Truth, Trust and Promises

A Meitantei Conan fic by Orla


Disclaimer: I lay no claim to the characters; they all belong to Gosho Aoyama-sama! ^^

Continuity note:

Considering recent events in the Conan storyline, I'd just like to point out that while my story is canon (well, attempts to be ^^) up until the end of the bomber storyline at the beginning of volume 37 after that it's all my imagination and probably bears no relation to what is going to happen! ^^

Author's notes:

Although I try to use as little Japanese as possible, I have kept the honorific endings such as '-san', '-kun' and '-neechan' in Japanese as there is no real English equivalent. '-kun' is used for boys and sometimes for girls (when addressed by their elders), 'Ran-neechan' can be translated as 'big sister Ran' (the male equivalent is '-niichan') and Heiji often refers to or calls Ran 'Neechan' even though he is the same age as her, it's just a more casual mode of address. Heiji also uses the Osaka dialect and the version of '-san' there is pronounced'-han'. I will also use some Japanese terms for items, which are unique to Japan, which makes the English translations a little clumsy.

Words between the brackets <...> are in English.


Part Twelve


The seawater that closed over her head was very cold and for a brief moment Vermouth was rendered immobile with shock. However, she quickly rallied and moved, swimming strongly beneath the waves to put as much distance between herself and the Kuro Koi warehouse as possible. Finally the need for air drove her to the surface and she rose up, gasping when the warm summer breeze hit her face. The warehouse was quite far away now, but the police would undoubtedly start to search the shoreline soon, so Vermouth didn't pause to congratulate herself. Glancing around, she saw a small gravel beach, which she had noted earlier that day when scouting the territory, and she swam towards it.

As Vermouth stumbled out of the water, she saw that someone else had landed on the beach before her. She approached slowly and felt an obscure sense of loss well up within her as she looked down at Gin's body. It was funny that she was so affected by his death, certainly she had never expected to feel regret. Vermouth sighed. Well, he was dead and she wasn't going to do herself any favours moping about it. With cool efficiency, she knelt and searched Gin's sodden trench coat, smiling when her hands closed on a gun concealed in one pocket. Even better, when she drew it out, she found that the weapon was fairly dry. With an oddly tender gesture, Vermouth closed Gin's eyes and stroked his long hair before getting to her feet. Almost immediately her legs gave way and she sprawled on the ground.

"Damn..." she rolled over and gasped. Silly of her... naturally her body was going to protest. After all, she had pushed it to the limit in the last hour. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, willing away the trembling in her limbs. The warm breeze washed over her and for a couple of seconds she almost forgot her situation. The distant, thrumming sound of a helicopter intruded and she forced herself to her feet, staggering and scrambling up the low bank to a back lot filled with scrubby bushes and dry grass.

"You look a little worse for wear," said an amused voice.

She halted and turned slowly to the right, eyes narrowed at the man who stood leaning against a thin tree, a cigarette dangling in his fingers. "Hello Akai," she said coolly. "I must say I'm not that surprised to see you."

"Oh? Well, that's good," he said, straightening and crushing the cigarette. "You've had enough surprises for one day, don't you think?"

She brushed stands off wet blond hair off her face. "Is that criticism I hear in your voice?"

He shrugged. "For someone who has always prided herself on being prepared I find it quite astonishing that you let a bunch of kids get the better of you."

"Oh, well." Vermouth kept her tone light. "We all make mistakes every now and then."

"Mistakes that cause the deaths of your best supporters are usually considered rather serious."

"You're remarkably well informed for a man who wasn't even at the scene," Vermouth replied tartly, Shuichi's observation stinging more that she had expected.

"I can hazard a guess, and besides, who do you think dragged him out of the sea?" Akai nodded in the direction of Gin's body. "Whatever has happened between us I could at least do that much for my cousin," a brief expression of regret flitted across his features before he turned his cool gaze back on Vermouth. "How did you misjudge the situation so badly, Chris?"

She frowned at him. "I don't have to justify my actions to you, Shuichi."

"Perhaps not," he admitted. "I'm simply curious."

"Of course you are," she mocked. "You would never even dream of trying goad me into spilling all my secrets. No, not you... double agent!"

Akai's cold mask cracked and he glared at her.

Vermouth smirked at him, once again she felt in control. "Of course I knew what you were, almost from the beginning. Remember dear Shuichi, I AM an actress, and I can recognise a false face better than most!"

"And you decided to keep this information from your colleagues?" Shuichi spat. "You're really not a team player, are you, Chris?"

"It doesn't matter why I didn't expose you," she said. "Not now..."

Before he could blink, the gun she had taken from Gin was levelled at his head and Vermouth squeezed the trigger. He grabbed for his own gun, but the bullet hurtled towards him and all Shuichi could do was attempt to avoid it.

Vermouth smirked as Akai fell, blood spurting from his head. "You're such a fool," she murmured. She stepped towards him, readying her gun for another shot. Due to the darkness and his movement she wasn't one hundred percent sure that the bullet had actually penetrated his head.

"Freeze!"

Bright light flooded the area around her and she turned, squinting. Three police officers stood before her, guns aimed at her torso. One of them held a powerful torch, which he shone directly in her face. The officer in the group, a shorthaired young man, stepped forward cautiously. "Drop the weapon, ma'am," he said. "And put your hands on your head."

Slowly, a resigned smile curving her lips, Vermouth let the gun drop. "I surrender, Officer," she said demurely.

