In Kaito’s life there has never been a moment when he didn’t know he loved Aoko. From the first, he’d liked her, a wide-eyed, cute girl who’d appreciated his sleight of hand in front of a clock tower. She’d kept appreciating it, always a little awed whenever he did something for the sole purpose of entertaining her. He’d loved her as a friend for years as they filled empty spaces in their broken homes with each other, childish hijinks and sharing secrets beneath pillow forts. Romantic love hadn’t been a dramatic shift. Just a normal day watching Aoko do normal things and he’d realized he wanted that forever.
Being with her.
Of course none of that meant that he couldn’t tease her too. And it isn’t like he’s going to tell her he loves her. Maybe someday, but not now. Not with Kid and her dad on the task force chasing him. Not with crazy people with guns and a grudge lurking in the night. Not when he can still have her like this, annoyed and chasing him with a mop and moving together like they can read each other’s minds because they’ve danced this dance so many times.
She’s safe like this.
So Kaito flips over some desks and steals her pencils and doesn’t let his smile drop or his hands linger when they touch even though he wants to.
He’s loved Aoko for years and he’s not going to stop any time soon.
Akako has known from a young age that she had power. Witches of her family line had been enchanting men for centuries, gaining wealth, power and freedom all willingly given by foolish men who thought they might win their hearts, or at the very least, their bodies. She learned to charm and manipulate with a smile, a frown, a hint of what she wanted and ways to lead someone to making those desires reality long before she even touched her magic.
It’s never made her any friends with women, but honestly, with power like hers, what did Akako need friends for? If she wants companionship she doesn’t need to do more than look at a man and he can be her conversation partner. If she’s hungry, someone will provide. If she sees something she wants, she can drop enough hints in the right ears that that thing will be hers within a day or two if not immediately. If she wants all men in the room to look at her, they will. They will abandon what their fickle hearts had been set on and come to her and be hers to command and they will be ecstatic if she so much as condescends to look at them. She is just coming into her full powers and already she is a queen like her mother was before her.
Kaito who brushes off her charms. Who looks bored at her attempts to attract him, who gives more attention to a plain girl in their class than Akako and Akako knows that even without her powers she would have most of them men turning heads her direction from looks alone. Kaito is a flaw in her perfect tapestry of control. A snag that ruins the image, and all over some girl.
Aoko is nothing special. She’s wild-looking, childish, and has a terrible temper. She’s not stupid, but she isn’t the top of her class. She doesn’t try to look beautiful and she doesn’t try to make people like her at all. She disrupts class as often as Kaito does and doesn’t seem to see the irony that yelling at Kaito only adds to chaos he starts.
Logically there is nothing about her that should be worth Akako’s attention at all.
Akako can’t help watching her anyway, wondering what Kaito saw in her that made her special. What she had that Akako didn’t.
Out of the girls in Akako’s class, Aoko doesn’t glare when Akako holds court. She’s actually asked Akako to eat lunch with her before. With a smile. A smile that wasn’t even fake, like she actually wanted to be friendly.
It should be annoying. A peasant treating a queen like an equal. But.
Akako watches Aoko laugh at something Kaito says, open and straightforward and brash, everything Akako isn’t… This girl. There’s something there that keeps Akako coming back, watching her as much as Kaito, over and over again.
Perhaps, Akako thinks, next time she will smile back when Aoko makes another attempt at friendship. Perhaps she will say yes. Perhaps she will come to understand how such a simple girl can catch her attention and hold the heart of the one man she cannot charm.
It would probably surprise people if Saguru said he knew his flaws. Yes, he is smart. He can connect facts, dredge up information he’s seen or read or heard like pulling files from a folder. He can profile a person and their habits based around micro-expressions within twenty minutes of interacting with them. He can be charming and have impeccable manners thanks to social niceties being drilling into him since he could talk. He’s confident because experience has proven he is frequently correct in his logic and assumptions, and he knows that his familial reputation as well as his own eases the way with situations that could trip up other people. But for every talent he has he knows he has flaws. His confidence makes him brash and come across as arrogant. He’s so used to reading people that he forgets sometimes that they aren’t just puzzles to be solved. He gets so caught up in the details of casework and can solve them, but understanding how people work never really quite connected with being able to pick apart their behaviors. It’s one thing to know someone is a murderer because of how they avoid touching objects in a room and can’t hide clenching their hands every time the victim’s indiscretion is mentioned. It’s another thing to understand that someone murdered their brother because he’d been dragging the family name in the mud for years and seducing the murderer’s wife had been the last straw.
Saguru knows from the moment he speaks with Nakamori Aoko in front of Kuroba Kaito that Aoko is Kaito’s weak point. He can see how giving her attention makes Kaito annoyed and can extrapolate from the way Kaito makes pointed comments if Saguru does anything that resembles flirtation that Kaito is attracted to Aoko and trying to pretend he isn’t. He can’t say why Kaito doesn’t speak of it, and he can’t say what Kaito thinks of Aoko in the first place since she usually seems to be trying to attack him with something, but he doesn’t have to.
Aoko is Kaito’s weakness and Saguru, so very sure that Kaito is Kid, exploits it.
He gives her flirtatious bows and leading invitations to spend time with him. He compliments her appearance and gives her smiles that he does not give to their other classmates. And Aoko blushes and responds just as Saguru hopes she would, flustered and a little pleased by the attention. If Kaito wasn’t so caught up in glaring, he’d notice that Aoko always gave him little fleeting looks to try and gauge if Kaito was going to interfere. Like perhaps she wanted him to interfere. Or perhaps she just wanted some sign that Kaito was interested in her since he rarely said anything that could be construed as interested in her when they were in class at least. Saguru has no idea about how they interacted outside of class. Although if it was anything like how they interacted in school he pitied bystanders that had to deal with them.
The flirting gets him Kaito’s attention, but it doesn’t make him slip up. It gets him Aoko’s attention too, which he really should have expected. She never tells him to stop flirting, but she does seem intent to brush it aside once her flustered blustering is out of the way, treating him like he’s a friend.
For Saguru, who has never been good at building friendships, it’s a bit of a novel experience.
He’s invited to eat lunch with her and Kaito and her friend Keiko. He’s invited to group outings even though he generally declines the offers. Aoko asks about his day, shares opinions about what she read in the news, and pulls him into more than one commiseration against Kid that ends with Kaito pranking the whole class just to get them off the topic.
Saguru chases Kid and tries to reveal Kaito—because truly there is only one person Kid can be with so many clues pointing his direction—and has an argument with Aoko over it that leaves him shaken and hurt even though he won’t show it. He knows he’s right. He also knows that Aoko’s probably blinding herself to it. Having someone angry at him for something he deduced isn’t anything new, but having a friend angry at him over something is.
He’s not sure what to do.
He’s not sure what he wants to do because he never intended to let anyone in his class close enough to hurt him in the first place. Saguru isn’t even supposed to be here very long.
Saguru looks at Aoko giving him the cold shoulder and hurts. And Kaito, Kaito who is smug that Saguru’s out of favor, hurts too because he doesn’t even seem to realize that he has something precious in Aoko. He has her loyalty and belief even over facts. That’s something Saguru’s never had, something that can’t be quantified or easily analyzed and slotted into grid-marked boxes.
Kaito is lucky and Aoko deserves better than someone constantly lying to her face.
He doesn’t kid himself into thinking she’d even consider Saguru though.
Aoko knows she has a short temper. She gets angry at Kaito, angry at Kid, angry at her dad for working too much, angry at Saguru for making accusations, angry at Kid fans for glorifying a criminal. She likes to think that that’s not the only thing people notice about her though. Oh, she knows she’s not the prettiest girl in class, or the smartest, or all that feminine at all a lot of the time. Akako is the most beautiful, Keiko is higher ranked than her in half her subjects, and traditional femininity is overrated anyway. Why be docile and quiet and submissive? She’d rather be loud and say what she meant and put people in their place when they crossed a line.
But sometimes she wishes her first instinct wasn’t to yell and fight. Sometimes she wonders if she wasn’t so combative that Kaito might go back to how they were as kids, open and intimate without an unspoken wall between them. He’d tell her whatever it was he kept holding back and hiding under wide smiles and wilder pranks. Maybe instead of blowing up at Saguru, she would have the right words to talk him around to her point of view.
She is combative though, so the wall remains and arguments fester and she’s just so frustrated. By herself. By the men in her life. By Kid who seems to have heralded a downward trend in all her closest relationships. The only good thing lately has been Akako and even there Aoko’s frequently not sure what to make of her.
