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Very Shrill String Quartet

Chapter Text

When you get back to yourself, came the haunting echo of Haibara‘s oft-repeated, mocking voice, you’ll have to tell them.

“But I don’t want tooooooo,” whined Shinichi where he leaned against the door of the hotel room he’d barricaded himself into, in a tone of  voice that would have been well-suited to the age he didn’t actually look anymore. Acting like a brat felt like less of an abstract admission of defeat now that he’d moved past that set of circumstances. He was relishing being able to do so without it feeling like he was giving up, with what was left of his pride not under constant threat. He was going to try whining his way through this problem: He’d earned it.

“Conan-kun!” came the relentless chorus of tiny voices and the rapid, discordant pounding of tiny fists against the door. “We know you’re in there! Open up!”

“What is that?” asked Officer Satou, looking up from the laptop she’d been using to replay security footage. She’d been at it for hours. She looked like a raccoon. She was surrounded by a forest of styrofoam coffee cups. “Is that those kids who are friends with your cousin? What are they doing here? Why do they think Conan-kun is here?”

As their improvised safehouse stint dragged on, Officer Satou had settled into a manner of speech that could best be described as “minimalist battering”. Also, the longer she stayed awake, the more she reflexively checked her left hand, where her fate string with Takagi led to wherever he was across the city. It was like watching someone who decided to put down their phone and then found themselves, less than a minute later, staring at it, halfway through launching the Facebook app on autopilot. Presumably, she was checking on their string as it shifted very, very minutely as Takagi scouted several prefectures over. Or just double-checking it was still there, and not doing anything besides shifting very minutely. Shinichi appreciated that she was going to be worried about Takagi until he finally came back from his stupidly hazardous errand run, but the frequency of the repetitive motion was starting to give him a twitch. He was getting a sympathetic neck twinge.

“They found meeeeeeee,” he moaned into his knees instead of answering her battering assault of questions. He’d been so sure taking a car would shake them. The professor, he realized, knowing full well how he’d kept up with unsanctioned car travel as a real child. That enabler.

After Haibara synthesized a four-stage Apotoxin antidote in a single, wicked all-nighter, she’d greeted the acerbic rays of the newly dawning day by ceremoniously stirring the first stage into her coffee, unceremoniously slugging it down, and then rushing off to tackle her remaining tasks in the progressing Organization takedown, and not immediately reintroducing herself to their gang of children like he’d kind of thought she would. At the time, Shinichi had assumed she was wrestling with some personal insecurity and decided to be tactful and not ask about it. He realized now that she had probably actually been administering a keen eye toward cultivating future schadenfreude, combined with task delegation. Well, the joke was on her: She wasn’t actually here to see this and laugh. Later, he would pretend he was never suffering. Out of spite.

A renewed flutter of pounding knocks battered at the door behind his spine.

“We followed your strings!”

“Like detectives!”

“Let us in!”

Satou was staring at him, Why don’t you let them in? the clear query becoming written in the bemused look on her face, as she had no idea of the bizarre and likely shrill and distressing revelation that would occur the second they saw him properly.

“So…” said Shinichi, sliding up the door into a sagging half-standing position (unwittingly cultivating a resemblance to a dodgy marionette, or a game victim of an energy-sapping illness), “I’m just going to go out. To meet them.”

Now Satou was really staring at him like he was a crazy person, which was fair, since he’d declared his intent to leave their secure hotel room to see three children out in the open where potential assassins were, instead of letting them in, to the secure hotel room, where there were almost definitely no assassins.

The best way to trick himself into opening the door was probably to get his mind off of the inevitable confrontation of the other side of it and focus on opening it the slimmest crack, rounding it, and shutting it all in a single motion so the minimum of information possible could bleed into the hotel room.

Sorry, Satou-keiji, he thought, slamming the door behind him with a kick to end his improvised maneuver. You’re probably going to find out eventually— the apparent impossibility of the situation was probably the only reason she hadn’t deduced it already —but I still have some dignity left, so it’s not going to be through a screaming reveal prompted by my cosmic connection with three toddlers.

He looked back at the door behind him warily. Damn, he was on the other side of the door now. Damn. Look down. Down. Look down. Damn.

Shinichi looked down. At the kids in the hallway.

The Detective Boys blinked at him. He blinked back.