The officer relaxed slightly and nodded to his fellows, one of who was now grinning, to go and handcuff her. Vermouth briefly considered making a break for it as she was briefly patted down, just for the sheer pleasure of flattening the grinning loons. However, she resisted the urge and meekly submitted to being hustled off to a squad car parked on the road running by the vacant lot. Anyone who knew Vermouth would have been highly suspicious of her complacent behaviour, but these policemen simply congratulated themselves on such an easy catch. Once Vermouth had been locked inside, one policeman leaned against the bonnet while the other joined the officer who was checking on Shuichi.

"Is he dead, Honda-san?"

"No, he was lucky. The bullet just creased his skull. He'll have one hell of a headache when he wakes up, but he'll live," Honda pulled out his handcuffs and latched Akai's wrists together. "I don't know if he's on our side or not, but it's best not to take chances until anything is confirmed," he explained to his junior. "Hideki, stay with him while I scout the area."

"Yes sir!"

Honda got to his feet and cautiously scanned the lot before peering down at the small, dark beach. He frowned and focused the beam from his torch on the figure lying motionless on the gravel.

"Hideki! Get Aoki over here!"

"But what about..."

"Don't worry, she's not going anywhere... not in handcuffs and locked in the car."

Five minutes later Akai slowly opened his eyes. His head ached fiercely and for a brief moment he was completely disorientated and therefore thoroughly confused by the handcuffs securing his wrists. Looking up, blinking to restore his blurry vision, Akai's eyes met those of a nervous-looking policeman. The man blinked and said something, but between the ringing in his ears and the loud roar of a nearby helicopter Akai could not make out the words. Finally another policeman came into view.

"Good, he's awake," he called to his comrade. "Get him up, Hideki and we'll take him to the car. Inspector Megure is on his way..." he looked down at Akai. "Can you walk?"

"Yes," Akai said, recovering his voice and his wits. "And I can explain..." memory kicked in and he sat up violently, startling the officers. "Where is she?"

"Don't worry about your pretty, little girlfriend," said Honda with a grin. "We got her."

"Where? Who's guarding her?" Akai demanded, ignoring the pain and nausea churning through his body.

"She's locked in the squad car..." Hideki said. "No problems. she gave up easily, but then what can you expect from a woman?"

"Idiots!" Despite the handcuffs, Akai lurched to his feet and took off before the startled men could grab him. He ran, disregarding their threatening yells and the shot fired over his head, and stumbled onto the road. The squad car was neatly parked and all seemed fine as he approached it, but this illusion was shattered once he peered in through the dark windows.

"Oh shit..." said Honda eloquently. Hot on Akai's heels, it didn't take long for him to see what had happened.

Akai shot him a disgusted look. "Just because she's a woman you thought she wasn't a threat, am I right? Of course I am!" he snorted. "Morons... she's the trickiest one of them all and you gave her the perfect opportunity to slip away!"

"But she was handcuffed!" Honda protested. "We searched her! And locked her in! How the hell could she escape from that?"

Akai walked around the car and regarded the ruined back door. "It's easy to hide a small explosive on your body if you know how," he said. "All she needed was enough power to blow this lock."

"B-but we would've heard..."

"Not with this helicopter buzzing around," Akai snapped. He leaned inside and looked at the empty cuffs lying on the back seat. His eyes narrowed. Everything else was easy to explain, but he had to admit that he didn't know how she had managed to slip the cuffs. They weren't open and he recognized them as the new type that was virtually impossible to pick. She couldn't have eased her hands out of the cuffs, and there was no blood or anything that resembled a lubricant to assist such an action anyway.

The roar of the helicopter was almost unbearable and Akai looked up, squinting in the bright glare of it's lights, as the craft landed in the vacant lot. Honda's face paled as the portly figure of Inspector Megure climbed out followed by a slim young man whose arm was in a sling and two other police officers that Akai identified as Wataru Takagi and Miwako Satou. Shinichi Kudo's eyes widened when he saw Akai and he spoke rapidly to Megure.

"You, Hideki, isn't it?" Akai nudged the junior officer. "Reach into my right pocket and pull out the wallet in there."

Accustomed to orders, Hideki obeyed, pulling out a nondescript black, leather wallet. Curious, he opened it and then nearly dropped it on the muddy ground. "Y-you. You're a... a..."

"The one who stole Mouri-san's files!" Shinichi glared at Akai over the car. "And he's..."

"An FBI agent!" Hideki babbled, holding up the badge excitedly.

Akai smirked at the stunned expression on Shinichi's face. It was always nice to know that you'd fooled people. Shinichi shook his head and a rueful smile flickered across his lips. "So Ran was right after all."

Akai held up his hands. "Since it's been established that I'm on your side, will someone take these bracelets off?"

"What is your business here then?" Megure asked once Akai was freed.

Akai's eyes narrowed. "I'm not at liberty to disclose everything, Inspector, but suffice it to say that I've been investigating this organization for a long time."

"If that's so, why have you been sneaking around Detective Mouri's office?" Satou asked.

"I quickly discovered after I arrived in Japan that some of Detective Mouri's cases involved the organization," Akai smiled coldly. "It made sense to gather as much information as possible and there was some interesting elements to Detective Mouri's cases..." his gaze slid to Shinichi who frowned.

"But..."

"Right now there is a much more pressing problem than my identity," Akai interrupted Takagi. "Your idiot policemen let Vermouth escape, Inspector Megure, and I don't intend to waste any more time standing around here while she slips further away!"

Honda clenched his fists and stepped forward, but was waved back by Megure. "I'd appreciate it if you refrained from making personal remarks about my officers," he growled. "But you are right that we need to recapture that woman..."

Shinichi shone a torch light into the squad car and quickly came to the same conclusions that Akai reached earlier. However, he then crouched down and examined the mud around the car, flicking the torch light over the surface. Suddenly, he froze and peered closely at something.

"I don't believe it."