Koizumi Akako is the prettiest girl Aoko has ever met. She’s confident and charismatic and, yes she has a habit of luring in boys to get them to do what she wants, but honestly that’s just one more impressive thing about her. She can look at a guy and make him want to be ordered around. Aoko wishes she could give off that sort of charisma. Maybe Kaito would listen for once. And for all that Akako is queen of their little classroom kingdom—school kingdom? How many other classes know about her?—she’s only been nice to Aoko.
Aoko doesn’t get it really. It’s not like Aoko could offer Akako anything she couldn’t get elsewhere. It’s nice though.
Sometimes when Kaito is bickering with Hakuba and Keiko is visiting other friends, Aoko takes her lunch and eats with Akako. Akako always has something someone brought in for her to eat. Aoko’s never quite dared to ask if it’s been the same person twice.
Akako smiles sometimes when Aoko talks—mostly rambling anecdotes involving Kaito—and Aoko… sometimes Aoko feels something flutter in her when she does that. Akako doesn’t smile very often at other girls. She doesn’t really talk to her female classmates besides Aoko much at all.
It’s a lot like how Saguru’s flirting flusters her (Aoko doubts he means it. He always looks at Kaito when he thinks she’s distracted, almost like she’s a roundabout way of flirting with him.) It’s a lot like how she feels when Kaito conjures up a red rose, just like the one he gave her as a child. It’s all a mess of warm feelings and embarrassment at being singled out and hidden glee because it is her getting that attention, no one else.
Aoko has a lot of complicated feelings sometimes.
They’re mostly about Kaito. Sometimes they aren’t.
When Saguru and Kaito argue, they always get in each other’s faces in a way that they probably have no idea they’re doing. Today, though, they’re eating quietly, not looking at each other at all. They’re also not looking at her and Aoko wonders which of them will break first, her or Saguru. Their pride won’t let them apologize and she can’t quite let go of her irritation enough to do so either. Kaito’s not even smug about her choosing his side anymore. That’s Aoko’s fault too, losing her temper over his fanboying.
If Aoko was a little more someone else and a little less herself, maybe these messes wouldn’t keep happening so much.
“How are you always so confident?” Aoko asks in a moment of rare privacy.
Akako leans against the windowsill, watching sports teams drill down below on practice fields. Their work cleaning the classroom has been finished for a while, but she wanted to linger here. “You have to believe you’re above everyone,” Akako says. “If everyone is lesser, nothing they say or think can bring you down.”
“Oh.” Aoko grips her mop. “That sounds lonely.”
“If you truly believe it, you don’t feel lonely at all.” Akako looks at Aoko. Aoko’s hair is flyaway and messy from chasing Kaito earlier in class and there is a frown etching itself between her eyebrows. Akako reaches out and smooths the wrinkle between Aoko’s eyebrows away with her thumb. “That doesn’t mean friends are an impossibility though.”
Aoko doesn’t dodge her touch. “Is it friendship if you’re not equals?”
This girl. Akako wonders if she could possess her, snare her the way she does so many men’s hearts. But then if she did that, Aoko wouldn’t be Aoko anymore and there is something fascinating about Aoko’s simplicity. Akako grants her a smile. “I think,” she says, “that’s something you don’t have to worry about.” Aoko is practically Akako’s opposite, but she holds power over the one man Akako cannot. In a way it makes her closer to an equal than Aoko will ever know. “Trust yourself a bit more,” she says, pulling her hand away. “Confidence starts with loving yourself.”
“I apologize,” Saguru says stiffly. It grates against his pride, but when it comes down to it, he would rather not lose one of the few friendships he has. “I cannot change how I feel about the matter concerning Kid, but it was insensitive of me to bring the topic up so often in front of you. Kuroba is your friend and I admire your loyalty to him.” Even if it is misplaced.
Aoko watches him, wary as she had been from the moment he asked her to go to a café with him after school. Somewhere nearby, Kaito undoubtedly is spying on them. That knowledge makes it harder to do this than if he was sure they were alone.
“Kaito is my friend,” Aoko says. “I know why you think he’s Kid, but he’s Kaito.” She shrugs, a little helpless at putting words to everything Kaito encompasses to her. “And what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t defend him?”
Saguru realizes with a jolt of understanding that she’s already done something similar for Saguru’s sake. When Kaito’s comments get biting, she reigns him in just like when Saguru crosses a line from harmless bickering into pointed accusations, she calls him out for it too. “I see.”
Aoko smiles and it’s such a relief after being on her bad side for so long. It’s like the sun coming out. “I accept your apology, Hakuba-kun. You don’t have to apologize to Kaito. He’s already gotten back at you with enough pranks to make up for it. If anything he should probably be apologizing by this point.”
A server twitches a few tables away. Kaito is terrible at being subtle when Aoko is involved. “Not necessary,” Saguru says. “I’m hardly being passive toward the pranks.” He and Kaito bickered more than ever lately. It is almost funny since the only other person Kaito deigns to argue with is Aoko.
Aoko laughs. “I should help you prank him back sometime. It’s good to keep him on his toes.”
Saguru smiles, something warm and satisfied curling in his stomach. It was the right choice bending his pride.
He picks up the bill at the end of their talk. Aoko’s flustered blush is worth having his toes stomped on by the passing ‘server’.
“If you could ask one question and I’d answer it truthfully, what’d it be?” Kaito asks, lounging on the Nakamori’s couch. He’s juggling school supplies, pens and pencils and erasers that they had been using to do homework. He doesn’t look at Aoko because looking would make it seem like a serious question instead of casual. Can’t let her know he’s serious.
“Truthfully or straightforward?” Aoko shoots back. “Because those are different things.”
“Oof, it’s like you don’t trust me,” Kaito says, tossing the eraser her way.
Aoko smacks it out of the air back at him, and Kaito grabs it back into his juggling like he never threw it. “I know you hate giving a straight answer. You can say something true without really answering a question at all.”
“Hmm.” She did know him. Kaito supposes he’s been even worse than he was growing up these days too about avoiding things. “Fine. A non-evasive, truthful answer for a straightforward question. What would you ask?”
Aoko is quiet, too quiet, so he glances her way. She’s looking at him hard, like she’s trying to pick apart his thought processes, gauge how much sincerity is present in the question.
Kaito gives her a grin. “I mean, you could always ask if I like you,” he says with a wink.
Aoko huffs. “As if I want you to answer that!” He waits, expecting the next words out of her mouth to be ‘Are you Kaitou Kid?’ And waits. He stops juggling.
“It wasn’t supposed to be that deep,” he says as Aoko keeps frowning at him.
“Shush,” she says. Then, “If I ask something would you really answer?”
“Is that your question?”
Aoko’s glare could draw blood. Ow.
“I guess. Like Truth or Dare, only without the Dare or any fun consequences.”
“Are you okay, Kaito?” she asks, so serious that it makes his heart stutter. That’s her question.
“Hmm, that’s an interesting question to toss at a hypothetical,” he deflects.
“Kaito. You just said you’d answer.”
“In hypothetical.” He can’t do much against that scowl though, or the flash of disappointment on her face. He’s disappointed her a lot lately. It’s guilt that pushes him to be honest for once. It used to be easy to be honest to her once upon a time, but he’s barely honest to himself anymore let alone other people. “I’m not really sure how I’m doing,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m doing okay, and other times I wonder what I’m doing with myself.”
“…For the future?”
“The future, the present…” Kaito shrugs. He’s barely said anything and he feels terribly exposed and vulnerable. It’s not a good feeling. He wants to wrap himself back up in one of his many personas and pretend he never asked that hypothetical. But Aoko’s still listening, expecting more from him. Somehow he knows that if he disappoints her here, he’s going to lose another strand of their fraying friendship. “I want to make my dad proud, to honor his memory, but I don’t know if I can do that. And I don’t know if I’m going about it the right way.”
Aoko, of course, doesn’t fill in the vague gaps with Kid, but with Kaito’s magician skills. “You’re good. You’re probably a better magician than most people twice your age, Kaito. Of course he’d be proud.”
Would he? Would he be proud to see Kaito wearing Kid’s persona and baiting the men who killed him? He’d left everything for Kaito to find. He’d left it so he could pick it up where his father left off, but… Kaito forces a laugh, practice making it sound genuine. “Yeah… You’re right. I’d probably be able to show him a trick or two these days.”
Aoko smiles back, but it’s pained. “Kaito… You don’t have to smile if you don’t feel like it.”