The reaction was slow, and mixed. Ayumi puffed up in irritation, mouth already open to demand to know why the room had delivered some teenager and not Conan-kun, then deflated slightly, her indignation dying a premature death and decomposing into confusion. Mitsuhiko was already staring at the sea-slate line linked between their hands and repeatedly squinting and then blinking, like he was waiting for his eyes to refocus and start reporting accurate data. Genta, the most straightforward, wasn’t looking at the strings they’d used to track him here, and was glowering at his face, ready to bellow a demand to deliver their friend RIGHT NOW. So it would be a race between Genta and the befuddled, but still approximately four times quicker to speak about anything besides eel, Ayumi.

Mitsuhiko won, unexpectedly. “Whah??????”

That was definitely the accurate number of question marks. Shinichi had no idea it was possible for someone who hadn’t fully grasped the nuances of most punctuation to pronounce it so accurately.

“What?” said Genta. “What is everybody staring about? Hey, you! Niichan! Give us Conan! We know he’s in there! We followed our strings here!”

Oh, yeah, faking Conan Edogawa’s death had definitely upset them. In his defense, it hadn’t exactly been planned. More like an opportunistic move of fortuitous desperation.

“What????” Mitsuhiko said again, fainter.

Ayumi leaned over and whispered loudly to Mitsuhiko: “Is your Conan-kun string connected to Shinichi-oniisan?” Six-year-olds weren’t good at volume control. It was just a design flaw.

Why now?? thought Shinichi desperately. Why when there was no safe place to have this conversation? He had always managed to evade them before, when it was just putting off the inevitable.

Okay, it had seemed like a really desperate matter of life or death at the time. He’d hidden in bushes, and behind occasional low walls. But he’d been shot at four times today, if he allowed “today” to bleed into yesterday and encompass the amount of time he’d been awake, and he now realized he’d lacked perspective then. So much perspective.

Speaking of putting off the inevitable. “It’s, uh.” Talking, talking was so hard. When was talking ever this hard, except when he was talking with Ran about their relationship? “Complicated?”

Ayumi started to tear up. Everything made her tear up, god, he hated little girls. So why was he so invested in these three kids?

“Shinichi-san,” said Mitsuhiko, conspiratorially, leaning in (and up, on tiptoes), “have you been transformed by a magic spell? Has Shinichi-san secretly been Conan-kun transformed this whole time?”

Children. What even were they. “What? No,” said Shinichi. “I mean, kind of? But it’s the other way around.”

“Oh," said Ayumi, sniffing once and then suddenly inexplicably but definitely done with being upset. “Well, in that case,” she said, seeming boistered.

Then she punched him in the leg. Thank every god responsible he wasn’t short enough to be physically intimidated by six-year-olds anymore. “Why didn’t you tell us?!” she screeched, bell-like voice reverberating like a sound from hell specifically designed to infuriate neighbors and nearby dogs, or, if you lived Shinichi’s life, to attract assassins working for a mysterious organization.

“Also, what??” contributed Mitsuhiko as Shinichi crouched down and made an aborted motion to cover her mouth with his hand, before realization she’d probably just lick him. Or bite. He flapped his hands in a sloppy “volume down” motion instead. They all quieted slightly because the social conditioning implemented by the Japanese public school system was terrifying. He’d had way too much of an opportunity to observe its formative form, lately. (But never again. Yay. Even if it turned out to be never again only because he was about to die a premature death, still a little yay.)

Genta was contributing to the ongoing revelation by holding out his hand, with “Conan”’s string on it, out over his own view of Shinichi’s face, and making a deeply contemplative expression (squinting his eyes like he was trying to stare at the sun on a July midday and leaving his mouth part of the way open). Question marks would have been dancing around his head if Mitsuhiko hadn’t used up all the ones in the atmosphere earlier.

Mitsuhiko, looking teary, reached out and tugged at Shinichi’s pant leg, then looked frustrated with himself, let go, and punched him in the knee instead. Ow?! What the hell, Mitsuhiko? Aren’t you supposed to be the sedate, well-behaved one?!

Shinichi glanced at Genta warily, but the most obviously fiery-tempered Detective Boy seemed to be the only one not interested in striking him. He was still making that ‘doing higher math’ face.

“Yeah!” said Mitsuhiko, picking up on Ayumi’s fury, as is the nature of the six-year-old hive mind. (Okay, really, any social group’s hive mind. His high school classmates were barely any better.) “You should have just told us you have a secret identity!”