"What is it, Kudo-kun?" Megure leaned forward.

Shinichi straightened and glanced over at Honda, Hideki and Aoki. "Uh... well..."

Satou quickly interpreted his glance and dismissed the three officers. Once they had flown off in the helicopter, Shinichi waved them forward, shining his torch on the evidence he had discovered.

"Interesting," said Akai. "I originally thought she must have dislocated the bones in her hand to slip out, but this is much more drastic."

Shinichi looked at him. "Did you know she had more of the Apotoxin?"

He shook his head. "No, and I never thought she'd use it on herself..." Akai permitted a slightly rueful smile to cross his face. "Although considering how much she loves to win I should have expected such a drastic measure."

"So what are we looking for?" Takagi asked. "This thing de-ages you by about ten years right?"

"Look at the size of the footprint though," Satou pointed. "She was in her late twenties, so ten years would take her down to about eighteen and that is not the footprint of a teenager!"

Shinichi's eyes widened. "She took two? That was really risky!"

Akai laughed bitterly. "Chris never believed in doing anything by halves and risk is something that thrills her... but then you know that, Kudo- kun."

Shinichi met Akai's challenging gaze. "Yes... I suppose I do." He looked back down at the small footprint. "And it makes sense... as a child she could slip out of the cuffs easily."

"So," Megure stood up. "We're looking for a blond foreign girl aged about eight or nine," he shook his head. "I don't know how to explain this one to the officers..." he glanced at Shinichi. "After all, we still need to keep the truth of the APTX quiet."

"What about him?" Satou looked suspiciously at Akai. "He..."

"Is not going to say a word," Akai interrupted. "Are you the only ones who know about it?"

"No," Shinichi sighed. "But the others won't talk."

"But surely you've told your superiors?" Takagi said anxiously to Akai. "Which means that the American government will know..."

Akai frowned. "The real truth of the APTX is too dangerous - in ANY hands - and I have said nothing about this mysterious 'de-aging' process that affects some of its victims. and I don't intend to start!"

"Inspector Megure," Shinichi spoke up. "Tell your officers that the child they're looking for is a victim of the organization. an orphan they've been using or something like that who has been trained by them to kill, so they must approach with caution. However, I'd like your permission to be part of this... working with Akai-san."

"B-but Kudo-kun..." Megure protested. "You're hurt and so is he..."

"The boy's right," Akai said. "Between us we know this woman better than all of you and that gives us an edge against her," he put a hand to his head, touching the rough bandage there. "Besides, I've had worse wounds."

Megure made another token protest, but even he was aware that arguing further would only give Vermouth more of a lead and arrangements were quickly made to provide Shinichi and Akai with transport while Takagi prepared the police search. The only condition Megure did insist on was that a police officer would accompany them, something that both Akai and Shuichi reluctantly agreed to.

"I have a number of questions that I want to ask you," Shinichi said as they waited for their car.

Akai raised an eyebrow. "And just what makes you think I'm going to answer, Kudo-kun?" he lit a cigarette, inhaled and blew out a cloud of grey smoke. "I only agreed to this arrangement because I think it will benefit me."

Shinichi glowered at him. "You sound more like one of them than an FBI agent."

"If I sounded like an FBI man, I'd be dead, boy," Akai sneered. He blew out another puff of smoke. "How's your girlfriend? Still crying?"

Shinichi turned his face away. "None of your business," he said shortly. "Now, where do you think Vermouth will go?"

***

"I keep telling you, I'm fine! It's worse than it looks! And what the HELL were you doing there anyway? Didn't you realise how dangerous it was? Aho!"

Ran couldn't stop herself from smiling faintly as Heiji ranted. After his initial collapse he had woken up and was most indignant to find himself rendered immobile on a stretcher, unable to join Shinichi in mopping up the organization. His father, the medics and Kazuha were all completely ignoring his protestations as they rode in the rather crammed ambulance back to the Beika hospital - although Kazuha looked as if she was about to crack and start yelling in about...

"YOU'RE the idiot!" Kazuha screamed in Heiji's ear. "You nearly got KILLED!! We didn't pull you out of there so that you could attempt to commit suicide AGAIN!"

Ran's smile widened, but there was a tinge of envy in her expression. At least Kazuha knew where Heiji was - however annoying he was being! - Ran had no idea what Shinichi was doing or where he was. All she could do was hope that this 'clean-up' would be quick and without incident.

Heizo's mobile rang, it's piercing tone cutting through Heiji and Kazuha's yelling. The Osaka teens paused and glanced over as the grim-faced man answered it.

"Hello? Ah, Megure-san. Oh... I see... yes..." he looked at Ran, a faint expression of sympathy in his dark eyes. "Of course..."

"Well? What's happened?" Heiji demanded once his father had put away the phone. "What's Kudo doing?"

"Heiji, be silent!" Heizo growled. "Kudo-kun and an FBI agent are tracking that American woman. Apparently she took that drug and escaped."

"FBI agent?" Heiji frowned. "Who..."

"It's that man," Ran breathed. "The one wearing the black cap who I met in New York..." she smiled. "I knew he wasn't a bad person!"

"I hope you're right... OW!" Heiji yelped as Kazuha's elbow dug into his side.

"Don't be so pessimistic!" she yelled in his ear.

And the argument started again, lasting right until they were inside the hospital.

Toyama was there to greet them with Shiratori who explained that Takagi and Satou were taking the children home while Chiba accompanied Shinichi and the agent - Shuichi Akai. Megure was busy directing the search for Vermouth and Shiratori had only just come back from supervising the incarceration of those Organization members that had been captured.

"Are the kids alright?" Ran asked Shiratori as they walked behind the medics wheeling Heiji (still protesting) down the corridor.

