It was dark, and Ran was alone.
Except neither one of those statements were technically true; she existed somewhere in the half-light state like a dream, the fog in her mind very nearly blurring the sharp divisions of black and white which she walked.
And she wasn’t alone, either; there was something up ahead of her. She was going somewhere. Where was she going? Her feet carried her like they’d done this a million times before, and her arms pushed open a door labeled EXIT, and the sky fell beneath her feet as she realized she had never been alone.
Walpurgisnacht. Somehow, she knew that was the name of the thing in the sky, a being of clockwork and lace that rained fire and destruction. As she watched, a boy in a dark inverness coat pulled a machine gun from his coat and unloaded it at Walpurgisnacht, to no avail.
She knew him. How did she know him? What was his name? His face was achingly familiar, and she felt a phantom pain pierce her chest as Walpurgisnacht sent a building crashing towards him.
“No! Please, stop!” She cried out, reaching helplessly. He met her eyes for just a moment, the pain on his face clear even at that distance, and then it was lost. The skyscraper didn’t even slow down as it hit him.
“All this pain… all this suffering.” There was a small creature beside her, whose presence hadn’t even registered to her. It gazed up at her with bright red eyes.
“Isn’t there anything anyone can do?” Ran asked it. The boy emerged from the other side of the skyscraper, but he didn’t look like he’d last much longer. She wanted to help him, he was-- he was-- she didn’t know what he was to her, but he was hers, wasn’t he?
“He’ll just keep on fighting. He knows he can’t win. But you,” her breath caught in her throat as the creature stepped forward, “you can avert this future! You have the power within you to change this!”
“I...do?” All her life, despite her best attempts, she was useless. Useless to keep her family together, useless to keep anyone safe. She stared longingly at the boy who was so familiar and yet so far away. “Someone as pathetic as me can really change this?”
A blast of fire that he couldn’t avoid, and the boy was falling from the sky, screaming out something that was lost in the wind as his eyes met hers and her heart dropped.
“Of course you can! All you need to do--”
“Ran-neechan! Wake up, wake up!” Conan was tugging at her blankets, and she remembered where she was.
“Okay, okay,” Ran mumbled. The vestiges of her dream lingered, and she squeezed her eyes shut, trying to catch the last fleeting glimpses as they left her mind. Something about hopelessness, and someone she’d lost, and… Walpurgisnacht. She had no idea how the word had entered her head, but just the thought sent a shiver of apprehension down her spine. “I’m up.”
She pushed herself to a sitting position, yawning heavily. Conan abruptly left, like he always did, and she quickly threw on her school uniform and made her way to the sitting room. Her father had fallen asleep surrounded by beer cans yet again; she pushed them into the wastebasket and gave his shoulder a firm shove. “Dad, come on! You need to stop doing this.”
“Come onnnnn!” Conan whined from his other side. “What if you get a customer? You can’t sleep all day!”
“I can solve crimes in my sleep, can’t I?” he complained.
“Not if you can’t pull yourself together enough to get customers. Honestly, I think this whole Sleeping Kogoro thing has gone to your head.” She flicked on his desk lamp and grabbed Conan’s hand, dragging him along to the kitchen. “I’ll be making breakfast! Don’t miss it!”
Dad made some unintelligible complaint, but she was already one step ahead, starting on breakfast while Conan set the table. He was so diligent and sweet sometimes. “So, Conan-kun,” she said casually, “You’re pretty fluent in English, right?”
“Yeah! Do you need help with your homework or something?” he offered.
“Sort of. There’s a word I found somewhere that I think might be in English, but I’m not sure. Walpurgisnacht, I think? I’m probably mangling the pronuncia-- what’s wrong?” He’d dropped his glass of milk with a thud, splashing it on his plate.
“Nothing! It just slipped,” Conan said cheerfully, already reaching for the paper towels. “I guess I poured myself too much to drink. Are you having trouble with the plural forms? Sometimes the irregular nouns trip me up, too.”
“No. It’s just the one word, Walpurgisnacht.”
“Oh, yeah! That’s actually in German. Nacht is night, and the Walpurgis part is pretty old. It used to mean a really dark and scary night, but no one’s used that word in a long time.”