“Did you not trust us to tell us you were like Kamen Yaiba??!”

Oh my god, what even are children.

“Also,” said Mitsuhiko, irate, "how can you possibly change from looking like an adult to looking like you’re our age?!” Then, more quietly: “…Do you have a transformation sequence?”

“You have a transformation sequence?!” said Genta, face clearing, like this had answered all his contemplations.

No,” said Shinichi emphatically, knowing he needed to nip this in the bud. All three of them deflated. Pouts happened. This wasn’t what he thought he would be disappointing them about with this revelation. In retrospect, it should have been. “And it isn’t magic, either!” he continued before they could further their theorizing. It wouldn’t even be their fault for going the whacky route. Normally, they were…realistically analytical, with prodding, but this kind of weird vintage sci-fi shit didn’t happen. “It’s, what happened is— I’m actually seventeen but I got poisoned—” he didn’t need to brush over death with these guys “—and instead of killing me there was a weird side effect and I ended up looking like a kid.” Concise. Bring on the insane conclusions.

“And then you had to go into hiding so the bad guys wouldn’t know you were alive,” said Mitsuhiko, nodding sagely.

“Uh…” Shinichi was caught off guard, but also somewhat impressed. “Actually, yeah.”

Mitsuhiko looked really pleased. Ayumi did not. Ayumi was staring at her left hand, where her aggressively salmon string with Shinichi was looped around the top of her thumb. She looked sad.

“…So Shinichi-niisan is a grown-up,” she said, slowly, “and Shinichi-niisan is Conan-kun.” She looked up at him with her huge doe eyes for confirmation. The others also looked at him. Six-year-old hive mind.

There was a right thing to say here. What was it? “I, yeah.” Shit, probably not that.

Ayumi looked heartbroken. It was, impossibly, worse than if she’d started crying again.

Oh, right, though Shinichi, with a sinking feeling. Her crush on me.

But then she took a deep, boistering breath, and said: “But you’re still our friend, right? You- you were.” She halted, unsure, and sniffed. “You were really our friend, right?”

Fun fact about Shinichi Kudou: He was terrible at social interaction in all moments except those of utter desperation. Then, he became a savant. Fortunately, he was a drama queen who attracted other drama queens, so that was a condition that was met often enough that he still had friends.

“We’re definitely friends,” he said, almost crouching, then remembering how much people doing that to him pissed him off. “Yes, I didn’t tell you my real name, and I kept information from you that wasn’t safe—”

They puffed up slightly like angry roosters.

“—Shut up, no, it really wasn’t safe, I wasn’t underestimating you; hel—heck, I wish I didn’t know about this, sometimes I wish I hadn’t had to tell Ran—” A stupid but pervasive sentiment “—But the point is, it wasn’t like I was faking my entire personality twenty-four-seven. I would go insane! And I didn’t meet you until after this mess started, so I didn’t— I could afford to act mostly normal around you. Okay? And I mean, yes, I’m totally fake sometimes, but you guys already notice that!” He grinned at them, slightly more snarky than it was feeble: “I know you do, because you gossip loudly about what could be wrong with me within earshot all the time.”

They stared at him. The grin, wilting, shifted on the Snarky/Feeble Spectrum.

“Conan-kun is pretty fake sometimes,” Mitsuhiko said musingly.

“Oi.”

But the slightly insulting banter had bled the awkward tension out of the moment. Mitsuhiko and Genta looked almost ready to carry on like everything was normal. Ayumi shut her eyes and took another fortifying breath.

Before the moment of intuition slacked off, he grabbed the girl and hugged her. Then when the boys who’d come with her entered the preparatory stages of unleashing puppy dog eyes, he roped them into it. The touching group hug of the Detective Boys, minus Haibara, lasted nearly half a minute before the boys started to squirm and it broke apart. Ayumi, begrudgingly, followed the tide and relinquished her iron grip on his chest.

