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Tomorrow ( I'm With You )

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Chapter 1: White lies

Two weeks where passed since that nightmare lasted for more than a year was officially come to an end. No more Organization, no more men black like crows with alcoholic code names, no more fear to be discovered and ending their days at the hand of criminals whose identity was unknown. The dreaded “Silver Bullets” had reached the heart of the bad wolves, deserving the craved victory. It was the beginning of a new life for everybody, as well as the end of a tragic story gone on long enough. They could return to their lives, aware that they would have never been the same but that on the horizon a better future was waiting for them. Nothing would have gone wrong anymore. However, there were still many questions to solve before the Organization and all that this had entailed were definitely close in a box that nobody would have opened anymore: one of those would have involved a confrontation difficult to support.

 

He took a long, last breath, before pushing the index finger on the doorbell of Dr. Agasa’s house. He needed to chase away the anxiety, because in front of her he should have appeared as certain and convincing as possible. Every little hesitation would have made his friend suspicious, considering that for certain things she had an infallible intuition.
After a few seconds the door opened, showing the figure of the scientist in the doorway.

- Goodmorning Dr. Agasa- he greeted him with a smile.
- Hello son! Please, come in. Did you need something?-
- Ai…well, I mean Shiho is in?- he asked, correcting himself in saying that name that for a long time had been the fake name of the girl.

He still found difficult to call her with her given name, because after all for him she would have been always Ai Haibara, the “child” that had shared with him that horrible experience more than anyone other.

- Sure, we are cooking curry! Do you want to stay for lunch?-
- No thanks, I have alredy a commitment- he answered in a rush, assuming an air not so convincing.
- Do you have lunch with the Investigative Agency’s Miss?- asked a voice with a familiar tone.

Not only her body was changed, but even that voice that previously was the one of a child (as far as Ai would have always kept the voice tone of an adult) now has become in effect the ones of a woman. And there she was that woman, in front of them, with her sadistic and jeering smirk, the arms crossed on her chest and the back leaned against the wall.
One thing that wasn’t changed at all? Her spooky sense of humor.

- No, and it’s none of your business anyway!- he pouted.
- She stood you up? It’s not a good sign…- she continued to fool him, proud of the effect she was obtaining.
- I see you feel good…- he laught at it.

If she had all that will to joke she should have been in a good mood for sure and that made is task even more difficult than it already was. He didn’t want to be the one who would have ruined her good day. He should have to sugar the pill without she noticing it, hoping that the good luck was on his side.

- Very well- she answered - It’s good to have your own body back-
- You’re telling me!- he nodded.
- No more chatting: why did you come here?-

There it is, the fateful question. It had arrived blunt and cutting, like a punch in the face. Maybe he hadn’t been watchful enough, maybe Shiho had already noticed his nervousness.

- Well, you see…the fact is that…- he started to stammer out, without recognizing himself in that behavior.
- Do tell, if you are hiding something spit it out-
- Of course you help people to let their hair down, eh?!- he retorted her.
- I don’t like to waste time, I get annoyed when people beat about the bush. Get to the point, Shinichi- she stared at him with that dark and inquiring gaze, that only her could made.

He swallowed loudly: that girl unnerve him. He has never upset himself in front of a corpse or a blood’s puddle, but in front of her he felt like a convicted at the gallows who wait to see his head tumbling down his body. Not for nothing she was growing up in a criminal organization.
After a long sigh, he decided to tell all. She was right, there was no need to continue to go round and round.

- Can you come to my house after lunch? There is someone who would like to talk with you-
- Someone?- she frowned - And who is?-
- Come and you’ll see- he smiled: now it was his turn to be mysterious.
- I don’t trust you, you have a strange face today- she pointed it out - So, who is this person?-
- I’m sorry, I can’t tell you- he shook his head.
- For what reason? Perhaps you want to get me into trouble?-

He perceived from her voice tone that she was getting annoyed. She didn’t love mysteries, especially if they affected her in first person.

- Of course not!- he reassured her - But I can’t tell you who this person is-
- It will mean that I won’t come!- she turned away from him assuming an haughty air.
- Don’t act like a spoiled child now!- he scolded her - Nothing will happen to you, you know you can trust on me-
- You say?- she turned her head a little bit to stare at him, narrowing the eyes - How can I trust someone who has all this secrets?-

He sighed: it was a hard match to win. If he was stubborn and obstinate, she was it at least ten times more than him. The only way to end that story in a short time was to compromise.

- Ok, I’ll give you a hint: it’s a person that you know and that helped us a lot during the conflict with the Organization-

He saw her making that typical expression that she did every time she was thinking and overthinking about something: maybe his strategy had worked.
After some seconds of reflection, a soft smile appeared on her lips.

- If your mom wanted to see me you could have tell me before!- she crossed her arms on her chest.
- Eeeh?!- he exclaimed stunned - What does my mom has to do with it?!-
- You said that the person who wants to talk to me helped us a lot during the conflict with the Organization and that I know who is, right? Your mom correspond perfectly with the description- she explained, sure of her deduction.
- O-oh…Yes, of course! You guessed right, eheheh!- he giggled scratching his nape, trying to appear the less nervous as possible.

Maybe it was better like that: leading her to believe that his mom was the person in question would have convinced her more easily. He felt guilty for that lie and he knew that when she would have discovered the truth she would have been furious, but he continued to repeat to himself that what he was doing was well-meant. After a life of lies, deceits and betrayals, his friend had to know the truth, no matter how it was sad.

- So see you later!- he greeted her in a rush, looking forward to go away and putting an end to that little theater.
- Wait a second Shinichi- she stopped him.
- W-what’s up?- he worried, fearing that she had unmasked his act.
- Remember that you promised me-

Her gaze had become serious, like he had saw it a few times, capable of penetrate into the soul and reaching the heart like a dagger’s sharp blade. She did it every time she was trying to say “I’m scared”, but she hadn’t the courage to say it by words.
He found strange to see it in that occasion so out of place.

- What?- he asked, not understanding.
- That you would have protected me-

He was surprised to hear those words, said long time ago when things were just began. The fact that she was still remembering them meant that she had put all her trust in him, considering him her hero. And now he was betraying her in some way. From life he had learned that sometimes to do something right you necessarily have to do something wrong before. The two faces of the coin were inseparable, although they were opposites.
He took a long breath, searching for the strength to lie one last time.

- Don’t worry, I would never do anything that might put you in a bad situation-
- I hope it- she coldly concluded, turning away from him - See you later-

Without adding anything, he greeted Dr. Agasa and walked out the door, bringing along his guilt. He knew perfectly that Shiho had understood everything. She had only pretended to lead him to believe that she thought that person was his mom, but probably she had already formed an opinion on who the mysterious person could have been. Those who had helped them “a lot” against the Organization could have been counted on the fingers of one hand, and even fewer were those who could have had a good reason for wanting to talk with her privately. The circle shrank drastically, without leaving too much doubts. His friend was anything but stupid, it didn’t take her long to putting two and two together.
He hoped that she would came to the appointment, now that she knew everything. With this thought in mind, he closed the gate behind him, homeward bound, where the person in question was waiting for news.
Behind his shoulders, in that house with an odd look, his doubts were confirming.

 

……………………………

 

- You could have been more kind with him, there was no need to treat him that way- reminded her the scientist, continuing to mix the curry.
- And he could have avoid to tell a sea of lies- she replied, sitting on a stool and laying the head on the back of her hand.
- Lies? What lies he would have tell you?-
- Don’t tell me you seriously believed that Yukiko-san is the person that wants to talk to me- she glared at him.
- Why not? It’s true that she helped you after all, maybe she just wants to make sure that you’re ok now. She grow fond of you, you know?- he smiled.
- If she just wants to make sure that I’m ok she may well come here and see herself, without inviting me covertly at Kudo’s house for a “family reunion”!- she highlighted those last words sarcastically.
- Don’t be so hateful, I’m sure that it’s nothing to worry about! Shinichi will never expose you to big dangers-
- It depends…if the person who asked him for this meeting is someone who he swear by, he could do it without realizing it-
- Are you telling me you have figured out who this person really is?- he asked astonished.
- Of course I figured it out. There is only one person who could made such a request and who corresponds to the description that Shinichi did…- she said vaguely, closing her eyes.
- And who would be?- continued the Doctor, more curious than ever.
- FBI- she only said, standing up - I’ll take the plates, the curry is ready-

 

………………………………

 

As soon as he crossed the doorstep, an appetizing smell tickled his nostrils. He smiled: he would never has expected that his “partner” number one in that ordeal found enjoyable to train his culinary skills. He had said that his mother was the one who had taught it to him, but actually it was something that he already knew for a long time.
He headed towards the kitchen, curious to know what his friend would have prepared for lunch. He found him to the burners, while he was mixing something that seemed to be a stew in a pot.

- You’re already back?- he asked him, as soon as he perceived his presence behind his back - How did it go?-
- I wouldn’t know- he admitted - It took me a while to convince her, she’s always so suspicious…-
- Will she come this afternoon?-
- I think so, in the end I leaded her to believe that the person who wanted to meet her was my mom, but I doubt that she bought it. I know her, she can’t be easily fooled- he shook his head.
- I’m sorry I put you in this difficult position- he outlined a fainted smile - Now I will have to do my best to get you out of this-
- I think it’s you who have to get out of this- he smiled back.
- I guess you’re right- he admitted.

There was a moment of silence, in which neither of the two dared to say a word. There were so many things to say, maybe too much.

- I think she will forgive you, Akai-san- he said finally - Maybe it will take her time, but when she will understand that you have also paid the price for your actions, so her anger will die down-
- I hope it is as you say, but I’m not so sure- he confessed, without showing no sign of sorrow at this.
- Come on, we defeated a criminal Organization, what’s a grim-faced young girl?- he tried to downplay, to alleviate that tension that everybody was accumulating.

In reply, the FBI agent smiled, hiding what he really felt in an unknown corner of his heart, that he had made impenetrable to anybody. The life and the job that he chose had forced him to be stoic at any moment, but he still remained a human being after all. And like everyone he couldn’t erase the mistakes he had made, he could just hope to not make them again.

- I see you prepared the lunch, but you shouldn’t have- he tried to change the topic.
- No problem, I’ve been a guest at your house for a long while, this is the least- replied the agent.
- It’s been a pleasure to help you and work together with you-
- I was thinking the same, young Sherlock Holmes- he stopped to mix the stew, turning towards him and putting his hands in his pockets, like he used to do - James and Jodie want you in the FBI-
- It’s a tempting proposition, but I think I will stay in Tokyo to be a detective-
- What a pity, I would have liked to continue to work together with you too- he admitted.
- I’m sure that there will be other occasions- he smiled - Two Holmes’s admirers never get bored!-
- Oh, that’s for sure!- he nodded.

There was another brief moment of silence, in which the agent turned again towards the burners and tasted the stew that was boiling in the pot.

- I’d say that it’s ready- he said.
- So I’ll prepare the plates- he headed towards the cupboard - The sooner we eat, the better. Shiho could arrive at any time-

He didn’t receive an answer to that sentence, he only heard in the background silence the pot’s boiling that was fading, sign that it had been taken off the gas cooker. Without bringing the topic up anymore, he set the table and had lunch with his friend, tasting that wonderful stew before the storm.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: Face to face

 

Seated on the couch of what for months had been his hiding place, with arms and legs crossed, he waited for the doorbell ring broke the silence. There was no sign of nervousness in his gaze, neither in his motionless body; however inside himself, like few times had happened in his life, he felt a sense of dread, almost similar to fear. Fear that she couldn’t understand, fear that his outstretched hand would have been rejected. Fear that the promise he had made would have vanish like the smoke of the cigarette he was consuming while awaiting. The seventh, to be more precise.
In his mind resurfaced the memory of the day when he had left forever Subaru Okiya’s shoes, returning to be simply Shuichi Akai, ready to the final act against the Men in Black: the same day he had shown his real aspect even to her, confirming what she suspected a long while. Discovering that behind her neighbor, who she had always looked critically, was hiding the Organization’s traitor as well as her sister’s ex-boyfriend, hadn’t been pleasant. But the worse thing, probably, had been discover that Dai Moroboshi had never existed, that even that one was a lie to add to the others. Dai Moroboshi was Shuichi Akai, an FBI agent who had used her sister, the only relative remained to her, to infiltrate the Organization. This should had been what she had thought at the time.
Despite that, there hadn’t been time for a real clarification: the urgency to develop the final moves in that battle lasted too long had the priority over everything. So they had remained until the end two perfect strangers who actually knew very well who was the one and who was the other one. Now there weren’t excuses anymore: no Organization to defeat, no race against time. It was time for the day of reckoning.
He put out the cigarette in the ashtray, looking towards the clock hung over the living room’s wall: a quarter past three.

- What is she doing, a Christmas lunch?- snorted suddenly the young detective, seated before him, who should have noticed his gesture.
- Maybe she changed her mind-

It wasn’t a possibility to rule out: even her, just like him, was dreaded for that encounter. Not that she thought he wanted to harm her, no, but the idea to listen words that she didn’t want to hear from the mouth of someone she held a grudge against couldn’t be easy for her. Maybe he had waited too much, maybe the moment of truth had already slipped away like a moving train. Inside himself he hoped it wasn’t like that. He didn’t love leaving things unresolved, especially the ones closed to his heart.

- No way, if did it she surely would have called me!- he tried to reassure his friend - I guess she’s just taking her time to get set for all this-

He didn’t manage to answer that the doorbell he had hoped to hear for the past two hours , finally rang. A short ring, sign that the finger which had push it wasn’t determined to do it.

- Here she is! I’ll go open the door and then I retire in the room next and I’ll let you talk- he advised him, heading toward the door.
- Okay, thanks again boy- he simply answered, giving the hint of a smile.

He remained alone waiting to see the figure of the girl appearing on the living room’s doorstep. He took a long breath, thinking and rethinking about the right words with which he should have started that conversation. The two guys’ voices were becoming closer more and more, now he could even understand clearly what they were saying.

- I’ve already told you to not worry, you don’t take any chances here!-
- I don’t trust you, I know you’re lying!-
- Why would I lie to you? You have already understood who is the person in question, right?-

He perceived from his friend’s insecure voice tone that he was doing a huge effort to not collapse under the weight of that web of lies in which he himself had dragged him.

- Exactly because I understood I’m asking you if you’re sure there won’t be consequences!-

She, on the other hand, was like always inflexible in her diffidence, that drove her to never believe in anything or anyone. Since he had met her she hadn’t changed one iota in this.

- If you have understood you shouldn’t even ask me, right?-
- Listen…you don’t know who that man really is, you don’t know him! For you he’s just an FBI agent who helped us, but the truth is that there is more behind this!-
- These are things that concern you and I won’t go into. If you are so scared then run away, but it’s not like this that you’ll put an end to this story! In my opinion you should deal with this question once for all and close off even this chapter. I’ll be there, I won’t leave you alone!-

He smiled when he heard the determination in his words, words that expressed all his wish to leave behind a story lasted too long. In that moment his seventeen, almost eighteen years old must have weighed like forty. However, instead of getting rid of his chains, he was concerned about unleash the ones of his friend, who in that moment needs to be released more than him.
He couldn’t help but thinking that in the years to come he would have become a great man, one of the best he had ever known.

- Will you promise me?-

The voice’s tone of the girl had become quieter, sign that she was surrendering to the weakness of her fears. He had saw a few times her human side, the one that allowed her to show her fragilities and her need of protection: the one that encouraged him to promise Akemi that he would have protected her from those who tried to drag her into the darkness.

- If it makes you feel better, I’ll hide near the living room, so if you need help I’ll rush to your aid, ok?-

He smiled again: so now he was playing on “the enemy” side, that little detective. He couldn’t give him all the wrongs, since he was the reason why his friend was arguing with her.
Maybe it was better like that, she needed a right-hand man more than him in that moment.

- Ok…-
- Come on, now go to the living room and listen what he have to say you-

The conversation ended and the echo of the words in the hallway replaced with the one of the steps of just one person. Slow, hesitant steps, belonging to a pair of legs that were moving more by passivity than by own volition.
He kept his eyes focused on the doorway, until the girl’s thin figure appeared. She was noticeably grown since the last time he had seen her before being rejected by the Organization. She was a woman now, a beautiful woman. The only thing that remained unchanged was that serious expression on her face, a mix between impassivity and anger, with a slight mark of melancholy. And obviously her eyes, so similar to her sister’s ones, but lacking of the same light for obvious reasons. Probably she didn’t realize how she was great, or maybe she just had fear of exhibit herself too much after years of grips.
They stared at each other for an obliterating lapse of time, apparently endless. It was clear that neither of the two managed to find the right words to start the conversation, but since he had been the one who wanted to see her and had planned that acting, he had the duty to speak first.

- You came, in the end- he decided to talk, cracking a smile.

He didn’t receive an answer, the girl restricted herself to stare at him with an almost threatening look. The resentment she felt toward him was palpable more than ever.

- You stay there or you sit?- he invited her to make herself comfortable on the opposite couch, in an attempt to put her mainly at ease.

Again Shiho didn’t say nothing. He saw her shrug her shoulders, perhaps without even realizing it, as she wanted to protect herself from the one who she considered an enemy more than an old and unpleasant acquaintance.
Slowly, she moved first one foot and then the other, reaching step by step the couch, without taking her eyes off him. She felt like his hunted, she nervously waited for him to attack her. Even if in the past she had been one of the wolves herself and he had been “the lamb” who sacrificed himself to fight them, suddenly he had found himself to be the wolf and she was the lamb who was trying to escape from him. Life’s paradoxes.
He heard her swallow loudly, while she seated with the same slowness with which she had reached him.

- I guess you already knew I was the mysterious person- he resumed to talk, this time with the intent of making a longer speech.
- What do you want from me?!- she nastily interrupted him, almost assailing him.

Finally she decided to talk, even if not in the more friendly way.

- Calm down, I don’t want to harm you, if it’s that what you think- he reassured her.
- How can I believe you?! You pretended for months to be the cordial neighbor who brought stews and soups, when actually you had placed hidden cameras and you delighted yourself to peek at every single movement I made, like a puppeteer who moves his puppets! You made fun of me! It’ wasn’t enough to have done it with my sister?!-

That last sentence came like a frozen shower, attended by a punch in the stomach. He still felt guilty, because he was guilty for real. He thought that she also saw it that way, the only way in which it could have been possible to see that sad story. He used Akemi, and he was responsible for her death. Even removing Camel’s mistake and the fact that the Organization’s men were pitiless and ruthless with anything or anyone, the common denominator remained was only ever him. If he couldn’t forgive himself first, how could he expected her to do it, since she was the one who had suffered more than anyone else for that loss?

- I can’t blame you- he only managed to say, closing his eyes.
- So, what do you want from me?!- she continued to attack him, without calming down.
- Simply giving you the explanations you deserve. You have already made a picture of the situation, but there are things that you don’t know and you should know them. I don’t want to justify myself, nor trying to change your mind about me: I just want to tell you how things are, without lying anymore-
- And why should I believe you?!-
- Because for the first time I’m showing you my true colors, not Subaru’s one and not even Dai Moroboshi’s one. I’m Shuichi Akai, an FBI agent- he opened his eyes, staring at her.

He waited a moment, observing her reaction. For the first time since she had set foot on that living room, he saw her relaxing her nerves a bit: a good sign that designated her predisposition to listen him. If she stayed just a minute longer seated on that couch, for him it would have been a goal.

- Talk!- she ordered him - But be quick, I don’t want to stay all the afternoon with you!-
- As you wish, Princess- he laugh at it, letting out a smile.

Unlike her sister, she had a temper difficult to handle. If she had lived in the Edo period, probably she would have been a brave general, able to command an entire army bending it to her will.

- Is there anything you would like to ask me, before I talk?- he invited her to satisfy her curiosity, if she had some.
- You are the one who wanted to see me to talk, so I’m not the one who has to make questions- she highlighted with sharp tone.
- That’s right. Then I can start-

With a last, long breath, he silently searched inside himself the right words and the necessary strength to say them.

- Let’s talk about your sister. Or better, let’s talk about the way I approached to her. The FBI was making some researches about the Organization, which in those years was active even in America. During the researches, it came to light that among them there was a very capable and high valued scientist, a sort of treasure for the men in black, something to keep locked up because too much important to let it free. It goes without saying that the scientist were you-

He did a little break, staring at her again: her expression was radically changed. The anger she had shown before seemed to have been dissolved like snow in the sun, giving way to the wish of knowing. He managed to catch her eye.
Now certain that she wouldn’t have gone before she knew even the rest, he resumed again.

- Managing to reach you was a craved goal, you could reveal us the Organization’s deepest secrets; however getting closer to you was quiet impossible, because like I told you before they hid you as you were their treasure. There was an only way to communicate with you: your sister-

He watched her clenching her fists, while swallowing loudly: by now it should have been clear even to her where he was getting at with that speech.

- So I approached her with an excuse, hoping that my plan went fine. I managed to earn Akemi’s sympathy and consequently event the privilege to meet you, the famous scientist: at that point getting secret information was an almost achieved goal. It was as if I had gone in the Organization’s heart, a perfect place to start to damage them. But something went wrong in the plan I thought in the last detail…-
- That’s enough- she interrupted him, saying those two simple words almost whispering them.
- Do you need a break? I guess it’s difficult to listen and stand all these things in one fell swoop, so if you want we can…-
- I said that’s enough!- she interrupted him again, now raising the voice’s tone - I don’t want to hear a single word anymore!!!-

She talked gritting her teeth, with the fists clenched so hard that her knuckles turn yellow. She had stopped looking at him and of the interest she had shown at the beginning of his story didn’t remain even a shadow. The anger was back, stronger than before. He couldn’t blame her, he was saying her bluntly that he had used her and her sister for his plans, as these were for a good purpose. However he couldn’t let her didn’t heard the rest of what he had to tell her, something more important that everything he said until that moment. It was the part he wished she heard more than any other. Even though he knew he couldn’t get her forgiveness, at least he wanted to try to show her his good side, the one she doubted of.

- You came here knowing that it wouldn’t have been a pleasant talk: you really want to leave now? We still have many things to talk about…- he tried to convince her to stay, but without putting too much pressure on her.
- I TOLD YOU I DON’T WANT TO HEAR YOU ANYMORE!!!- she cried out, raising her head sharply and watching at him like you watch at your sworn enemy, the one you want to snuff out.