“How’d you get to be so smart, huh?” She brought the skillet over to the table, putting a fried egg on each person’s plate. “Already speaking three languages when I’m having trouble with my second one.”
“Ah, it’s not like that! I was watching the history channel again, and there was a really interesting special on the Sturm und Drang movement! I only picked up bits and pieces.”
Huh. Maybe she’d heard it from the other room, and that’s how the word had crept into her dream. “I’m telling you, you’re going to go far someday. If you’ve got this sort of mind when you’re only seven, who knows what you can do once you grow up? You’re smarter than I was.”
“Don’t say that!” Ran looked back in surprise; her little brother was scowling at his plate as if it had personally offended him. “Ran. You’re already such an amazing person, and you’re going to do great things too. Or even if you don’t, it doesn’t matter because you’re a wonderful person. You shouldn’t compare yourself to others!”
“All right, I won’t,” she said, smiling as his gaze softened. Conan got weirdly protective of her sometimes; it was one of his strange quirks that she’d come to accept since he started living with them. “Things will turn out all right, don’t worry.”
The rest of breakfast passed more comfortably, with Conan rambling about the cool new things he’d learned in science class and Ran nodding along, making comments and asking questions where necessary. Dad stumbled in about halfway through, poured himself a massive cup of coffee while Conan’s eyes tracked his every movement, and then made a few halfhearted attempts to join the conversation before giving up all together.
That boy in her dream...his face was already fading from her memory, but his eyes looked even more familiar now that she thought about it. Why was that?
“Hey, Ran-neechan, can you pass the butter? I can’t reach.”
No. It was just a dream; it wasn’t like it meant anything. “Of course. Finish up quick, okay? You don’t want to be late.”
“Okay!” He had surprisingly good coordination for a seven year old, something Ran found herself taking for granted sometimes. It was good that he was so independent, but he always made time to spend with his big sister.
After only a few months, it was strange how familiar his presence felt, like he’d just always been there. He really was the little brother she’d always wished for when she was younger and there was just….she frowned at the weird half-thought. Aoko had always been her closest friend, right?
She was in the bathroom, applying a bit of makeup and doing her hair, when Conan came in to wash his face.
“You haven’t seen my red hair ribbon, have you?” Ran asked him.
“Aoko’s been getting on my case to always act as if I have a secret admirer. I’ve been humoring her, but I don’t see what it’s all about.”
“But you’re really pretty, Ran-neechan! I bet you have tons of secret admirers.”
“That’s sweet of you, kiddo.” She ruffled his hair, and he ducked under her hand, glaring petulantly.
“Hey! I just combed that, and now it’s all messy!”
“Oh, all right. Here, I’ll fix it for you, see?” With a few quick strokes, she brushed the mussed portion back into shape. “All better?”
“All better,” Conan agreed. “I think you should wear the yellow ribbon!”
“Yellow?” It was at the top of the pile; strange. She didn’t wear it much.
“Yeah.” He fixed his glasses, the light concealing his eyes. “It’s pretty on you.”
“Hey. Hey, Ran.”
This was going to be a long semester with the new seating chart. Ran adored Aoko, and the two were closer than sisters, but she was trying to learn here. “What?”
“I heard there’s going to be a new transfer student. Do you think they’ll be cute?”
“How should I know?” Ran sighed, turning a page as she tried to follow along with the lesson at the same time. “Aoko, I’m not going to fight you if you want your shot at a whirlwind romance. If you’re interested, go for it.”
“Come on, don’t you want to talk about it a little bit? You’ve got no sense of drama.”
Sonoko Suzuki twisted in her seat. “You two refer to each other without honorifics? Like an old married couple?”
“Uh, yeah. We’ve been friends since we were kids. You got a problem with that?” Aoko shot back.
“Oh, not at all. If you’re just friends, that is.”
“What do you mean by that?” Aoko stood up. “You trying to start something, rich girl?”