Kaito’s smile fades, still lingering at the corner of his mouth; it’s easier to smile than it is to frown, the expression practically engrained. “I know,” he says, giving her one last bit of honesty before he has to lie again. “But it’s what I do. I smile and make jokes and try to make other people smile because that makes me want to smile. You know?”
“Yeah,” Aoko says with a sigh. “I know.” She bites her lip, hesitating to say something. “Kaito? What would you ask me?”
“Hmm.” Kaito let his hands start juggling again. “How about… what underwear are you wearing today?”
He dodges a book, laughing. Aoko throws another and he adds it to his juggling routine for a moment before he has to roll off the couch entirely.
“You’re awful,” Aoko complains, throwing whatever won’t break at him, though she doesn’t get up to grab a broom.
Kaito laughs and Aoko doesn’t ask him again.
Kaito’s not sure he wants to know the answer to “What couldn’t you forgive?”
“Aoko. Earth to Aoko? You awake or are you sleeping with your eyes open?”
Aoko twitches as Keiko’s hand waves in front of her face. “I’m awake! I’m just…” She glances back across the room. Saguru is sitting reading a book, his lunch long finished. By some odd whim of fate, Akako’s sitting near him today, her usual gaggle of eager-to-please boys sent away so she could enjoy her meal in private today. Normally Aoko would be distracted with Kaito at lunch, but he’s off doing some errand, probably planning on skipping the second half of school. She should be annoyed by that. Instead Aoko can’t stop looking at her friends.
“…Something you want to tell me about?” Keiko asks with an eyebrow raised. “Kuroba-kun finally have some competition?” She grins, inviting Aoko to laugh like it’s a joke and…
And Aoko’s not sure it is a joke really. “It’s not like that,” she says. It can’t be because she likes Kaito, right? She’s liked him for years and years and she would never in a million years admit she’s thought of having a wedding and maybe—maybe—eventually having a kid with Kaito’s blue eyes and messy hair and mischievous smile, but she knows she’s in love with him. So there’s no reason for her eyes to stray to Saguru. He flirts, yes, but he probably doesn’t mean it. He’s just trying to mess with Kaito. There’s even less reason for her to look at Akako. Admiration is one thing. Aoko admires plenty of women. But when she looks at Akako lately, it’s not just respect and friendship. Aoko doesn’t know what to do with any of that. “It’s… it’s not.”
Keiko blinks. She follows Aoko’s eyes, looking at Saguru mostly because why would she think it would be both of them? “Huh.”
“I like Kaito,” Aoko says, but it’s not as resolute as she’d like.
“Well,” Keiko says slowly, “if Kaito never gets his head on straight, you probably have a pretty good chance with Hakuba-kun. He’s already asked you out once.”
“That was because he wanted to make Kaito mad.”
Keiko tilts her head, considering it, then shrugs. “But you know, you’re the only girl in class he talks to really. So if it was anyone here, it’d be you.”
Akako notices Aoko looking her direction and smiles. Aoko hopes she isn’t blushing, but she probably is. Saguru is still fully engrossed in his novel. He probably wouldn’t notice anything short of a murder or an alarm going off.
Keiko reconsiders where Aoko’s looking. “…Or Akako-chan might be into you too? I mean, she doesn’t do anything with the boys other than jerk them around to do her bidding. She actually smiles at you.”
Aoko buries her burning face in her hands. “I like Kaito.”
“And I like pretty celebrity boy bands,” Keiko says. “It’s not weird to be into more than one person.”
“I never have been.” Aoko peeks out between her fingers. Akako is smiling like she knows exactly what Aoko is thinking and that’s embarrassing as hell. “Is it wrong to like that they actually want to talk to me?”
“Aoko, if Kaito’s not wanting to talk to you, he really doesn’t deserve you even if you are cute together.”
“He does want to talk to me,” Aoko argues. “It’s just we’ve known each other so long he just… expects me to always be around or something. And he’s been busy with something a lot lately and he never tells me what.”
“And they’re not doing that, right?”
“No. But I don’t know them that well yet. And I don’t know if I even want to be interested let alone if they are back.”
Keiko gives Aoko a reassuring pat on the arm. “It’s ok. We’re teenagers. It’s not like we have to have everything figured out yet. If you want to try dating someone who isn’t Kaito, it’s not like he has any say in it.”
That was a good point. But Aoko knows she’s not the sort to be able to casually date. She should be glad she has so many attractive friends and just get on with life. Or just screw up the courage to ask Kaito out so she doesn’t have to tie herself in knots. If she’s dating, she can let go of the other feelings, right?
But wouldn’t that mean she could let go of Kaito if she was dating someone else?
Aoko shakes her head. Emotions sucked. When she looks at the others again, Akako has a notebook out and Saguru has reached the last few pages of his novel and has a look of hyper-focus that is weirdly cute. Aoko doesn’t know what her heart is doing.
“You’ll figure it out,” Keiko says.
Aoko really hopes she’s right.
Kaito is so used to threats being aimed his way, he forgot to worry about people he loved getting caught in the crossfire. Nakamori could take care of himself. Hakuba has police power backing him as the commissioner’s son, Jii has his magician skills, and Kaito’s mother is in another country ninety percent of the time. Aoko? Kaito wouldn’t say Aoko is a pushover—her quick hand and a hard hitting mop skills are terrifying—but she isn’t used to danger like the rest of them are.
So when a man baiting Kid grabs her as a hostage from a crowd, taking her away with a challenge for her safety… Kaito is embarrassed to admit that he freezes up in panic. It’s Aoko and her safety is and will always be more important to him than his own. But because he froze, it gives the guy just enough time to get away.
“Stupid,” Kaito berates himself. He’s climbing stairs, following the clue left to him, one of several. What was the point of his Poker Face if he fails to use it when he needs it?
The top of the stairs are empty. Another false lead, the new clue tucked innocently in a potted plant of a rooftop garden. He skims it, mind whirling to the next place. He only hopes that Aoko is actually at the end of this chase, still whole and healthy. He crumples the paper. The map is forming in his mind, lines of paths crossing and doubling back. He dashes toward the stairs only to freeze as he finds Saguru coming up them.
“You have the next clue?” Saguru asks, out of breath and deathly serious.
Kaito stares. “Excuse me?”
“The person who took Nakamori-chan. His clue,” Saguru says. “You aren’t being subtle right now, Kid. A child could follow you.”
A child like Edogawa maybe, Kaito thinks, but that doesn’t explain why Saguru is here.
“What?” Saguru snaps. “You don’t think you’re the only one who cares about her, do you? Nakamori-keibu is frantic. I’ve been trying to catch up since the first clue.”
“I’m not Kuro—”
“I’m not here to catch you today!” Saguru says, exasperated. “Give me the clue.”
Kaito points over his shoulder and vaults over the edge of the stairs to the next flight below. Saguru swears above him, but there’s no time. He has to reach the end of the puzzle. He has to get to Aoko before she’s hurt or killed or anything else terrible.
He runs into Akako on the ground floor landing, almost running headlong into her.
“Shush. You’re playing into this man’s game and panicking. You need to get a step ahead.”
“I’m trying but he didn’t leave any traces!”
Akako raises an eyebrow and holds up a phone charm that is usually dangling cheerfully from Aoko’s cell phone. “Who do you think you’re talking to?”
Kaito blinks. Stops. “You’re helping?” Akako. Akako who wants to control him is helping him find the woman he loves. “What’s the catch?”
Akako tosses her hair. “Excuse me, but there doesn’t need to be a catch, Kuroba. I don’t want Aoko-chan hurt either.”
“Since when are you friends?”
“Do you pay any attention to her life?” Akako asks derisively.
Kaito bristles, because it hits a little too close to home with how busy his life has become since Kid. There isn’t the same time to keep up with Aoko’s life. It’s safer to keep a bit of distance too. Or so he thought. Maybe he’s wrong if she’s started trying to actually befriend people like Akako.
Saguru’s heavy footsteps clatter down the stairs above them and he appears around the bend in the stairs and freezes. “Koizumi-san?” he wheezes. He needs to work on his stamina, Kaito notes offhandedly.
Akako presses Aoko’s charm into Kaito’s hand. “That will get you where you need to go, no games necessary.” She turns and smiles at Saguru and Saguru freezes like a squirrel faced with a hungry-looking cat. “Wonderful timing, Hakuba-kun. You can mobilize the police while Kid goes and saves Aoko-chan.”