"They're scared, but otherwise fine," he said. "Although we were concerned about Ai Haibara when we found her on the roof, but seems like she is just physically exhausted."

"Not surprising..." Ran mumbled and flushed when Shiratori gazed curiously at her. He didn't say a word however, just smiled and led her towards her father's room.

Tense silence met Ran when she entered. Her mother was seated next her father's bed and the Kudos were sitting on the other side of the room, their expressions unusually tight.

"Ran!" Eri rushed over and hugged her daughter. "You're alright!"

Ran winced as Eri's embrace jarred and pressed on the various bumps and bruises incurred by the fight with Vermouth. "I'm... fine, Mum."

"Were you trying to give us both a heart attack?" Kogorou asked as he joined his wife and daughter. "Running off like that..."

"I'm sorry, really sorry, that I worried you so much," Ran said earnestly. "But... if I hadn't gone then Shinichi and Hattori-kun might've been..."

"Is Shin-chan alright?" Yukiko asked anxiously.

"Well... yes," Ran disengaged herself from her parents. "But he's gone to try and track down one of the organization members who managed to escape."

"Huh," Kogorou grunted. "So he runs off again!"

"Achem!" Yusaku cleared his throat and Kogorou looked slightly embarrassed. Puzzled, Ran glanced at Shinichi's parents.

"What's going on?"

Eri let out a small laugh. "It's alright, Ran. While we were waiting here we all had a small... discussion about you and Shinichi."

"Meaning?" Ran still looked wary.

Kogorou scowled. "Meaning that neither Eri nor I are going to stand in your way if you really want to marry that boy," his expression cleared and he smiled ruefully down at her. "Not that we could stop you, eh?"

Ran grinned mischievously. "No! But I'd still like you to agree, so I'm glad," she looked at Yukiko. "What did you say to them?"

Yukiko winked and put a finger to her lips. "That's a secret, Ran-chan!"

***

"This sucks," said Heiji as soon as the nurse had left. "Why does Kudo get to go and chase that woman down while I'm stuck here?"

"Well, this is a wild guess, but maybe because you've been SHOT?" Kazuha yelled.

"So? He was shot too!"

"In the ARM! Not the LEG! YOU MORON!"

"I was doing fine! I kept moving AFTER I was shot!"

"Adrenalin! That's ALL! You fainted when we stopped you!"

"I did NOT!"

"YOU DID!!"

Heiji winced. "Do you have to scream in my ear?" he complained. "I feel bad enough without you giving me a major headache."

Kazuha gave up. "You are such a child sometimes," she said, flopping down on the chair beside his bed. "Throwing tantrums because you're not getting your way," she shook her head. "And then you act so heroic..." she stopped and Heiji glanced at her, noticing the blush staining her cheeks.

His expression softened and he reached out, snagging her hand. "Hey," he said gently. "I forgot to say... thanks."

Kazuha blinked. "Thanks? For what?"

"For stopping me from... well, you know..."

She squeezed his hand. "Anytime, Heiji."

The door opened and Heizo stepped inside. He noticed Kazuha drop Heiji's hand and blush furiously, but didn't comment. "Kazuha-chan, your father would like to talk to you," he said and she gulped nervously.

"Oh... right..." she slipped out of the room, pausing only to look back at Heiji and mouth 'Good luck' before closing the door behind her.

Heiji eyed his father warily. He had been anticipating this confrontation, but that didn't make the reality any easier. Lifting his chin, Heiji met his father's gaze and made the first move.

"I had to do what I did, Dad, and if something similar comes up again then I'll do the same thing."

"Just not with the same results, I hope," said Heizo.

Heiji blinked. He had expected a blistering tirade about his irresponsible attitude and how Heiji was always messing around in police business. "Uh... you're not angry?" he asked hesitantly and a small smile cracked Heizo's grim visage.

"Of course I'm angry, Heiji, but it's a bit pointless to scold you now," his father sat down beside the bed. "And while I don't condone your actions, I understand that your options were limited. I just hope that next time - although I hope there isn't a next time! - You take the time to confide a little in your parents."

Heiji felt a stab of guilt. "I'm sorry."

Heizo patted Heiji's shoulder and got to his feet. "I'm glad that you weren't badly hurt, son. Take some time to rest and I'll let your mother know you're alright."

"Thanks, Dad," Heiji smiled, feeling more affectionate towards his father than he had in a long time.

Heizo nodded and opened the door; he paused briefly on the threshold and looked back. "By the way, Heiji, you're grounded for the next month."

"WHAT? THAT'S NOT FAIR!"

***

The train was virtually empty, occupied only by two men who were either too sleepy or too drunk to notice the child in the corner. Small and slender, she huddled on the seat, arms wrapped around her knees, long blond hair falling over her face, and shivered.

It hurt! I didn't know it would hurt that much... or make me feel so weak.

She pushed her hair out of her eyes and peered out of the window. Luckily the hour wasn't too late and there were still trains running back to the centre of Tokyo, and it was equally lucky that she had been able to catch one almost immediately.

I don't like being so vulnerable. Was this how you felt, Cool Guy? Like the world is playing some sort of cosmic joke? Mother would laugh at me. Gin would.

Gin.

"Do you believe in heaven?"

Hot tears stung her eyes and she scowled, blinking.

I won't cry. I won't. I don't care about him, he was only useful. a tool to wield.

It's this body! Must be... children cry more readily, right?