During the ensuing beat of rest, Mitsuhiko had fallen into a contemplative silence. “Okay,” he said, staring into the distance, obviously trying to order everything into iron-divided lines of logic, but hampered by being six. He stared into the blurry middle distance, focusing intently, visibly came to a conclusion, and then announced it: “This doesn’t really make any sense! B-but!” he continued, turning red when he noticed all the other present Detective Boys were staring at him, including Shinichi, Ayumi still slightly hanging off his neck. He waved his hands, hastily plowing forward to show that that wasn’t his entire point. “That doesn’t matter! Right? It-it just means he has to give us a complete explanation!” Here he glared at Shinichi. (Mitsuhiko could do a pretty intimidating glare under certain circumstances, but this one was unintentionally adorable.) “You owe us a complete explanation.

“Yeah!” Ayumi, given a direction to throw her boundless stick-to-it-ive-ness and energy, brightened at this. She renewed her grip on him to encompass his shoulders, tugging him down to their face level. “You have to tell us ev-er-y-thing,” she said, leveraging all her (negligible) weight onto him. A boy grabbed each hand. Suddenly he was the subject of three focused laser gazes. The Detective Boys were way too in-synch sometimes. They’d known each other way too long (well, relatively—not very long but for too much of a percentage of their lives, which amounted to the same thing), and they’d been shoved together by all possible parties because they were a cluster of soulmates, so sometimes they operated in synchronization, like parts of a single organism.

Geez, he thought, is this what me and Ran are like? Probably not, there were only the two of them. Plus there had actually been factors barring them from hanging out, the Mouris’ reticence probably unwittingly keeping them from true codependency. Maybe if him and Sonoko had been connected, the lot of them would have come over all scary like this, instead of it being Ran-and-Shinichi with breaks for Ran-and-Sonoko, and Shinichi and Sonoko playing tug-of-war over her, joking-but-not-really -style. Growing up, Shinichi had had a messy web of dormant strings, thin gray threads and barely visible cobwebs of connections that he’d decided young were functionally useless to him…and Ran's. And that hadn’t changed until extremely recently. Sonoko not only didn’t meet any of her other soulmates for years after meeting Ran, she also had only a few to begin with. It was no wonder she’d glommed onto the idea of her string with the Kaitou Kid so hard.

Not that he hadn’t ended up in proximity with Sonoko basically all the time anyway. A soulmate’s soulmate was technically a demiconnection, but Sonoko had been calling them in-laws for so long Shinichi had to choke down the term whenever the concept came up. It was probably a good thing they weren’t a connection. The world would tremble.

“Uh,” said Shinichi, to the world-trembling cohort in ascension that was hanging off him demandingly, like he was a somewhat useless jungle gym. “I, we’re kind of busy dismantling a malevolent organization of—”

THAT’S JUST A PART OF EVERYTHING!” they chorused, irate, though it was really less a chorus and more three discordant voices making roughly the same point, which dissolved at the end into a jumble of name salad that sounded like ”Shicon-ichi-nan-kuniisan”.

Yeah, he could admit he’d put this off long enough. Escape was not happening at this point. Really, it was amazing they were apparently going to forgive him for a deception spanning their entire acquaintance in the first place. He had become intimately familiar with the fact that when you were this young, several months might as well have been decades.

“Yeah, yeah, okay, here,” he said, “one second.”

He ducked his head into the hotel room, spotting Satou, seated in the same spot and hastily jerking her hand back down from in front of her face at the motion of the door. “I’m taking the kids out for ice cream,” he informed her.

She stared at him, and it was clear any regard he had earned in her eyes as Shinichi Kudou over the last few days had been entirely thrown out, and she was now absolutely convinced he was a crazy person. “Are you…sure,” she said, enunciating carefully, the sleep-deprived trying to cast a life preserver of reason out to the insane.

“Yep,” he assured her, brazening through it. (90% of his m.o., right there.) He smirked. “Don’t worry, I know somewhere that I’m pretty sure will be safe. I’ve needed to visit the Blue Parrot for a while anyway.”

 

 

Coda:

“Oh my gosh!” said Mitsuhiko, in the middle of their impromptu session of walk-and-ask-questions (which so far had all been either astoundingly stupid or creepily insightful, with no middle ground), his voice ringing with the visitation of sudden realization. “We need to tell Haibara!” He continued insistently: “She deserves to know!” Then, in a tone of awed foreboding, “She’s gonna be mad.

 “Um,” said Shinichi. “About that,” he said, before he realized he had almost walked right into the rest of Haibara’s evil machinations, and clammed up in the middle of the thought.

“What?” said Mitsuhiko, guilelessly clueless.