“What?” Saguru’s eyes flick to Kaito, but Kaito takes that as a cue to move toward the door. “What are you even doing here?”
“Shh,” Akako says. “It’s fine. He has his role and you have yours. You’re going to make sure this kidnapper gets what’s coming to him.”
Kaito doesn’t hear anything after that. The charm in his hand twitches in the direction he needs to go, like there’s a thread tugging it gently. Help from Akako and Saguru isn’t what he expected, but he is hardly going to pretend he doesn’t want it.
It’s practically a straight path compared to before, the charm tugging lightly where he needs to be. Kaito has never moved faster, never felt his mind so focused. If anything happened to Aoko… He wouldn’t forgive himself. It’s Kid this person is after and—knowingly or not—they took the person that matters most.
The charm leads to an old apartment building, one recently closed and slated for demolition in several weeks. Definitely not the sort of place anyone would look for ongoing shady activity. Maybe a homeless person trying to break in, but not the sort of area that’s high crime. Kaito climbs the roof of the building across the street, eyes glued on dirty glass and several boarded up windows. There’s no light inside, nothing to give someone away. If there is any light in there, it’s behind the boarded up windows. The locks, from what he can see from a distance, are cheap; old and simple. Easy to pick. There’s no way to tell how many people might be there with her. No way to know if it’s not all just rigged to blow up if he opens the right door.
Kaito slips back to the ground and crosses closer. The charm pulls firmer now like the proximity gives it strength. He slides cat-footed along abandoned doors, waiting for an indication that it’s the right one.
It’s the very last in the row, and it has cameras hidden close by. Kaito almost walks into sight before spotting the dim glint off its lens. Cameras probably meant someone waiting inside who needed warning for security.
Kaito bites his lip. There are a lot of apartments in the block, but this one is the highest and on a corner… More defensible. But he should be able to… In moments, Kaito picks the lock of the adjacent apartment. Inside it is dim and the air is stale. There’s a mold stain growing on the ceiling. Kaito moves silently to the bathroom. Bathrooms have vents, and vents went places. The vents in the building would be connected just for efficiency’s sake, and he has a pocket full of sleeping gas bombs.
The vent panel comes off easily and it is too simple to fish a line through to the adjacent vent next door. It’s imprecise doing this. The gas will leak into the next room, yes, but he can’t guarantee how much and he has to be careful not to send through too high a dose. As soon as Kaito sets it off, he blocks off the vent on this side and waits, counting seconds.
There is no sound from the other room.
He waits a bit longer.
There’s still no sound, but he’s not waiting any longer. Kaito ghosts back out of the apartment and circles the cameras. It’s child’s play by now to disable them. He doesn’t have his tech on hand to loop, but it’s fine. It’s fine because the person watching is hopefully out cold. He tries not to think of Aoko, scared and hostage, feeling panic as unconsciousness claimed her too.
The door is locked and barred, but he’s hardly going to be kept out by a few bits of metal. A few minutes later, he enters the room, respirator over his face to keep from breathing gas.
The setup is like something out of a crime drama, a conspiracy board full of notes and photos, half of which are Kid, and a mess of papers and trash scattered along the floor. A laptop is set up to the side in the main room. It had been playing the camera feed, now blank with the cameras disabled. The kidnapper is a jumble of weedy limbs, thin arms and legs akimbo as he’d probably passed out standing up. By some stroke of fortune, he was close to the bathroom when the gas was released.
The charm in Kaito’s hand almost tugs itself free when he spots Aoko. She’s in the boarded up kitchen, dust and grimy bits of tile counter on the floor around her, Aoko herself slumped in the space that—from the stains on the wall—once held the refrigerator. Her hands are tied behind her back and there is a bruise forming on her face, but when Kaito checks her pulse, it’s a steady, healthy rhythm.
Kaito breathes a shaky sigh of relief. She’s okay. She’s still alive and whole. Probably traumatized, but okay.
He pulls out his burner phone. “Tantei-san,” he says when Saguru picks up. “I have her.” Kaito rattles off the address.
“The kidnapper?” Saguru asks, wasting no time on details.
“Unconscious.” Kaito unties Aoko and carries the ropes over to truss up the man. He’s not gentle about it. “I’m tying him up now.” The man won’t be losing any limbs, but if he has a bit of pain later… Kaito pushes that dark thought down and away.
“Good,” Saguru says, his cold tone and echo of Kaito’s thoughts.
Kaito looks at the conspiracy board and sighs. “I think he’s something of a Kid fan. Or maybe not a fan exactly but…”
“It’s a good thing the nearest division of police force happens to be well versed in Kid related incidents,” Saguru says, almost a grim joke.
Kaito snorts before he can stop himself. This is a mess. “I won’t stay to get arrested, but I won’t leave her to wake alone either.”
“Of course. The police will be there within fifteen minutes.”
Kaito hangs up without saying goodbye. He’s done his part, now it’s Saguru’s job to do the rest.
The charm Akako gave him is inert now, its purpose fulfilled as soon as he touched Aoko. He tucks it into one of Aoko’s pockets. Her sleeping face is slack, showing none of the stress and anger she’s going to feel once she’s awake. He brushes his thumb over the bruise, light as picking a pocket. Guilt and regret burn in him. This shouldn’t have happened. He knows it was outside of his control, but it shouldn’t have happened, and certainly not to Aoko.
It’s barely a minute later that she stirs. The gas must not have traveled very well after all, just filling everything enough to knock the apartment occupants out. Her eyes flutter. He waits, watching awareness return. Confusion. The stiffness as she realizes where she is. A moment of raw fear, then anger so fast it must be like a mental whiplash. Or not, since anger is the default response to anything unpleasant for the Nakamori blood line. Her eyes pin on him and she tries to move, anger clear on her face.
“Shh.” Kaito catches her before she can fall on her face. “The police are on their way. He won’t hurt you again.”
“Kid,” Aoko slurs. “You…”
“Can’t ignore someone being abducted from one of my shows can I?” he asks with a showy wink. Poker face is in place, the wide-smiling mask. “That’s just rude.”
“Why did you have to be the one…” she mumbles.
“I’m better at getting places,” he says gently. “Don’t worry. A white knight is on the way to save you, princess.”
Aoko glares groggily at him. She looks like she did as a child when he slept over and they stayed up too late and Kaito woke them too early the next morning. Tired and ruffled and annoyed.
“It’s going to be fine,” Kaito says, making himself look away before he does something that reveals his identity.
“Where’s the guy…?”
“Tied up and gagged in a corner,” Kaito says. He can hear sirens now. “You don’t have to be scared.”
Aoko scowls. “I wasn’t that scared. I was mostly just angry. And it’s your fault anyway.”
Kaito’s grin falters. “Yeah. My apologies. I’ll have to pay more attention to crazies I might bring out of the woodwork.” The sirens are very close. Kaito stands and Aoko tracks him, looking a little nervous of him in a way that honestly hurts him inside. “It’s going to be fine,” he repeats. “I’m going to the roof. No one will come or go unless it’s the police. I won’t let them.”
“I don’t get you,” Aoko admits. “I don’t get you at all.”
An honest, wry smile touches Kaito’s lips. “That’s kind of the point. What kind of phantom thief would I be if someone understood me?”
Her eyes burn on his back as Kaito leaves here there, untied and wobbly-limbed as she tries to move with the lingering after effects of the gas. When Saguru finally leads the charge up the stairs, Kaito fades away into the night. Saguru will ensure justice will be served. Kaito can’t be there for Aoko dressed like this anyway.
“Thank you,” Kaito says much later, perched in Akako’s window. It went against his better judgment to be here, but he had to say something. Maybe with positive reinforcement she’d be a bit less creepy about things going forward.
Akako gives him her familiar smirk. “Please, Kuroba, I helped for Nakamori-chan’s sake, not yours.”
“And I suppose me owing you a debt is secondary.”
“Do you feel you owe me something?” she says, head tilted and eyes calculated. “I could always ask for a date.”
“And I’d politely decline like always,” Kaito says.
“Politely,” she echoes with a snort.
“I didn’t know you considered Aoko a friend,” Kaito says after a moment.
Akako shrugs. “She considers me one. For the moment, I find it interesting to have another woman to talk to who isn’t angry that I’ve stolen her man.” She smirks. “For the moment.”
“Very funny.” Kaito sighs. “Look. I appreciate you helping Aoko. Provided you don’t need anything illegal or mind bendy in the future, you have one favor from me.”
“Only one? You never did repay me for my help at your heist.” She flutters eyelashes at him all fake demure.