She unfolded herself and let her legs swing down; noting ruefully that her toes only just scraped the ground. It was lucky that her black sweater looked something like a dress, but she hadn't been able to keep her boots so her bare feet were now rather grimy. She then looked at her hands - also dirty - and sighed. If only she could have dislocated her thumb or whatever and been able to slip her adult hands out. Once Gin showed her how to do it, but she could never manage it - a rare failing. She smiled, remembering how he threw his hands up in disgust, saying she should just concentrate on running away from trouble.

Gin.

"Do you believe in heaven?"

"There is no heaven."

"So, we just die? No afterlife? No Paradise, Elysium fields or Valhalla? Or."

"Or?"

"Or hell?"

"No. There's nothing, death is the ultimate end."

She smiled. How typical of Gin. He had always been a man of simple beliefs.

"How did you misjudge the situation so badly, Chris?"

Unlike Shuichi Akai.

Perhaps that was an error. letting him live. Should've killed him the moment I knew. But he was useful then and it was amusing to see what he would do.

What will he do now?

Remain true to his training? Or let his emotions guide his actions?

She stared at her face reflected in the window and her mind was dragged back to the more pressing problem that confronted her. The train would arrive at Tokyo station soon and despite the late hour she would be thrust among people who were likely to take notice of a strangely dressed foreign child wandering around at night.

If I had a wig or contacts then I could...

If...

But I don't...

***

"She won't be able to drive, so she can't take a car. There's no bus from here and it would be too risky to walk, plus that would tire her out now, especially if the transformation is as stressful on the body as I suspect. Therefore, the obvious conclusion is that she has escaped via the train."

"But surely it won't be that easy to find her," Chiba said from the drivers seat. "Tokyo station's big AND crowded. She's going to be a lot smaller too."

"But noticeable," said Shinichi, flashing his trademark grin at him. "Think about it, Chiba-san. She's now a little blond girl in strange clothes and bare feet, believe me, people WILL notice her!" he twisted and looked at Akai in the back seat. "Don't you agree, Akai-san?"

"Of course," Akai said. He smiled, a cold, almost feral grin that showed his teeth. "She won't get away."

Shinichi's eyes narrowed, his mind flashing back to New York and the incident involving the serial killer there. Later, the man had turned up dead, killed by some unknown party and Shinichi wondered later if the Organization had had anything to do with it. But now instinct told him that the serial killer's murderer was sitting in front of his eyes and that Akai was running on his own agenda, not the FBI's.

Before Shinichi could dwell further on Akai's motives, Chiba pulled up to Tokyo station. Soon they were inside, standing inside the main entrance and scanning the sea of people.

"We'll have to split up," said Akai. "We can't cover the whole area as a group."

Reluctantly, Shinichi had to acknowledge he was right - although he had his suspicions about Akai's real reason for suggesting the split. "Okay," he said, checking his watch. "We'll meet back here in... 40 minutes."

"Agreed," Akai nodded and then plunged into the crowd, moving towards the left.

"I'll go straight," said Shinichi, he frowned. "Chiba-san, we have to find her before he does."

"Eh? Why do you say that..." Chiba blinked, getting no answer because Shinichi was already ploughing ahead. The stoat police man shrugged and started out, occasionally stopping people to ask if they had seen a blond foreign girl.

***

"Are you alright?"

"Poor little thing, is she lost?"

"<<Little girl, parents where?>>"

"GO AWAY!" she snarled at a matronly woman reaching out a hand to touch her shoulder.

"Call the police?"

She ran, pushing and shoving through the crowd, ducking down corridors until she stumbled into the locker area. Thankfully it was mostly empty and she managed to duck behind the lockers right at the end and crouched down, panting.

"Did you enjoy yourself, Machiko?"

"Absolutely! It was wonderful to get away from the house tonight and just shop!"

Vermouth shrank further back into the shadows as the women approached. They paused about a metre away and she watched as they opened them and crammed bags full of shopping into a locker.

"It's not going to fit, Naomi, you'll have to get another locker."

"But I don't have anymore change!"

"Oh... neither do I..."

"Fine, you wait here and I'll go get some."

Vermouth peered around the corner as the woman named Naomi ran off. Machiko, very much a Tokyo housewife, had bags were piled around her feet, most were from women's clothing stores, but one was labelled 'Gap Kids'.

Quietly Vermouth drew out a small box that was about the size of an egg. Once it had contained the last remaining capsules of the APTX, now it was empty, but still heavy enough for her purposes. Narrowing her eyes, she drew her arm back and took careful aim.

"Ah!" Machiko let out a small cry as the box struck her head, but Vermouth's aim was good and the woman said nothing more as she slumped to the ground, unconscious and bleeding from a small head wound.

Vermouth wasted no time grabbing what she needed and running into the women's toilets she had spied earlier. Two of the stalls were occupied, but no one saw her as she soaked a portion of her sweater in water and zapped into a stall, locking the door behind her. Wrinkling her nose at the smell and gingerly avoiding the toilet bowl imbedded in the floor, she opened the bag and took stock of her booty.

Five minutes later, she casually walked away from the toilets, ignoring the hubbub near the lockers, and headed towards the ticket machines. Some people glanced her way, but dressed in black shorts, a green t-shirt, sandals and wearing a baseball cap on her head Vermouth didn't attract half as much notice as she had barefoot and dressed in an oversized sweater.

She was close to her goal when she saw Akai standing right in front of the ticket office, his eyes scanning the crowd. Quickly she ducked behind a crowd of businessmen and used them as cover to zap down one of the corridors, out of Akai's sight. Unfortunately, this move also took her away from the ticketing machines. She frowned as she walked, tugging thoughtfully on the brim of the cap, trying to recall the layout of Tokyo station. There were other places to buy tickets, but if Akai was here then it was highly likely he had brought friends.

"It's very disconcerting, isn't it?"