“Nakamori-san, please take a seat. I’m trying to teach. Now, the reflexive verb...” The teacher continued with her lesson, but Ran found herself fading in and out. She couldn’t help but think that Shinichi-- wait, where had that name come from? She rewound her thoughts from the last few minutes, then deeper, trying to think of where she knew the name. Shinichi. Who was--
“--Shinichi Kudou-san, who has just joined us from America!” Ran nearly jumped out of her seat at the teacher’s voice. There it was, written on the whiteboard. Shinichi Kudou. “Since he’s been in another country for so long, he may need some help adjusting, so please give him a warm welcome, will you?”
“Oh, he’s pretty cute! Not sure if he’s my type, though,” Aoko whispered. Ran didn’t respond.
It was hard to say for sure, but he looked exactly like the boy from her dream. And when he met her eyes, she knew for sure. Had she seen him before? She knew— no, it was stupid. Still, he seemed to draw her gaze like a gravitational pull. He was tall, with a slim build that suggested he played sports, although the uniform concealed anything more. His dark hair was neatly combed down, save for a few errant strands in the back, and his eyes were a shade of blue only a little darker than Conan’s.
Why did he remind her of Conan? It was weird.
But as the day went on, things only got weirder. Every time she looked at him and tried to remember where she might know him from, he seemed to sense her gaze and turn around, forcing Ran to hastily glance away and pretend she hadn’t been doing anything suspicious. Despite the teacher’s words, he didn’t seem to need any help adjusting, effortlessly solving every equation thrown his way, reciting answers with perfect speed and intonation, even correcting the teacher’s English. After class, a small group of boys and girls alike crowded around his desk, bombarding him with questions and invitations.
“I’m sorry, I’m not feeling well,” he said, in a soft voice that somehow carried with it the implication of power. “Ran Mouri-san. You are the nurse’s aide for this class, correct?”
“M-me?” His gaze was so intense, completely focused on her, that she felt her face heating up. “Um, yeah. I can show you where the nurse’s office...is?”
He was already out the door, waiting for her to catch up.
“I’ve changed my mind; this one’s all yours. Go get him!” Aoko gave her a small push on her back, which was enough to propel Ran forward to the door.
Shinichi walked as if he’d been down this route a thousand times before, his long legs forcing Ran to practically jog to keep up. “So, are you sure we haven’t met before? You seem sort of familiar.”
“I’m positive. I believe you’re confusing me with one of the upperclassmen who looks similar to me; I’ve already been mistaken for him once today. Kuroba, I believe.”
“Oh, that makes sense.”
“You can call me Ran if you want.” She didn’t know why she was offering; it just felt right for some reason she couldn’t explain with logic.
“Very well.” His fist clenched at his side; she was making the wrong impression.
“Shinichi’s a pretty cool name, you know? It sounds pretty similar to the phrase for ‘one truth!’ I like it a lot.”
Rather than answer, Shinichi picked up his pace, heading out onto the walkway connecting the two halves of the school. Ran followed tentatively. Did he not like his name? She felt like she’d offended him, but wasn’t sure when it happened.
“Ran.” He spun to face her, his state as intense as ever. “Do you value the life you currently live? The happiness of the people who love you?”
“Y-yes. Of course I do. I mean, I’m incredibly lucky to have the people I do.”
“Then don’t change. You’re a smart girl; you know better than to take deals that are too good to be true. Remain as you are. Don’t give everything up for some stupid, selfless reason.”
“You’re perfect, exactly the way you are.” He turned back, uniform fluttering behind him in some unseen wind, and walked to the nurse’s office as if he could do it in his sleep, Ran trailing behind him the whole time.
“So you’re telling me he just tells you to never change, then walks off like he owns the place?” Aoko huffed, putting down her headphones. “I’m not so sure about this boy, Ran. He seems pretty fishy to me.”
“That’s the thing, though…” Ran looked down at the music sample playing on the headphones in front of her. Nostalgia ☆ Sky. “I feel like I know him from somewhere. Is it weird if I say I think I first met him in a dream… or something?”
Aoko paused a full five seconds before she burst out laughing. “Come on, I thought you’d gotten over your anime protagonist phase when you were nine!”
“It’s not like that!” Ran protested.
“Oh really? Remember how you wore fingerless gloves every day, and went through bottles of hairspray?”
“Yeah, well, what about your princess phase? You cried when the teacher made you take off your tiara!”