Kaito is deeply unimpressed. “Yeah, you’re not getting more than the one. I could have figured something out back then. Today I didn’t have the ability to get to Aoko quickly on my own. So yeah, I only owe you one.”
Akako laughs. “I’ll take that then. But you will sway to me eventually.”
“Keep telling yourself that.”
“Are you going to thank Hakuba-kun too?”
Kaito grimaces. “Yeah, no. He got to be the hero after all. That’s reward enough.”
“So you’re never going to tell her then?” Akako asks, a surprisingly non-judgmental expression on her face, merely curiosity like his answer doesn’t matter one way or another.
“She hates Kid,” Kaito says. “It’s probably safer this way anyway.”
“Hmm.” Akako shrugs and waves a hand. “Goodnight, Kaito,” she says in clear dismissal.
Kaito rolls his eyes. “Yeah, whatever. See ya.” He drops from her windowsill, more than ready to leave.
Akako watches, with some bemusement, as Saguru makes Aoko blush with a simple bow and an enquiry about her health the day after her kidnapping scare. It’s nothing he hasn’t done before. It’s nothing Aoko hasn’t blushed over before either, but there’s something more to it this time, either in Saguru’s actions, or Aoko’s response. Surprisingly, Kaito isn’t interfering or even glaring Saguru down. He looks regretful if anything, probably because it happened in the first place.
“I’m fine,” Aoko says. “I’m just annoyed I didn’t get to punch the guy in the face.” She wrinkles her nose. “And that Kid was the one to find me.”
“Yes, well…” Saguru coughs. “He does seem to hold the welfare of bystanders seriously. I suppose it is one of his few good points.”
“There wouldn’t be bystanders if he wasn’t out there in the first place,” Aoko says, but she shrugs. “Anyway, thanks again for coming to get me.”
Saguru was the one who ultimately rescued her, Akako knows. Who she saw when her whole consciousness returned. Akako watched from afar. It must be killing Kaito to have left her to Saguru. Kaito is pretending not to listen, but he can’t hide how he’s not doing anything active or the way his head is tilted to hear them talk. He’s such a fool sometimes, Akako doesn’t know why she wants him.
“Of course,” Saguru says, with another little bow that has Aoko’s face turning pinker. “I wouldn’t leave you in danger. I’m glad you are alright, Nakamori-chan.” He gives her a nod and smile and leaves her be, a briefer encounter than usual, but less flirting and still Aoko’s blushing.
Akako can’t help but poke at that. “It wouldn’t hurt to choose him,” she says. “He’s at least a gentleman.”
“It’s not like that, Akako-chan,” Aoko says with a sigh, face still pink. She glances back at Saguru as he slides into his seat, and a quick darting look at Kaito staring off at nothing, shoulders still a bit too tense to be daydreaming.
“Well,” Akako drawls, “he doesn’t flip your skirt, he asks about your wellbeing, and he treats you kindly.”
“You know that shoving me at Hakuba-kun isn’t going to change things with Kaito, right?” Aoko says, blunt and almost cruel with how direct her words hit. She doesn’t look like she means it to hurt, but Akako’s breath catches for a moment, not expecting this at all. “Hakuba-kun doesn’t mean any of it for real, and even if Kaito is Kaito…” She can’t make herself say the words out loud, her face flushing deeper. “No one can make Kaito do what he doesn’t want to anyway.”
Akako lets out a slow breath, letting go of her shock. “I am aware. For once,” she says, a bit of hurt curling in her, “this isn’t me trying to attract Kuroba’s attention. I’m merely pointing out that between the two of them, Hakuba-kun treats you better.”
Aoko looks down at her hands where her fingers twist together. “I know.” Aoko bites her lip. “Even if I like Hakuba-kun…”
“Kuroba is Kuroba,” Akako finishes, resigned. She didn’t really expect anything different. “Well,” Akako says, letting her usual smirk cross her face. It’s a familiar expression, and this must be for her what Kuroba’s smile is to him; a defense and a place to hide behind to get back to equilibrium. “If you ever decide they’re too much trouble, you could always fall for me,” she says. It’s a thought she’s entertained lately, more often than she likes. She’s not supposed to actually be interested in people, they’re just supposed to want her. Blast Kaito and Aoko both.
Aoko’s eyes go wide and if her cheeks get any redder, she might combust. “That’s—you—don’t joke, please!” she sputters.
Akako gives her a wink and a chuckle and Aoko hides her face in her hands.
Aoko isn’t sure what to feel, where to look. She isn’t even sure how they all got here, sitting together in a park and not fighting. For the moment, Kaito is showing Saguru how to pick a lock—because a magician needed to know and Saguru had run into a case where it would have helped to know it recently. Saguru isn’t even making any comments about how it’s a thief’s skill. Akako has a book, laying out in the grass with her feet in Aoko’s lap. She looks her age for once, not tempting anyone. Aoko could reach out and— Aoko squashes that thought.
Akako suggested a walk. Aoko suggested a picnic. Kaito had complained and yet invited Saguru along and it is all better than Aoko could have imagined, seeing everyone getting along. They don’t like each other even if she’s friends with them all. But they’re here because an outing sounded fun, and Aoko brought rice balls and Saguru brought sandwiches his housekeeper made, and Akako got some kind of delicate pastry from someplace Aoko probably wouldn’t set foot in because the price tag on a single item would be her week’s worth of grocery money. Kaito, of course, brought nothing, but he was at least considerate enough to go buy drinks from a vending machine.
He’d juggled the bottles. He’d looked her in the eye and smiled and didn’t flip her skirt for once. Aoko’s starting to wonder if this whole thing is a dream, or if there was something in the food they ate. Akako’s pastries were too delicious to be normal.
Akako’s toes prod her knee. “Relax,” Akako says. “It’s okay to enjoy the moment.”
“I feel like I’m going to blink and it’ll end badly,” Aoko admits softly. She can see the edge of a smile past Akako’s book. The book isn’t in Japanese. It might not even be in English since it’s not any words Aoko recognizes on the cover.
“Hakuba-kun and Kuroba-kun are a bit too similar at times,” Akako says. “And exact opposites in others. It’s about time they had a moment where they could talk on the same level.”
“Kaito should just ask him about science,” Aoko says, because she’s heard from Saguru about lab work he’s done in his grandfather’s lab, and from Kaito about trying to get the chemical makeup of a new smoke bomb, adhesive, something just right. Maybe she needs to just setup the topic sometime and let them talk until they were friends.
“Kuroba-kun would think it was a lead in to entrapment.”
“Well then Kaito needs to bring up something to him.”
“Hm. Not likely.” Akako’s grin grows to show teeth. Aoko pinches one of her toes between her fingers in retaliation and Akako twitches, giggling. Oh, she’s ticklish. It’s a tiny thing, but it makes Akako feel so much more reachable all of a sudden. If Aoko was a bit more like Kaito, she’d probably take advantage of that. Instead, she grins back, leaving her hand on Akako’s foot.
“It’s about tension,” Kaito corrects. “You try to use force and you’re just going to snap the tool off in the lock. Delicately.”
“I don’t think this sort of lock would have been useful for the situation I found myself in anyway,” Saguru says with a sigh of frustration.
“You do lab work. Pretend it’s a chemical you’re trying to measure carefully. Also, all experience is experience. How can you get a skill if you don’t practice?”
“How do you practice?”
“I’m past that level. In general, I’m practicing constantly.” As if to prove a point, Kaito starts shuffling cards. “Or are you not constantly practicing observation?”
Aoko snorts. It’s so them, just that edge of competitiveness and irritation even as they’re getting along…
Aoko wants there to be more of this.
It’s like some sort of barrier was removed, Aoko thinks, because it’s like Akako and Saguru are suddenly around all the time. As much as Kaito at least, if not more. Aoko’s not sure what to do with it, and from Keiko’s bemused expression when Akako actually decides to join their little lunch group on several occasions, she doesn’t either.
“Am I imagining things?” Aoko asks Keiko, sitting in Keiko’s room with Keiko’s cat purring away soothingly in her arms.
“No, they’re definitely spending more time around you,” Keiko says. Their homework is abandoned on the floor, half-written English sentences impossible to focus on today. “Hakuba-kun is definitely into you though.”
“You think?” He has actually been flirting less lately. Yet another thing Aoko doesn’t know what to do with. “I thought he was just moving more firmly toward being friends.”
“He brings extra sweets for you when his housekeeper bakes.”
“He shares with all of us.”