Maybe Shinichi was morally obligated to start up explaining again here, but this part? Was not his responsibility. I’m not making this any easier for you, you nasty mastermind. He’d already let her maneuver him, by absconding to go fight murderers and crooked politicians and other things less intimidating than their gaggle of kids potentially never forgiving them, into breaking in the ‘de-aging, wcyd’ scenario for her, even if she’d missed out and hadn’t gotten to oversee the ensuing circus. (Not that she'd been planning to help him out any, he was sure.) I am absolutely not explaining this for you for anything less than pain of death.

Unfortunately, the conclusion train was perfectly capable of barreling ahead without him, as so many of the group’s conversations often did. Often regardless of whether the topic at hand involved him intimately.

 “Haibara-chan is the one who’s most likely for it not to make a difference for,” noted Ayumi. “She practically acts like a grown-up alread……waaaaaaaiiit.”

Um.

The shrill, dog whistle symphony of shocked reaction started up again. Unfair, Haibara, he thought, cursing silently, wishing he could exercise his renewed You Look Your Age! privileges in this situation and curse out loud. Unfair.

Chapter Text

The bar was closed. Briefly, Shinichi considered tackling this angle later and taking the kids to a McDonalds instead, and was beset by a sharp, high thrill of paranoia. So instead he asked the kids to wait outside (“No, really, please,”) and then broke in. (“Nee, Shinichi-niisan—” “Yes, I will teach you to pick locks later, alright?” “You’re the best, Co-nan-kun~”)

Shinichi stepped into the Blue Parrot with a mind to carefully assess the joint before approaching any of the staff. He was prepared to talk his way through to the owner and then to spend a long, tedious conversation cautiously circling closer and closer to the topic of the person he’d actually come there to find. He might have had a bit of a proclivity for splashy reveals, but he knew better than to spook what could be his easiest, least antagonistic lead if he just tread carefully and coaxed him into it.

That approach turned out to be completely immaterial, because when he entered the front room he was immediately greeted with the sight of a boy with a violet psychic string looped around his left thumb’s metacarpal, standing in the middle of the room and staring at him like a landed fish. The string was immediately apparent because his hand was in front of his face, because he had been shoving a pastry into his mouth. He now appeared to be choking slightly, and was turning a fetching purple color that kind of washed out his eyes. Shinichi had never seen him out of the Kid suit before except in disguises. It was…

“Okay, what the fuck?” said Shinichi, to the boy he’d technically never spoken to before but had definitely actually had several long, busy altercations with, and who was one of his soulmates anyway so fuck propriety and fuck him, too.

“What the fuck me?” said his fucking doppelgänger, coughing into his doppelgängery hand. “What the fuck you. Did you have a growth spurt or something? Because I don’t think they’re supposed to work like that.

“Forget about that! Why do you look exactly like me!?”

“How is that what’s weirder here?!”

“…Should I leave you two alone?” asked Konosuke JIi, proprietor of the Blue Parrot and, as good as confirmed as of just now, sometimes-assistant of the current Kaitou Kid. He was behind the bar. Stereotypically, he would have been polishing a glass, but he was actually chopping nuts. He had kept up a slow chopping motion since the beginning of this half-assed excuse for an altercation, but wasn’t moving his wrist across the cutting board anymore, so his finely sharpened knife was pulverizing the same line of walnuts into progressively finer dust. At Kid’s initial reaction, Shinichi had spotted out of the corner of his eye that his hand had twitched toward…something. A switch, Shinichi would guess, but maybe a pulley—for some kind of trick that was laced through the bar. It was clever, and skillfully constructed—he could see just enough of what it must have been to see that. But it looked like it was also single-purpose. Whatever it did, it would be the same every use. Impeccable craft mingled with lack of adaptability and inspiration to align with Shinichi’s existing assessment of the Kid’s assistant.

Shinichi was still glad Jii hadn’t yet opted to set the trick off, whatever it was, though he had clearly been considering it. Maybe it would be easy to circumvent when you’d seen it in action once, but that wouldn’t matter if the first run got you.

Shinichi was alerted to the fact that the kids had ignored him and followed him inside when Ayumi’s voice piped up, “You shouldn’t swear, Conan-kun! I mean.” A long pause. “Shinichi-oniisan.”

“So your tiny apprentice posse knows all about this, but not me!” exclaimed the Kid. “I see how it is,” he said, waving his hands around dramatically, apparently at how it was.