“Whatever. If you think he’s so fishy, maybe you should ask your dad to investigate him.”
“I can’t. Money’s sort of tight these days, and I wouldn’t feel right asking him to look into a boy I just met rather than working on cases. I guess you’re right; I’m just being dramatic and making a mess of things as usual.”
“Ran...” Aoko poked her sharply in the side. “Don’t say self deprecating things like that!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” She dodged another jab, then blocked a third. “Stop it!”
“Take it back, or I’ll tickle you!”
“Aoko, we’re in the middle of a store!”
Ran paused, feeling Aoko crash into her. “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Her fingers hovered over Ran’s sides. “You wouldn’t be trying to distract me, would you?”
<Ran, help me!>
“No, I’m serious. I heard someone crying for help!” She put down her headphones and sprinted in the direction of the voice, through several stores.
“I can’t hear anything? Are you sure about this?”
Ran met Aoko’s gaze. “If someone is in trouble, we have to help them! Get ready to call the police if you need to.” With that, she pushed open the basement door and continued in the strange half-light.
I’ve been here before… haven’t I?
A bolt of something shot through the darkness ahead of her, intensifying both light and shadow as it passed before dissolving onto the cobblestones. Two more followed, illuminating a cat-like shape that darted between them in quickly fading sepia tones.
“Hey! Stop that!” Ran yelled. Another projectile shot after the cat-like creature, this one shaped like a soccer ball first before it condensed into the same energy as the bolts before it. The creature made no sound as the projectile hit, and it stumbled forward, limping. “Stop, you’re hurting it!”
<Ran, please…> The creature collapsed at her feet, bleeding from all over. It had pale fur and enormous red eyes, the left one swollen shut. <Make him stop.>
“Him? The one who’s chasing you?” She held the tiny creature to her chest, taking care to support its head. Sure enough, there was a vertical patch of darkness the size of a person, although she couldn’t make out much more. “Who…?”
The person stepped into the light, and she realized it was Shinichi, wearing the exact same clothing she’d seen in her dream— a black, thigh-length Inverness cloak that moved as though it was made of shadows deeper and older than the ones surrounding it, long shirt sleeves with a complex pattern resembling diamonds, lace up boots with faintly shimmering circles on the outside of each, and a red ribbon laced around his neck like a bow tie.
“You should get away from that thing,” he said flatly, one foot resting on another soccer ball. Ran curled around the creature protectively, unsure of what she should do.
“No, you need to back the hell off!” Aoko yelled, placing herself in front of Ran. “I don’t know what your deal is, but you don’t get to just waltz in here like you belong and start attacking people.”
“You dare talk about places you don’t belong, when you defend that creature?” Shinichi pointed at Ran; it took her a moment to realize that he meant the thing in her arms.
“Just stop it, both of you!” Ran cried. “Why were you hurting it? It didn’t do anything to you.”
Shinichi paused. “If you hand it over to me and promise never to interact with it again, I promise things will turn out all right. Otherwise…” He reached into his cloak, his arm disappearing until it emerged holding something she recognized as—
“Run for it!” A spray of mist erupted in front of her; Aoko was holding a fire extinguisher, hair wild. Shinichi threw an arm up to shield himself, but he was quickly lost in the cloud. “Go on, go!”
“G-got it!” She turned to run, not knowing where she was going. A hollow clang, and Aoko was hot on her heels. She didn’t know if Shinichi was following, or if he’d shoot any of those strange soccer ball-like projectiles at her, she just knew she had to get away. The creature in her arms was still breathing, if just faintly, and she silently apologized for jostling it.
She knew she’d lost the way out at some point, but the deeper she ran, the more unfamiliar her surroundings grew. Concrete turned to brick turned to worn dirt, ivy clung hungrily to the walls, and little shapes darted past the edges of her vision. The shapes solidified into nightmares and broken fragments half remembered and only tentatively believed.
“Zahlen, schneiden, kommen, neun!”
“Ran? Are you seeing this?” Aoko asked quietly.
“The little...cotton and scissors and— ACK!” She leapt out of the way of a strand of barbed wire that danced around them, chattering nonsense.