She paused and slowly turned to face the speaker, looking up into his face.

"Suddenly you're small and vulnerable, subjected to a set of rules that you've forgotten." he leaned forward slightly. "You might lie and say it doesn't bother you at all, but I know it does, I know better than anyone." he unconsciously adjusted his sling. "But I was lucky, I had people to help me, who cared what happened to me. I don't think you have that advantage, do you? You're totally alone now, Vermouth."

She regarded him silently, face expressionless for a minute, but then she smiled, a faint, self-mocking smile. "Perhaps you're right, Cool Guy, but I'm used to working alone. This body won't be a problem for long, I can adapt. I'm very good at that."

Shinichi frowned. "Do you think I'm going to let you get away? Face it, Vermouth, you're trapped."

"Hmmm..." she eyed him speculatively. "Really?"

He reached out for her. "Just come and."

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH! PERVERT!!!"

Shinichi jumped back in shock as Vermouth screamed. Heads snapped around, suspicious eyes fixing on him, and some people even started to approach. Vermouth took the opportunity and bolted, pushing past the curious onlookers and pounding down the corridor towards the subway. She giggled a little as she ran. Silly boy! Did he really think she'd be as easy to catch as all that?

She was almost at the top of the steps leading down to the subway when a hand reached out and grabbed her by the collar. Vermouth was yanked off her feet and carried down a dimly lit side corridor, a large hand covering her mouth. Squirming in the strong grasp, she managed to look up into the face of her captor. Akai grinned viciously down at her. "That was a dirty trick, Chris. Very effective, but it's only going to work once."

He took her out a small side entrance to the station and then dropped her, unceremoniously, on her behind in a dark alleyway. Pain shot through her system and she clenched her teeth, glaring up at him. He smirked. "You look so cute," he teased. "And oh so vulnerable." Akai drew out his gun.

Vermouth tossed her head. "I see, so you think you're going to save your butt by killing me?" she laughed scornfully, her expression clashing with her child face. "Rather weak minded, Shuichi," she sneered. "And rather pointless considering how beautifully you screwed up. I really don't think your former employers will be very impressed."

"Maybe not," he admitted. "But it'll make me feel better."

He levelled the gun at her. "You're like an insidious disease, Chris. Crawling under the skin, siphoning away information and shattering anything that doesn't confirm with your desires."

Her upper lip curled. "You knew what you were getting into, Shuichi, and you got to know me quite well. Surely you guessed what I would do if I found out who you were."

"True," he said. "I suppose I am partially to blame, but that's not going to stop me now."

There was a loud report and Akai cried out as a bullet struck his hand, shattering his wrist and causing him to drop the gun. He looked round, eyes wild, to see Chiba standing at the alleyway entrance. "Step away from her," the chubby policeman ordered.

Shuichi took at step back, his eyes still on Chiba, hand pouring blood onto the ground. For a moment he swayed, almost as if he would collapse, but then he moved swiftly and another gun was in his hands. He brought it up and squeezed the trigger before the surprised officer could fire a shot.

But Akai had not thought of Chris who was still crouching beside him. She bowled into him, knocking him off his feet and sending the bullet wild so that it struck Chiba in the shoulder rather than the heart. Akai crashed to the ground, Vermouth's arms wrapped around his legs. His head struck the concrete and stars danced in front of his eyes. He grabbed for her and wrapped his fingers in her long hair, pulling it painfully. His blood streamed down her face as she struggled, eyes watering, trying to free herself from his vice-like grip. Desperately, Vermouth jabbed her fingers into the bullet wound, forcing him to relax his hold on her hair. She pulled away, leaving strands of gold twisted around his bloody fingers and got to her feet, breathing heavily. Eyes blazing with fury, Akai lunged for her, but was felled by a trash can lid wielded by Shinichi.

Girl and young detective stared at each other, wide-eyed and gasping. "Why?" Shinichi asked. "Why did you help Chiba?"

Vermouth wiped Akai's blood off her face. "Akai was going to kill me, and Chiba wasn't. It seemed best that I help Chiba rather than let Akai win."

"You could have run away," Chiba gasped. He had wrapped his jacket around the wound, stemming the blood flow, but he looked very pale.

"And have Akai track me down again?" she rolled her eyes. "No, thank you!"

"But he's an FBI agent," Chiba mumbled. "Why would he..."

"Suspended FBI agent," she said. "He nearly lost his job completely when the organization obtained a whole load of FBI secrets," she smirked. "He was awfully upset."

"But his badge."

"Clearly he didn't hand in his original after he was suspended," said Shinichi who had taken the opportunity to rifle through Akai's pockets and remove not only the badge, but also a multitude of small weapons. "Sit down, Chiba-san, we need to get you to a hospital, and as for you." he looked at Vermouth.

She smiled appealingly. "Oh, come on, Cool Guy. I just helped you out! Surely you can just look away for a minute? I promise I'll never come near you or the others again."

"Strangely enough, Vineyard-san, I don't believe you!" And with that, Shinichi snapped some handcuffs around her ankles. "So just stay put."

Fifteen minutes later, Vermouth sat in sullen silence beside Shinichi as he drove Chiba's car back to Beika. True, Shinichi did not have a Japanese drivers license, but he had learnt to drive in Hawaii and gain an international license, plus he now looked old enough to drive in Japan. The only niggling problem was the pain caused by his wounded arm when he had to use it.

Chiba had been packed off to hospital and Shuichi Akai handed over to the Central Tokyo police who were to take care of him until Megure could relieve them of the duty. Vermouth's part in the incident was played down, Shinichi perjuring himself by dismissing her to the police as an innocent victim of Akai. She remained quiet, now very unsure of her fate - a feeling that was both unusual and unwelcome.