He opened his eyes widely, stunned by such a vehemence. He knew she was a tough girl, the kind of girl who didn’t let herself get pushed around, but he had never seen her in that state. She shivered, perhaps without even realizing it, bloodshot eyes because of the effort to contain the anger and probably even some tears that she didn’t want to show him.
In that moment he realized that there was nothing more he could do to hold her, that whatever he would have said would have seemed the nth lie. In her eyes he was now seen as the culprit who was trying to clear his conscience.

- I DON’T CARE IF YOU ARE FROM FBI AND YOU USE THIS AS AN EXCUSE TO JUSTIFY EVERYTHING YOU DO, BUT WHAT YOU’VE DONE TO MY SISTER HASN’T JUSTIFICATION!!!- she stood up, continuing to cry out in his face with all the breath she had in her body - YOU DEPRIVED ME OF THE ONLY FAMILY THAT REMAINED ME AND NOW YOU’RE TRYING TO DUPE ME WITH YOUR PATHETIC EXCUSES?!?! JUST KNOW THAT IF YOU WANT MY FORGIVENESS YOU’LL NEVER GET IT, ALL RIGHT?! NEVER!!!-

She quickly walked away towards the door that led out of the living room, as if she wanted to escape as far as possible from him. His task was to protect her, but in that moment he felt not so different from those who harmed her for years.
He didn’t move from the couch, aware of chasing her wouldn’t have helped at all, except for being hated even more, as far as was possible. He couldn’t and he didn’t wanted to force her if she wasn’t in the mood, even though this implicated leaving her with the wrong idea about him.

- I’ve never demanded your forgiveness, I just wanted to clarify some things- he simply said, but without having the audacity to look her in the eyes.
- You’ve been all too clear- she scornfully answered, calming the voice tone but keeping an icy coldness in speaking -You know what? In my opinion you made a mistake when you decided to be an FBI agent, you had to join the Organization right away: you would have been a perfect criminal-

Those words, shot like a bullet from a gun’s barrel, hit him straight to the heart. He, the “Silver Bullet”, had been hit smack dab in the center. Without saying a word nor responding, he felt even that nth blow that life had reserved him, avoiding to show the pain. In front of her he couldn’t fall apart, he had to appear strong and determined, like an elder brother would have done with his little sister who was learning how life could be unfair and petty. However, he couldn’t stop that pain which had flood in his chest when she told him that for her he was just like a criminal. How could he protect her if she thought those things about him? How could he keep the promise he had made to Akemi?
The sound of her quick steps which were distancing as they approached brought him back to reality: she was leaving. Needless to run after her and persuade her to stay, needless to try to convince her he was a good person: in that moment she wasn’t willing to listen him, and perhaps she would have never been.

- Wait Ai!- he heard the young detective’s voice, who had been hidden near for all the time, followed by the sound of his steps while he was trying to join her running.

He must have heard everything and like every time his nature prompt him to find a solution. Unlike him, he didn’t want to give up at the first obstacle, perhaps because in that story he had emerged has one of the goods.
He stood up from the couch, walking slowly towards the door and exiting in the hallway, determined to reach them. Even though he couldn’t do anything, he wanted to hope that Kudo could resolve the situation. But what he heard was only the confirmation of the failure of his plan.

- You can’t leave like this, give him the chance to explain you!- he tried to convince her to stay.

The young scientist didn’t so much as look at him, she stood still in front of the entrance door turning away. He could imagine the expression on her face in that moment, the same she had with him before.

- You…-

A syllable pronounced quietly, but full of anger, scorn and disappointment.

- You promised me…-
- Eh? What are you talking about?- asked the boy, who hadn’t understood.
- You promised me you would have protected me…-
- I’ve been in the hallway near the living room all the time, just like I promised you!- he justified himself.
- DON’T PLAY DUMB!!!- she cried out, finally turning and looking at him.

Her eyes were full of tears, some of which had already fallen down her cheeks. Before that guy of whom she trusted blindly until that moment, she could afford to cry, thing that she didn’t do when they were alone in the living room. He was a stranger, an enemy who didn’t deserve to see her deeper side.

- Ai…- the young detective only managed to say.
- YOU KNEW EVERYTHING FROM THE BEGINNING, YOU KNEW WHO THAT MAN WAS AND WHAT HE DID TO MY SISTER, BUT DESPITE THIS YOU BECAME HIS INSEPARABLE PLAYMATE AND TOGETHER YOU PLOTTED BEHIND MY BACK!!! YOU EVEN HOSTED HIM IN YOUR HOME, WITHIN A STONE’S THROW OF WHERE I LIVE!!! ACCORDING TO YOU THIS MEANS PROTECTING SOMEONE?!?!- she continued to inveigh, unable to control herself.
- It’s not what you think…you should listen what Akai-san have to say you. It’s not a monster as you believe-
- OF COURSE, NOW YOU TAKE HIS SIDE, HE’S THE GOOD GUY AND I’M THE SPOILED PRINCESS!!! DO YOU REALIZE WHAT HE DID?!?! IT’S HIS FAULT IF MY SISTER IS DEAD!!!-
- I can understand how you feel, but if he decided to talk to you face to face it means that he’s really regretful and that maybe there is more behind the appearance…-
- YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL?!?!- she clenched her fists - DO YOU HAPPEN TO LOST THE ONLY MEMBER OF YOUR FAMILY WHO REMAINED YOU?!?! YOU ARE ONLY A PRESUMPTUOUS SONNY WHO PLAY THE DETECTIVE, TOTALLY INSENSITIVE!!! YOU TRAMPLE ON THE FEELINGS OF PEOPLE WHO ARE CLOSE TO YOU JUST TO FIND OUT THE TRUTH! YOU’RE A TRAITOR, JUST LIKE YOUR FRIEND WHO YOU DEFEND SO MUCH!!!-
- This is not true!!!- he also raised the voice tone, hurt by that statement.
- Enough, I don’t want to stay a minute longer in this house!-

She dried her tears with a gesture of annoyance, grabbing the door handle and opening it wide, ready to run away from what had become a prison more than her neighbor’s house.

- You can’t leave like this, Ai!- he stopped her, grabbing her arm.
- LEAVE ME!!!- she wiggled out of him, repelling his hand with brutal force - AND STOP CALL ME AI! MY NAME IS SHIHO, UNDERSTOOD?!?!-
- Forgive me, it’s a habit- he sighed - And then for me you will always be Ai- he tried to crack a smile, in an attempt to calm down the conversation’s tones.
- As for now I’m anything for you. Don’t you dare come find me, because I swear I’ll make you pay dearly!-

First it was his turn, and now the poor Shinichi. The second bullet had left the gun, the other Silver Bullet had been hit. They had lost the battle, on all fronts.

- But…Ai…- he pronounced those syllable with difficulty, unable to form a sentence with a sense.

There was no answer this time, just the sound of the door which slammed closing, leaving behind itself a battlefield on which laid two corpses.
Lighting up a cigarette to chase away the tension, he joined his friend, who had been stood still staring at the door. He put an hand on his shoulder: the only gesture he could make in that moment to comfort him. He had just lost a friend and it was his fault. For a moment he thought to have the power not only to push away his loved ones, but also to push them away even from people around him. Maybe she was right, he wasn’t born to be “one of the goods”.

- I’m sorry, I put you in this troublesome situation and now you’re paying a high price for taking my side. You had to deny to know, so she would have forgotten at least you-
- I couldn’t lie anymore, not after having drawn her here deceptively-

His voice tone was lower than usual, without that enthusiasm which it usually had. He understood how he felt, a traitor of the worst kind. Now they had another things in common, even though it wasn’t the best.

- I understand, you’ve done too much. But at least you can still hope to obtain her forgiveness. You’ll see that once she have cooled off she will accept to clarify with you, you’re really important for her- he tried to make him see the glass half full.
- If I know her well she won’t forgive me so easily. I betrayed her trust, I didn’t keep the promise I made her- he shook his head.
- Yes you’ve kept it. You have always protected her, even today. You promised that you would have stayed near while we were talking and you did it, and when she ran away you have chased her instead of coming to me: this demonstrate that more than me you were helping her- he cracked a little smile.
- The problem is that she didn’t see this: the fact that I’ve drawn her here with a lie and that for all this time I’ve never told her that I knew what happened with her sister, but despite all I decided to ally with you, Akai-san, led her to think that I was defending the murderer of the only member of her family who remained her. If only she were not so stubborn and listen to what people have to say…!- he put a hand to his forehead, continuing to shake his head.
- She’s not totally wrong- he admitted.
- Eh?!- he turned to look at him, incredulous - What do you mean? We all know that you’ve always been helping us from the beginning, and what happened to Akemi was that criminal gang’s fault!-
- They pulled the trigger…but I loaded the gun-

Silence felt in that room became cold, although spring had already arrived. It was difficult to find other words to say, both understood each other but neither could do anything to relieve his friend’s pain. Aware of their mistakes, the only thing they could do was accept the consequences.

- Tomorrow I will talk with Doctor Agasa, maybe he will be able to reason with her- said finally Shinichi, to give both a last glimmer of hope.
- Do you think it will work?- asked the FBI agent, a little bit skeptical.
- I can’t guarantee it, but it’s the only thing we can do now. Give it a go will not make the situation worse than it already is-
- You’re right. I hope that at least for one of us two things will work out- he smiled, reciprocated by the young investigator.

He didn’t want to contradict him, because he wanted Shiho to have back beside her the person she trusted more than anyone else, the one that had made her find the will to smile at life. And obviously he also wanted his friend to stop paying for something that he didn’t do. He knew perfectly that for him there was no hope, but he didn’t want to deprive that young man who always saw everything with optimism to make an all-out attempt. He deserved the best, he who was the real Silver Bullet of the story.

 

…………………………

 

She opened the door with the fury of a hurricane, running in as if it was the only place where she could find a refuge from a world that continued to chase her and turn its back on her. She stumbled in the carpet, falling down on her knees. She remained in that position, by now out of breath and strength, with a hanging head and her fists clenched. She cried, she cried to get rid of that pain which was bursting her chest. Her body shaken by sobs seemed the one of a wet chick which was shivering from the cold. She felt lost, abandoned, betrayed. In her mind continued to be projected the smiling image of her sister, who was calling her name many times.

- What happens Ai?!- bore down on her Doctor Agasa, worried to see her in that state.

Even him didn’t manage to call her by her real name, the force of habit prompted him to call her by the alias that he had given her himself. Despite that, it had never bothered her, because that odd scientist by now far from the prime of his life had become for her the closest thing to a family. The family that she couldn’t have had.
She didn’t manage to answer to his question, the pain was too much to be able to express it by words. All that she could do was clinging to him, as if he was her only lifeline, unleashing the crying on his chest.

- Come on, now calm down my child- he caressed her back, in an attempt to make her stop.

Those words came to her ears like the sweetest of the melodies. She had never had the privilege to hear them from the mouth of her real father, nor from that of anyone other. In that moment she thought that even if she would have never had a friend anymore, she wouldn’t have mind that much. It was enough for her to have the chance to remain in that house, with the only person who would have never deceived her. The rest didn’t matter.
She stayed in his arms for an indefinite time, until devoid of strength and tears she lapsed into a deep sleep.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: Broken hearts

 

The image that the mirror was reflecting wasn’t one of the best: messed up hair, pale face and accentuated dark circles under the eyes. No wonder too much, after the sleepless night he had spent. He had tossed and turned in bed like an anguished soul, while in his head resounded the echo of those words which had pierce him like a katana’s blade.

As for now I’m anything for you. Don’t you dare come find me, because I swear I’ll make you pay dearly!

Even though he had always criticized her and sometimes he couldn’t stand her fiery temper, Ai had become in effect his best friend, the only person who could understand what he had been through finding himself from day to day in a body that didn’t belong to him. The bond that had been cemented between them was even stronger than the one he had with Heijior with any other friends he had ever had: for this reason he couldn’t bear the idea of losing her.
Staring at his reflection, he wondered for the first time in his life if he hadn’t been on the wrong side. However, he couldn’t blame Akai, who in that moment must have felt perhaps even worse than him.
Sighing, he washed his face, hoping to wipe away the signs of insomnia. He dressed and went down to the kitchen, finding it desert. Akai was supposed to be still in bed, maybe he hadn’t slept too and he wanted to recover at least a few hours of sleep. So, on tiptoe without making noise, he left the house walking towards Doctor Agasa’s house.

He noticed that his hands were shaking while he opened the gate of the scientist’s house. A faint tremor, but evident to a watchful eye like his own one. It was difficult to admit, but he was afraid, afraid to see again that face with an expression full of hate.
He ringed the doorbell just one time: he didn’t want to seem harassing. After some minutes the door opened and the pot-bellied figure of the Doctor came out.

- I figured it was you, Shinichi-

He said that words in a law voice, as if he didn’t want to be heard by Shiho, who probably had to be in the kitchen a few meters form them. The confirmation of this came when he closed the door a little behind his large shoulders.

- How is she?- he only managed to ask him, sure that his friend had understood the reason why he had come there bright and early.
- Than when she came home yesterday she has calmed down, but honestly I am more afraid of this ostensible calm than of the breakdown she had last afternoon…- he confessed, looking downward and showing all the sorrow he felt at seeing that young girl, to whom he had grown fond more than he had expected, suffering so much.
- Do you think she’s only pretending to feel better?-
- We know well how she is, she doesn’t want to show her weakness but holding back she arrives at the point to burst out. And when she does it’s difficult to control her-
- Where is she now?-
- She’s having breakfast in the kitchen, unless she isn’t come to the window to peek at us. When she heard the doorbell she had always thought it could be you or Akai-san and she told me to not let you in for no reason- he shook his head.
- But I have to talk with her!- he clenched his fists, showing that grit he seemed to had forgotten at home until shortly before.
- Sonny, you need to understand that in this moment we have to let her blow off some steam without putting pressure on her: when she’s calmed down you’ll see that she will come to you- tried to reason with him the scientist.
- No, she’ll never come! Yesterday she told me that she doesn’t want to know about me anymore…- he looked downward.
- She said that because she was furious, her reaction is understandable. You were ready for the eventuality too, we know that it wouldn’t have been easy for her to have that confrontation-
- She didn’t even let Akai-san told her all he has to say…-
- Really? So they hadn’t clarified all the way?- he was surprised.
- Unfortunately no, she run away before he could tell her the most important thing. She didn’t tell you?-
- When she came home she was too upset to talk, she has cried herself to sleep- he shook his head - Then she woke up for dinner but she has hardly touched her food, and I couldn’t bear to discuss the topic seeing how she felt. This morning I tried to ask her some questions, but she remained vague and she answered me that she didn’t want to talk about that, so I didn’t persist-
- Please, Doctor, try to convince her to talk with me, even just for a few minutes!- he begged him - She has to know that I’ve never betrayed her trust!-

It wasn’t like him to abase himself enough to entreaties, but he was willing to do anything to convince his friend that whatever he did, for better or for worse, he hadn’t meant to hurt her. He wasn’t, as she defined him, “a little boy who didn’t care for other people’s feelings because he was too caught up in developing his plans”.

- I can try to ask her if she wants to come out for a moment or if she wants to let you in, but I can’t guarantee you anything- he sighed, closing his eyes - I don’t want to force her to do something that she doesn’t want-
- Thank you- he cracked a smile.

He watched him go into the house, trying to contain the wait’s nervousness that added up to the one he already felt because of that situation. Doctor Agasa was his last hope, the life line to whom clinging to avoid sinking, the only person who could convince Ai to reason. He mentally swore at himself to continuing to call her with her alias, determined to make an effort to use her real name if she would have accepted to talk with him. At least he owed her that.
Not seeing the Professor coming back and itching to know, he made some steps towards the door, hoping to manage to hear the voices inside the house. To his great fortune, Doctor Agasa had left the door ajar.

- I told you I don’t want to see him and I don’t want to talk with him!!!- he clearly heard Shiho’s angry voice.
- Come on Ai, try to make an effort…At least listen to what he has to say, he’s really sorry for what happened- tried to convince her the scientist.
- I don’t care if he’s sorry, he should have thought of that before!!! He can go home for all I care, but I don’t want him to come in and I don’t want to go out and see his ugly face while he says some pathetic excuse to justify the fact that he has hidden a murderer in his house and they have plotted behind my back!!!-

He heard a thud, similar to something that hit heavy on the table. He guessed that Shiho had let off steam hitting a cup or any other thing that was on the table for breakfast. If she became aggravated like that it wasn’t a good sign. By now it was becoming clear that his morning visit wouldn’t have led to anything, that he was coming home with his tail between his legs exactly how he got there. The hope was crumbling before his eyes.

- A murderer?!- he remained shocked by that epithet - Now don’t exaggerate, Akai-san isn’t a murderer at all! Perhaps he hasn’t been honest to disguise as Subaru, but he did it because he wanted to protect you-
- Protect me?!- she harshly highlighted that word - How can the person who caused my sister’s death come and tell me he wanted to protect me?! The only thing he wanted to protect was his guilty conscience!!!-
- Akai-san is the person who caused your sister’s death?!- repeated the Doctor, increasingly incredulous to all that.

Doctor Agasa knew some details, like the fact that Subaru was actually the agent Akai and that he lived at Kudo’s house to be able to closely keep watch over Ai, but he didn’t know everything. He had omitted to say him some things, both out of respect for Akai’s personal affairs, and because he feared that the close relationship he had with Ai would lead him to not manage to keep some secrets.

- I am pleased to see that they kept you in the dark too, Professor!- she coldly laughed at it - Look over your shoulder from people you trust so much, they could knife you in the back when you least expect it- she stood up from the chair, walking towards her room.
- Wait Ai!- he tried to stop her - Can’t you at least listen to Shinichi? If he came here early in the morning begging me to convince you to talk with him, is because he really cares about your friendship-
- He should have thought about that before- was her only answer, before closing the bedroom door behind her.

It was over. There was nothing he could do but accept the price of what he did.
Without even waiting for the Doctor to come back to tell him that there wouldn’t have been a clarification between them, he turned his back to the door and he walked towards the gate to go out.

- Shinichi! Where are you going? Wait sonny!- he heard his friend calling him.

He didn’t turn back, nor get a word in. He only raised a hand as if to say “Don’t worry, I’ve understood”, while he was closing the gate behind him, direct towards home.

 

…………………………..

 

She rummaged with the hand in the inside pocket of her jacket, searching for her coin purse. After hours spent to check and archive paperwork and documents in preparation for the return to America, she needed a break. And what was better than an iced tea to relax and let off some steam accumulated during that long search for the Organization?
She walked down the hallway of the “headquarters” that the FBI had hold back to the Japanese authorities, headed for the canned drinks’ vending machine. James had just announced her that, in all likelihood, she should have been present to the trial that would take place against Sharon Vineyard, as a witness and victim of one of her crimes: this caused her nervousness to increase. She had sought the showdown for years, but now that it had come she felt anxious, perhaps because she feared that that criminal, who had taken away all from her, could get away with it once again. She only wanted to seek justice, for her and for her father.
She set her glasses which had slipped almost to the tip of her nose, focusing the images behind the lens: it was then that she saw him clearly. Standing in front of the vending machine, a few steps from her, there was Shuichi. She couldn’t explain how it was possible that, after all those years since their breakup, her heart beat stronger every time she saw him, just like a young girl at her first crush. Yet the answer was so simple: she never stopped loving him. Secretly, silently, without asking anything in return, she continued to love that man who had deserved a special place in her heart. She had tried several times to deny it, to forget those inopportune feelings, to hate him for the way he had dumped her, but every effort went for nothing. She couldn’t feel resentment for someone she loved so much. So she had to settle for being just a colleague, or at least an old friend. However, she didn’t fail to worry in a manner that was readily apparent every time she saw him getting himself into trouble or visibly tired for the big workload that he carried on his shoulders. It was stronger than her, her way to make him understand “I’m here, Shu, I’m here for you”.
She came up beside him to the vending machine, looking at the can he had just taken and he was holding in his left hand.

- Black coffee like always- she smiled at him, trying to seem a little bit ironic with that hint to his old habits.
- Ah, it’s you- he answered absently, turning to look at her.

She frowned, dazed by his behavior. Shuichi had always been watchful at any moment, especially at work; but in that moment he seemed so distracted he hadn’t even noticed she had stopped a few feet on him. Moreover, there was something strange in his expression, something different than usual: she knew him well, she realized immediately his mood or gaze changes. Perhaps he was tested too by the whole situation, the fact that it had come to an end didn’t imply that everything would be automatically swept aside.

- Is everything ok Shu?- she asked him, trying to find out what was wrong.
- Yes, don’t worry- he answered again in an absently and vague way.

Sometimes she didn’t know how to deal with him, how to loosen him up. He had the bad habit to keep everything bottled up, to want to show himself to the world as an invincible hero whose armor couldn’t be scratched by anything or anyone; so he ended up appearing cold and numb, when actually inside himself he hid more emotions than he wanted to feel. More than once it had occurred to her that if Shuichi had had the opportunity to become a machine programmed to not feel anything, for sure he would have accepted. This saddened her a lot, because she wished with her whole being that he just cut loose and shown more often what he felt. And she wanted him to do it with her, to trust her.
She remained silent, knowing it was useless to insist: if he didn’t want to talk she wouldn’t have knocked the cork out of his pinhole. Sighing, she opened her coin purse and she searched inside it some small change for her iced tea. As soon as she found them, she walked over the vending machine and insert them inside, keying the number corresponding to her choice. The metallic thud of the can which fell in the compartment , followed by the one of the coffee can that Shuichi had opened, broke that sad silence which had been created between them. She watched him out of the corner of her eye sipping the drink, with his eyes fixed on an indefinite point. The desire to know what afflicted him was big, almost overwhelming: not because she was curious, though in fact she was by nature, but because she suffered to see him tormenting himself inwardly without being able to do anything to help him.

- Are you sure you’re ok Shu? You seem lost in thought and you look tired…- she couldn’t keep from asking.
- I didn’t sleep much-

Again a quick answer, as if he was annoyed to have a conversation. A sense of anger struck her suddenly: could he be so selfish to not realize that with his attitude he hurt people who cared about him?! Why he didn’t try at least to pretend to appreciate the attentions that were addressed to him?!
She opened the tea can, drinking a long slug in an attempt to calm down. She knew perfectly that he was like that, it was useless to get angry.

- Is there something bothering you?- she tried again to make him talk, when the amber liquid she had just swallowed refreshed her throat and subsided that sudden anger.

He remained silent for a few seconds, in which he drank another sip of black coffee. How he could be able to drink such a bitter thing was a mystery, and certainly the absence of sugars didn’t help him to soften.