“Ohne, Rosen, schenken, Tod!”
“Okay, good. Thought I might have inhaled some of the fumes from the fire extinguisher.” She laughed shakily, kicking aside a mustached cotton ball that came too close.
A pair of scissors struck Ran from behind, leaving a line of frayed threads on her sock as it barely missed her leg. It seemed to chitter in delight as it joined the fray, still snipping through nothing but thin air.
“Stecken, Nadeln, Fenster, Stoff!”
“Are you okay?”
“I am for now.” Ran pressed closer to Aoko, as the barbed wire drew closer and the scissors continued to snip threateningly, making passes with increasing frequency. “What’s going to happen to us?”
<I’m afraid you’ve stumbled into a labyrinth,> the creature in Ran’s arms said apologetically.
“Wait, that thing talks ?” Aoko exclaimed.
“I told you, it called to me!”
“Fänger, laufen, gleiten, Dieb!”
“Are you ladies in need of assistance?” An unfamiliar voice called. A triangular kite above them unfolded and revealed itself to be a young man in a pure white suit, who walked on air as if descending a staircase. He flipped an entire deck of cards through his gloved hands, then blew gently on the top, sending them spiraling to the ground to plant themselves in a neat circle surrounding the girls. A moment later, the cards fell down in unison, sending shockwaves radiating from the circle and clearing the ground of the strange creatures.
He stepped lightly in front of them, took off his hat, and bowed. “Kaito Kuroba, Puella Magi and magician, at your service. That was a close call, but I’m glad you’re safe.”
“Bakaito?” Aoko asked incredulously.
“You know him?” And well enough to have a nickname for him, no less.
“Guilty as charged. See, this is why I haven’t been returning your calls. I’m not avoiding you, I’m just very busy. Now, if you’ll excuse me…” He launched himself into the air again, sending a spray of cards flying from a gun-shaped contraption in his hand. Wave after wave of creatures who looked like they’d crawled in from another dimension were cut down, all as gracefully as a midair dance.
Finally he set down, deliberately stamping on a rose vine. Something…. grotesque and huge and vaguely green rose up from the landscape, a series of strange runes dancing beneath it. Kuroba looked back and winked cheekily at the two of them before dashing through the air again, sending a chain of scarves to wrap around the monster. It roared its disapproval, lashing out with a tendril that he easily dodged, spinning.
The scarves transformed into bouquets of flowers, each one launching a stream of ribbons from the center until the entire monster was trapped in a beautiful floral arrangement. Kuroba spread his arms wide, a barely contained smirk on his face, as cards flooded out both sleeves, coming together in a cloud above his head and solidifying into a larger version of the card gun he’d held earlier.
“Ready to see my ace, girls?” he asked, hefting the canon effortlessly and taking aim. “TIRO FINALE!”
The monster gave a pained cry as the ace of diamonds collided with it, and it deflated like an old balloon. Kuroba landed and gave a deep bow, and by the time he was standing again, the strange labyrinth was gone. They were alone in the basement of the mall once more.
“I see you’ve been taking care of Kyubey in my absence,” Kuroba said, removing his monocle and approaching Ran. “Would you mind holding him out for me?”
She nodded, unsure what he intended. A moment later, he held the monocle next to ‘Kyubey,’ and the white clover-shaped gem hanging from it began to shine. Kyubey’s injuries faded away as easily as washable marker, and he perked up almost instantly. <Thank you, Kaito!>
“Oh, don’t thank me! I was just passing through. Don’t you owe your gratitude to these two, who found you when you were injured and kept you from that witch?”
<Thank you, Ran Mouri. Thank you, Aoko Nakamori.> Kyubey inclined its head to both of them. <I appreciate your help.>
“You know our names?” Ran asked it.
<Of course I do! I chose you, after all.>
“Hang on a minute, Kaito. How long has this been going on?” Aoko demanded. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
With a small puff of smoke, Kuroba’s suit was replaced by a school uniform, although a black ring with a tiny clover gem like the one on his monocle adorned his middle finger. “I see I owe you an explanation or two,” he said lightly. “Why don’t you come over for tea and a chat? It’s a long story.”