“And he always gives you more,” Keiko says, undeterred. “He watches you when he’s not watching Kaito-kun. And he does still flirt, he just knows you better now and actually has things to talk about.”
“Okay, putting aside Hakuba-kun. Akako-chan??” Aoko scratches under the cat’s chin and claws prick her thighs as the cat kneads happily.
“Friendship?” Keiko says, not sounding very sure. “She might be using you to get to Kaito-kun.”
“She gives me more attention than him these days.”
“Maybe she’s into you too?” Keiko says, almost like it’s a joke. Almost.
Aoko hugs the cat tight, so glad that it’s the agreeable cuddly sort because instead of wiggling free, it just keeps purring. “Keiko,” Aoko whines. “Stop.”
“You said she watches you. Also, has she ever dated any of the guys she surrounds herself with?”
“Does she have to date any of them when she clearly likes them liking her?” Aoko asks.
“She likes attention. That’s not the same as liking guys.”
“Maybe she likes both?”
They both sit a moment contemplating this. “I still say she doesn’t treat you like she does most people,” Keiko says after a moment.
“I think we’re friends?” Aoko says. “Probably?” Is anyone truly friends with Akako or did her sheer personality just exert itself on whoever she deigned to give attention to?
“Okay,” Keiko says. Then, “If you could date any of them, who would you choose?”
In retrospect, Saguru thinks, the kiss was poorly timed. In the moment, however, his own nerves had thrown environmental awareness out the window.
The kiss had felt right. A nice walk together, a pleasing conversation, both of them leaning toward each other, Aoko’s eyes fixed on his face much as his were fixed on hers. She’d kissed back, eyes fluttering shut for a moment like it was a relief, like it was wanted and good for her as well. But then she’d opened her eyes. Then she’d looked past Saguru and “Kaito” left her lips and Saguru had looked and seen Kaito staring with open hurt in his expression, not a mask in sight.
And so Saguru regretted.
Aoko left, chasing Kaito almost half an hour ago. Saguru can’t quite bring himself to move. He can’t apologize; he meant that kiss and it isn’t up to Kaito who Aoko does or doesn’t kiss. At the same time, he is something like friends with Kaito. Not quite a friend, but not an enemy anymore either, and Saguru kissed Aoko knowing Kaito likes her as well. In that moment he just hadn’t cared.
A touch to his elbow jars him out of a spiral of self-denigration. “Koizumi-san,” he says. He can’t quite muster anything more than that, or anything beyond dull surprise to see her at a local park. Akako is not the sort of woman to take leisurely strolls.
“Hakuba-kun,” she returns, giving him an imperious nod. She has always had the presence of someone who expects the world to bend to her, regal at times, overbearing at others. It irritates him, when he pauses to think about her, how she has the ability to draw his eye even when he knows better and isn’t terribly attracted to her at all on a personal level.
Although the Akako he has grown to know in recent weeks is much more friendly and tolerable than the persona she wears amidst her fanatical would-be beaus.
She takes a seat next to him on the park bench without asking if she’s welcome. He should ignore her and yet…
“I made a mistake,” he says, giving in to the urge to confess to someone. “I believe I’ve ruined everything. With Nakamori-chan.” He pauses. “And Kuroba.”
“I don’t think you’ve ruined everything yet,” Akako says, serene.
Saguru turns toward her. “I kissed Nakamori-chan. Kuroba saw it, and everyone knows he likes Nakamori-chan. And she likes him back. It’s obvious. I knew I shouldn’t but I got caught up in the moment and I’ve undoubtedly lost Aoko as a friend.” Lost Kaito and whatever good will they were working toward. He’s actually been happy lately. Not just with his case work, but with his social life. Namely because he has one that isn’t composed entirely of people twice his age for once.
Akako pats his arm in the same sort of absent way a person pats a dog that they’re fond of, but find a bit pathetic. It isn’t the sort of touch that should make him relax, but he does. “Have a bit more faith in Aoko-chan. She isn’t going to drop you as a friend over a kiss. Besides, she kissed back, didn’t she?”
“How…?” Akako had not been anywhere near that Saguru noticed. Granted he hadn’t exactly noticed Kaito either.
Another pat. “I’ve been keeping track of how things progress. Aoko-chan’s full of surprises lately.”
Something in her smile makes Saguru shift uncomfortably. It’s a bit too satisfied and predatory for his mind to dismiss it.
“She won’t let Kaito-kun be a fool,” she says. “Although if you’re in the mood to be open with yourself emotionally today, you might as well admit where Kaito-kun fits in with everything.”
“Pardon?” Saguru says, finally finding the will to pull his arm free of her absent patting.
Akako gives him a knowing look. “It’s fine to be attracted to both of them. I am as well. They’re forces of nature; it’s hard to look away.”
Saguru digests that. It’s no secret Akako likes Kaito. He hadn’t been aware that Aoko was included in her interests. It would explain the increasing number of meals she shares with them of late. “Forces of nature?”
“They draw all eyes in a room when they interact. It’s a pleasure to watch.”
Saguru finds the mop-and-magic battles a bit irritating most days. But if he looks at them as a pure example of skill and how their bodies move…
“It will work out,” Akako says with a pat to his shoulder this time instead. She stands and dusts off an already immaculate skirt. “Shall we?”
“Shall we what?”
“Go meet them and finish the conversation?”
Baffled, Saguru takes her offered hand. At the very least he owes them an apology. He might as well get it out of the way now.
Aoko runs, chasing after Kaito without hesitation. She’s leaving Saguru behind, but it’s Kaito. She can’t watch him run away with that look, like she’d sucker punched him in the solar plexus with a mop swing because he’d been a bit too slow to dodge. Kaito at his best can outrun and out-hide her best efforts. Kaito in emotional distress she’s seen before, and is a lot easier to predict than a Kaito with his full mental capabilities working.
Kaito, when unhappy, has always tended to go up. Up trees, to rooftops, tables—she’s seen him climb an awful lot of odd things over the years as his subconscious mind urges him to get some kind of distance from the rest of the world like physical proximity can have an actual effect on the mental mess tangling up inside him. This time is no different.
She finds him up on top of the playground equipment, perched on top of the castle roof that wasn’t meant to be climbed on. It’s late enough in the day that there aren’t children here playing. Kaito’s face is an open portrait of misery that closes off the second he notices he’s not alone.
It hurts to watch that. How often does he do that that she doesn’t notice? How much lately does he just paper over whatever he feels with another layer of a mask?
“Go away,” Kaito says. “Go back to kissing Hakuba.”
“For the record,” Aoko says, shoving down her instinctual anger and hurt, “he kissed me.”
“You kissed back.” He adds, barely audible, “And you like him.”
“I’ve liked you longer,” Aoko says, not quite sure where the bravery to say it to Kaito’s face comes from. Maybe it’s the thought of losing him completely if she doesn’t. His expression still gives nothing away as she searches it. “I like you. I’ve liked you probably since you gave me that flower at the clock tower. Or how you were there when mom…” She swallows. “I’ve liked you a long time and maybe I do like Hakuba-kun too, but it’s always been you, Kaito. I’ve always seen you if I think about the future.”
Kaito looks at her like she’s a puzzle. Like there’s a catch or a limit or something that would make her words mean less.
Aoko takes a breath. “And… and liking more than one person doesn’t mean I like you less. You’re Kaito. You’re the person who teases me and gets my mind off things when I’m sad and who watches silly movies with me and who’s always there when I really need you. Hakuba-kun or Akako-chan or… or someone isn’t going to ever take your place.”
“Akako?” Kaito asks, latching onto that, and Aoko blushes. She didn’t mean to say that. It isn’t like she’s even sure Akako meant any more than teasing and she likes boys more, but Akako and—!
Aoko covers her face, mortified to have blurted that secret out. When she dares peek through her fingers, Kaito has one eyebrow raised.
“Okay, I get that girls are pretty, but Akako?” he says.
“She’s really pretty,” Aoko mumbles. “And has a nice smile. And she’s really nice sometimes.”
“Nice,” Kaito repeats, incredulous. “Akako.”
“She is!” Aoko scowls. “We’ve gone shopping lately together and—” And Kaito changed the topic on her. “Never mind! I like Akako and Hakuba and you, Bakaito!” She lets herself be vulnerable one more time, hoping he won’t just brush her off. “And even though I feel those things for them too, I’d never act on them if it hurt you.”
Kaito looks at her for a long, inscrutable moment before sighing, going boneless against the playground equipment with his feet dangling over the side. “You have such bad taste in people. Akako and Hakuba.”