- I started reading and I lost track of time-

A lie, an undisguised lie invented on the spot. If he had gone this far, it meant that there was no hope of knowing what was going inside his head, because he didn’t want to reveal it in no way. It had to be something strictly personal to make him react that way, and inside herself she presumed what it could be.
She hadn’t even reached the half of the tea can, but the knot that had formed in her stomach at that thought kept her from throwing down anything. Even swallowing had become painful. Yet she stayed there, with downcast eyes and a sad look, without moving a step, because the love she felt for that man was stronger than the pain he caused her.

- I see…- she just answered, giving up to continue her attempts of having a dialogue.
- I came back to work- he greeted her, throwing away the empty coffee can in the garbage can next to the vending machine.

Without another word, he walked down the hallway walking slowly with his hands in his pockets, in his usual and stoic position, leaving her alone in that desolate corner. Unmoving like a mountain, this was Shuichi Akai. It was natural to ask herself what had made her fall in love with him to such an extent, and the only answer she managed to find was that in his better days it was pleasant to be with him, besides the fact that he was a brave man with values. Perhaps there was more, something that went beyond the rationality. The heart wants what the heart wants, as the famous saying went, and the heart’s reasons can’t be analyzed with the mind. She could forgive everything to him, also being dumped without mince words and no notice. Although she kept telling herself that it was fine, that working every day by hi side was enough to make her happy, actually there were days in which the desire to hug him, kiss him or just go out for a drink with him was stronger than her conviction, especially when walking along the sidewalks out of the cinema where she loved going she bumped into happy couples who were holding hands. The awareness that she couldn’t fight to get him back was hard to swallow. She had done everything possible to make him understand that her feelings hadn’t changed, sometimes also exposing herself more than necessary: now it was his turn to fight for her, if he wanted to get her back. And maybe the answer was all too obvious. There was still that shadow between them and a possible rapprochement, the shadow of that ghost which absorbed Shuichi’s thoughts.
She swallowed with difficulty, trying to untie the knot that had formed in her throat. It was likely that was the reason why he was so thoughtful and taciturn, as he had been so many times before. Perhaps, although he had been able to get the revenge he had coved so much and his old enemy had been eliminated, for him it wasn’t enough yet. Sometimes revenge doesn’t bring satisfaction. Even getting rid of the Organization, Akemi would have never come back, as it would have never come back even her father, and there was nothing to rejoice in this.
She took off her glasses as she felt that her eyes were moist, slipping them carefully into her jacket pocket. She pulled out a handkerchief finely embroidered in a corner and she quickly wiped her eyes, before someone passed down the hallway and saw her. She couldn’t show her weakness, not in the workplace, otherwise she would have given explanations and obviously she couldn’t say that “she was suffering for love”. She wasn’t a fifteen-years-old girl, she was twenty-eight, almost twenty-nine: she was a full-grown woman who had to be able to manage her emotions.
She put back the handkerchief in her pocket, putting on her glasses again and trying to flag all the feelings that she was feeling, to be able to return to work without distractions. She realized she hadn’t finished yet that tea can, which by now had become lukewarm in her warm hand. She really wanted it when she had taken it from the vending machine, but she didn’t feel to swallow anything.

- Jodie, you’re here- she heard James’ voice behind her.
- Oh, James, it’s you- she spun around, caught off guard, trying to appear as normal as possible.
- You didn’t come back so I came to see where have you been. Your breaks are always too long…- he scolded her, although without malice.

James was much more than a Boss for her, he was a sort of second father that fate had given her when Vermouth had deprived her of her own. He had taken care of her for all those years, so much to get to know her better than anyone else. He knew exactly what she was feeling just by looking into her eyes, and this was the reason why at the time he had been the first to know about her relationship with Shuichi. She knew that James had understood that her love had never gone, but despite everything he had never asked any questions, a bit to not seem a kind of meddler father, a little because he knew that she herself didn’t want to talk about it too much. She had always appreciated this way of behaving with her.

- I’m sorry- she apologized - I needed a moment for me-
- Are you worried about the trial?-

Forget it: he noticed that something was wrong.

- Let’s say that I’m a bit nervous- she humored him.

If James thought that Vermouth was her concern just as well, she would let him believe. It was the perfect excuse to hide the real reason why her face in that moment wasn’t the best.

- Try to stay calm, there is no reason why Vermouth can be exonerated of the accusations. After all she has done, not even a miracle could save her from jail- he tried to reassure her.
- I hope so- she nodded.
- Come on, now let’s go to finish. There is still a lot of work to do before returning to the United States- he motioned her to follow him into his office, while he had already taken some steps to go.
- Ok-

She sighed, relieved to have escaped improper questions. She got ready to follow him, when she realized she was still holding that famous half full can. The wish to end it hadn’t come back, as it hadn’t gone away that sense of sadness which probably would have accompanied her for the rest of the day. Without too many second thought, she threw it in the garbage can, to keep company to Shuichi’s one.

 

…………………………..

 

She strolled along the avenue tinged with orange by the warm colors of the sunset, made even more impressive by the cherry trees at the height of their bloom, which released dancing rose petals in the air, similar to the wings of many delicate butterflies. A romantic panorama that wormed the heart, definitely not matching her mood. She hadn’t managed yet to shake off that uneasy feeling which was born inside her when she had noticed Shuichi’s discomfort and she had been unable to help him, ending up to suffer herself; for this reason she had refused James’ invite to drive her back to her apartment, preferring a good walk hoping that the latter would have benefited her. She had already walked for several meters, but it still didn’t seem to be working: the more she immersed herself in that panorama, the more the melancholy increased.
A young couple, around the age of the high school students to whom for some time she had taught English undercover, passed right next to her holding hands, smiling and carefree. She feigned indifference, as if she hadn’t seen them, but actually she felt a sense of envy for their pure happiness unaware of how love was difficult once you become an adult. For a moment she wished to stroll along the avenues under the cherry trees in blossom, hand in hand with Shuichi, while they opened up with one another, aware that they could trust. She desperately wanted him to understand that he could trust her, that whatever he wanted to tell her, even the smallest trifle, she would listen to him.
She sighted, breathing the sweet aroma of the cherry blossoms. She would miss Japan, so different from the Unites States but at the same time fascinating in all its particularities.
Lost in her stream of thoughts, she noticed the figure sitting on one of the benches placed at the sides of the avenue only when she found herself a few meters from it. It looked familiar at first glance, so she tried to focus it behind the lenses of her glasses: auburn hair long until the middle of the neck, slender body and serious expression on her face. There was only one person who corresponded to those characteristics among all those she had met in Japan: the Organization’s former scientist who had become later an alley to protect, Shiho Miyano. As well as all she was struggling to get used to that physical aspect unknown until now, always tending to watch her over and over searching for traces of that little girl named Ai Haibara. Watching at her closely it wasn’t hard to find those typical traits that characterized her, such as the natural hair color unusual for a Japanese, or those caustic eyes which scrutinize you from top to bottom trying to understand if she should consider you an enemy or not.
She couldn’t help but notice that the girl looked rather overcome, mixed with some other feeling that judging by the way she clenched her fists had to be anger. What was she doing all by herself on a bench at nightfall, sad and angry? Was it possible that that day no one of those who she knew (herself included) was happy?! What the hell was going on?! They had to celebrate, finally pulling a sigh of relief: the Organization had been destroyed, she and Shinichi had regained back their true identities and they could all start to live without the fear of becoming victims of those criminals. Instead they stood there, with those sad faces, absorbed in thoughts anything but serene. Their victory had a bitter taste, there was not even satisfaction enjoying it. What was the point of winning if they felt exactly like losers felt?
Her heart rally goes out seeing her like that, frail and helpless. That girl reminded her so much of herself when she was younger: self-assured on the outside, but with a fragile heart typical of every woman. This though made her feel less alone, as if the pain that she was feeling could be shared. When we are sad we think that no one can understand us or feel like us, but just turn the corner to find someone who is exactly in the same situation. So, selfishly, we feel relieved to not be the only ones to suffer. But she wasn’t selfish by nature, on the contrary she was a very unselfish woman and if she saw someone she cared about in difficulty she didn’t hesitate to rush to his aid, putting aside her own problems. On the other hand it was logical , with the work that she did.
Thus, setting aside her unrequited love into her heart’s drawers, she walked towards that bench.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: Points of view

 

She didn’t know how much time had passed since she had sat on that bench, maybe two or three hours. She had said to Professor Agasa that she would go out to get some fresh air, but she didn’t warned him that she would be so late. She sighed, regretful for the fact that probably she was worrying him: she knew well how he was worried about her instability, after the emotional breakdown and the event of the previous afternoon. However she needed to be alone, to get away from the house next to her, which had become to her a den of snakes. The more she thought about it, the more she felt angry, confused and sad. She couldn’t understand how it was possible to play like that with people’s feelings, to be ruthless before other people’s tragedies. Yet she had lived for years in the midst of an entire criminal organization formed by people from the same cloth. The hardest part was to accept that even those who she loved and trusted could act that way.
She clenched her fists, lowering her head and trying to choke back the few tears that were left to shed. She didn’t want to cry anymore for those who didn’t deserve it.
Absorbed in her anger and in her thoughts, she didn’t hear the footstep that were getting closer and closer to her.

- Hello!- se heard a voice with an unmistakable American accent, which she had learnt to recognize after years spent in the United States to study, different from the British one of her mother.

She immediately raised her head up, more frightened than surprised, looking to her left: it was the agent Jodie. She was greeting her in her native language, giving her a bright smile, her head cocked to one side. She hadn’t had many opportunities to spend time or to talk with that woman, though she had always made a good impression to her, since she had proposed to her to enter in the Witness Protection Program to escape from the Men in Black. Jodie was nice, willing to help other people and even very sweet when she wanted. She liked her, she felt she could trust her, although in that moment she couldn’t even trust her own shadow. She struggled to reciprocate her smile, but all that came out was a kind of grimace. She hope she wouldn’t have given her an impression of being a rude, or even worse to hate her.

- Agent Jodie…- she only managed to say her.
- What are you doing here all alone at this hour? Shouldn’t you be at home for dinner?- asked her sweetly the ex-teacher.
- I prefer to stay here- she looked down, unable to hide what she was feeling and pretending to be carefree in front of her.

With a hanging head and the look focused on her own feet, she didn’t noticed that Jodie’s expression had changed from sweet and smiling to frowning and thoughtful.

- Is there something wrong?- she asked her.

She waited a moment before answering, unsure if confide her what had happened or not. In the end Jodie for her was almost a stranger, how could she know if she could trust her? Moreover, she did not want to talk about what had happened, bringing to mind memories wasn’t good to her mood already spoiled. And then let alone an FBI agent had time to waste listening to the sad events of her life!
She opened her eyes widely, making a small but quick twitch with her head, raising it. A FBI agent…Jodie was Akai’s working partner, and definitely she had to know him very well. She remembered when once she had heard Amuro, at that time still infiltrated with the codename Bourbon, saying that the FBI’s “dogs” were all the same, all cut from the same cloth. Until then she had always interpreted that phrase as pure hatred that the man had for the American federal investigative authority, dictated by personal reasons, but now she began to think that maybe he wasn’t entirely wrong describing them in that way. A terrible doubt assailed her: and if Jodie had been sent by Akai and Shinichi? After all she was a friend and colleague of the first, and she harbored a deep respect and sympathy for the second, enough to call him “her favorite detective”.
Her breath became heavy, her heartbeats increased. She didn’t want to fall into their trap, she didn’t want them to win the war that they had started themselves.

- Are you came to persuade me to talk with the agent Akai?! If so you can save the act!!!- she finally replied, abruptly, staring angrily at her.
- What?! Why should I convince you to talk to Shu?!- the blonde stared shocked at her, widening her ice-blue eyes behind the lens of those old glasses that she used to wear.

From her expression she seemed really bewildered by the accusation that she had just hurled her, but there wasn’t to forget that for some time she had pretended to be an English teacher at Teitan High School, and her sham had been successful. If even Jodie, just like Akai and Shinichi, was a good liar, she shouldn’t let her guard down and believe at her tricks.

- Do you want to make me believe you don’t know anything about what happened yesterday?! You’re here because that nosy detective sent you, aren’t you?- she continued to answer her in a bad way.
- Nosy detective?! I don’t really know what you’re talking about!- the woman shook her head, increasingly incredulous and bewildered by that speech

Maybe she should stop and think. Recent events had made her suspicious and doubtful towards everything and everyone, but the more she looked at Jodie’s face and the more it seemed that she really didn’t know anything. Otherwise, thinking about it, she hadn’t told anyone where she was going exactly when she left, not even to Doctor Agasa, so even though Shinichi and Akai had “hired” her to try to lure her to them there was very little chance that she was aware of the precise place where she was. Unless she hadn’t being tailed from the beginning.
She sighed, not knowing what to believe anymore. After all Jodie hadn’t done anything wrong to her, it was unfair to treat her like that before knowing her real intentions. It could also be that she had been deceived herself by those two, that they made her believe they were just two innocents who wanted to have a civil dialogue. The only way to know it was to talk to her.

- I’m sorry, I didn’t want to be rude with you, agent Jodie…- she apologized, bowing her head as a sign of regret.

She heard her moving a few steps, and then taking a seat beside her on the bench.

- Can you tell me what happened yesterday with Shu? Why are you so angry with him?- she asked her, softening the tones.

Convinced that there was no other solutions, she nodded, starting to summarize the encounter that she had had the previous day with her work colleague, what he had said to her and the lies that had come out. All it surrounded by the fact that the one she considered her best friend was actually a traitor of the worst kind. The more she talked and the more she saw Jodie’s expression becoming incredulous and shocked.
When she had finished, she finally felt lighter. She didn’t know yet if she had done well to trust Jodie or not, but certainly talk to her had been liberating. In her heart she hoped that the woman could understand.
There was a minute of silence before the FBI agent spoke. She had left her literally speechless.

- Now I understand why Shu was so strange today…And so he told you…-

The woman’s expression became suddenly sad, as if some ghost from the past had returned to haunt her. But it wasn’t so much that that struck her, as much as the fact that her words confirmed that she was aware of what Akai had to tell her. Everyone seemed to know except her. The doubt that Jodie was a spy sent by them again crept into her head.

- She knew, then?! Apparently you’ve all played to keep the truth hidden from me!- she got annoyed again, feeling teasing.
- I knew what had happened three years ago, that when Shu’s cover felt through your sister was involved in the affair, but I’ve never thought that behind the one who the Organization called a scientist with the codename Sherry, was hiding a little girl. We from the FBI suspected it and that’s why we had started to keep an eye on you, but I’ve never imagined it was true-

She was astonished by the ease with which she had confessed everything, a way to behave exactly opposite to that of Shinichi and Akai. If she had wanted to play their game, certainly she wouldn’t expose herself like that. Maybe Jodie was really the only person besides her who didn’t want to keep secrets anymore.
She listened to her, while she continued her story with a quiet tone, but showing her emotions with the eyes and the face’s expressions.

- I still can’t believe to all this story, it seems absurd to regress with a pill. When I knew for sure that Ai Haibara was actually Shiho Miyano, I could still not tell you anything about the fact that Shuichi was actually your neighbor Subaru Okiya, because it wasn’t my business to do it. Shu was looking for the right time to talk to you, to clarify with you some things; It wasn’t my right to take him away this task, and the same thing goes for Shinichi. Shu had to be the one to tell you, it was right-

Those words,holding within itself all the logic and rationality of this world, made her reflect for the first time after a whole day spent to just listen to her anger. She couldn’t see things clearly, blinded by resentment. Jodie was perfectly right: if Akai had something to tell her he had to be him and only him to speak, no one else had the duty or the right to horn in personal questions.
Seeing thing from another perspective made her realize the mistakes she had committed herself, refusing to listen to everyone and everything. Despite that, she couldn’t forgive Shinichi for the confidence he had given to her sister’s ex-boyfriend, who caused her death. How could you trust someone who trampled on other people’s feelings charging them the price of his own lies?! She couldn’t understand it, however hard she tried.

- That still doesn’t excuse the fact that that kind of third-rate detective has played to be his right-hand man for all this time! He’s the man who caused my sister’s death!- He pointed out , trying to make it clear to Jodie that she also had good reason to feel bad.

She saw her looking down, becoming sad again. She felt there was something, something that Jodie knew but for some unknown reasons she was holding inside. The expression on her face was enough to figure it out.

- I can understand your point of view, it must be hard for you to accept this story- she gave her a little smile, almost listless and forced than those which she had given her on her arrival - But there are things that you don’t know that might make you change your mind if you had the opportunity to listen to them…-
- It’s the same thing that Shinichi told me- she folded her arms across her chest - But no one is determined to say them to me!-
- The fact is that the topic is delicate and no one wants to hurt you-
- But you’re doing it- she stared straight at her.

Jodie sighed, closing her eyes for a moment and then opening them again. She must have felt at loggerheads, torn between respecting the personal affairs of her colleague and confess to her everything there was to know to put an end to her suffering. She was in an unfortunate position, and in part it was also because of her.

- I’m sorry, I shouldn’t involve you in things that don’t concern you, agent Jodie…- she apologized.
- No, on the contrary: I’m glad that you had confided in me- she smiled sweetly to her - For this reason I will told you the truth-
- Are you sure about this?- she asked, noticing the serious expression on her face.
- You deserve to know- she nodded - If I were in your shoes I would like to know the truth-
- You can talk, I’ll listen-
- You already know that Shu had used your sister to infiltrate in the Organization, right? At first it was like that, Akemi-san was an instrument in FBI’s hands that we needed to get to you, Shiho, the famous scientist; what you don’t know is that over time things have changed. Shuichi had really fallen in love with your sister, although he couldn’t expose himself too much because he jeopardized to blow off all the work done. When he learned of her death, despite his cold appearance, he had suffered a lot, more than you can imagine. I’m sure that he would never want to go that far, that if only he had known he would have rushed to help her and would have given his life for her. Maybe he even expected to have a future with your sister, once she had managed to escape from the Organization. He couldn’t forget her, despite all…- she took a break to swallow, trying to untie that knot which had formed in her throat - Unfortunately when you do a certain type of work and you find yourself in certain situations, you are aware that things can’t always go as you want-

While she pronounced those words her expression had become more and more sad, the eyes visibly reddened and glistening behind the lenses of her glasses. She thought to see even a couple of small tears on the outer corner of her eyes, held before they fell down her cheeks. Looking at her you would think that his was a normal reaction, that she had moved while she was telling that heartbreaking story of a love ended in a bad way, but for someone like her used to dig in people’s soul it didn’t go unnoticed that pain that the blonde was trying to hide. This finally gave her the confirmation that Jodie wasn’t lying, that she wasn’t a spy and that she just wanted to try to fix the things. She had to admit that her words had struck her, she couldn’t still believe that the man who she had called several times “murderer” actually was carrying such a regret, a pain maybe similar to her.
She couldn’t say anything, she just looked at Jodie waiting for her to say something more.

- Shu is a wonderful person- she resumed her speech, struggling herself to smile behind the sadness that had caught her - He would give his life for people he cares for and he proved that in the final act against the Organization: for this reason I think you should give him another chance to explain you everything in person. Listen to him, after all he deserves it a little bit, doesn’t he?- she winked at her.

She wanted to respond, she wanted to tell her again that Akai was a person without moral scruples, but she couldn’t. Jodie had floored her, and above all she had brought her to her senses. Appearances can be deceptive and that was definitely the case. Maybe he really deserved a second chance, for better or for worse. No one then would have asked her to go to lunch with him or to be his best friend, it was only a matter of listening to what he had to say; then she would draw her conclusions.

- I didn’t imagine that things were like this…- she finally answered - You’re right agent Jodie: tomorrow I will talk with him-
- Good!- she nodded , showing her happiness for that decision - You’ll see that you’ll change your mind about him-
- That remains to be seen…- she acted like a snob.
- Oh, come on, but are you always so serious?- she joked, tapping a hand on her shoulder in a playful way.

She replied with a smile to that gesture, feeling more relaxed now that everything was out in the open. She had to thank Jodie for that. If before she seemed a nice person, now that she had had the opportunity to talk to her she could say that she liked her a lot. She was a very capable woman, funny and unselfish: a role model.

- How about if I’ll take you home now?- she suggested her - It’s late, Doctor Agasa will be worried about you-
- You don’t have to worry, I can go home alone. If I'm not mistaken her apartment is near here, it would be useless to take another road and then go back just to accompany me- she declined the invite politely.
- It doesn’t matter, I can call a cab- she gave the thumbs up.
- I no longer need a bodyguard, the Men in Black won’t hunt for me anymore- she smiled.
- A lady should never go around alone at night, she could always find some prowler- she shook her head.
- This also applies to you-
- I’m an FBI agent!- she highlighted proudly.
- Right, I had forgotten it, agent Jodie- she highlighted ironically those last words.
- Don’t call me “agent”, just call me Jodie, ok? Call me by name, you make me feel old!- she winked at her.
- As you like, Jodie- she nodded smiling.
- Come on, let’s go home- she stood up from the bench, waving her to follow her.

 

In the half-light of the evening that wouldn’t take long to arrive, they walked towards the Doctor’s house in Beika’s district, continuing to speak about everything and anything as if they were friends forever.

 

………………………

 

When they arrived in front of Professor Agasa’s house gate it was now late evening, so much so that in the sky it was possible to distinguish every single star. They both noticed that even Kudo’s mansion lights were on, sign that Shinichi was in, probably with Shuichi. She asked herself if even in that moment they were peeking at her, controlling her every move.

- I think you should forgive even Cool Guy- Jodie said her, interrupting her thoughts - He’s a good guy and he loves you very much-
- But he didn’t show it…- she closed her eyes.
- We all made mistakes, but not for this we have to be necessarily bad people or unworthy to receive forgiveness. You know better than me that bad people are other, and they are able to do worse things than what Shinichi did. A white lie isn’t worse than a murder, right?- she struggled to smile, even if that speech which probably had brought up sad memories made her eyes veiled of sadness.

Once again in those few hours that she had talked with her, Jodie was right. In front of her she felt like an impulsive young girl unable to reason, although she had always considered to be much more mature than her age. Maybe it was what they called “the wisdom of age”, despite Jodie was still young, or maybe it was the work he was doing for years.

