that he could always go there, find whatever it was, and then just not touch it – or re-wrap it, if it was wrapped – for a few days, because then at least he'd know something.

Then Sonoko and Ran burst in, Sonoko practically dragging her best friend, and that was interesting enough to distract him not just from the news but from his curiosity about Ran's text that morning. He turned the TV off, hopped down, and wandered over to where a suspiciously familiar scene was playing out – Ran on one side of the table, Sonoko on the other, and in the middle, a smallish package.

Sonoko was practically vibrating. "I discovered this in my shoe locker this morning." She said, gesturing.

Butter wouldn't melt in Ran's mouth, and suddenly Conan was sure. He did his best to hide a smile – though he might as well not have bothered, since clearly neither of the two at the table were paying him any attention at all – and with a mental click, he realized he now had a very good idea what waited for him at his old house. Well played, Ran.

"Have you opened it yet?" Ran asked, politely curious. Then grinned teasingly. "Maybe it's from the same secret admirer who gave me chocolates for White Day."

You did not just say that. Conan could barely keep from laughing out loud.

"No way!" Sonoko protested, then flushed at being the center of attention of two politely curious gazes. "Why would someone who's interested in you be interested in me, after all?" She hastily added.

"Well, if you don't open it, you'll never find out." Ran pointed out.

"… True." Sonoko seemed to be holding her breath as she ripped into the wrapping paper, to find a box of mixed chocolates – white, milk, and dark, and Conan was developing a sneaking suspicion about why Ran had waited those few extra days (and well played again) – and a suspiciously familiar-looking white card.

He snuck over, climbing the couch to get a look over Sonoko's shoulder.

You shine just as brightly.

With you at my back, there is nothing I fear.

Sonoko seemed to have stopped breathing entirely, and Ran looked like she was holding her breath, too, as she focused all her attention on her suddenly way too pale best friend.

And neither of them was doing anything, so he hitched himself higher up on the couch and, in his best innocent-little-Conan voice, chirped, "That looks almost like it's a response to the one that Ran-neechan got!"

… And okay, maybe he deserved getting tossed out of the room for that. It had been completely worth it.

Besides, nothing said he couldn't continue to listen at the door.

"What – How –" Sonoko spluttered, finally bursting out with a bewildered "How did you know?"

"… I overheard your conversation with Conan-kun on White Day." Ran admitted, sounding a bit embarrassed.

"That little –"

"It's not his fault." Ran interrupted hastily. "I'd opened the window earlier; I doubt he even noticed. And it was only the first part that was clearly audible; everything else after that I had to get closer to hear properly." She sighed. "I apologize for eavesdropping, but … I'm not sorry I heard."

Another pause. "… Though really, I should have figured it out from your note. I'd almost forgotten – you were referencing that conversation, weren't you? About fighting back-to-back?"

"… Yeah." Sonoko said. Then laughed, self-deprecatingly. "… Not that I ended up being any good at holding up my end, when it came down to it."

"Hey, your haphazard waving that sword around kept him at arms' length for long enough." Ran pointed out. "… And I meant it, what I said. You were there, and that's what really mattered."

Predictably, it was Sonoko who broke the resultant silence, though she sounded slightly embarrassed. "So. Um. What does this mean, exactly?"

"Well …" Ran said, now sounding embarrassed as well. "You gave me chocolates on White Day. Which, once I realized it was you, would have been sign enough that you like me, even if I hadn't also overheard your conversation with Conan-kun in which you confessed as much – you're way too predictably romantic."

"… Speak for yourself." Sonoko said, though she sounded too (cautiously, incredulously) happy to be properly disgruntled.

"So." Ran continued pointedly. "Since you didn't really give me a proper opportunity to respond, since I had no intention of waiting eleven months for Valentines' Day – or would it be the full year to White Day? I really don't get how this works in, well, cases like this – I decided to make today … Mixed Chocolates Day. Or, um. Something."

Conan brought his hand to his forehead, shaking his head. He was pleased to hear his deduction confirmed, but … 'Mixed Chocolates Day'? Really?

"… There's just one thing." Ran's voice went solemn again, and Conan stiffened, all his attention once again on the door. "… I gave Shinichi one, too."

"… Huh?"

Conan grinned at the door. It was nice to see that he wasn't the only one who'd been blindsided by that.

"I'd like to give us a try. If you still want to, too. If you think it'll be worth it. But I'm not willing to give Shinichi up. He's said he's willing to give it a try – to share you with me, I guess? – so if you're willing, too …"

Sonoko's enthusiastic assent was almost completely drowned out by the crash as what sounded suspiciously like the table struck the floor. What did she do, try to throw herself at Ran without standing first? Conan shook his head – because, well, Sonoko – reached up to pull the door the rest of the way shut, and walked away with a small smile and something that felt very much like happiness bubbling in his chest.

He had no idea what was going to happen next. But he suspected it was going to be interesting.

# # # # #

In the end, not as much changed as he'd expected. He-as-Shinichi was still gone almost all the time; He-as-Conan was still there, a mostly-unobtrusive guardian angel over Ran's and Sonoko's fumbling experiments. When he wasn't getting thrown out of the room – Sonoko still didn't like him all that much, though she'd bowed to Ran's desires and started calling him by name instead of just 'brat' – or voluntarily removing himself – because there were just some things that it wasn't right for a guy to watch between his girlfriend and her girlfriend.