“I have taste in you,” Aoko points out, annoyed.
“I know. Terrible,” Kaito says in a way that she can’t tell if he’s joking or not. He bites his lip, a tiny sign of vulnerability in return. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Say whether you like me back,” Aoko prods. “And whether you want to date me.” It kind of hurts that he hasn’t said anything yet in response to her pouring her heart out.
“Aoko, you don’t want to date me.”
“And you don’t want me to date anyone else apparently!” Aoko snaps, losing her temper.
He flinches, face twisting, because that must have been pretty on the head of the nail. “Aoko.”
“No, Kaito. I don’t get mad when you flirt with the girls in class. I don’t get mad at Akako-chan for flirting with you. But you always get mad at Hakuba for flirting with me.” Aoko throws a hand up. “And as much as you complain about each other, you’re close!”
“You let him in your personal space and he lets you in too, and you two do that with barely anyone!” Why are boys so stupid? Why does she even have to have this conversation? “Just be honest with me for once!”
Kaito stares down at her as Aoko breathes too heavily and tries not to burst into frustrated tears. He slides off the playground equipment, landing lightly as a gymnast on the ground in front of her. “I’m not good at honest,” he says quietly.
He reaches for her and Aoko steps closer instinctively. Callused fingers brush her cheek, light enough that it almost tickles. “I… I do like you Aoko. And Hakuba’s an ass but he’s not terrible, and. Okay, Akako scares the hell out of me sometimes, but she can be okay. Sometimes. When she’s not seducing people all creepy like.” He sighs. Aoko looks into his eyes even as he keeps shifting his gaze away, uncomfortable to be open. This isn’t how they do things. They’re all about unspoken understandings and talking around subjects, but that hasn’t been working for a while now. For once they’ll just have to bear the discomfort and talk. “But. Aoko…” His hand falls away. Aoko reaches out and catches it in her hands before he can think about stepping away. “There’s things I haven’t told you about. If I say it out loud, you’re not going to like me anymore.” He smiles, self-deprecating. “I’m a bit too selfish in wanting to keep you a little longer.”
“There’s nothing you can say that would make me hate you,” Aoko says with conviction. “Make me angry, yes, but I don’t think I’m capable of hating you.”
“You say that now,” he says. Kaito’s smile goes even more strained at the edges.
Part of her knows where this is leading. It’s the same part of her that she is continually shutting behind mental doors. The same part of her that shut away the first stirrings of attraction she’d felt toward Saguru and Akako, trying to smother them before they got strong enough to acknowledge. But those feelings just grew, just like the understanding she’s ignoring is growing, pushing at the blinders she’s put on.
“Koizumi-san, we’re intruding,” Saguru says a bit louder than he probably means to.
Kaito’s jaw snaps shut and Aoko turns with him. Saguru tugs at Akako’s grip around his wrist, surprisingly strong, looking embarrassed.
“Apologies,” Saguru says. “We’ll leave now. Koizumi-san, let go.”
Akako smiles and pats his arm condescendingly. “Well. Before you continue, I’m making the situation clear. I’m fond of Aoko-chan and Kaito-kun,” she says. “Hakuba-kun is fond of Aoko-chan and Kaito-kun.” Saguru sputters and Kaito stares, not expecting that at all. “Aoko-chan is fond of Kaito-kun, Saguru-kun, and myself.” She winks at Aoko. “And Kaito-kun is fond of Aoko-chan, and perhaps at least a bit interested in Saguru-kun.”
“According to who?!” Kaito chokes.
Akako gives him a look like he’s a speck of dust she’s found on a sleeve of a very nice white dress. “If anyone is paying attention to you, you can be assured I am, and I’ve made a point of noting how you act when you have certain emotions. As disappointing as it is, I am aware you don’t have those feelings for me and probably never will. More’s the pity.”
“Whatever,” Kaito says. “So you’re saying we’re in the most awkward love-quadrangle possible. Great. Big whoop.”
“And coincidentally it involves people who know your secrets or your past,” Akako says, “and yet not both at once. It has been difficult being yourself of late, hmm? And yet you could make a few choices and end up with three people who you don’t have to lie to at all.”
Kaito opens his mouth and Aoko sees the fear there, in the tension around his eyes. Before he can speak, she touches his face, bringing his attention back to her. “Kaito?”
He visibly struggles with something for a moment. “You say that,” he says to Koizumi, “but one of you wants to get me arrested, you want to trap me, and Aoko’s going to hate me.” He keeps meeting Aoko’s eyes. “Not exactly a foundation for trust there.”
He still hasn’t said the words, but Aoko isn’t stupid. She knows what he means. Aoko glances at Saguru only to find him looking at Kaito with a mix of shock and confliction, like he isn’t sure what to do.
“Airing out what’s hidden is the first step,” Akako says. “If you want, I’ll start first.” She clears her throat. “I, Koizumi Akako, am a practicing witch or the Scarlet Arts, a branch of magic that manipulates love and attraction for the benefit of its practitioner.”
“Magic isn’t—” Saguru starts, but he cuts off, eyes glazed as Akako touches his cheek. Then she slaps him gently, just enough to break whatever trance she put on him. He looks warily at where she’s still gripping his wrist.
Believing in magic isn’t too difficult for Aoko. Growing up with Kaito, it’s easy to believe that things are more than they appear. Maybe it should have made her the other way around, since Kaito’s magic is all sleight of hand and careful machination. But there have always been moments with Kaito that defy even what should be possible for a human being to do, and it would explain so much about Akako. Aoko wonders for a moment if Akako charmed her too, but when Akako meets her eyes, there’s wariness there, like she’s expecting backlash, and it’s a vulnerability she’s never shown before. It’s enough for Aoko to realize that she’s serious about liking Aoko back. Serious enough to open herself to accusations that she lured Aoko away from Kaito.
No, Aoko thinks, Akako never charmed her at all. Aoko fell for her all on her own, and by some miracle, Akako likes her back.
“Okay,” Aoko says. “You’re magic.”
Kaito holds his hands up as Aoko glances back his way. “I already found this out the hard way. And no, I’m not magic. Mine’s all hard work, not blood rituals and chats with Satan.”
Saguru looks disturbed.
“I don’t do blood rituals,” Akako says. “Much.”
There’s a lot to unpack there, but Aoko will save that for another day. “Kaito,” she says firmly.
Interestingly, Akako says after her, “One favor.”
Kaito closes his eyes. “Airing things out?” he says with a defeated sigh. “Right. So, we all know Hakuba’s favorite conspiracy theory by this point.” He flicks a glance at Saguru and rather than looking triumphant, Saguru just looks pained. “Not so much of a conspiracy.”
Aoko’s hand drops from his face. Kaito looks like he’s expecting her to knee him in the crotch and maybe cuss out his ancestors with all the force of her Nakamori family lung capacity. Aoko is angry, and hurt too, but she isn’t nearly as surprised as she should be. She did try to prove it wasn’t Kaito those times. If she didn’t have doubts, she wouldn’t have bothered.
“No,” Kaito says to Saguru, still watching Aoko with dread, “that’s not a legal confession. You’re never getting that.”
“I wouldn’t want to catch you like this anyway,” Saguru says. “I have always wanted a fair challenge.”
“I kind of want to smack you,” Aoko says to Kaito. Because he’s been lying to her for ages. And he’s made a fool of her dad. And he’s doing illegal things on the regular. She’s mad. Of course she’s mad. But it’s Kaito.
Kaito flinches, probably expecting her to follow through.
Aoko doesn’t hit him. Instead she crouches down and breathes until she isn’t going to get violent or scream or cry. It’s not like it’s out of the blue. She’s had warnings, her own and others. She can live with this. She can. It’s still Kaito. “Okay,” she says. “You’re Kid. Okay.”
“Okay?” Kaito repeats cautiously.
“Well, no, not okay,” Aoko says, “but okay. I can accept that. I’m pissed and you’re going to have to work to get me to fully trust you again. But okay.” Breathe. She counts to five. Ten. Twenty-five. She looks up to Kaito’s shock and heart-aching relief, Akako’s smug smile and Saguru just a step below wringing his hands from worry. She smiles. Mostly means it too. “Still think I’m going to hate you, Bakaito?”
If they were alone, Aoko thinks he might actually have cried. Because they aren’t, he gives her a wobbly smile back. “Guess I didn’t have enough faith in you. I won’t make that mistake again.” He offers her a hand and Aoko lets him pull her out of her crouch and into a hug. It’s warm. She’s definitely going to have to work through her anger later though because she can barely enjoy Kaito willingly and openly showing her affection right now.