- Ok, I will talk even to him- she nodded, trying to show her gratitude with a smile.
- Very good!- she gave the thumbs up winking at her - Now I 'd better go home too, otherwise I will have dinner at midnight!-
- Would you like to stay? I'm sure the Professor wouldn’t mind adding a seat at the table, not to mention that when he cook he always exaggerates the amount because it is a glutton!- she shook her head in disapproval.
- You’re kind, but unfortunately I have to go back to my apartment because my phone run out of batteries and I do not have the charger with me. But if you like one of these evenings we can go eat at some nice place!- she smiled - I thought you were a too serious girl, but it's lovely to chat with you!-
- I was thinking the same about you-
- So I’m counting on it!- she winked at her again, then greeting her with a wave of the hand and move toward her apartment - See you soon! Oh, one thing: when you’ll talk to Shu tomorrow could you pretend to not know anything? I guess he wanted to say you those things first, I wouldn’t want him to think I meddled in business that doesn’t concern me-
- Do not worry, I won’t mention your name- she reassured her.
- Bye bye!- she greeted her again.
- Jodie- she called her back.
- Yes?- the blonde turned to her.

She didn’t know exactly what prompted her to make that gesture, or rather from where derived her curiosity to have an answer to the question that she was going to make her. Maybe she simply wanted to help her, although she didn’t know how to do it, thus returning what she had done for her that afternoon.

- By any chance is there more behind all the nice words you said about the agent Akai? I had the impression that you weren’t only praising the good qualities of a work colleague…-

Seeing Jodie’s astonished expression, mixed with the one that we usually do when someone discovers our intimate secret, she wondered if she hadn’t been too much indiscreet in addressing that question so personal. After all it was none of her business if they had a thing, and Akai was no longer her sister’s boyfriend for a long time, therefore he wouldn’t betrayed anyone even if he established a love relationship with Jodie.

- W-what should be there?- she pretended to be indifferent, even though it was clear that he understood perfectly what she meant by that question.
- I’m asking you if you’re in love with him- she said her bluntly.

Now she could say that she had been indiscrete. Maybe Jodie would respond badly, but now she couldn’t go back.
She watched the woman opening her eyes widely, and then quickly looking away, as if she didn’t want to show her feelings even to the dark of the night. It was clear that she wanted to hide that love, not because she was ashamed of it, but because she wanted to protect it and somehow to protect herself. She felt that there were many things behind, things that she couldn’t understand and that in the other hand were none of her business.

- It doesn’t matter- she finally answered, without adding anything - Good luck for tomorrow-

The forced smile that she gave her before walking away made her understand that she had hit a nerve, which she had exceeded a limit beyond which she was not allowed to go. There had been no need for a detailed response, Jodie’s reaction had been more than clear. Suddenly she remembered what she had told her, the love that the agent Akai had felt for her sister. Was that the reason why Jodie had brushed off her question? An unrequited love? She felt like an irresponsible person who had poured salt into a wound. He'd better apologize to Jodie when they would meet again.
Sighing, she got ready to come into the house, sure that she would have received a rebuke by the Doctor for being late, although, come to think of it, that was the least of her problems. The next day she would see again the man towards whom she still felt resentment, despite Jodie’s convincing words. She didn’t know how she would react, or if she really would be able to forgive him, just as she didn’t know if she would forgive Shinichi. Only time could tell it.

- I’m home, I’m sorry for the late Professor!- she made her voice echo as soon as she crossed the threshold.
- Finally! But where have you been?! I was worried about you, I even thought to call Shinichi!- spread his arms alarmed the scientist.
- You won’t have called him seriously, I hope- she glared at him.
- How could I do it, knowing that you're so angry with him!- he shook his head.
- Better this way. Anyway, I met a friend and we started to chat losing track of time-
- But you don’t have friends!- replied the man - Well, in fact there is Ayumi, but she doesn’t know that you're actually Ai-
- And what do you know if I have friends or not?- she acted like a snob - Maybe I have many!-
- So why don’t you invite them here?- he provoked her
- Simply because I don’t want- she smiled mockingly - But maybe this friend I met today will come to visit me soon- she sounded mysterious.
- You could invite her for dinner, I think I overdid with food…- he scratched his neck smiling embarrassed by his gluttony.
- It’s nothing new!- she scolded him - Come on, let’s eat. Obviously not everything!- she clarified.

Now that had become her life, she couldn’t imagine a different way to spend her days. The Doctor’s house had become somehow even her house, she didn’t feel like a simple guest anymore. Now that she could finally live free, perhaps she would also search for a good job (unless the Professor didn’t want to involve her in his bizarre projects). If she could make things right with those two, she could have said that for the first time in her life everything was going right. She even managed to make a new friend, her first friend after Ayumi, with whom now that she returned adult she could no longer share the same things.
Those thoughts lifted her spirit, giving her the strength to face what lay her ahead the next day.

Chapter Text

He buttoned up that uniform’s jacket that in some ways he had missed, along with the everyday school life, with its exams, the jokes with friends and walking along with Ran and Sonoko to go there and then return home. He had always complained about how boring it was, but now he was enthusiastic to be able to enjoy his last year (or what was left of it) as an high school student. He could return to his life, stop lying and just be Shinichi Kudo.
He looked himself in the mirror, pleased, adjusting his green tie: he wanted to be found at best, especially from a certain girl, a brunette who had become his girlfriend to all intents and purposes. He glanced at the clock, checking the time: he was late as usual. He felt himself a new Shinichi, but some things you know, never change. He grabbed his briefcase, which contained the text books and hurried to go out, locking the door.
He was about to cross the gate when, driven by an uncontrollable force, he looked up in the direction of Shiho’s bedroom window, hoping to see her figure behind the glasses. He hadn’t set foot in Doctor Agasa’s house, persisting was useful. He knew her well, he knew that she would have spoken to him only if and when she would have considered it appropriate. A moment had been enough to turn that morning started well in a bad day as the previous, to change his enthusiasm in guilt and depression. He realized that his vanity to want to look beautiful and fit was nothing more than a mask he was wearing to hide the inner discomfort. He didn’t do it for Ran or his classmates, he did it because pretending to feel well was easier to accept than the reality.
He sighed, looking away and finally coming out from his home, headed for Teitan High School. He had to hurry up, certainly Ran and Sonoko had already left for a while and if he didn’t hurry he would never be able to reach them, not to mention that he would come late in the classroom; yet he could not move faster than that, slow and heavy steps, as if his legs weighed tons.
The ringing of his cell phone distracted him from his thoughts. Nevermind, when you speak of the devil…they had to be definitely Ran and Sonoko who wanted to give him a tongue-lashing. Without even checking the name on the display, he accepted the call and put the phone to his ear:

- Hello?- he answered listlessly, sure to feel the shrill voice of Sonoko on the other side.
- Do I bother you? Are you already at school?-

He opened his eyes wide, wincing and at the same time stopping motionless on the spot. The voice wasn’t Sonoko’s one, and it certainly was the last he expected to hear. For a moment he didn’t know either what to do or what to say, he felt as he was in one of those science fiction movies where the time was able to stop and immobilize everything.

- Hello? Shinichi?- asked for confirmation of his presence the voice on the other side.
- Y-yes…yes, I’m here- he finally managed to say, taking a long breath.
- So why don’t you answer?- she upset a little bit.
- Excuse me, it’s that I was surprised. I didn’t expect to hear you…- he admitted.
- I would like to talk to you. Indeed, to be honest I would also like to talk to Akai -san if it’s possible. Can I come to your house this afternoon?- she came straight to the point without beating about the bush.

The fact that she had called him was already a surprise, but the fact that she wanted even to talk to Akai-san… What was happened in those days in which they hadn’t speak to each other? What had changed? Was it possible that Doctor Agasa had managed to convince her? So many questions beset his mind, but they found no answer. Shiho was so mysterious that all what concerned her assumed the same aura of mystery.

- Well…Akai-san will be at work until tonight. How about coming for dinner?- he suggested her, not without the fear of a rebuff.
- I'd rather not. Can I come after dinner?-
- Sure, like you want-

He had to expect it, having dinner all together as if they were inseparable friends didn’t correspond to reality, and for her it would be too difficult to manage. It was enough to know that she wanted at least to address the word to both, no matter when, how and where.

- Ok, so we’ll meet at your home at 10 pm-
- I’ll wait for you-

He didn’t have time to say more because Shiho interrupted the call as she had begun it. He couldn’t demand to have a conversation longer than that one with her, she had already made a big step putting aside anger and pride and asking him to meet.
He realized that the surprise had been so big that it didn’t have left him the time to be happy. Yes, he could say it: now he was happy. The heaviness of a moment before seemed to have dissolved to his friend's voice sound, if he could call her “friend”, since they hadn’t had a clarification yet.
A sincere and radiant smile appeared on his lips, wiping the sad and clouded expression that he had had until just before. He wanted to share with the world his happiness. But even before that with the world, it was better if he shared it with the other person that perhaps was even more involved than him in that business.
He reached into his pants pocket, pulling out his cell phone. He searched among the phone numbers he had saved in a separated list the one of the agent Akai and called him.

- Are there any problems?- answered the voice on the other side after a few seconds.
- No, indeed, I have good news- he didn’t worry about disguising his enthusiasm, hoping that even his friend would be infected by it.
- Really? About what?-
- Shiho has just called, she would like to speak to us this evening after dinner-

There were a few moments of silence, where he waited patiently for the FBI agent to assimilate the news and returned like him to hope for a happy ending. He must have been surprised a lot more than he was, since it had been the first to stop believing in the possibility of a reconciliation.

- Did you tell her to come?- he asked finally.
- Sure! She will come to my house at 10 pm-
- How did you manage to change her mind?-

He noticed from his tone that he had finally relaxed, and he imagined that at that moment he was smiling while asking that question.

- Actually I think we should credit Doctor Agasa with doing it, I haven’t talked to her since yesterday morning. Unless she has changed her mind alone, but knowing her it seems too strange...- he shook his head.
- Then we should thank the Professor- he suggested.
- I think so, too-
- Now I have to get back to work, I'll see you tonight then- he greeted him.
- Ok. I hope that this time everything will be fine- he sighed.
- Worse than the last time certainly cannot go-
- Indeed…-
- See you later then- he interrupted the call, returning to his work.

Relieved to have broken the news even to his friend, he put the phone in his pocket, but not before putting it on silent mode. Without even realizing it, in fact, he had reached the entrance of the Teitan High School, oddly with a delay of only a few minutes.

- Finally!- he heard Sonoko’s voice in the crowd of students who were preparing to go into the institute - May I ask why are you so late?!-
- I’m sorry, I had a mishap!- he excused.
- Were you perhaps with another woman?! But don’t you think of the poor Ran who waited impatiently to go to school together with you?!- she accused him, as he used to do, pointing behind her where little further on there was his girlfriend who was looking astonished the scene along with Masumi.
- What nonsense are you saying?! I just got a call and I'm late!-
- A phone call from your lover?- she stared at him suspiciously.
- No, from my mom!-

In those days the lies he had told had backfired and for this reason he had decided to not lie anymore; however he couldn’t tell Sonoko that the call he had received was by Shiho, because he knew that the heiress of the Suzuki family had had suspicions about the nature of their relationship since the truth was shown. Even when they were simply Conan and Ai, two elementary school children, she had always said that among them there was feeling. After the Organization’s defeat and their return to adulthood, it hadn’t been easy to get Ran’s forgiveness and having to explain everything. Maybe Ran had not yet swallowed the bitter pill completely, but between them things seemed to be going well. He couldn’t say the same of Sonoko, who instead lost no opportunity to reproach him every little thing. He knew she didn’t do it because she hated him, but to protect her best friend. One of the things on which she still insisted and that, unfortunately, conditioned even Ran’s thoughts was this: his relationship with Shiho. He had explained several times that she was just a friend, his best friend, a person with whom he had shared a horrible experience, and that for a long time had been the only one to understand what he was going through.
Considering all this, he convinced himself that lying was the best thing.

- Come on Sonoko, enough is enough- stepped in Ran, who in the meantime had approached them - If he’s late he must have a good reason-
- Don’t take his side, he’s just a rascal!- she retorted her - You should give him a telling off!-
- I think you are exaggerating- Masumi interjected, smiling as always - Our super detective is still busy with the police and the FBI in the latest issues concerning that bad case!-
- And how do you know it?- asked Sonoko skeptical.

Actually he was doing himself the same question too. Sometimes Masumi really seemed to know everything about everyone, enough to arouse the suspicion that she tailed and spied people.

- Because my brother told me!-

Of course, why he hadn’t thought of it before? Masumi was Akai-san’s sister, it was normal that they spoke and so she was aware of certain details.

- Right, your brother is that FBI agent who lives at Shinichi's house- said Ran.
- And who pretended to be Subaru!- stressed Sonoko, who seemed to have something to say even about that.
- But is was for work!- Masumi took his defenses, shaking hands.

They argued heatedly until they reached their classroom and took their seats to their respective work benches. He had to admit that he had missed even that aspect of high school and being a teenager, despite everything.
He awoke from his thoughts when he saw that Ran was looking at him smiling sweetly. He blushed, his heart was beating out of his chest. After all those years Ran took still the same effect on him as that day, when they met in kindergarten and were only two children.

- Is everything ok? You seem thoughtful …- she pointed out.
- It's all right, I was just thinking that today is a beautiful day- he smiled back.

He couldn’t explain why, but despite the tension for that second confrontation that he would have had with Shiho that evening, he felt that everything was going to be all right. The intuition of a detective is never wrong.

 

…………………………………..

 

She was sure that he minded having interrupted like that the call of his friend, but as her he knew exactly that in the workplace and in service the only phone calls on which it was allowed to dwell were those concerning the work itself. However it wasn’t a problem, he could have talk to him face to face that evening. She wasn’t the kind of people who eavesdropped or got her nose in other people’s business, simply they were working together and when she had heard him speaking on the phone she had understood immediately who was the person on the other side and what topic they were dealing with.
She couldn’t help but smile, glad that that call was because of her. Although it would remain a secret between her and Shiho and Shuichi would never have found out about the gesture that she had done for him, it was enough to know to have made him happy, because for her it was the most important thing. She shown him her love like that, with disinterested gestures, without expecting recognition. In her heart she hoped that that evening everything was going right.

- Is everything ok?- she asked when he sat down at the table with her, pretending not to know.
- Yes, it was just your favorite detective who warned me of a present that Doctor Agasa made us-

She tried to hold back a smile, to avoid exposing herself and telling him that she knew perfectly that he had not said that. He wasn’t lying to her because he didn’t trust her, but simply because he believed that matter a very personal thing and he didn’t like to let people know his own business, even to the closest friends.

- A present? What kind of present?- she played along.
- A cake that is only in a specific bakery. He ordered it just for us-
- How sweet of him! Now that I think about it, it’s a long time since I’ve eaten a slice of cake…- she pursed her lips, looking up.
- You have to pay attention to your figure?- he teased her.
- No, it’s just that I haven’t had the chance!- she pretended to pout.
- If you want you can come to taste it tomorrow-
- Tomorrow? But didn’t he gave it to you today?- she continued to tease him, amused by the fact that he was unaware of everything.
- No, he just booked it. Tomorrow the courier will deliver it-
- Oh, I see…Well, if it’s not a problem I’ll gladly come!- she accepted happily the invitation, although she wondered how he would solve the matter of the cake.
- I think the boy won’t mind, considering that you always flatter him- he smirked.
- If I didn’t know I would think you're jealous...- she stared him sly.
- Maybe I am-

She didn’t manage to reply to that joke, taken aback. She would have imagined anything but he told her those words, even for joking. Shuichi wasn’t the type who went out on a limb with confessions between the lines and he had no real reason to be jealous of the compliments that she made to Cool Guy. Surely his was yet another joke of that conversation they were having, yet for a moment it had seemed that his tone of voice wasn’t so ironic. She must have imagined it, sometimes when we want something so much we seem to see it even when there isn’t.
She stood for a moment with her eyes opened wide, and her cheeks were tinged with a bright pink. When she realized that she probably looked like one of the girls to whom she had taught English in high school, she tried to compose herself, shaking her head and returning to concentrate on the papers in front of her.

- Better to stop now, otherwise James will rebuke us- she turned the dialogue on the working level.
- That’s right- he just answered, already returned back at work before her.

Despite the amount of work she had to finish, that morning she found herself thinking repeatedly about the last words that Shuichi had said her, wondering if it really was all a figment of her imagination or whether behind the appearances was still hiding a small flame of the love that once had warmed them. Whatever the answer would have been, though, at that moment it would have been overshadowed: now Shuichi had to concentrate on resolving the situation with Shiho and put an end to that chapter, he couldn’t even bother to clarify the feelings he felt for her. She was the last wagon of that train where he acted as a locomotive. An uncomfortable position, but the only one that she could have at that time. She said herself that it wasn’t a problem, for someone like her who had spent her life waiting patiently for everything, this was just yet another waiting. She hoped that at least this time, however, it will bring her something good. She deserved to be happy too, after all.

Chapter Text

- And so Vermouth will be taken to trial in America?- he asked confirmation of what he had just reported him.
- Exactly. Being American by nationality and having executed crimes even in her native land, unlike other members of the Organization which are of Japanese nationality she will be taken to trial in the United States, obviously taking account of what she has done here in Japan- he explained, dropping the excess ash of the cigarette he was smoking in the ashtray on the coffee table.
- I see…And Jodie knows it already?-
- I guess so, James would have reported it to her before all of us considering she is directly involved and she will be called to testify in the murder of her father-
- It won’t be easy for her…- he closed his eyes, the thought addressed to that woman who, like Akai-san, had become a friend as well as an ally.
- Don’t worry, Jodie is very capable, she will manage to get by. Also there will be James at her side, as his guardian during her childhood- he reassured him.
- And you?- he dared.
- If she want I’ll be there- he simply answered, cracking a smile.

It was not clear if with that question his young detective friend wanted to try to investigate his "non-professional" relationship with Jodie, but from the tone and the look it had all the appearance. In any case, he wouldn’t confess him anything too personal.
Sitting in the living room they had started that conversation to avoid being both in deathly silence watching the clock, waiting for the guest who they were awaiting arrived. If they wouldn’t have found any diversion to distract themselves, the nervousness that they were trying to calm would have taken over. The fear that Shiho would change her mind again was strong, but not stronger than the hope which that morning call had rekindled in them.
He didn’t have time to pick up the subject that the Kudo’s mansion bell rang: she was finally arrived.

- I’ll go to open the door!- jumped like a hare the boy, more anxious than him for that moment to arrive.

He turned off the cigarette nearly over, leaving it abandoned in the ashtray. The last cigarette before the face-to-face, perhaps the one that would mark the end of one story and the beginning of another.
He stood up from his armchair, putting his hands in his pockets and walked slowly to the entrance of the living room, where he leaned with his back against the door frame waiting to see the two guys coming. He wanted to accommodate her and make her understand that he wasn’t angry with her for the way she had treated him.
When he saw them coming from the hallway, he noticed immediately that the atmosphere was tense. Although she had been the one who had searched for them, he could clearly see from the expression on her face that she hadn’t forgiven either of them and harbored resentment toward them. Shinichi, for its part, was walking beside her keeping his head down, perhaps disappointed that his friendly reception had not been reciprocated. However they couldn’t blame her, it was right that she took her time to cool off.
As soon as their eyes met, he saw her paralyzing on the spot, stiffening and swallowing barely. He didn’t understand if the fear she had of him was because he had once been part of the Organization or for the words that he had said her last time. In her eyes he was a criminal, a person without scruples and feelings.

- You keep us waiting, princess…- he tried to play down, calling her with the same epithet with whom he had already called her once when she still had the aspect of the little Ai, precisely the first time in which they had remained alone and they had had the chance to talk.

He didn’t receive any answer, the young and stubborn scientist limited herself to approach him slowly, crossing the living room’s door and taking a seat on the couch, everything in complete silence. Only when she realized that nobody reached her, she decided to pronounce the first words.

- So? Do you want to sit or we wait for the dawn?-

It certainly wasn’t a friendly or appropriated tone to start a nice conversation , it could also get on nerves in a sense. But he knew her by now, he knew that her one was a mask to protect herself from what could hurt her.

- I think it’s better if you two speak before- said Shinichi, watching them both and then lingering his gaze on her - We can talk later-
- As you want- answered simply the girl, although it was evident that the idea of remaining alone with him didn’t excite her.

As much as she was mad even with Shinichi, having him beside her was for her a certainty, the certainty that no one would hurt her. She still trusted him, despite all, deep down. He wondered if he would ever had the honor to earn that confidence too.
The young detective took leave from them, pretending to disappear into the hallway, although actually he would have hidden himself nearby again to eavesdrop their conversation, he was sure of that. Trying to look as gentle as possible, he approached her and sat back down in his armchair. He thought he saw her trembling and this convinced him to start the conversation first, trying to make her understand that she shouldn’t be afraid of him.

- What pushed you to change your mind? It is obvious that you hate me, then why did you come into the lair of the bad wolf?-

He saw her finally raise her head and stared at him with the eyes narrowed, dark as an evil queen of fairy tales for children. He was accustomed to much worse thing with the work he did and everything he had lived, but he was sure that for those who weren’t accustomed to it that look could make them shudder.

- I promised to a good person that I would have listened to you, although I don’t think my opinion will change much more- she declared sharp, emphasizing with the voice the terms "good person".
- I see- he smiled - And who is this person so good? I would like to thank it in person since it convinced you to come back here when you did not want absolutely to have anything to do with me and with your detective friend-
- This is not relevant- she cut it off, not wanting to reveal that name for some strange reason.
- It will mean that tomorrow I will repay Doctor Agasa- he ventured, convinced that the scientist was the mysterious person.
- I don’t see the point but if you care go ahead. Anyway I didn’t come here to talk about trivial things-

She wanted to play at making the mysterious and sustained, and it amused him. He liked the verve of that young girl, so different in that particular from her older sister, more docile and sweet. He could go ahead and tease her into giving that name, but he agreed with her that at that time it was a topic that had to take second place: there were more important issues to resolve.

- So, is there anything in particular you'd like to know? Do you want to ask me questions about what I told you last time?- he asked her, crossing his arms over his chest.
- You can continue from where I interrupted you-

 

He nodded, taking a deep breath: now he must tell the truth, the one that for a long time had been hidden in his heart and that perhaps for that young girl would have been hard to believe.

- I see that tonight you don’t have a strong desire to make conversation, so I get straight to the point: Akemi was not just a tool for me. At first she was, but then over time things have changed, although I wouldn’t want to. I found myself feeling real feelings for her, to consider her seriously my girlfriend. I really cared about her, more than you can imagine, and I wanted to avoid in every possible way her death: for this reason I promised myself not to grant me peace until I could avenge her. I did my best to fulfill the promise that I had made, at least I owed her that after all-

He took a break, trying to define the emotions he was feeling. At that time, selfishly, he could not worry firstly about the girl who was in front of him and that had just learned the truth, because the whirlwind of sensations in his chest forced him to wonder what were those strong emotions that for a long time he was no longer able to feel.
Freedom, relief, sadness, happiness, melancholy, hope: all mingled. He was finally free of that guilt, free from lies. Maybe for him it was a new beginning: he was letting go of something forever and was about to open the doors of that heart that for too long had been closed.
The voice of the young scientist, suddenly become more calm, brought him back to reality.