In deference to the status of the Suzuki family, they were keeping their relationship relatively quiet, though Sonoko swore up one side and down the other that it didn't matter at all to her, and that anyone it did matter to could just go – okay, fine, Ran, no swearing in front of the children, geez. Which of course meant that pretty much everyone at school who was at all familiar with either of them had guessed within about the first week, pestered them both incessantly about it, been turned away with deliberately noncommittal replies, and eventually, grudgingly, given in and accepted that that was all they were going to get.

Sonoko had been the one to acquire his phone number and call him first. They'd had one stilted conversation near the very beginning, wherein she had said in no uncertain terms that she still thought he was a giant ass for not being there for Ran, and Conan had responded by admitting he was burningly jealous of Sonoko because she did get to be there for her. Pleasantries out of the way, they'd settled into what had ended up being a weirdly pleasant conversation.

Near the end of it, he'd asked why she'd agreed to this weird sharing thing, and she'd replied that as much of an ass as she thought Shinichi was, she had meant it when she'd said that she didn't intend to interfere with Ran's and Shinichi's relationship. And besides, anyone who knew Ran, knew that she had room enough in her heart for both of them, and plenty to spare left over.

Conan had just laughed, and when Sonoko demanded to know why, simply responded that he'd said the exact same thing.

By unspoken agreement, whenever he-as-Shinichi came back to town, it was understood to be date night for Shinichi and Ran. Though if he was there for more than a day – and Haibara's temporary cures now often worked for two to three days – chances were good that Sonoko would show up and drag them both off to do something.

Likewise, if he called during one of Ran's and Sonoko's dates, Ran could put it on pause to talk to him – though in that case, only if it didn't happen too often, and with the understanding that if they chatted for too long, Sonoko would come find Ran, put the phone on speakerphone, and cheerfully force her way into the conversation. (Which only had to happen once before Conan started keeping much better track of which nights were Ran-and-Sonoko date nights.)

It was weird and haphazard and he still didn't understand it at all, but it … actually sort of worked. And Ran was happy – maybe not happy the way she had been before he'd left, and he paradoxically had even less doubt than before that she really was waiting for him, that she really did want him back home with all her heart (or at least that part of her heart that belonged to him). But happier than she'd been in a long time.

He didn't know what would happen when he finally came back as Shinichi for good (because he would, he'd promised). Whether they'd be able to reach a new equilibrium, or whether it would all fall apart, or whether by then it would have taken so long that they'd all have gone their separate ways anyway (though he refused to believe that that would actually happen, not after having tried so hard for so long). But until that time came, it was more comforting than it should have been, to know that Ran was in Sonoko's hands.

# # # # #

"So how are your girlfriends doing?" Haibara asked, as she took note of his vitals with the ease of long practice.

Conan shuddered, then winced as she absently poked him, ordering him to stay still. "Could you please stop calling Sonoko my girlfriend? It's disturbing." He'd tried, many times, to explain to Haibara that just because Ran was his girlfriend, and Sonoko was her girlfriend, the relationship was not transitive.

"What would you prefer? Girlfriend-in-law? Girlfriend once removed?"

… Given that it was blatantly obvious that she refused to listen because it was more fun (for her) that way, he'd eventually given up.

"How about childhood friend?" Conan interrupted, before Haibara could get even more absurd with her suggestions. "That's nice and safe."

"… You do know that 'childhood friend' is code for 'source of unresolved romantic tension that is played for drama over long periods of time', right?"

Conan turned his head to glare, un-phased by her irritable pokes as she tried to make him return to his previous position. "My life is not a TV drama."

"… You're right." Haibara agreed, surprisingly. So Conan braced himself, because whenever Haibara agreed with him on this sort of thing, it was almost always because she was planning something worse. "You haven't been having nearly enough trouble lately to be the star of a proper TV drama. What we really need is a new character to spice things up."

"Don't remind me." Conan groaned. "Sonoko has taken to calling me every few weeks and asking pointed questions about the other girls I've met. She doesn't really believe that there aren't any, but then when I start making things up she just gets mad at me for two-timing Ran even though I'm clearly not, and … ugh. I'm about ready to tell her that I've shut myself up in a monastery or something."

"You should tell her about this cute brunette you know." Haibara suggested. "Who's very sweet and always offers to share her crayons with you."

He sat bolt upright, pointing at her, completely ignoring her attempts to get him to settle back down. "No. You are not going to make me think about Ayumi like that. I refuse. Having to ignore her crush is bad enough –" Haibara muttered something that sounded complimentary towards his ability to recognize it in the first place "—I'm not blind, Haibara – anyway, no. I'm not going to – are you trying to set me up to get arrested for soliciting underage girls?"

"… It would be hilarious." She offered, as though that was a valid excuse.

"For you maybe." Conan shuddered. "I'll stick with what I have now, thanks."

"… Would you take it back? If you could?"

"Agreeing to let Sonoko in?" He asked. "I … no, I don't think I would. It's frustrating, sometimes, seeing her able to so easily fill Ran's loneliness. And she's still one of the flightiest girls I've ever met. And I'm still not all that sure I even like her all that much. In fact, I'm pretty sure I don't. But she makes Ran happy, she's there for Ran in ways I can't be, and … I can't help but be thankful to her for that."

If someone had told him, months ago, that he'd be happy that Sonoko was Ran's girlfriend, he'd probably have thought they were insane. But he really kind of was. What they had was weird and he still didn't understand how it worked at all, much less as well as it did …

But he wouldn't change it for the world.

14 April 2013