“Hakuba-kun,” Akako says, cutting into their moment, “your secret?”
“Really, Koizumi-san?” Saguru sighs.
“Yeah, way to ruin a moment,” Kaito says against Aoko’s neck.
“You’re both slow,” Akako says.
Saguru sighs again and gives Aoko a pained, apologetic look. Akako still hasn’t let go of his arm, or Aoko thinks he might have left just to avoid the awkwardness.
“Koizumi-san,” Saguru says, “I’m not sure if it even is a secret at this point.” His eyes flick to Kaito. “But I suppose I will say that I’m compromised toward Kid.” He flushes slightly, carefully not looking at Kaito. “And I’ve enjoyed facing off against an intellectual equal. I… didn’t have anyone like that back in London.”
For the first time Aoko realizes that all the things Saguru talked about at lunch, all those times they hung out, most of it was old cases or about his housekeeper. Nothing about friends or what school was like or much of his family life at all. Kaito’s clearly thinking the same thing because he looks at Saguru like he’s finally gotten another vital piece in a puzzle. Okay, maybe it’s a puzzle he isn’t sure he’s enjoying or not, but he is clearly interested and wary in equal measures.
“Excuse me,” Kaito says, “but I’m brilliant and definitely smarter than a detective.”
“Right.” Saguru rolls his eyes with a pinched expression. “And yet he isn’t capable of tact. Koizumi-san, are we done?”
“Not yet,” Akako says. “Aoko-chan?”
Aoko blinks as they all look at her and she doesn’t know what Akako is expecting. Hasn’t her secret already been aired to the world? They know she likes them now. She’s not sure she has any other secrets than that. “What?”
“Are you interested in dating us?” Akako asks.
It’s not a fair question to ask. Not after everything else that’s just been thrown at her. Akako doesn’t play fair though, Aoko’s beginning to realize. She plays to win. Unfortunately it’s not really clear what exactly she’s aiming for. “You already know the answer to that.” She likes all three of them. If she didn’t have to choose… Well, having to choose, she’d choose Kaito. But if she didn’t…
Aoko bites her lip as Akako smiles at her.
At her side, Kaito hums, a sound of understanding. He’s frowning, staring Akako down with one arm still around Aoko. It’s a little possessive. Aoko probably shouldn’t like it as much as she does. But, being honest with herself, she wants Kaito to want her. She just… also wants two other people and kind of wants Kaito to be okay with her wanting them and maybe being wanted back. Those two exceptions only.
“I…” Aoko’s voice wavers. “I’d date all three of you if I could,” she admits. It’s both freeing and terrifying to say. It’s not the way things are done. It’s airing what she’s been trying to hide for months. “I love Kaito, but I don’t want to lose any of you.”
It’s selfish. So selfish to want that. But maybe, Aoko thinks as Akako’s smile turns into something wider and satisfied, sometimes that selfishness is okay.
A shift of Kaito’s arm, gripping tighter on her shoulder pulls her back to attention. He hums again, frown deepening. “I want to say hell no,” Kaito says, “and steal Aoko away. You’re not good enough for her.” He grimaces. “But I kinda am not good enough either.”
Owing up to his faults. Aoko didn’t think she’d ever see it happen.
“I’m not good at sharing,” Kaito says.
“You’d rather be the center of attention,” Saguru says. “Preferably Nakamori-chan’s.”
“I propose,” Akako says, “a trial basis. An open relationship.” She steps forward and catches Aoko’s face in one hand. “Let’s try dating, and if it doesn’t work, reassess.”
“Uh,” Aoko says. She doesn’t manage more than that because Akako kisses her. It’s nothing like Saguru’s kiss, confident and firm. Aoko’s brain goes blank and her knees wobble. Oh. There’s no doubt that she’s attracted to Akako now.
“Excuse me,” Kaito says. “Really.” He’s tense at Aoko’s side and Aoko blinks dumbly as Akako pulls away, grinning. “Has everyone kissed her but me? Really?”
“You can fix that,” Aoko says a bit breathless. She can’t believe this is actually happening.
Kaito pouts down at her. “I wanted to be your first kiss.”
Aoko snorts, a bit too giddy from Akako’s kiss to worry about how Kaito might take that. “You were too slow, Bakaito.” And he still hasn’t kissed her. Aoko takes matters into her own hands and pulls him down.
Kaito’s eyes go huge, then flutter shut. Aoko wants to laugh or maybe cry about how bright she feels inside. Heck, she’s barely even upset at all about the Kid thing because she’s kissing Kaito and she’s kissed all three people she’s in love with and none of them have hated her for being unable to choose. She comes up for air and then keeps kissing Kaito because she can.
“I think,” Saguru says again, “we should go.”
“I’m enjoying the show,” Akako says. “They’re very pretty together.”
Kaito sputters, breaking the kiss and Aoko laughs so hard he’s the only thing holding her up. Aoko might be a bit hysterical from how many emotions she’s experienced in the last hour, but she’s allowed to get a little messed up from it all. It’s fine. She’ll have time to sort through it later.
“I haven’t said yes to anything!” Kaito says. “And that—this—I’m not agreeing to date you two too!”
“Oh, are you thinking of agreeing?” Akako asks sweetly.
Kaito flushes, not controlled at all.
Aoko gasps for breath, her sides aching from laughing. Ow. “I’m so glad,” she says, “I met you all.” She wipes a stray tear away, not sure when she’d reached the point of her eyes leaking. “I accept,” she says to Akako, “provided the boys do too.”
Saguru doesn’t look at any of them as he nods, face red.
Kaito opens his mouth half a dozen times before his shoulders slump. “If it’ll make you happy,” he says to Aoko. “I’ll try. I can’t make promises, but I’ll try.”
Aoko drags them into a hug whether they want a group hug or not. It’s much much more than she could ever have imagined them giving her. “Thank you.”
Aoko sits in Saguru’s living room reading a novel, her head in Saguru’s lap and her feet tangled with Akako’s as she sprawls at the other end of the couch. Kaito’s on the floor, head by her stomach and just close enough to run a hand through his hair if she wants to. It’s nice. Everything keeps being nice and she wonders when she’s going to stop being surprised by that.
“So,” Kaito says casually, “there might be a heist notice appearing in the morning paper.”
“A public notice?” Saguru says. “Unusual of you.”
“Well, there isn’t exactly a person to send it to this time around. You’ll see.”
“No taunting my dad,” Aoko says, flipping a page in her book. She’s not exactly used to Kaito being Kid yet. She’s trying though. Kaito’s trying too, like now, letting little bits of his double life bleed into his first one. “The doctor’s been on him about his blood pressure.”
“Noted.” Kaito flicks out a list with miniscule, cramped handwriting in a different language. Aoko doesn’t want to know.
“Are you sure you should be showing me that?” Saguru asks.
“One,” Kaito says, “it’s in code. Two, it wouldn’t make a difference. You’re still going to be chasing my shadow.” He grins, leaning his head back to catch Saguru’s eye.
Saguru raises an eyebrow. “Care to make that into a wager?”
“I’d be delighted, Detective,” Kaito says in the tone of voice Aoko’s starting to relate to his Kid persona.
Aoko smacks Kaito lightly with her paperback. “Flirt when I’m not caught in the middle.”
“No,” Akako says, “please keep going.” She grins and Aoko rolls her eyes. Honestly, the people she’s in love with.
“Spoilsport,” Kaito says, still grinning. “Also, not flirting.”
“Uh huh.” They haven’t kissed yet, but Aoko’s noticed their bickering is a lot more charged since they started dating her—and not in a jealous way. Kaito revealing his identity had changed something with everyone, but heck if Aoko can pinpoint how it changed things with Saguru.
“Koizumi,” Kaito says, “any bad feelings?”
“Hmm, no.” Akako shrugs. “I’ll ask Lucifer, but I believe this isn’t a heist to be warned of.”
“Anytime, Kaito-kun.” She leers and Kaito ignores it with practiced ease. Aoko pokes Akako with her toes. Akako and Kaito have the weirdest relationship. It can’t even be called a friendship or rivalry, more some strange tentative alliance with Aoko as common ground in the middle.
It works though.
They all work. Aoko grins as Kaito changes the topic to horse racing and Saguru’s clearly trying to see if there is a connection to the heist. Saguru’s warm lap, Akako’s smooth legs, and Kaito’s head pressed against her side. There’s no better place she can picture being.