"Are you going to try and force me to take the APTX antidote?" she asked, breaking the silence.

"I don't know if you can yet," he admitted. "Hai. Shiho thinks that it's very unstable and needs some work," he shot her a sly sidelong look. "But don't worry, Vineyard-san, you'll get what you deserve."

"It's unstable and you took it?" she shook her head. "Sherry played God with your life, Kudo." "And whose fault is it that I had to take it?" he snapped. "You forced my hand. What were you trying to achieve?"

She shrugged. "Oh, ultimate power. the usual sort of thing. The organization was getting stale, it needed some serious renovation, plus." she grinned. "There were a few people plotting my demise, so I just pre- empted them."

"And you wanted to get rid of loose ends as well?"

"Naturally! I really enjoyed playing with you, but the game had dragged on and it was time for a confrontation. Besides, I knew you were close to figuring me out, so I wanted to strike before you clicked," Vermouth let out a small sigh that sounded just a little regretful. "You really surprised me though. I did not expect you to join forces with that thief."

"Well, you know what they say about desperate times," he said wryly. "And I was desperate."

"Well, it's certainly interesting to see how far you can be pushed," she said. "And I really have to commend you. I seriously didn't expect you to win."

Shinichi turned a corner and glanced briefly down at her. "Not that I don't appreciate it, but you are being awfully frank with me now, what's the hitch?"

She giggled. "Well, you caught me, so I figured I owed you some explanation." she peeked at him through her lashes. "Besides, " she mocked. "I felt sorry for you and the police, you are going to have a lot of trouble you're your case now that I'm like this! Unless you want the whole world to know about the Apotoxin."

Shinichi's hand tightened on the wheel. She was right and that made him burn with anger. How could Megure explain the arrest and imprisonment of a little girl? A little, foreign girl at that. Shinichi was fully aware that he was stretching the good will of his police friends to the limit and edging dangerously close to revealing to the world a poison that had the potential to make people young again. Never mind that it had killed several people and only reduced three; there would be a lot of rich, greedy people who would do almost anything for the chance to achieve near immortality. He glanced at her again and wondered if that had been one of the organization's aims from the start. to develop a drug that would make them disgustingly wealthy. He frowned, thinking hard as he drove, his mind offering and rejecting several options. Eventually his choices boiled down to one and it wasn't a solution that thrilled him.

"I'm going to regret this," he muttered. "And I'm going to have to talk really fast to get everyone to accept it. But then again, perhaps they'll see the good side of it. Haibara will, I'm sure."

Vermouth, who had been thoroughly enjoying Shinichi's dilemma, noticed him smiling in a particular mischievous way and her eyes narrowed. "What are you mumbling about, Kudo?"

He grinned at her. "Nothing much, Vineyard-san. Just figuring out exactly what to do with you."

A vague sense of unease crept over her and she fidgeted. I don't like the sound of this.

***

"Shinichi!" Ran burst through the door and abandoned all sense of propriety as she fiercely hugged the young man seated on the hospital bed, almost knocking aside the nurse who was re-bandaging Shinichi's arm. Only the nurse clearing her throat in a rather significant manner recalled Ran to her surroundings and she pulled back, apologising.

"What happened?" she asked breathlessly. "Officer Shiratori told me that you'd come in, but he didn't tell me if you'd caught Vermouth or not."

"Uh. well," Shinichi rubbed the back of his head. "Let's just say that we sort-of caught her. It all got a little complicated."

"And the FBI man? Wasn't he any help?"

"Yes. and no."

"Shinichi!"

"I've finished," said the nurse. "Please try not to aggravate your injury again, Kudo-san."

"Thanks nurse, I won't," Shinichi waited until the nurse had left and then launched into a brief explanation that made Ran's eyes go wide. However, she didn't have an opportunity to comment because the door flew open and in marched Shinichi's parents, Eri and Kogorou. Yukiko fussed over her son for a little while, but it was Ran's parents that caught Shinichi's attention.

"Glad to see that you're relatively unharmed. Conan," Eri said coolly. "From what I understand, you were pretty lucky, things could have been much worse."

He met her eyes. "I know, and I'm sorry. I never wanted to lie to you. any of you. If I had thought there had been another way." he smiled in a depreciating manner. "Well, perhaps things wouldn't have been so different considering it was me."

"Huh," Kogorou sniffed. "You didn't fool me, boy! I suspected you from the start."

"Don't be such an idiot!" his wife snapped. "You didn't have a clue!"

"How dare you doubt my deductive prowess!"

"Are you going home, Uncle?" Shinichi broke into the brewing argument. "Seeing as you're dressed."

Kogorou smoothed the front of his shirt. "Yes. well, there's no point in me staying here any more. not when the organization has been crushed. Besides," he smirked. "There are many loyal fans that are very anxious about my well-being," he glanced at Eri. "Unlike my own wife."

Eri simply rolled her eyes while the others hid their smiles, and Shinichi felt the tension flow away from the room.

"KUDO!"

Shinichi and the others stared in surprise as the door banged open and Heiji entered on crutches, his face darker than usual with anger.

"This is all YOUR fault!" Heiji cried, wildly pointing a crutch at Shinichi and almost falling backwards. Only Kazuha's sudden appearance behind him saved the Osaka detective. She looked apologetically at the others and struggled to prop Heiji up.

Righting himself, Heiji threw off Kazuha's hands and hopped over to Shinichi. "Thanks to you I've been grounded for a MONTH!" he raged.

Shinichi raised an eyebrow. "Hey, don't attempt to pin this on me, Hattori. You wanted to come, remember?"