“Are we really you apprentices?” whispered Mitsuhiko, awed. Shinichi ignored this. (Yes, they totally were. Look out, future criminals.)

“I don’t even know your name,” said Shinichi, hunching his shoulders and glaring defensively.

“But Shinichi-san, we didn’t know your real name until —“

“Shhhhh,” hissed Genta, raising a finger to his lips as Ayumi plastered her hands over Mitsuhiko’s meticulous little mouth, “he’s trying to make a point, duh!”

“Oh,” said Mitsuhiko, heavily muffled by Ayumi’s palms.

Gently, Shinichi pressed a hand over his face.

He lowered it. He stared, blankly, into space. Kid crossed his arms and huffed.

“Kuroba Kaito,” he said then, begrudgingly. He made a purple rose appear in his hand in a puff of smoke with a motion that demonstrated the kind of thoughtless flawlessness that typified only things people did every day, and offered it to Shinichi while looking away peevishly.

“So is the smoke to conceal you using your other hand to get it out of your shirt and rush-color it?” asked Shinichi conversationally, hovering his hand before Kuroba’s while he checked there was nothing interesting for him to set off, and then taking it. The string between their hands shortened to almost nothing with the proximity, limned a deep royal purple. “You’re quite quick,” by the way,” he added.

Oh, my god, detectives,” said Kuroba, who apparently dialed down being an obnoxious teenager so far when he was being Kid that he had to spend the rest of the time making up for it. “Why are you all like this? When are you going to answer my question?”

“Don’t complain like this isn’t half the reason you like us,” said Shinichi, warming to the prospect of a good tête-a-tête regardless of the change in persona. It was Kid. Showing off around him was second nature.

“Touché,” said Kuroba, appearing another rose to spin sulkily between his fingers. “…Now what are you doing?”

Shinichi looked up from where he was assessing what material the blue that made the red rose look purple to the eye was and whether it was a liquid or a powder. “Hmm?”

“If you’re wondering how I get it to do that—corn starch.”

Oh.

Jii reappeared to usher them into a private booth, muttering quietly to himself, “Just like Toichi-sama, yet if he knew about this I don’t know if he would be happy, no sir, your father in heaven had incrementally better sense about you than he ever did about himself, and that was true.”

Jii-chan.” Kaito drew the older man aside to speak softly and placatingly at him. “You know that he’s my soulmate. I’ve been keeping him at arm’s length long enough.”

“Excuse me?” said Kudo Shinichi, inveterate eavesdropper and veteran of prioritizing dramatic timing over social niceties. “I’ve been keeping you at arm’s length.”

They glared at each other.

Jii groaned, eyes on the heavens, and left, presumably escaping before he was exposed to any more of this hilarity. Or to prime more traps.

There was evidence of tricky eclecticness all over the establishment, if you were looking for it. Shinichi had noticed it last time he was here, but now it held more significance.

It was Kid’s associate’s place. It would stand to reason that the bar would be just as good—and no better—at hiding its nature than them.

The kids, ever obedient, piled into the booth. Posture still sulky, Kuroba hesitated briefly and then sat down. He was still twirling the rose he had fidgeted into his hand between his fingers, grip on the stem habitually gentle.

He spun the rose left. The kids’ eyes tracked it. He spun the rose right. The kids’ heads moved slightly rightward. Shinichi considered reaching out to still it before this could progress to full ‘watching a cartoon tennis match’ status, but at this point Kuroba caught Ayumi’s increasingly mesmerized eyeing of the spinning rose. Gallantly, he handed it to her. Then the boys pouted, and he hastily produced two more roses. It was the type of top quality trick (roses were notoriously tricky for magicians to store on their person without damaging) Shinichi expected of him, honestly.

“So…” said Shinichi.

Kuroba stared at Shinichi.

Shinichi stared at Kuroba.

“Be right back,” said Kuroba, literally diving out of the booth, both hands above his head and everything, rolling upright into a crouch, and then scrambling away.                                                                                                      

A nonplussed beat.

“It’s okay, Conan-kun,” Ayumi said soothingly. “You can be socially stunted together.”

“…Are you quoting Haibara?”

She giggled at him.

A conversation could be overheard from the direction of the kitchen area behind the bar, one voice shrill and talking too fast, the other in slower tones of long-suffering gloom.