- What promise?-

It was obvious that she didn’t know, probably Akemi hadn’t said anything so she wouldn’t worry or simply hadn’t had time. The content of that message that he was still treasuring in his cell had remained secret: a secret that now he had to reveal.

- The night before her murder, Akemi had sent me a message to tell me that she would try to get out from the Organization, thus freeing you. In addition to this, she asked me to take care of you and protect you in case something happened to her. I guess she knew what she was up against, the possibility to pay with her life, yet she wanted to give it a try anyway, but not before knowing that her beloved sister would be safe even after her death-

He omitted the fact that Akemi had asked him to dating as a real couple: those were his business and in any case it had no longer relevance. It was enough for him to made her know that he wasn’t a monster, that he would have done anything for her and to keep that promise.

- For this reason, after having faked my death with Conan’s help, I disguised as Subaru Okiya, the engineering student who took advantage of the kindness of family Kudo: it was the only way I could continue to be near you without being discovered by the Organization and by you too- he continued - If I had shown myself to you with my true face, you would have recognized me right away and certainly would not have agreed to team up with the traitor of the Organization who had fooled your sister. My outstretched hand would be rejected, so I hid in this house and from there I checked the situation-
- You know, I have to admit it: I always had a suspicion that behind Subaru there was you- she admitted - Your behavior was suspicious, and at first I thought you were one of the Organization's men, but then one day you said a phrase that reminded me of the same words that you had once said to my sister: from there I started to suspect more and more of your true identity-
- Maybe I exposed myself too much, but I didn’t want you to continue to be afraid of me- he smiled.

For the first time they were having a civil dialogue , she was opening up to him and the hate she had shown right before seemed to dissolve word after word. He didn’t know yet if that could be considered a turning point, but he was happy to have completed that dialogue interrupted badly the day before. Now that all the cards were put on the table and that he had made his last move, the outcome of the match depended only on his “adversary”. He looked at her, noticing that her eyes had become watery, her face was relaxed but at the same time it betrayed the pain she felt. It couldn’t be easy for her to remember that the only family member who still remained her had left, like the others, this world. He felt less alone in that suffering, someone shared what for a long time he had felt. He knew she was trying to restrain herself, that she still didn’t trust him so much to show him her deepest emotions, and he would have respected even this choice. In the end, though, a few wayward tear escaped from her control, wetting her snow-white cheeks. She erased the traces with a quick forearm gesture. At that moment he wanted to take her hand or hug her to let her know that she would never be alone, but his introverted and unemotional nature prevented him from letting go to a similar gesture. So he did the only thing he could do to not look like a piece of ice.

- I’m really sorry, for everything. I never meant to hurt you or your sister, I just wanted to keep the promise that I had made her, in a sense also to feel less guilty. So if in the future, at any time, you’ll ever need me, just know that I’ll be there and you can call me whenever you want. Assuming you want to forgive me, of course-

 

Shiho bit his lip and began to weep profusely. He wondered if it wasn’t better to put pride aside and take her hand rather than tell her the words, seeing the raised effect. Certainly he didn’t want to make her cry like that, not now that he was finally about to wave the white flag after a war to the death. In addition to this, he also feared for the answer he would receive to that question he had just made, which, however, was not long in coming: the girl nodded through her tears.

- Thank you- she whispered, her voice breaking with tears.

He smiled at her, even though at that moment she couldn’t probably see him with the blanket of tears that was obfuscating her sight. It was as if the boulder which for years he had carried on his shoulders had disintegrated under the blows of a pickaxe. Obtaining the forgiveness of that little girl so stubborn, strong and willful was like winning a billion yen in the lottery. He had to admit that the boy had been right even that time to continue to hope until the end.
Speaking of the devil, he heard footsteps behind him, and within seconds he found at his side exactly Shinichi, who was sincerely smiling at him, the same smile as his alter ego Conan Edogawa. As he suspected he had hidden again behind the door. He could call it a " detective’s professional bias". He knew why he was popped out at that moment: he had understood that their conversation was over and now it was his turn to clarify with his friend. He was so impatient that he couldn’t wait any longer.
He stood up from the couch , approaching Shiho and gallantly offering her a clean handkerchief to wipe the tears .

- Well, now there is someone else who would like to talk to you- he motioned to his friend to sit in his place - I’ll leave you alone-

With those last words and a very peaceful mood, he took leave of the living room, pretending to go to another room: actually he would have retaliated that little nosy detective. Smiling, he hid behind the door, exactly where Shinichi was before: it was his turn to listen.

 

………………………………

 

She ran gently a handkerchief just given to her by Akai on her eyes, already too red and swollen for further rubbed. She wanted to erase all the traces of those tears that shouldn’t have come out, not in front of him. She still had her pride, after all. However she wasn’t able to avoid it, the thought that her sister had worried more for her than for herself until the end, had left her with such a sense of helplessness to leave no space for other than a desperate cry.
When she realized that Shinichi was looking at her a bit worried, she tried to calm herself down.

- It's all right now? Do you feel calmer?- he asked in a voice softer than usual, even showing a note of hope in that question.

She nodded, finally allowing herself a little smile.

- You knew everything, right? Is that why you helped him-
- Yes- he confirmed - Ever since I met him I knew I could trust him, he would be our great ally. I apologize for having hidden the matter of your sister, I didn’t want to hurt you in any way or scheming behind you- he looked down, showing a sincere expression of repentance on his face - I just wanted to respect Akai-san’s personal affairs. It was right that he was the one to talk about that to you, when he would have considered it worthwhile-

Suddenly she reminded of the words that Jodie had told her the day before: “Shu was looking for the right time to talk to you, to clarify with you some things; It wasn’t my right to take him away this task, and the same thing goes for Shinichi. Shu had to be the one to tell you, it was right”. The exact same words that Shinichi was addressing her at that moment. To think of it, Jodie wasn’t wrong about anything of that she had said: Akai was really a different person from what she believed, he wasn’t a murderer and he didn’t want to hurt her sister, and Shinichi would never betray the trust he reposed in him. She felt stupid for the way she had behaved, a spoiled and stubborn child. If it weren’t for Jodie she wouldn’t have found on that couch to listen to a truth she had every right to know. Silently, she thanked the woman again in her head.

- I understand it- she nodded - You wanted to respect both of us and you found yourself in the middle of two fires-
- So we're still friends?- he asked hopefully, smiling with his eyes twinkling.

She held back a chuckle, which at that time would have been inopportune. He seemed a child anxious to know if mom and dad had bought him that toy that he had wished so much, but what made her laugh was instead for him a very serious matter. Until then she had never really realized how Kudo held to their friendship, born by chance and consolidated over time, and she had to admit that it flattered her. She had never had a friend, a true friend, and now she had one who cared so much for her to make her want to smile.

- I know that without me you feel lost, so I'll give you my friendship. You’re lucky, then see to never lie to me again!- finally she decided to answer him in the only way she knew, ironic and sustained, however betraying herself with a mischievous grin.
- You’re always the same, uh?- he shook his head, playing along.
- Now I have to go home, it's late and I'm tired- she stood up from the couch, not before having looked at the clock.
- Sure you don’t want to stay a little? We finally clarified, there is no reason why you should run away so soon. And then you're used to being up all night, as you always did when you worked to find an antidote for APTX- he tried to convince her to stay.
- I’m really tired, these days have been stressful for me and I haven’t rested enough- she declined the invite, taking the first steps to exit from the living room - I also prefer to take one step at a time, I still don’t feel totally comfortable to be alone with Akai or talk to him normally. Although I don’t consider him “the man who killed my sister” anymore, I still prefer not to give him too much confidence now- she admitted.

It might seem a convoluted speech, but she knew that her friend would understand. He knew her, he knew she needed some time to be able to completely trust a person, and that before doing so she would tested it in all possible ways to test the effective loyalty. After a past spent in a web of lies, now that she had full control of her life she wanted to be able to decide who to let in and who to leave out. There was no room for traitors.

- I see…Just know that you could come here every time you want Akai -san will stay in Japan for a while, so you’ll get a chance to talk to him again if you consider it worthwhile. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it- he smiled at her, showing his understanding without forcing her.

Again, for the second time that evening, her thoughts turned to Jodie, precisely on the point of their conversation where she understood her love for Akai and where they had promised to go out together sometimes. It was there that she got the idea reciprocate the gesture that her new friend had done for her. She owed her.

- When I’ll come can I bring a friend, sometimes?- she asked point-blank, smiling while imagining Jodie’s face when she would brought her there to spend time with Akai outside of work.
- A friend?- asked Shinichi perplexed, opening his eyes widely - And who is this friend? You don’t have friends except for Ayumi, who would not have reason to come here. There are Masumi, Ran and Sonoko, but you’ve just known them and you don’t seem to get on well with Sonoko…- he took stock of the situation, pointing out how difficult it was for her to familiarize herself in that group of friends already formed, especially for the hostility of the heiress Suzuki.
- Do you made arrangements with Doctor Agasa to point out that I have no friends, by chance?- she asked sharply, remembering the words that the scientist had addressed her the night before.
- What’s with the Doctor now?- didn’t understand the young detective, oblivious to everything.
- Let’s drop it!- she shook her head - However it is not Ayumi, but another person that you know- she crossed her arms over her chest, sounding a bit mysterious.
- I know her? But who can she be...?- he assumed a thoughtful air.
- You'll find out only if I’ll can bring her here- she smiled looking like a know-it-all.
- Ok- he agreed, more to satisfy his curiosity than as a favor to her - Even if I don’t understand all this mystery-
- Well, then I go- she greeted him again, this time coming out of the living room and heading for the exit door of the mansion.
- I’ll accompany you- he followed his friend.

They walked along the corridor without adding anything. Actually, even if Shinichi had spoken, probably she wouldn’t have heard, because she was too busy looking around suspiciously. She looked for him, she looked for that man with whom she had spoken just before and by whom she felt constantly observed every time she set foot in that house. She knew that it was somewhere not far from them, maybe secretly eavesdropping on their conversation. Despite he had just demonstrated to not want to hurt her, his presence still gave her a strange feeling, perhaps a reflection of his past in the Organization. She more than anyone else knew that once entered into that black hole, also coming out from it one would have brought with them the specter of what they had experienced. They were ghosts who trailed behind chains imposed by others. She could say they looked like in that.

- See you then- Shinichi greeted her as soon as they arrived at the door.

In response, she nodded and smiled. She was about to turn the handle and open the door when the sound of footsteps coming from the kitchen, which were becoming closer, caught the attention of both. It wasn’t hard to imagine who it was, and in fact shortly after Akai appeared holding a glass of amber liquid and ice. A liquor most likely.
She instinctively shrugged her shoulders when he stared at her with those green and deep eyes, a look that instilled even more fear than her own.

- You’re already leaving?- he asked, his voice steady and calm as always.
- Yes, I’m really tired. But one of these evenings I will return, so we can talk again and get to know each other better with no more code names and false identities- she pointed out, although her voice was very low and showed the fear that she still had of talking to him.
- I think it’s an excellent idea- he smiled at her.

For the first time that evening (and since she could remember from the moment they met) she gave him a genuine smile, not too bright but still spontaneous. It was already a big step forward. She had to make an effort to give him confidence: if someone like Jodie was in love with him then he shouldn’t have to be a bad person.

- Goodnight- she finally greeted them both, walking out of the door and heading home.

She finally felt her heart lighter and the smiling face of her sister made room in her mind. Certainly that evening she had also made her happy in some way. She hoped that she was looking at her at that moment, wherever she was: she had to see her serenity, the one for which she had fought and lost her life. She must not forget even Jodie, though: it was all because of her if things were good again. She thanked her silently, imagining the smile that she would do when she would tell her the outcome of that conversation.

 

………………………………….

 

The oppressive atmosphere fluttered in that mansion until a few hours before seemed to have dissolved, as the fog that clearing leaves room for a beautiful view. Even his heart was finally serene, as well as his friend’s one. The label of "traitors" that had been sewn up on them had finally came away, revealing what they really were: two good persons, after all. He had regained his best friend, Akai had had the forgiveness and the absolution from his sins and mistakes: a happy ending that they both deserved.

- It seems that this time everything went the right way, right?- said the agent, as soon as they remained alone.
- I'm glad that things are back to normal- he nodded, smiling - Finally that stubborn has accepted your friendship, Akai-san-
- I still wonder how it is possible. I didn’t expect everything would have worked out perfectly, there is something that doesn’t sound right…- he became thoughtful, his eyes narrowed.
- You say?- he was surprised by that statement - And what exactly?-
- This suddenly change of ideas seems strange. She really seemed not to want to have anything to do with us, then overnight she became convinced to return here and to listen to us-
- In fact it’s a bit strange, but I guess this is all thanks to Doctor Agasa: for sure he would have put in a good word for us. Or maybe she had just thought about it and she became convinced after having cooled off anger- he tried to find a simple and logical solution to his friend's exchange of views.
- It will be…- replied simply the agent, not too convinced - Anyway I'm glad she said that she will return. Also I'm curious to know who is this friend who she insisted so hard to bring…- he took a sip from the glass that he was still holding in his hand.

He spontaneously smiled, closing his eyes. Apparently his friend / ally had another thing in common with him in addition to the many already emerged: eavesdropping behind the door other people’s conversations, when the latter could provide details also useful to them. It might have seemed simple curiosity or bad habit of snooping around in other peoples’ affairs, but actually beyond a professional bias typical of all the detectives there was more. In the end that affair concerned both, they could say that they were in the same boat, so they could do together also that last thing. Certainly neither of them would go around telling the other one’s facts, they respected each other and they knew they could trust each other.

- Then, as I thought, you were behind the door listening to the conversation- he looked at him with sly air.
- It seems that you’ve done the same, no?- he returned his smile.
- We can say we’re even!- he joked.
- Do you go to bed too?- he asked him, imagining that he was suffering the stress of the previous days too just as Shiho.

Actually it was the opposite: having made peace with his friend had given him a slight sense of euphoria, which now didn’t make him feel the sleep and the fatigue despite the late hour. Even if he had gone to bed, certainly he wouldn’t be able to sleep.

- Actually I don’t have much sleep, I was thinking of reading a book or watching a movie-
- If I don’t disturb I’ll keep you company for the movie. You had in mind something in particular?-
- How about a crime drama? Or some kind of investigations theme- he proposed, aware that both loved that kind of movies.
- Sherlock Holmes?- suggested Akai, knowing he had got right immediately.
- Excellent idea!- he accepted enthusiastically.

While they were choosing what Holmes case watching, they headed back to the living room where there was a television with a large screen and all the DVD and VHS collection. They'd spent a nice evening together with their favorite detective and that sense of happiness that had pervaded both and that could be felt in their smiles. He didn’t know if he could say the same for Akai, but he felt that now that even that intricate story’s last tangle had dissolved, everything would be going right from then on. There was nothing left to disturb their souls and their lives. Or at least that was what he hoped.

Chapter Text

She leaf through and leaf through again those files and documents by now for a couple of hours, trying to imprint them in her mind and to remember every single detail that could have come in handy when the trial would take place. The more she read and the more she realized how much pain that woman had caused, not only to her but to many other people. How you could destroy other people’s lives and not feel remorse or disgust in doing so? How could Chris Vineyard to look in the mirror every morning without being disgusted from herself? Sometimes being beautiful on the outside doesn’t imply being beautiful also on the inside, the exterior is only a facade that hides what we really are. And Vermouth was a monster.
She looked up from the paper she held in her hands, looking out of the window hoping to distract herself for a few minutes from a job that was becoming too hard. But instead of the trees and the clear sky of that day, she saw only flames that swallowed up mercilessly a big house turned into a pile of ash and debris. In the midst of the ashes, even the one of her father's body, lost forever without being able to have a proper burial. Even today, after so many years, it hurt like that day. She hadn’t felt the flames burning her body as Vermouth would have liked, but that burning had wrapped her heart like a vise for the next twenty years. That had never stopped burning, unlike her home.
Engrossed in those bitter memories, she didn’t notice the person who had just entered the room and was looking behind her back at the papers abandoned on the desk.

- I heard about the trial…is everything ok?-

She jumped on the chair, caught off guard by that deep but at the same time familiar voice. She whirled, going back to the real world.

- Shu, it’s you…I didn’t hear you come in- she admitted, taking off her glasses and clutching her nose, closing her eyes in an attempt both to rest the view and erase the bad thoughts - Did James told you? About the trial I mean-
- Yes, he told me yesterday, but actually he only confirmed a suspicion I had since a few days- he leaned on the desk from behind, crossing his arms.
- A suspect?-
- I noticed that you were a bit worried in the last few days and it wasn’t hard to guess from the look on your face that something was wrong- he explained naturally.

She was surprised by that confession, considering that in those days he had been between the two of them the more worried and deep in thought. She didn’t expect at all that he could see her discomfort as he was so engrossed in his personal matters. She had always wondered how he could never stay completely detached from the reality around him, even when his concerns assailed him. She hadn’t even noticed that it was entered before, and he had even noticed her change of mood, although she tried to disguise it. However she decided not to specify that her concern was more for him than for the trial, because that meant exposing herself too much and it was neither the time nor the place to do it. Coming up with a sentence like “I was worried about you, I saw you thoughtful and I wanted so much to be by your side to support you” was equivalent to get the nth punch in the gut when she would heard the answer that would be derived by it.

- Thank you for worrying- she said simply, her cheeks reddened.

In response, the man with green eyes gave her a faint but sincere smile.

- Don’t worry, everything will be fine. Things are getting better and even this one will go as it should-
- And since when you’re so optimistic and in a good mood?- she joked, though appreciating the words of partner.
- You're right, maybe I should stop working with you, you're infecting me- he took a few steps toward the exit - I’ll go to take a coffee, do you want to come?-
- I would like, I could really use it, but I have to finish to examine these files. I want to be sure to not miss anything- she stared discouraged at the many papers on the desk in front of her.
- I think you should take a break, it will do you good. I'll help you finish this later, as long as you don’t have objections- he offered.
- Really?- she asked hopefully, both for the aid and the fact that she would spend time with him.
- Come on, let’s go- he encouraged her to go out, leaving the office.

Without having it to be asked twice, with a huge smile on her face, she followed him almost chasing him, until she came up beside him. They walked alongside the corridor, without saying a word. She thought that even the moments of silence between them had to be lived, sometimes there was no need for words. At that time she was fine even like this, walking beside him unconcerned of the comments that the nosy colleagues would do for the umpteenth time. She didn’t mind being labeled as "the one that goes after a man who doesn’t consider her in any way ", those were just useless and superficial comments made by people who knew nothing. It was a price she could pay when compared to the idea of being able to enjoy simple moments like that with him. They gave her joy, made her feel good. It was as if that black knight who should have instill fear in her, instead attracted her to himself with a magnetic force, becoming in her eyes a prince able to give her serenity. Ironic but true.
When they reached the vending machine, Shuichi pulled out his wallet from his pants back pocket, taking a few coins to insert. She was about to do the same when she felt someone holding gently her arm.

- Forget about it, my treat- he smiled.
- Oh, thank you!- she accepted thrilled, pleasantly surprised by that gallantry.

It was like this even when they were a couple: Shuichi always insisted to offer a lunch, a dinner, an ice cream or anything, and when she refused to not pass for a stingy or that kind of woman who takes advantage, it was hard to make him desist. Despite everything, he could be very gallant, and she would pay with everything he had just to relive even just for five minutes one of those moments spent together as a couple and not as two simple colleagues.

- Which one do you prefer?- he took her back to reality, indicating her the various types of canned coffee in the vending machine.
- The one flavored with hazelnut- she pointed at it.
- Too much sugary- he commented, inserting coins and pressing the corresponding button.
- And the one you drink is cyanide which pretends to be coffee!- she replied, referring to his beloved black coffee.
- You have delicate taste buds, Her Highness- he teased her, handing out the can just picked up and getting ready to take his one.
- No, it is your favorite coffee which sucks!-

Shuichi smiled, opening his can and drinking the first sip. She did the same, cheered by the taste of that beverage. She really needed it at that moment.
After a few minutes of silence dedicated to sip coffee, she felt relaxed enough to finally ask him the question that she wanted to make him for a while. Maybe he thought that she hadn’t noticed it, but it was impossible not to notice when he was in a good mood, and definitely with all those smiles that he had made her since entering the office she could say it was absolutely a good mood. She could also guess the reason, or at least she sincerely hope that it was for that.

- I see you in a good mood today, I'm glad!- she broke the silence - In the last days you seemed a little bit down…-
- You think?- he simply answered, giving her the runaround.

She bit her lips, not knowing how to glean something more without exposing herself too much. She surely couldn’t tell him of her conversation with Shiho, but she would have liked to know if in the end it had happened or not and if everything had settled. Certainly it must have gone like that, otherwise she wouldn’t have explained herself this sudden change of mood; but she needed a confirmation so that her theories didn’t remain just simple theories.
Suddenly, she remembered the conversation she had with him the day before. She could use that as an excuse.

- Is then arrived that special cake that Doctor Agasa has ordered for you?/i>Mmmh?- he looked at her dazed.
- Come on, that cake you were talking about yesterday- she refreshed his memory - You said that it has to arrive today, right? Can I come to taste it?-

She relished in put him in the spot, to shake the rock man was a privilege. Who knows if he could manage to get by and go out of that lie that he himself had invented. It was evident that she had caught him off guard.

- Oh, that cake- he nodded, trying to mask the lapse of memory of a moment before - I don’t know if they have already delivered it. I’m here and the boy is at school, so if the courier comes the only one who could pick it up is Doctor Agasa. I should call him and ask to make sure it has already arrived, but it doesn’t seem appropriate to make phone calls like that at work- he ended.

 

Damn, he was pretty darn good at inventing excuses in the moment! It wouldn’t be easy to corner him, but she wanted to try. In any case, even if she had failed, at least she would have enjoyed it a little bit and she could enjoy his company.

- Then when you get home let me know if they have delivered it, I can’t wait to taste it!- she tried to sound as enthusiastic as possible.
- Look, if you want to come there is no need to wait for the cake, you can just come. Now there isn’t the problem of hiding or afraid of being spied anymore, so don’t hesitate-

She remained surprised by that invitation so open: she knew perfectly that now they had no reason to hide, but she had moral qualms about turning up at Kudo’s home like that, for no reason. She didn’t want to give him the impression to crowd him too much, enough to follow him even after work. The last thing he wanted was to pressure him or look like one of those women in love who become pests who follow the man they love to the end of the earth. She only wanted to leave him free to express himself as he wanted, to decide when it was the time to let himself go and when he preferred to be alone with his thoughts instead. People don’t belong to each other, there are no rings or promises that can establish an unbreakable bond, and she knew it well. Forcing a person to live on a leash is not enough to make sure it is always at our side in the way we want. Even in love we need our freedom.