Heiji glared so fiercely that everyone else started to feel nervous, Kazuha and Ran even began to reach for his arms to prevent him from doing something drastic to Shinichi. But he surprised them all - except for Shinichi - by throwing back his head and laughing.

"Okay, okay. You're right, I did, but I'm still going to blame you for getting me grounded!"

"Hmmm." Yukiko looked speculatively at her son. "Perhaps we should follow Hattori-san's example, Yusaku. I'd feel so much better if Shin-chan was pinned down to one place for a month."

Now Shinichi looked vaguely alarmed. "You wouldn't."

"We will," she said. "Unless."

"You tell us what happened tonight," said Heiji. "It's killing me not knowing!"

"And his griping is killing me!" Kazuha added.

"And if you don't say anything." Ran held up a fist significantly.

Shinichi looked at the intent faces surrounding him. "Meep."

***

"I think Kudo-kun is right, this is the only solution at this time."

"Yes, Toyama, I agree. and she is being very co-operative. Now."

"I wonder if the psychological impact of this remarkable change affected her response? It was hard to remember what she was when we told her the conditions, she reacted like any child would react to bad news throwing by throwing such a tantrum."

"You'd have to ask Kudo about that, Shiratori-san."

"Well, Megure. I'm happy to leave this one in your hands. Toyama and I will return to Osaka tomorrow afternoon and start rooting out the people she told us about."

"Where is she going to stay?"

"In a safe place under strong surveillance, she won't escape."

"From what I understand, Megure, she can't. there's no one for her to go to and the remnants of the organization will be anxious to kill the one who betrayed them."

"Clever idea of Kudo's that. forcing her into the role of a target."

"A bit of revenge, Hattori-san - I shouldn't condone it, but between us. well. I can hardly blame him."

"All right then, we'll call it a night and take it from the top in the morning?"

"Absolutely."

***

Three days later:

"Ayumi!"

The little girl ran up to the two boys standing at the entrance to Beika Park. "Sorry I'm late," she gasped. "But I wanted to get some snacks for the picnic."

"But I thought Ran-san was bringing the food," Mitsuhiko looked vaguely anxious.

"She is," Ayumi assured him. "But I wanted to add something as well."

"More food is always good!" Genta said cheerfully as the three children rounded a corner. "Look! There they are!"

Ran waved. "Hey guys, over here!" she called, pausing in her job of spreading the blanket on the grass. Beside her, Shinichi sat up straighter, a slightly nervous look in his eyes.

The children approached, smiling at Ran. Ayumi was the first to turn to Shinichi whom she eyed gravely before smiling tremulously. "Hello Shinichi-niisan."

"Hi, Ayumi-chan," he smiled at her. "How are you guys doing?"

"We're fine," Mitsuhiko said quietly.

"Yeah," Genta nodded.

"We miss Conan though," Ayumi sniffed.

Shinichi drew in a deep breath and knelt down to face them. "As I said before, I'm sorry. I really am, but remember. Conan isn't gone, he was always me and I'll always be him. I know it's not going to be the same, but I don't want to lose your friendship. you're all very important to me and without you. well." he smiled. "I would have been lost many, many times!"

"Really?" Ayumi lifted her head and met his eyes. Shinichi nodded firmly.

"Really."

He reached behind with his good hand and pushed forward the objects he had brought with him. "And now I'm too big, you will all have to continue the Detective Boys without me, so I'm passing my gadgets on to you."

The children's jaws dropped as they feasted their eyes on the stun-gun wrist watch, pairs of tracking glasses, the voice changer bow tie, the power kick shoes and, best of all, the solar powered skateboard. They looked at the gadgets and then at each other, broad smiles creeping over their faces. Mitsuhiko lifted his chin. "Don't worry, Shinichi-san, we'll make you proud!" he said and the others clamoured their assent.

"Excellent!" Shinichi grinned. "Now perhaps the Detective Boys would like to solve a missing persons mystery?"

"Who?" Genta asked, wide-eyed.

"Why the missing fourth member of the Detective Boys, of course!"

"Ai-chan?" Ayumi looked at her watch. "Oh, she's late."

"Not really," Ai spoke up from behind. "We just got a little side-tracked."

"Ai-chan!" Ayumi bounded forward and then was brought to an abrupt halt when she spotted the little girl standing beside her friend. "Uh."

"So she finally decided to come out," Ran murmured, she looked at Shinichi in concern. "Are you sure this is wise? What if she."

"Shush," he put a finger to his lips. "Watch."

"Hi," Ayumi smiled at Chris. "I'm Ayumi Yoshida, are you Ai-chan's friend? I'm her friend too! Pleased to meet you! What country are you from? America? This is how they say hi there, right?" she held out her hand.

The girl, who had once been Vermouth, pushed back a strand of dyed brown hair from her face and regarded the small, out-stretched hand impassively for a moment. She then glanced at Ai, a flicker of some unreadable emotion crossing her face, before turning back to Ayumi and smiling.

"Hi, Ayumi-chan," she took Ayumi's hand and shook it. "I'm Christine Saintmillion, pleased to meet you."

***

To be concluded

AN: I have no clear idea about Akai's personality or his real motives/affiliations. whatever. My Akai is pieced together from what little I know of him from his brief appearances and then fleshed out for the story. I would like to add that I had a totally different outcome planned for him when I plotted this, but neither he nor Vermouth were very cooperative! People might consider my outcome to be a little unrealistic considering the lack of death, Vermouth's survival and so on, but I don't really consider Conan to be an angsty, death riddled series - hence the lack of death (except for poor Otaki-san and Gin!) in my ending. As for Vermouth. well, she's always struck me as someone who is ultimately out for number one and will adapt to survive and succeed whatever happens.

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