Kuroba reappeared in his seat in a burst of confetti. “I’m back!” he said. His voice was still shrill. The kids oohed and clapped politely.

“Would you like any food while you’re here,” he said, in the faintly rhythmic fashion of someone who has been reminded to say something.

Expectant eyes turned to Shinichi. Children often demonstrated spotty attention spans, but they never forgot a promise of ice cream.

Never.

Shinichi flapped his hands at them to show he hadn’t forgotten so they would turn off the blinding headlights of past promises, then said, “I did promise them ice cream. And—” I can order whatever I want “—And an espresso so bitter it will turn my face inside-out.”

Kuroba raised one finger and opened his mouth like he was going to say something, paused, and then vanished in another puff of confetti instead.

The kids clapped for the empty spot in the booth.

Has he just been reflexively running from me for so long that he doesn’t know how to stop now? wondered Shinichi, planting his chin in his hands. Given that a persistent instinct was niggling at him to pick up and chase, pick up and chase, corner the thief! it was entirely possible.

Kuroba reappeared before the kids could start getting antsy—still no Jii, but the impression of aggrieved sighing from the kitchen—with four ridiculous parfait monstrosities, which, if the magic tricks hadn’t already done it, would have instantly won him the kids’ eternal adoration. The concoctions were coated in sprinkles, sported gravity-defying mountains of whipped cream, and had four gooey red cherries each. Shinichi felt his eyebrows rising involuntarily.

“Who’s the fourth one for?” he asked, trying to overcome what he was sure was an airborne sugar coma.

“Hm?” hummed Kid as he dragged one in front of himself, stuck a spoon in it, and then shoved the spoon into his mouth.

“Oh,” said Shinichi.

“Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about you!” Kid said around his spoon. He snapped his fingers, and an espresso cup on a saucer appeared on the table in front of Shinichi in yet another cloud of confetti which, rather impressively, then vanished completely before any of it got into the cup. More clapping—increasingly impressed, perplexingly. (Genta clapped the most enthusiastically while gamely reaching his tongue toward his glass so he didn’t have to be interrupted from communing with his parfait while his hands were occupied.)

Compared to the decadent ice creams, the small mug was a study in plainness. It wafted heavenly steam. Shinichi gamely restrained himself form emulating Genta and sticking his face in it.

This is the harshest break from a year of kiddy meals I can get, thought Shinichi, and took a sip.

“Thank you,” he said, instantly feeling more awake. Maybe because of the placebo effect, maybe from being mostly off caffeine for an entire year.

“So, detective,” said Kid—Kuroba. “Now that you’ve gathered us in the parlor, are you going to—” He waggled his fingers. “Do the summation?”

“Well,” said Shinichi, “yes.” The desire to scream the truth about himself from the rooftops had long since decomposed on his tongue, leaving explanations surprisingly difficult to compose. He hunched over his espresso. (Safe, soothing, brain-bolstering espresso.) “What about you?” he deflected at the Kid. “Why do you make yourself a glowing white target?

The kids, who had not been specifically informed who Kaito was, blinked at this, even mostly distracted by sugar and cream.

“Vengeance,” Kuroba answered immediately.

Shinichi stared at him. “Are you also the night?” he asked.

“Must every detective make that reference at me?”

“…What?” said Shinichi.

“You’re deflecting, detec~tive,” said Kuroba with put-on, baitingly slimy charm. He then dropped it completely like someone discarding a hood, cupped his hands around his mouth, and jeered, “Explanation!”

“Yeah!” agreed the kids, as a body, immediately picking up his thread. “Explanations!”

Kuroba and the kids all turned insistent eyes on him, and then started banging the butts of their spoons on the table, chanting, “We demand an explanation!” to a rough rhythm.

“Fuck my life,” said Shinchi.

“LANGUAGE!” shrilled Ayumi, back to this point again.

“Shit,” said Shinichi. “Uh… Shoot?” He was normally so good, too. Okay, no he wasn’t. He was normally a little better than this except in a crisis, he thought, probably.

Mitsuhiko sighed at him, the sound too sardonic for his handful of years. “Shinichi-san is such a disaster,” he observed dryly.

“They’re not secretly teens too, right?” prodded Kuroba. “They’re just naturally hilarious?”

“Hrrgh,” said Shinichi.