- But sorry, you talk as if it were your home!- she reprimanded him - I can’t turn up at Cool Guy’s house for no reason!-
- I don’t think he’ll mind, after all you adore him and you have never hidden it, so he will definitely be pleased to receive your visits- he defended himself.
- If so then I’ll come to visit him very gladly!- she finally accepted, knowing that what he had said corresponded to reality.

She was about to continue the conversation when she heard her cell phone ringing in her jacket pocket. Who could it be, given that her colleagues were all there at the headquarter? She pulled it out, reading the name on the display: Shiho. She couldn’t hold back an expression halfway between the surprised and the bewildered, which didn’t escape from the watchful eye of her partner.

- Something wrong?- he asked, staring at the phone that kept ringing.
- N-no, no no!- she hastened to answer him, trying to keep the screen toward her so that he couldn’t read the name on it - Excuse me just a moment, I have to answer!-

She walked away almost running from him, thing that probably would have raised in him even more suspicions than the expression she had done before. On the other hand she couldn’t answer in front of him, or the secret that she had been trying to hide for two days would collapsed like a sand castle.
When she was assured of being enough far away from him so he couldn’t hear, finally she answered the call.

- Hello!- she greeted her cheerfully.
- You seem in a good mood today- said the voice on the other end of the phone - Do I bother you by any chance?-
- No, I was taking a break before returning to work-
- I called to know if you have plans for this evening. If you like we can go out for dinner as we had said- she suggested.
- Oh, surely!- she accepted with pleasure - But first there is one thing that I absolutely have to ask you!-

Finally, after having restrained herself with Shuichi, she had the opportunity to finally know the truth. She couldn’t contain her enthusiasm, sure that the answer to her question would be positive.

- What?-
- Have you talked to Shu? How did it go?- she said in one breath, biting her lower lip waiting for the answer.
- I wanted to talk to you about this tonight during the dinner- she confessed, although from the tone of voice everything augured well.

She tried to restrain herself to shout her a “Yes” that would inevitably echoed down the hall, catching the attention of everyone. She hadn’t had a confirmation in words, but if she put together Shuichi’s good mood and the voice tone just used by Shiho she could only come to one conclusion. Never mind, she would still wait a few hours to rejoy without being discovered.

- So I'm looking forward to tonight!- she admitted.
- Where do you prefer to go? Doctor Agasa advised me some good place, but I do not know what kind of food you prefer-
- Oh, I'm not a fussy eater!- she confessed - I eat what's there, but I admit that it’s been a while since I don’t eat good sushi. Do you like it?-
- Yes, I know the place that suits us then. We went there with the Doctor and the Detective Boys, when I was still Ai I mean-
- Great! When should I pick you up?-
- At eight o’ clock it’s ok? You' re the one who's working until late, so tell me-
- Eight o’ clock is perfect! Well, see you later!- she spontaneously winked, even knowing that at the phone Shiho wouldn’t certainly see it.
- See you later!-

She hung up, turning back to the vending machine where she had left Shuichi. She thought he was come back to the office, since the call had lasted at least five minutes: but to her surprise she found him exactly where he was before, still and with his hands in his pockets, staring at her. In her heart she hoped to not have raised her voice too much while talking on the phone, otherwise she wouldn’t be able to lie to him when he would have asked her questions about what he had heard.

- You’ve waited for me…- she expressed her thoughts.
- It made no sense to come back alone, you have to explain me some details if you want me to help you. Is everything ok?- He asked her point-blank, referring to the call.

See, as she thought: he realized something. She felt her heartbeat speed up, as happens to the offenders when they know they are going to be exposed. However she had to try not to lose the lucidity if he wanted to have any hope to get by. She had to invent plausible excuses on the spot just like he did. The problem was that her name wasn’t Akai Shuichi.

- O-oh, yes yes!- she hastened to show a forced smile - It was Natsuko, she wanted us to come out together one last time before I come back to America- she lied, trying to sound convincing.
- I see- he answered simply, without adding another word - Come on, let’s get back to work- he motioned her to follow him back to the office.

Did she really managed to convince him? She didn’t even believe herself, but it seemed that Shuichi had bought that excuse. Perhaps by dint of spending time with him she had become good too at inventing lies when she needed to, or maybe that was just the result of all those she had told since she was in Japan to disguise the real reason why she was there. In any case it didn’t matter: she managed to convince him and that was enough.
Relieved to have got away with it, she followed him willingly, with the prospect of finishing the job and why not, spending those hours of work in pleasant company.

 

…………………

 

Since he knew her he knew well that Jodie, in her exuberance, could be a bit strange at times, but over the years he had got used to it and had to admit that he also liked this side of her character. For someone like him, accustomed to solitude and silence, being around a lively and cheerful person was a breath of fresh air that regenerated him from darkness. Perhaps that was why he enjoyed being with her: she purified his spirit, said in philosophical terms. Sometimes she got a bit boring, but she was that kind of person to whom it was impossible to sulk or say "go away, you're bothering me". As easily, however, he could understand when she was lying, and definitely at that moment she was hiding something to him. Jodie was an open book to him. The friend’s excuse could be plausible, but at that moment her eyes had betrayed her. He had immediately realized the strange light that they had , that light that they took on every time she lied, smiling and trying to pretend that everything was ok. Also, there was a certain nervousness in the way she bit her lower lip and gesticulated hurriedly, not to mention that there was no need to go away in a hurry if the person who calls you is just a friend. They had not even escaped him the looks that she hurled to supervise him from time to time while talking on the phone, as well as the attempts to lower her voice as much as possible to not being heard. It was clear she was hiding something, even if he didn’t understand exactly what. He might think that her nervousness was due to the memories that came back to her mind now that she was working on Vermouth’s case, but this had nothing to do with the phone call she had received.
He stopped for a moment to think, wondering if it was right to analyze her behavior. After all Jodie was no longer his girlfriend and he was the one who had decided it. The bond between them wasn’t so strong anymore to allow him to stick his nose into her business. Jodie had her life and was free to do what she wanted. He convinced himself that his was a simple “professional deformation" typical of every person who worked as a detective, a police officer, an FBI agent or any other annexed, or better yet a thoughtfulness that he showed towards all the people he particularly cared about. It was easier to put it in that way than face the fact that within himself he felt a sense of jealousy at the thought that on the other end of the phone there might be another man. He had walked out on her and now he had no right to be jealous if someone else had taken her. Yet he didn’t like the idea of having lost, for the umpteenth time in his life, something he cared about. Accept defeat wasn’t easy for a proud guy like him.
He drove away those thoughts from his mind: it was neither the time nor the place to get distracted with that nonsense, not to mention that he had no hard evidence to prove that theory. The only thing I knew for sure was that Jodie’s behavior was suspicious, so there could be no doubt that she was hiding something. However he wouldn’t have made explicit questions, because he himself was the first to not love the idea that other people interfered in his business; would have simply waited and watched. Maybe something would come of it, maybe Jodie herself would speak of her own accord. In any case, he shouldn’t worry too much, as he had already told himself Jodie was no longer bounded to him.

Chapter Text

She ran a thin layer of pink lip gloss to complete that simple make up that suited her very much. It was a long time that she didn’t see some make up on her face, that she didn’t see her in that way. A woman, a real woman. She smiled at her reflection in the mirror: it was nice to be herself.
She put the lip gloss in her purse, with the intention to retouch make up after finishing dinner. She wanted to show herself at her best, especially next to a woman like Jodie who certainly didn’t struggle to be beautiful and elegant. She fixed her hair one last time before heading out of her room and going to the kitchen, where Doctor Agasa was preparing dinner just for him.

- Wow, you are so elegant tonight! Are you sure you're not going out with some guy?- joked the scientist, smiling at his own joke.
- This dress is too good to be wasted on a boy!- she answered in kind, but without being sharp - Rather, are you sure that you don’t mind being alone tonight?-

It seemed a question a bit stupid, since before her arrival the Doctor had lived alone in the house for years, but after more than a year in which they had spent every day together it was natural to believe that if she was gone, he would miss her. Or at least that was what she hoped, because she would miss that funny messy scientist as hell.

- Don’t worry, go and have fun with Jodie-sensei!- he reassured her.
- If you want some company you can always go to Shinichi with an excuse-
- No need to do it, I’ll use the occasion to work on my new invention!- he raised the index finger, satisfied.

She grimaced, narrowing her eyes: she would have liked to believe him, but the suspicion that this was just an excuse was stronger than she was. She knew well that, in her absence, the Professor always took advantage to eat unhealthy things, the ones she forbade him to keep him on a diet. She had noticed it when one day, while she was bringing out the garbage, from the pierced trash bag it had come out the packaging of a famous brand of candies. However, she said nothing, she didn’t want to ruin her mood giving him a lecture. Tomorrow she would have him made an even more drastic than usual diet.
She gazed again at her reflection in the window’s glasses, being proud of that new dress which she had bought to make herself a gift. She found herself beautiful, a beautiful girl who no one could consider a monster who had created a poison and was part of a criminal’s gang anymore. It was so long she felt that way. She thought that this was the first time she went out with a friend, which was quite strange for a girl of her age. At eighteen you should go out often, have a group of friends, doing crazy things and have fun: she had never done any of that. The only hanging out that she remembered were the ones with her sister, rare and fleeting, since she wasn’t allowed to take too many liberties. She could only dream a normal life, a life in which she wasn’t a slave. And now here she was, radiant and serene, aware that she can go out without the fear of having their eyes on her. She had become an ordinary girl.
She was rummaging in her bag, to check if she had taken all with her, when the doorbell rang. Jodie had arrived. She went to open the door, finding Jodie with her infectious smile.

- Hello!- she greeted her warmly.
- Come in a moment- she invited her to come in, smiling back at her.
- But how beautiful you are tonight! I really like your dress!- she congratulated, watching her from head to foot.
- Thanks, you too are beautiful-

 

It might seem like a cliché, but it really was what she thought: Jodie was even more beautiful in less formal style than she used to work. A neckline a bit more pronounced, a heel a bit higher, a fine and not too flashy necklace, and here that an already beautiful woman became wonderful, even with those big glasses that tasted a bit retro. She immediately thought that if Akai had seen her he would certainly not remain indifferent, although he wasn’t the type who expressed himself too much either with words or gestures.

- Hello Professor Agasa!- she greeted the scientist who was watching them with a smiling.
- Good evening Jodie-sensei! Thanks to have convinced her to come out, you know, she’s always at home...-
- That’s not true…- she grumbled, although in fact he had a point.
- Don’t worry, I won’t take her at home too late!- she winked.
- Look, I'm not a child, I can stay out at night even after midnight- she complained, feeling like if they considered her younger than she actually was.
- No no, you're not of age yet!- Jodie joked, making smile even the Doctor - Come on, let’s go!-
- Have a nice evening!- greeted them the Professor, watching them as they walked toward the door.
- You too, Professor!- returned the blonde.
- And don’t eat junk food!- she warned him with a frown.

She didn’t have time to see the expression on his face but she figured that he had assumed that discouraged hangdog face he did every time she forbade him to eat sweets or greasy things. Served him right, so he was payback for having made her look like a brat.

- You should be a bit nicer with the Professor!- pointed Jodie, but without malice or blame in tone.
- I’m even too kind to him!- she replied, sitting in the car.

It was the first time she set foot in that expensive Mercedes, unlike Shinichi that instead had had the honor to travel there several times. There was nothing to complain about: it totally worthed all that money. Leather seats, retractable sunroof, comfort of all kinds. FBI agents had to earn a lot to afford a car like that. She wondered if she might one day drive a car like that.

- Do you like it?- asked Jodie, noticing how she was observing every detail from top to bottom.
- Who doesn’t like this car?- she smiled.
- James has always had good taste in cars- she puts the seatbelt, starting the car - So, where do we go?-
- In a revolving sushi restaurant. It’s not too far, the Doctor took us there for lunch once, along with the Detective Boys. I mean when me and Shinichi were still two kids- she pointed out - It’s good for you or do you prefer a proper restaurant?-

She had to admit that she had had some hesitation in proposing that place, because she did not know what standard of living Jodie was accustomed to. A woman who travelled on a luxury car, always dressed elegantly and perhaps with brand clothes, maybe didn’t like to dine in an ordinary local as that. On the other hand, however, she couldn’t afford to dine in expensive restaurants: she hadn’t a job and what she obtained was only thanks to the Doctor at that time, who offered to give her something in return for her help in the repair or construction of inventions.

- No no, it’s perfect! I like those places where plates passes in front of you and you can get anything you want!- she agreed enthusiastic, almost excited as a little girl who is going to visit a magical place.

The more she knew her and the more she was amazed by her personality: Jodie was the most lively person she had ever known. She could be a snob, burdening to other people the fact that she had a lot of money, or she could always behave in a formal way and never break down, proving to be an agent of that investigative entity which America described as its own “proud”; instead she did nothing of all this. Simply she had fun when she could, like a normal woman still young, sometimes showing the same happiness and light heartedness of a child. She didn’t know if this way of doing was to be considered as a thoughtlessness, which certainly didn’t help to her work, or whether it was a sign of a great inner strength and ability to face life with a smile even after so many tragedies. In that case she should take a leaf from her.

- Well, I point you the way- she smiled, glad she hadn’t disappointed her new friend.
- Ok!- raised her thumb the blonde.

 

………………….

 

After about fifteen minutes they reached the sushi restaurant. It wasn’t too crowded, so they could talk without an annoying background noise. They sat at the counter, while a group of guys not far from them was watching them making comments softly. She ignored them, as Jodie also did, too busy staring at the dishes that passed before her eyes on the conveyor belt.

- Wow, everything looks delicious!- her eyes lit up
- Don’t tell me you’ve never been in a restaurant like this- she asked her, not understanding how it was possible to be so happy for some fish and rice carried by a conveyor belt.
- Well, not many times to tell the truth- she admitted - You know, when I'm with my colleagues we go to high quality restaurants or in less traditional places. I rarely eat alone when I’m out, so I adapt to. I went to a place like this only a few times, together with a friend-
- I see, that's why you're so happy-
- I can’t wait to taste these delicacies! Let’s start now!- she invited her to take from the conveyor belt the first dishes of the evening.

She shook her head smiling: it would have been a funny evening. She liked how Jodie knew to have a dignified behavior at work but at the same time a lively and crazy spirit in private life. Both of them moved towards the mouth the first bite of that rice and fish dinner. It was as good as she remembered it, or maybe even more.

- Boy, this is delicious!- she heard Jodie’s voice beside her.
- Do you like it?- she smiled.
- Of course!- nodded the blonde, widening her big eyes of the same color of the sky.
- I’m glad!-
- But we are a bit delaying…- she suddenly returned serious, staring straight into her eyes - We had to see us to talk about a particular issue, right?-
- Are you referring to my conversation with Akai-san?- she smiled mischievously, knowing what her friend was eager to know.
- Obviously!- she prepared herself to listen.
- I must say it was better than I expected , and it's all thanks to you. If it wasn’t for you I would never have known the truth-
- I knew it!- she almost jumped on the chair for the happiness - That's why Shu today was no longer gloomy as the past few days! I'm really happy!- she clapped her hands a couple of times, as if to make an applause to herself for how much she had been good at resolving the situation.

She absolutely deserved that applause, she had done too much for a matter in which she had nothing to do either. She could give a damn, instead she had helped two people at once. Yet it was not clear if she had done it more for Akai than for her, but in any case she had treated her like few people had done until then, so she couldn’t contest anything. Jodie was the heroine of her story. But this didn’t forbade her to tease her friend a bit. After all, she was always one of the bad who had become good, and you know that the bad always retain a hint of audacity.

- You seem happier for him than for me- she smiled again maliciously, with the intent to emphasize her obvious interest in her colleague.
- W-what?! But no, no no!- she shook her hands as a sign of denial, trying to conceal the embarrassment with poor results - I'm happy for both of you, of course!- she added.
- Are you sure?- she persisted.
- Y-yes!- she smiled, but in a forced way not spontaneous as before.

She hoped to get an answer to the question that she had done her a few nights before, that is if she had feelings for Akai, but again she had denied, while continuing to betray herself with her voice and with her eyes. Even a blind man would understood she was lying, but for some strange reason she preferred to continue that act while knowing she wasn’t credible. Perhaps she didn’t trust her? Ok, they were friends for less than a week and among them there was a large age difference, but by the way what it cost her to confess? Surely she was not going to rat to Akai, she certainly didn’t have the confidence to make a similar gesture, not to mention that she cared more for their new friendship than to establish a confidential relationship with her sister’s ex-boyfriend.

- By the way, you made peace with Cool Guy too, right?- she asked, trying to change the subject.
- Yes, everything is all right even with him- she nodded.
- Good, I’m happy! And...you changed your mind about Shu now?- she asked hesitantly, probably fearing to give her another reason to think she was in love with him - I mean, you don’t think he’s a monster anymore, right?-
- No- she smiled, trying to reassure her - I don’t trust him fully yet, it will take time for this, but I no longer think he’s a monster-
- I’m glad- she smiled back, this time in a sincere way - How he behaved during the conversation? Shu is a very closed type and rarely makes personal speeches, so I was wondering if he had spoken to you in a straightforward manner, or if he had trouble. Sometimes when he doesn’t want to confess to much he’s capable of getting rid of you with strange phrases!-

The more she talked about him and the more her eyes lit up, not to mention that smile that extended more and more to every word. She described that man as if he was a unicorn, a rare being that you couldn’t see every day. Ever since she had known him under the guise of Dai Moroboshi, in her eyes Akai had always been a man like many others, a man rather closed and unable to show his true feelings, self-confident enough to look like a braggart at times. She had always wondered what her sister saw in him, what was so special about him to make her so happy, and now she was wondering the same with Jodie. She felt like going back in time, when Akemi spoke to her about him. Maybe it was also for this reason that she liked so much Jodie’s company: she felt that fate had given her the opportunity to have something similar to that beloved sister she had lost.

- He maintained his impassibility even while he was telling me everything that you had already told me the day before, or that he really loved my sister. But this is typical of him, I don’t think he’s the type who cries a lot, isn’t he?-
- Since I know him I've never seen him cry, at least not in the presence of other persons- she nodded.
- Nevertheless I must admit that in the end he told me really beautiful words and I realized that behind his cold attitude there is more kindness and altruism than he wants to show. I confess that we’re alike in that way-
- It takes patience, Shu is like that!- she smiled shrugging - But at least he didn’t behave like an ogre, I was afraid he would spoil the effort I had made in convince you to go back to him!- she laughed at it.
- Don’t you want to know what he told me exactly?- she tried again to tease her, but being careful not to be too explicit as before.
- I wouldn’t be too intrusive, they are personal matters after all, though I have to confess I 'm curious!- she took on an embarrassed girl’s expression.
- I thought so- she smiled - However he told me that before she died my sister had sent him a message asking him to protect me if her mission hadn’t been successful. He has kept his word and said that I can call him when I want and I can rely on him for anything-

Hearing those words still had an effect on her, the emotion that they had given her was strong. While not considering him a "friend", it had made her happy to know that there was someone who cared about her so much. She wondered if she would ever really relied on him, but only time would give her an answer. Maybe it was just this side of him that had made both her sister and Jodie fall in love with him.
She watched Jodie’s face, which seemed genuinely surprised. Apparently even she wouldn’t have expected such a statement, knowing Akai better than her.

- You look surprised- she pointed out - Didn’t you say Akai-san isn’t what he seems after all?-
- Yes...yes...it's just that I knew the message that Akemi had sent him, but I knew only part of its content it seems...- she became thoughtful.
- You knew about the message?- now she was the one surprised.
- Shu told us about it because it was still a trail that led us to the Organization's moves, but he omitted the part where Akemi had spoken to him about you. I imagine he did it because it was a personal matter that only concerned you- she looked down, becoming sad, something that didn’t escape her keen eye.
- I see- she simply replied, fearing that if she added another word she would worsen the situation.

Maybe Jodie was not comfortable to hear about her sister, on the other hand it’s not easy to face the woman who has been the girlfriend of the man you love. She had spoken freely, certain that Jodie would listen, but she hadn’t thought that some topics might cause her pain. She had to be more careful if she didn’t want her friend to turn into an enemy.

- Will you do it?- she asked her point-blank.
- What?-
- Will you call him if you need help?-
- Perhaps, when I will trust him a little more- she admitted.

She had just promised herself to not go too far with Jodie, but she couldn’t restrain her curiosity to know. Maybe spending all that time with Shinichi had infected also her. On the other hand she was confessing a lot of personal things, so why Jodie hadn’t to do the same? She wasn’t asking her anything so secret, only a confirmation of his feelings for Akai. She had to make her understand that she could trust her, but she didn’t know how. She had never had a friend, she didn’t know what attitude to take in that situation.

- You really care about knowing about Akai and talking about him, right?- she tried to encourage her again.

She expected that Jodie digressed and changed topic as before, instead she just looked at the sushi on the plate in front of her, perhaps without even seeing it, as if she wasn’t hearing her. She seemed absorbed in a parallel universe, on her face a melancholy and suffering expression. Here, scratch that: she had taken things too far and now the damage was done. Never as in that moment she realized what Shinichi must have felt when she had told him that their friendship was over. She would have never forgiven herself if Jodie would never spoke to her again because of that stupid desire to know.

- I’m sorry, it’s not my business. I didn’t want to bother you, it's just that...well, I don’t know how to behave with a friend- she admitted, looking down too.
- Sorry, what did you say?- Jodie asked her in return, shaking her head slightly as if to chase away a thought which had become annoying and looking at her - Forgive me, I took my eye off the ball-
- Is everything ok? Did I say something that upset or annoyed you?-
- No no, on the contrary, I really like talking to you!- she smiled.

 

A forced smile, quite different from those warm and spontaneous that she had done when she went to pick her up at Doctor’s home. She could lie to herself, but not to her. She was tired of lies, she didn’t want to hear them anymore, even small or innocent as that one. She had been honest, so even Jodie now had to be. At that point it was worth going for broke: if she really had ruined the evening and also their friendship, then what she was about to say wouldn’t have changed anything.

- I think you should open up and say what you 're thinking- she said bluntly - I did it with you. I confided in you and I told you personal things, because I feel that I can trust you. Maybe you don’t trust me enough and you think I’m a little girl who can’t understand certain things, but I assure you it’s not like this. I understood very well that you're in love with Akai, the question I asked you last night was rhetorical. Even the walls of this restaurant have understood it, to be honest. But for some unknown reason you deny the evidence and you even seem agitated to feel this feeling. I feel that there's more behind and that's what you don’t want to say- she ended.

What had been done had been done. The end of the evening and especially of their friendship would depend on Jodie’s answer. In his heart she hoped for a positive outcome, but her head which got used to always think the worst had already given the verdict. After all life had never given her something good, so why deluding herself?

 

…………………….

 

Ever since she had met her and she was still a little girl, victim of the strange drug designed by herself when she was still within the Organization, she had realized immediately her temper, but she never imagined to find herself in front of a girl so determined. Although he was only a few years older than the high school girls who she had taught at Teitan, Shiho proved to be a mature woman instead of a teenage girl. On the other hand the life that she had made hadn’t certain allowed her to be a common teenager. Her incredible determination was enviable, it reminded her a bit of herself as a child when she rebelled against James and wanted to be a woman who has lived. Now she had understood to have been unmasked, and certainly all those questions about Shuichi who had asked her had done nothing but foment and confirm her suspicions. She couldn’t help it, she wasn’t able to hide that love that had never gone.
She felt stupid in being lectured by a girl who was ten years younger than her. She should be the most responsible between the two of them, the one that could act as a "big sister" to the other; instead she found herself acting like a young girl in love whose eyes sparkle when she talks about the boy she likes. She was pathetic and ashamed of herself. Perhaps the fact that she has never had someone to whom she could confide her feelings for Shuichi, both before and after their breakup, had taken her to not be able to keep everything inside and not know how to behave when they touched the subject. She also hadn’t had an easy life, come to think of it.
On one thing in particular, more than anything else, she was right: she had told her many personal things, she had answered to all her questions, she had trusted her; now it was her turn. Perhaps what Shiho searched for wasn’t so much an answer to her curiosity, as a confirmation of the fact that she trusted her. Until then she hadn’t realized how much she cared for their new friendship and knowing it made her happy, because for her it was the same. Although their relationship was born by chance, she liked to spend time with that girl who looked like her in many things.
She took a deep breath, ready to bring out the "secret" that she had held in for all those years.

- You were right- she finally said.
- Eh?- could only say Shiho, astonished by those words that she probably didn’t expect.
- When the other day you asked me if I was in love with Akai...you were right-

She had to admit that she felt more relieved now that she had spoken those words aloud, but at the same time she was afraid that now that she had "let go" that secret it would no longer be able to retrieve it if it’d turn out to be a mistake. She didn’t want it to come up to the person concerned. He did not want to take another slap in the face from him, just like six years ago.

- I had already understood this- smiled the girl - What I don’t understand is why when you talk about what you feel for him you suddenly become sad. A woman who talks about how she’s in love should always be happy, right?-
- Not if her love is one-sided…-

She lowered her head again, biting her lower lip in an attempt to dissolve the lump in her throat that those words had caused. She knew within herself, but saying it so openly was even worse. It was like admitting her defeat.

- You don’t know that since you continue to hide it to Akai! Maybe he feels the same for you but he doesn’t send you signals because he’s too proud and closed. You've said it yourself. And then you know that most of the men are like that...- she grimaced.
- Why, you're an expert on male behavior?- she tried to make a joke to ease the tension - However I would like to have your belief...- she smiled, although the sadness in her eyes betrayed her real state of mind.
- Give it a try, remaining silent and pining is worse- she instead.
- Believe me, it is better not- she shook her head - But thank you for the support-
- But why?!-

She opened her eyes wide in front of that impetuosity, which spun all present in the restaurant toward them, causing considerable embarrassment. Of course she had really taken to heart the question! She saw her trying to withdraw as turtles do in their shells: probably she realized that she had exaggerated a bit. This made her smile, although at that time she didn’t feel happy at all. Then she had a teenage side.
She returned immediately serious, aware that maybe she was going to reveal another hidden truth of that long history, unless Shuichi had done it before.

- Because the message you were talking about before, the one your sister has sent to Shu before she died...He still keeps it on his cellphone-

From the stunned expression that Shiho made to that revelation, it was clear that Shuichi had omitted this detail. After all it was something very private, so it was usual for him to behave that way. He had probably thought it was superfluous to tell her, confess to her that he loved sincerely Akemi was enough. She herself wasn’t aware of that particular because it had been him to tell her. She had discovered I by chance, a day like any other. She still remembered the feeling she had felt when she had read on the screen the name of the sender: a poisoned arrow which aimed straight at her heart. She could have sworn she even heard the noise of the cracks that were expanding, shattering again in pieces that heart which she had spent her life rebuilding patiently. When you break something you can fix it and if it breaks again you can try to repair it once again, but when you damage it too much there's nothing you can do. She knew well that she wouldn’t hold another disappointment, she wouldn’t have the strength to pick up the pieces. She wanted to avoid suffering more than she already was doing, to be close to him just as a friend was easier than not being able to look at him, or worse still, to get him away from her. Shuichi didn’t have to know.

Chapter Text

- Because the message you were talking about before, the one your sister has sent to Shu before she died...He still keeps it on his cellphone-

After that revelation even Shiho, who until then had prevailed in the interventions of their conversation, had remained for a few seconds in silence. To be told by him that his sister was really important was one thing, words like other she didn’t know how far to take it seriously, but having such an overwhelming evidence was an unexpected confirmation. She too, in a sense, would rather be surprised at this, because awareness of knowing sometimes killed her.

- How do you know it?- finally asked the girl.
- Some time ago I asked Shu to borrow me his cell phone to send a message to James, since my had run out of batteries. It was a different model from mine so I wasn’t able to use it to perfection and by accident I ended up in the archived messages and found it- she confessed - I didn’t allow myself to open it and read it, but taking into account of the date and sender I quickly realized that what it was-

She looked down again, trying to fight the pain that the memory had caused her. She had never told Shuichi she had found that treasure he hid and kept jealously, as she had never said how it made her feel and what she still felt for him after all this time. She got terribly angry every time Shuichi lied to her, but come to think she wasn’t very different. She had always thought that between them had remained a certain complicity despite everything, but the truth was that to prevail were lies, secrets and silences full of unspoken truths. Certainly not a good basis for a relationship.
After another silence in which neither of them knew what to say, Shiho resumed the conversation.

- Maybe he just kept it as a memento. If my sister was really important to him as he says, it would be plausible. But this doesn’t mean he can’t be interested in you or see you as something more than just a colleague-

This was what she had always hoped, a vain illusion that for a moment gave her joy. A joy destined to vanish as soon as the reality took over again. The truth was that she was Jodie the colleague, not Jodie the woman to invite to come out or Jodie the woman to love. She was no longer even Jodie the ex, because Shuichi had never really apologized for having sacrificed her and had never asked her how she felt or if she got over it. He had taken it for granted, simply. As he fell in love with another woman, she also must have get over their break, logically. Perhaps it was this more than anything to hurt her, the fact that Shuichi had given so little importance to their history and to all what was derived from it, including feelings.

- The reason why he treasure it is that he never stopped loving your sister, even after having severed relations with her- she shook her head.
- And if what you think is love actually was just guilt? Akai-san failed to protect my sister and you can’t deny that if he hadn’t approached her, perhaps now she would be still alive- she looked into her eyes, but taking a little time to process the pain that the memory of her sister's death still caused her - You too would feel guilty if you fail to prevent the death of a loved one, right? Even more if you were aware of being the cause. That message could also be a reminder, a memento that he held to remind him every day that he had failed once and that he didn’t have to fail again, but he had to do his best to remedy and to avenge and to fulfil the promise he made to whom wasn’t there anymore- she ended.

For the umpteenth time she was astonished by the fervor and conviction with which the girl was able to express her beliefs. She didn’t know if she was just trying to convince her, to convince herself or if she really believed in what she was saying; in any case the fortitude she could pull out was surprising. She had determination to sell and self-confidence, two qualities that not all women could boast. But she knew that sometimes the belief is not enough to ensure that something is like we want or believe it. Humans don’t have the power to shape all the way their destiny. If she had believed her words it would be yet another opportunity to refuge in the little world of lies she had built, where she returned from time to time to delude herself. Including through efforts, she couldn’t think of another reason why Shuichi treasured that message in particular on his phone, except that he had never forgotten her and that still didn’t want to forget her. Perhaps he had created a little world of lies too, only that apparently he didn’t want to get out of it. Staying there was easier than going forward, and she knew it well. She knew exactly the stages of grief, she had experienced them at first hand.

- I think you should talk to Akai-san and be honest with him, because hiding doesn’t lead anywhere and I learned this on my skin- she said convinced.
- Things are more complicated than they seem…- she sighed, lowering her head.

How could she tell her that she had been Shuichi’s girlfriend before her sister became it? How could she tell her that Shuichi had ditched her to begin that apparently false relationship with Akemi? She had understood how difficult it was for her to face a speech over his sister, she didn’t want to pass off the latter for a boyfriend stealer or anything, nor she wanted her compassion for being "the abandoned woman”. If she had said it to her, surely Shiho would have felt guilty for having done all those insistent questions. She herself felt embarrassed because she was having a similar conversation with the younger sister of the woman who had "stolen" Shuichi’s heart out of her hands. The only thing he could do was keep that last secret to herself. She had already revealed too much.

- Is there anything else you haven’t told me, by any chance?-

She raised her head up, staring into her eyes with the fear of one who knows to have been discovered. How did she figure it out?! Was it really that easy to read in her eyes what she felt? Certainly she hadn’t done much to disguise it, but it worried her that that girl could understand the lighter shades of her thoughts.

- Can we change the subject, please?-

Her had seemed more a plea than a friendly request, but she really wouldn’t be able to support that conversation much longer. It hurt, too much. She wasn’t ready to deal with it and perhaps would never have been.
Shiho must have understood, because she lowered her head sorry.

- I'm sorry, I exaggerated. I interfered in your personal affairs and went beyond without realizing it. I just wanted to help as you did with me-
- I know, and I thank you for this- she genuinely smiled, placing a hand on her one - I don’t blame you, really-

Despite their exchange of smiles and the knowledge that none of them had taken a dislike to the other, the rest of the dinner didn’t go on exactly as if they had imagined. They exchanged a few, fleeting words, just to make less awkward that silence made of thoughts, and when her expression became sad at the thought of all what had been said, even Shiho’s one became sad in turn. The last thing she wanted was to make her feel guilty because she tried to help her; on the contrary she appreciated that she had taken to heart the situation so much.
Although the sushi was delicious, she could barely swallow a few bites, including that sweet mochi she needed so much at the time. Now both evidently full, by mutual agreement they decided to pay the bill and leave.
She pulled her wallet out of her purse, but she didn’t have time to open it because Shiho’s hand stopped her.

- Since I ruined the evening I think that offer dinner is the least I can do to remedy- she smiled, although her face had the look of someone who is regretful for having just made a mistake.
- Oh, no, I can’t accept!- she declined the offer, being careful to do so in the most friendly way possible not to made her think she was angry with her.
- Then let me do something to make it up. Maybe we could go somewhere else, in a place that you like. It’s still early to return home immediately- she ascertained after throwing a quick glance at the restaurant’s clock.

It made her smile as she found sweet that attitude: until that moment Shiho had shown herself as a determined girl and sometimes too hard with herself and with others, but now she was showing a new side of herself, more sentimental and probably even more hidden. Maybe she was privileged to see it: for this reason she absolutely had to make her understand that she had nothing to be sorry and that their relationship had not been undermined by what she had said.

- But what if we did something that we both like?- she winked, regaining that liveliness that for a few hours seemed to have eclipsed into thin air.
- Now that I think of it, we’ve always talked about other people but we’ve never talked about us, so we do not know what the one of us likes and what the other one likes. I know you're an FBI agent but I don’t know who Jodie is when she doesn’t do her job. And you know who is Ai but you don’t know who is Shiho- she pointed out.

To think of it she had a point. By talking so much about Shuichi they had never really said who they were Jodie and Shiho, regardless of amorous, family dramas or other things. All that talk and were still two strangers.

- Then let’s introduce ourselves now, what do you think?- she proposed
- It might work- she accepted.
- Ok! I'll start: I love video games, I’m very competitive in this regard! As a good American, I like movies, so going to the cinema. I prefer action to sappy stories, but generally I look a bit of everything. I like to walk at night along the illuminated streets full of life of New York and since I came here I like to walk in places where you can see the sea. Finally I like board games though perhaps I’m a bit grown up for those!- she smiled enthusiastically.

She could have never seen herself, but when she spoke of what she liked her eyes lit up. She was a woman with many interests, yet all simple and ordinary. They seemed more the interests of a little girl than the ones of an adult woman, but she was like that and was proud of it.

- You really like videogames?- asked incredulously Shiho, perhaps with a hint of reproach as if to say "but aren’t they things for children?".
- What's wrong?- she shrugged.
- Nothing, it's just that I'm very surprised. I mean, who would expect that an FBI agent in her free time played video games?- she smiled.
- Look, we FBI we are normal people like everyone else!- she winked - Now it’s your turn! What do you like?-
- Let's see ... I like animals, science, fashion and riding a motorcycle- she listed in a few words, so typical of her.
- Riding a motorcycle?- she opened her eyes wide.
- Why? Do you think I can’t drive it?- she looked at her defiantly.
- No no, it's just that I can’t imagine you on a motorcycle playing the role of the reckless biker!- she shook her hands, being ironic - You're always so quiet and taciturn-
- Then imagine me with a signed leather bag- she joked too.
- Fashion, eh? Do you like shopping?-
- Let's say I’m not a spendthrift, I'll settle for a dress or a purse, provided they are trendy-
- I occasionally allow myself the luxury of some nice dress too!- she confessed.
- Unfortunately the shops are closed at this time, then I fear that we should put off shopping at another time-
- Even the shops and animal parks are closed. Let's go for a walk?-
- Actually I don’t particularly like to wander for avenues at night, even if there are many people. Indeed, too much confusion annoys me and the couples who pass by the hand even more- she wrinkled her nose.
- It looks like we don’t have much in common- she thought.
- It doesn’t matter if I don’t like something- she stared at her seriously - If you want to do it, let’s do it. I want you to choose, so I can make it up to you for being intrusive. I know you’re not mad at me but I still feel guilty- she confessed.

There was nothing to do: If she hadn’t given her the opportunity to remedy she would feel guilty for the rest of her days. She was stubborn even in that.

- Ok!- she finally accepted - But on one condition: next time we’ll see, we'll do something that you like, so we're even! Ok?-
- Sure!- she nodded, satisfied that she had achieved what she wanted.
- Then we go to the arcade!- she clapped her hands happy - It’s been awhile since I’ve played videogames-
- I've played a few times with the children, when the Doctor invented a new one, but I've never been in an arcade- she admitted.
- You’ll see that will have a lot of fun, it’s wonderful!- she let out and Anglicism, as she used to do when he was very excited about something.

Both agree on the destination and about having finally solved the question "guilt", they paid the bill and left the restaurant greeting.

 

………………….

 

- We’re arrived!- said Jodie, stopping the car not far from the entrance of the arcade.

During the journey they had begun to talk casually, as if the inopportune conversation they’ve had just before was only an embarrassing parenthesis between friends. Just as well, she really didn’t want to miss the unexpected complicity that she had established with Jodie. From now on she would be more careful about the subject Akai, because she knew that there was still something that Jodie was hiding and that perhaps would have never said. Not because she didn’t trust her as she thought, but because talking about it caused her, for some unknown reason, too much pain. She had things she didn’t want to talk to anyone, so she resolved to respect Jodie’s choice.
They got out of the car, heading for the door. She stopped for a moment to look at the giant neon sign placed above it, that spread throughout the stained glass of the room, bringing the writing "Game On Game". During the day, it could also noticed little despite the size, but at night when it was all lit up by the play of light that were running it didn’t even look like the same.

- Are you ready?- Jodie called her, opening the door and winking.

She nodded, smiling and going in that place which was new for her. At first glance it wasn’t quite the paradise of her dreams: a large number of guys of all ages (and even adults) were delighting in many different games, someone even raising the voice overheat. They seemed to her a group of possessed nerds who lived for that. All those keen and crowded players didn’t make it certainly the ideal place for her, accustomed to silence and solitude. However, she said nothing, she had to do it for Jodie. For an hour she could also be patient.

- Is there anything in particular you'd like to play?- asked her the blonde, inviting her to look around to find a game that could interest her.
- Choose you, for me everything is fine- she gave a hint of a smile.
- So let's start with one of my favorite games!- she grabbed her by the arm, dragging her among the other players up to one of those shooter with a light gun.

Caught off guard, she stared for a moment the game screen as if she was numb, and then move the look on the fake gun and finally on Jodie.

- But isn’t this a bit too “FBI”?- she asked bluntly.
- What does it means “FBI”?- replied the blonde didn’t understanding.
- I mean that your work also includes shooting at criminals, so I expected that going in the arcade to distract you, you did something different from shooting at someone- she crossed her arms across her chest.
- But chasing and shooting the criminals for work is very different!- she justified - Games make it seem funnier. And it's a good exercise to take aim!- she said satisfied.
- If you say so…-
- Come on, try it!- she took the light gun putting it in her hands.
- No, it’s better if you do it- she declined her invite, handing it to her.
- Don’t you like it?- she stared at her with that disappointed air that only children had, but that she imitated to perfection.

How could anyone say no to two big blue eyes that invited you in that way? Jodie had the ability to look like a puppy when she wanted, a weapon that she surely knew she had and she used the right times to get what she wanted. It was also true that she was tough to convince, but since they were there because she had to make it up it didn’t seem too cute to act like a snob.

- All right, I'll try it- she accepted, sighing - But just because you ask me to-
- Yessss!!!- she overjoyed happily, inserting a coin to start the game.

She stared at the screen that showed an imaginary world populated by monsters, the same to whom she would have had to shoot. In fact it had nothing to do with reality, come to think. When the game started the fateful countdown she positioned herself with her gun, ready to shoot. Beside her Jodie began to give her advice on how to aim and shoot properly, but after a while she realized she wasn’t a rookie, although she didn’t reach her level.

- Wow, you’re good!- she complimented at the end of the game, seeing the really satisfying result for a beginner.
- Not for nothing I was part of a criminal Organization- she looked at her with malice.
- Yeah, sometimes I forget it...- she admitted.
- Now show me what you got, FBI agent- she challenged her.
- Watch out little girl- she warned her, though you could see he was joking.

When he saw her in action, as well as to understand how much Jodie was expert about videogames, she realized that maybe she dared a bit too much in challenging her: she was showing that she received the FBI training and above all that she had learned what she had been taught excellently.

- Congratulations, a true champion!- she congratulated when it appeared at the end of the game the writing "Perfect!" on the screen.
- I'm good, huh?- she boasted raising her thumb, while not showing any signs of malice or conceit - What game do we do now?-
- I don’t know…- she looked around, continuing to see only thousands of keen nerd players.
- Right!- suddenly brightened the blonde, as caught by a flash of genius, beating a closed fist into the palm of the other - You said you like to ride the motorcycle, right?-
- What’s that have to do with this?- she asked perplexed.
- You’ll see!- she winked, grabbing her again by the arm and dragging her around the room.

When she was still in the shoes of Ai, sometimes she found tiring having to keep up with those children so lively that they wanted her and Shinichi to get involved in their childish games. She had spent some time with Ayumi in particular, who always dragged her with her euphoria of a seven-year-old child. Here, that night she felt like she was back again when Ayumi asked her to play with her. Jodie was one of the adults in the room, yet she seemed to belong to the category of teenagers. The old Shiho would be irritated at having to have anything to do with such a person, but her new herself, better in some ways, was enjoying this breath of fresh air. It was as if, being with Jodie, she was infected by her vivacity. She wanted to have fun, to do also something stupid: she wanted to live. They stopped in front of those racing game placed in a row next to each other. They were mostly video games that simulated a race with cars, but Jodie had brought her in front of the unique four locations where instead there were those sketched fake bikes, that could bend to the right and left just like real motorcycles. Certainly it wasn’t like riding an Harley Davidson, but it was a nice gesture on her part.

- What do you think? Is it ok if we have a race?- she suggested.
- Why not!- she accepted, this time without needing to be persuaded.

She had to admit that she was starting to have fun. It hadn’t been such a bad idea to go there. She pulled her wallet from her purse, taking some coins and offering them to Jodie.

- This time it’s on me-
- Ok!-

They positioned themselves on the fake motorcycles, being careful not to put on a show considering the clothes they were wearing, not really suited to play the daredevil biker. Firm hands on the handlebars, the maximum concentration.

- Ready?- asked Jodie.
- Yes!- she nodded.
- Go!-

They inserted quickly and simultaneously the coins, so as to start the game. They selected the "challenge" mode and exchanged a cool glance, before starting to play seriously. Pretty soon a crowd of guys gathered around them, even if she didn’t understand the real reason why they had come, if because they were lured by their skill or from the fact that two young women on a motorcycle were bread for their hormones. In any case either one paid too much attention, as they were taken with that race. They were having fun like crazy, they laughed and teased each other, in a healthy competition between friends.
When the match finished they enjoyed the applause of the audience, together with comments such as "terrific!" or "you are beautiful!".

- Congratulations, you've won again!- she held out her hand to the blonde.
- There wasn’t much difference in the score, you've been very good!- she reciprocated.
- I'm out of practice, I haven’t driven for a long time-
- Well now you can restart, maybe by borrowing the car from the Doctor!-
- And if you lend me the beautiful FBI Mercedes?- she looked at her with a sly air.
- Unfortunately it's not mine, you have to ask James- she shrugged - Meanwhile, however, you can always practice on those!- she pointed to the false next to the motorcycles with which they had just played.
- How about another game on those?- she suggested.
- Ah, I see you're starting to like video games!- she tapped on her shoulder with the hand.
- In fact I have to admit they’re not bad-
- Well, then let's go!-

They continued to play for two hours straight without even realizing it, going from one video game to another. It seemed they had come in the arcade for ten minutes, but when Jodie checked the time on the phone she realized that it wasn’t so.

- Damn it is late!- she opened her eyes wide - It's better if we go home, I don’t want the Doctor to worry-
- Like I said, I’m eighteen, I can stay out even until after midnight- she complained.
- But I promised to Doctor Agasa that we wouldn’t be late, so I have to do the responsible adult- she put her hands on her hips, in a pose almost statuesque.
- But if up to two minutes ago you seemed a little girl at the amusement park!- she pointed out.
- Being a responsible adult doesn’t mean not to have fun, but just do not go overboard in doing so. We can come back here another day if you got you into videogames!- she winked.