Mitsuhiko looked Kuroba dead in the eye and solemnly informed him, “Kuroba-san, I assure you that I am completely, one-hundred percent real.”

Kuroba stared at Mitsuhiko, blinking, looking like he had no idea how to respond to this.

“For god’s sake,” said Shinichi, sipping his espresso to buy time and mentally preparing the best flow of story and theatrical presentation to recount the situation. He caught himself falling back on conditioning by his parents, and then consciously decided that was probably fine in this case and continued on the same way anyway.

The old nugget to know your audience sure threw into sharp reflection that the Detective Boys and the Kaitou Kid were damn different audiences, though.

“…I’m gonna need more coffee if I’m going to explain this?” Shinichi hazarded. He’d already practically drained his espresso, despite attempts to savor it. (It was really good espresso. If he could do it without alarming Jii, he was coming back here.)

A full, steaming cup appeared in front of him.

“Show off,” said Shinichi, eyeing it and crushing down his startle response.

“Are you saying you don’t want it?” asked Kuroba.

Shinichi gave him a look he normally reserved for murderers. Kuroba paled and held up both hands in a show of surrender.

“So really, what’s the deal?” asked the thief, and then followed, conversationally, “Were you cursed by a witch?” This in turn was followed by a quiet mutter that sounded like, Witches are jerks.

 “What?” said Shinichi.

“Not magic, huh?” said Kuroba.

What??

“Nothing,” said Kuroba. “Ignore me.”

“But—”

“Hey, why do you look the same?” interrupted Genta, who had just finished his sundae and as such may have only just tuned in, missing the beginning of the segue about magic. His eyes were scoping back and forth between Shinichi and Kuroba with interest. They settled on Kuroba. “Are you a clone, mister?”

“Is this more mad science?” put in Mitsuhiko, eagerly following this thread.

More mad science,” stated Kuroba flatly.

“This from the person whose first theory was witches?” snarked Shinichi.

“…Touché again,” granted Kuroba, grimacing spectacularly. Either at conceding a point or at (sigh) thinking about witches.

Shinichi would push the issue later. If he didn’t let go of it now, Kuroba would probably clam up and deflect harder than ever just reflexively, plus have reason to accuse Shinichi of deflecting again.

…He was approaching this guy more in the style of interrogating the suspect than talking with a friend, but, well, he was the Kid. These were familiar waters.

And he still hadn’t gotten an answer to his first question.

“You can have my explanation after I get your two cents on how we look the same,” said Shinichi in his best I’m tired of this and you deadpan. “You’ve known you look like—well, me, without knowing it was me—longer than I have. So...?”

Kuroba stared at Shinichi with what was probably supposed to be an unindicative expression.

“So you have no clue either,” said Shinichi.

Kuroba huffed.

“Are you seriously telling me this is some sort of bullshit coincidence thing? Like something from a manga?” Shinichi asked, feeling indignant and a bit like he was channeling some inner Hattori.

“I’m not telling you anything,” mumbled Kuroba. “I d’no.”

“First that guy from Osaka, now you….” muttered Shinichi, scowling blackly into the depths of his refilled espresso cup.

What guy from Osaka?!” said Kuroba, voice shrill and physically recoiling into his seat, because apparently the Kid reacted like he was on the stage all the time. Shinichi realized all at once that this was going to be like talking to his mom.

“I’m so tired,” he said, probably seeming apropos of nothing.

“Have more coffee,” rejoined Kuroba, sour. “It’s not like you have to worry about things stunting your growth, ex-chibi.

Oops,” said Shinichi pointedly, and then flicked his hand, sending his espresso skidding across the table to topple into Kuroba’s lap.

Kuroba dodged like a contortionist in an incredible display of flexibility, and through this feat ended up on the floor, covered in coffee, and with the tiny mug perched upside-down on his head.

“It looks like I will need more of that,” Shinichi said flatly, leaning over the edge of the table to look down at Kuroba where he lay limbs akimbo beside the booth.

“Grown-ups aren’t very mature,” Genta observed from behind Shinichi.

The other two chorused affirmatives through mouthfuls of ice cream. It figured that since Genta had already finished his he was completely free to ogle Kuroba’s antics.

“That’s why they have us!” Ayumi added, decisive and final.

The boys, who she basically owned, hummed agreement.

Stuck for life with three miniature busybodies and a teenage escape artist. Shinichi supposed he could do worse.