She liked a little less than when she entered in the "prudent mother" mode, but as always she was right about everything. On the other hand she hadn’t almost thirty years for nothing.

- Alright then- she snorted.

 

………………..

 

She stopped the car in front of the gate of Doctor’s house and she get off the car, to make sure that Shiho came into home safely. Although there was nothing to fear, after all they had gone through with the Organization it was right to took time before trusting in leading a completely normal life. They get through the gate and headed to the door, speaking softly so as not to wake anyone.

- Did you have fun?- she asked.
- A lot!- she admitted glad.
- I enjoy that!-
- Although I feel sorry for that conversation to the restaurant, I apologize again if I have seemed inappropriate- she sighed.
- Now stop apologizing, it’s not necessary- she reassured her - I understand that you wanted to help me and I thank you, it’s just that...- she closed her eyes, without finishing the sentence.
- You don’t feel ready- she concluded in her place.
- Yeah…-
- If one day you should be, you can count on me- she said seriously.
- Thank you- she smiled.

She really enjoyed the support she was giving her, she had just met her and yet she was behaving as if they had been friends for years. Few people had shown her what she had shown. She didn’t know if she would ever feel quite ready to confess that her sister was the woman her ex-boyfriend had left her for, but for sure she would take account of her support, that would have been returned.

- So, will we go out together again before you’ll come back to America?- she broke the silence.
- Of course! But next time you’ll decide what to do! We made a deal, remember?- she asked, referring to what they had promised each other to the sushi restaurant.
- Sure- she nodded smiling - So good night and thanks for everything-
- You’re welcome!- she lovingly rubbed a hand on her shoulder - Goodnight to you too-

She returned to the car, but before opening the car door and sitting in she threw a last glance at the door, to make sure that Shiho entered and closed in. Not that she thought she would run away to revel in some pubs as soon as she was gone, she had understood she was a wise and levelheaded girl, she just wanted to make sure there were no prowler hidden nearby, ready to emerge from the darkness. She saw her opening the door and turning around to see if she was still there, probably having not heard the car engine starting up. They greeted each other with a hand gesture and then Shiho closed the door. Satisfied and reassured, she also got into the car and started the car, ready to go home. When passing in front of Kudo’s house, she couldn’t avoid to glance inside, thinking inevitably to the conversation she had had with Shiho a few hours earlier. The lights were all turned off, a sign that Shuichi and Shinichi had already gone to sleep.
As she went away more and more along the way, she wondered wistfully if she would one day also had the opportunity to be able to live under the same roof with Shuichi or if that would have remained just a dream like any other. Lost as she was in her thoughts and especially too far from the window of the house, she didn’t see those eyes which, hidden behind the curtain in the dark, had witnessed the whole scene.

Chapter Text

He poured the beaten eggs into the pan heated previously, observing them sizzle and take on the classic yellow coloring of cooking. Having ascertained that the underlying side was cooked, he lifted with a spatula half of the omelette and bended it on the other half, turning off the burner. Then he let it slip in a dish, that he placed on the kitchen counter next to a jar of jam and a chocolate frosting tube. It would have been the recipient of that breakfast to decide how to fill it. While waiting for him, he prepared a good coffee, as he used to do every morning.
The young man in his school uniform wasn’t long in coming, coming into the kitchen while he was still tying his jacket and arranging his tie.

- Good morning- he greeted him.
- What a delicious smell!- exclaimed the boy in response, approaching the counter and looking surprised at the omelette into the dish.
- I'm glad you like it, since it's for you- he smiled, pouring the coffee now ready in a small cup.
- Did you prepare it for me?- he pointed at himself with his index finger - There was no need, you always bother too much Akai-san-
- No trouble, I repeat that I’m a guest in this house- he drank the first sip from the cup.
- You never eat anything?- he sat at the counter, taking the chocolate frosting and pouring a little over the omelette.
- Not usually, I just need a good cup of coffee. Sometimes I make an exception, but most of the time I eat something in the late morning-
- I see- he nodded, cutting a piece of that appetizing breakfast and holding it to his mouth.

He watched him chewing tastefully, savoring the food. He was pleased to see him like this, it meant that what he had prepared had been appreciated.

- It’s excellent!- he said at last, when he had swallowed.
- Well, I'm glad- he smiled - Speaking of desserts, I would like to ask you something- he put the now empty cup in the sink, flowing some water inside.
- Tell me- he listened attentively.
- Do you mind if I invite here Jodie to eat a slice of cake?- he came straight to the point, as he used to.

He saw him taking an air halfway between the surprised and bewildered, as if he didn’t expected that request. He couldn’t blame him, in fact in the eyes of those who didn’t know it could have seemed a strange question.

- No, of course not- he finally answered - But why a cake?-
- The fact is that a few days before I told her about a very nice bakery here in the neighborhood, where I went and I must say they made very good desserts. Jodie is a bit greedy and she suddenly wanted a cake, so I promised her that I would take one of their cakes to sample it. She also confessed that she wanted to see her favorite detective, so I decided to invite her directly here-

 

He had changed a little the reality, he couldn’t say how the things were exactly, otherwise he would have to give further explanation. They were small white lies after all, they wouldn’t have hurt anyone. Also he knew how to hit in the pride, to be told to be the favorite detective of an FBI agent had to be a credit to him; Jodie on the other hand had never hidden the sympathy she felt for him. There was no reason why he shouldn’t believe his words.
As he expected, he saw him blushing slightly, smiling a little: he had taken the bait.

- Okay, there’s no problem for me. What do you say to invite even Shiho? So you two can talk again- he suggested.
- That sounds great- he accepted.
- Then I’ll call her on the way- he stood up from his chair carrying the now empty plate in the sink along with the cup, ready to go to school.
- If you don’t mind this time I would like to go to ask her in person, otherwise she could think that I continue to hide behind you-

The young detective nodded, throwing a quick glance at the clock and therefore rushing to take his schoolbag. He couldn’t help but smile: as usual he was late.

- I have to run, see you this evening!- he greeted him, running out of the door.

Remained alone, he lit a cigarette and put on his leather jacket, ready to go out and start a new day of work.
He also came out from the house, locked the door and getting in the car. Before walking away along the road, he glanced at the Doctor’s house, indulging in a smile that betrayed the satisfaction in having designed a perfect plan.

 

A few minutes later he reached the FBI headquarters. He parked the car and proceeded to get on the elevator, direct to the office where Jodie was working the day before, convinced to find her still there struggling with Vermouth’s case. Once there, however, he found the desk empty. He thought she might have gone out, but getting closer he noticed that on it there were no files or papers, a sign that no one was working in that location. He left as he had entered, thinking about where he might be.
As he walked down the hall, he met Camel coming out of another office. Maybe he knew where she was, after all he had often worked with Jodie after arriving in Japan.

- Good morning Akai-san- he greeted him amicably.
- Good morning. Have you seen Jodie by any chance?-
- Yes, I saw her getting into James’ office about an hour ago, I think she's working with him on Vermouth’s process. Is there a problem?- he asked, perhaps perceiving the haste with which he had asked where his blonde colleague was.
- No, no problem- he simply said, greeting him with a wave of the hand and leaving him there in the hallway, directly to James’ office.

Another would have surely took it on, but he was certain that Camel had become accustomed to his manner, and he was aware that there was no malice or bravado in it. Simply he was like that.
When he reached James’ office he knocked on the door, waiting for the permission to enter.

- Come in- he heard James’ hoarse and worn from years voice on the other side.

He slowly opened the door, but standing still on the doorstep. He looked around the room, finding James sat at the desk and Jodie sat in front of him on the opposite side. On the table there were the cards he was looking for before, sign that Camel was right about the fact that they were working on the Vermouth’s case.

- Good morning Akai- greeted him James - Is there something wrong?-

He wondered with self-irony why every time he asked for someone or came into a room, whoever was the person in front of him thought there was a problem. He couldn’t certainly define himself a good guy who kept out of trouble, but he didn’t think to have such a bad reputation. Another one in his place would have took it on, but he found it even funny. In a sense now he understood why his mother always scolded him when he was younger, he might have given her a hard time with the character that he had.

- No, actually I was looking for Jodie- he glanced over her, who was staring at him, waiting to know what he wanted - Do you have a minute later? I want to talk to you about something-
- Why, has something happened?- she asked, trying not to stress herself before she knew the answer.

Everything comes in threes, after Camel and James she also had to ask him the same question. He tried to suppress a wry smile, so as to avoid having to give explanations.

- Don’t worry, everything is ok- he reassured her.
- Okay, I finish one thing and then I'll join you in the office where we worked yesterday-
- Good- he nodded - Sorry for the inconvenience-

He closed the door, taking leave from his boss and colleague. He turned back the hallway returning in the office in which he had entered just before, leaning on the desk with his hands in his pockets. There he waited patiently for the blonde to join him, mentally repeating all he had to tell her to make his acting look as real as possible.

 

Jodie came half an hour later, holding in her hands the file to which she worked for days.

- Sorry if I made you wait Shu. What did you want to talk to me about?- she asked, leaning her folder on the desk and giving him her eyes as blue as the clear sky.

You could lose in those eyes, if only he wasn’t a person so cold. Cold wasn’t even the right word, maybe it was better to say stoic.

- The cake you wanted so badly will come this afternoon, so if you want you can come to Kudo’s house tonight. I’ve already asked Shinichi and he said there’s no problem, on the contrary, it’s a pleasure for him to receive your visit- he smiled, remembering how he had praised him from her that morning.

He watched his surprise face at the news, probably she didn’t expect that he would have solved the cake issue in such a short time. On the other hand, he could not blame her: until the day before he seemed to have completely forgotten about that business.

- Perfect, then I’ll come tonight!- she smiled happy, masking the disbelief of a moment before.
- I’ll wait you at nine o’ clock- he said, walking toward the exit.
- Ok-

Without another word he left the office and the colleague. With his back turned, he wasn’t able to see the melancholy expression of Jodie, who was wondering why unlike the day before he seemed to want to run away from her instead of spending time together. Unaware of this, he let out a small smile of satisfaction, knowing that he had just got what he wanted.

 

………………..

 

It was now three o'clock in the afternoon when he checked the time on the phone, having spent the previous hours to help colleagues with the final preparations before returning to the United States. Now there wasn’t much work to do, at least not for him. He had reached his purpose, his worst enemy was rotting under the ground, his revenge for his loved ones had been accomplished. The rest was just a pro forma.
He returned to James’ office, knowing that he would have found him still there.

- It’s you again Akai- he pointed out to him, but without reproach or discomfort sign.
- Today I decided to play the part of the nuisance- he laughed at it.
- You just can’t sit back, eh?- smiled the old man, who after all those years had got to know all too well - Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of work for you-
- That's okay, I'll take it like a little vacation. In this regard, I wanted to ask if I could leave early, I would have a commission to attend to- he remained vague.
- I would say that there is nothing urgent to which you have to deal with, so you can go-
- Thank you James, I’ll return the favor- he greeted him.

He appreciated that the man had not made him questions about the commission, but probably he hadn’t done it because knowing him he knew that he wouldn’t have received a reply, or at least a satisfactory one. James had always respected his willing to not want to talk about his personal affairs, he always waited for him to say something as and when we wanted. You could say that they were the experience and wisdom of age to make him so understanding.
He took the elevator and went downstairs, where he left the building and got into the car, heading for the bakery. The preparations had started.

 

Twenty minutes later he stopped the car a few meters from the window of the bakery he had chosen as accomplice of his plan. He had chosen one with a very pretty and tasty cakes, because what he had told Jodie on special cake could be credible. After all he wasn’t aware that Jodie had frequented many bakeries since she was in Japan, so she would never come to understand at a glance the origin of the cake that he would have served her.
He came in the bakery and waited for his turn, taking the opportunity to slide his gaze on the exposed cakes and choose the one that he would have bought. He found a perfect one, a cheesecake with a biscuit base finely decorated at the top by a full circle of blueberries with leaning over a flower -shaped plate made of milk chocolate, all completed by strawberries arranged in a radial pattern. He doesn’t hesitate to buy it when the smiling shop assistant asked him what he wanted and just as quickly he took it in Kudo’s home refrigerator before it could melt or go bad. Now there was only one last thing to do to complete it all, but before he allowed himself the luxury of a cigarette to relax. Not that he had stressed himself out in choosing the cake and bringing it home; the truth was that meeting her again face to face made him still a bit nervous. He knew that that clarification wasn’t enough to ensure that they could have a normal and civilized relationship like two old friends, he still expected hostility from her.
He put out the cigarette butt in the ashtray on the table and left again the house, heading for Doctor Agasa’s house. He rang the doorbell and waited with his hands in his pocket for the door to open. He wondered if she would come to welcome him, but instead he found himself in front of the Doctor.

- Hello Doctor- he cordially greeted him.
- Oh, good afternoon Akai-san. But you shouldn’t be working at this hour?- asked him the scientist, surprised to see him there in middle of the afternoon.
- There is not much left to do and so I asked for a permission to attend to some personal commissions. Can I come in? Excuse me if I come here empty-handed-
- Of course not, come on in!- he invited him smiling to get in that extravagant house.
- Thank you. I hope not to bother you-
- I was working with Shiho to a new invention, a little break will be good for both!- he explained while escorted him inside the hall.

Arrived there he found Shiho busy to study chemical formulas that most likely served to that invention the Doctor was talking about. He saw her raise her eyes as soon as she heard their steps approaching, and when her eyes met with his a strangely decipherable expression appeared on her face. He could call it a mixture of surprise, annoyance and discomfort. Maybe even a little bit of fear, but not like before. Probably it even bothered her to see him showing up in the house out of nowhere, it was understandable, but at least she didn’t stare at him with all that hatred anymore, so he could consider himself lucky. Now it was to him to continue to do be good to her.

- Hi Princess, are you working?- he smiled, trying not to make it look like a bastard’s smile as was he usually did.
- Which is more than I can say for you- she pointed out to him, with a note of biting sarcasm.
- Let's say I took a day off- he kept smiling to the young woman irreverence, that as a bad temper was his worthy adversary.
- What are you doing here?- she came straight to the point.
- Come on, try to be a bit more polite!- retorted her Agasa.
- Don’t worry Doctor- he reassured him - After all she’s right, I came here in the middle of the afternoon and without explanation. To be honest I was looking for you, Miss-
- For what?- she stared at him with inquiring eyes.
- Do you like sweets?-
- Eh?- she stared at him incredulously, expecting anything but a question like that.
- I bought a delicious cake and I was wondering if you want to come and taste it this evening. Of course the invite is even from your detective friend, currently host- he specified, thinking it would make her more calm knowing that they wouldn’t be alone.

Her expression changed from disbelief to hesitation, explaining how difficult it was to even accept a simple invitation like that if he was the one who addressed it. He could also receive a no as answer, but in his heart he hoped they had already gone beyond the stage of rejection. She had cried in front of him, so she could also accept an invitation for a cake.

- All right- she finally said, almost sighing, although she wasn’t really convinced.
- Perfect, then we wait for you at nine o’ clock- he gave her the same schedule that he had confirmed to Jodie, to be sure they were all there at the same time.
- So you will be out even tonight- said the scientist, who until that point had remained on the sidelines in the conversation - I'll have to get used to being alone-

In response, the young scientist glared at him, making him shiver: he had probably said too much. There was one more word in that sentence, a word that could open a locked security door. Of course to a guy like him it wasn’t escaped and she knew it, otherwise he would never reprimanded Agasa that way. He imperceptibly smiled, satisfied.

- Oh, so you went out last night- he anticipated her, before she could say anything to the poor Doctor.
- It’s none of your business!- she replied bluntly, putting herself on the defensive - The fact that I agreed to have a civil relationship with you and try to get along does not mean that I have to tell you everything I do!-
- Hey Ai! There’s no need to be so grumpy!- retorted her again the scientist, not realizing he had called her, in the heat, with the pseudonym that he himself had given her.
- No, she’s right- he stopped him, reassuring him - I was rude to pry your own business. Please, forgive me- he bowed his head slightly.

He could also humiliate himself to apologize for his intrusiveness: he had already got what he wanted. Shiho was trying to hide something or rather someone. He was smart enough to draw her out even without making direct questions, that would have been too inconvenient. He didn’t want to push her away again, he just wanted to satisfy his curiosity. He still had one last card to play.

- I’d better go now. Then I’ll wait for you at nine this evening- he reminded her of the appointment, hoping that in the meantime she hadn’t changed her mind - Ah, if you want you can take with you also that famous friend you mentioned the other night. See you later-

He let himself escorted to the door by the Doctor, greeting him one last time before leaving for good. Long way from the living room, he couldn’t see the shocked expression on Shiho’s face, although in a way he had imagined it. Certainly she didn’t expect that he had overheard the conversation with Shinichi, as she didn’t expect he had taken to heart that friend's affair. He knew that with that invitation had suggested in her doubts, basically he knew her better than he knew, and it wasn’t hard to predict her moves. The culprit who is afraid of being found out always ends up with unmasking by itself and a self-respecting detective knows every trick to force the guilty to disguise itself as soon as possible.
As he walked again towards Kudo’s mansion, he allowed himself again the luxury of a satisfaction’s smile, just as the one he had done after the invite to Jodie. His plan had been carried out successfully.

 

………………….

 

When Doctor Agasa came back in the hall she was still there with her face bewildered, wondering what was there behind those words. Was it possible that in some way he had found out that the friend she was talking about was Jodie? It couldn’t be ruled out, Akai had already shown at the time he was infiltrated in the Organization to be one who didn’t struggle to find evidence when he wants to find out something. Maybe it has been Jodie herself, unable to disguise in front of him, to provide him those information. But if he knew, why not just tell her? Hadn’t he promised her to stop plotting behind her back? She had again the doubt that she couldn’t trust him one hundred percent, on the other hand she knew that the leopard can’t change its spots.

- Can you tell me why you behaved so badly with Akai-san?- interrupted her thoughts the Doctor, giving her a lecture - It seemed to me that you had made peace!-
- I don’t like the fact that he continued to peek at me- she folded her arms across her chest.
- He didn’t come to peek at you, he just wanted to invite you to eat a slice of cake- he defended him.
- I wasn’t referring to that, but to the fact that he knows that I wanted to bring a friend with me when I would have come back there. It was a detail that I only told to Shinichi while we were talking in private, so if he knows it is because he was peeking at us!-
- Take it easy, do not come to hasty conclusions- he tried to reason with her - Maybe he was in a room next to your and had inadvertently heard your conversation. Or maybe it has been Shinichi himself to tell him-

She didn’t answer, she had no time to analyze the Doctor’s theories or to inquire about how he came to know: she had to take remedial action before it was too late. She grabbed her cell phone and looked for Jodie’s number in the last calls, regardless of the recalls of the scientist who was asking her to pay attention to him.
She hold the phone until she heard the voice of the blonde on the other side.

- Hello! Do you already miss videogames?- she joked, as it was in her nature.

She didn’t seem worried or tense and this stoked even more her doubts. Was she getting unnecessary paranoid? Perhaps Akai was just curious to know who it was that friend but he didn’t barely suspect of Jodie.

- Akai-san has just been here- she came straight to the point, without even a "hello".
- Eh?!- she seemed surprised - But he shouldn’t be here? I haven’t seen him since this morning because I had to deal with a thing, but I didn’t know he had left the work early…-
- He said he had some commissions to handle and that in any case there was nothing for him to do. However, he invited me to eat a cake at Shinichi’s house this evening at nine-
- Are you serious?! He has done the same invitation to me this morning!- she exclaimed.

Her eyes widened at those words, while the heartbeat quickened. Forget it: he certainly suspected of Jodie. Indeed, probably he knew exactly that her friend was Jodie, otherwise why inviting her at the same time, at same place, with the same excuse? If it was a coincidence was absurd, much to give the shivers.

- Do you think he suspects something?- she asked.
- I do not know... well, he wouldn’t have reason. The cake story is a set-up that he has created because when Shinichi called him after speaking with you to inform you'd gone to clarify things with them, not wanting to tell me what they said, he made up the excuse that Dr. Agasa had ordered for them a special cake made only in a specific bakery. I teased him a bit to see how far he was good at masking the thing and he invited me to go to taste it when it would arrive. Since I continued to ask him if it had arrived or not I think he was forced to do so in order not go back on his word and ensure that I didn’t become suspicious. Probably he invited even you because he think it’s a good opportunity to spend time together and get to know you better now that you have clarified- she ended - I don’t see why he should be suspicious of us-
- Because before he left he said a phrase that only me and Shinichi could know. The other night I talked alone with Shinichi on the front door and I asked him if I could bring a friend with me when I would return. Obviously I didn’t use names, so not even Shinichi knows that I was talking about you. I believed that Akai was in another room or at least away from us, but obviously it was a few meters from us and has heard everything. Today he left saying to me “if you want you can take with you even that famous friend you mentioned the other night”- she badly imitated his voice - That's why I suspect he knows. Maybe he has started again to peek at me and he has heard while I called you or he has seen we have gone out-
- Damn... if so it would be a disaster! How could we explain that we have made friends omitting the fact that I told you of his personal things?- she sighed, now clearly worried - Why did you ask if I could come too?-
- Because I wanted to return you the favor and the only way that I came up with was to invite you to spend time with Akai-san outside working hours, since I realized you felt something for him even before I asked you openly- she admitted.

There was a brief moment of silence, where both meditated about the whole thing to find a solution. But without concrete evidence in charge, what solution could they find? It was like sailing in a waterless canal.

- What do we do now?- asked Jodie, sighing.
- It’s a complicated situation because we don’t know for sure if Akai-san knows something and what he knows. I believe there is only one thing that we can do: pretend we have never seen each other. Tonight when we met at Shinichi’s house we’ll pretend to be surprised and if they ask me about the friend I will say that she hadn’t time to come. What do you think, is it a good plan?- she asked for confirmation.
- In fact it might work, but the fact remains that if you continue to never introduce this phantasmal friend sooner or later, the suspicions will grow and become a certainty-

She couldn’t blame her, now that she had played the friend’s card she couldn’t go back on her word. She was a scientist, not a magician, she didn’t know how to get rid of the rabbit once it had been extracted from the cylinder. If she hadn’t introduced no one Akai surely would have continued his research, because the curiosity to know was stronger than trying to not meddling in her affairs.

- What do you want to do then?- she asked, hoping that her friend had a backup plan or simply a better idea.
- Personally I think it's better to simply tell the truth, that the friend you were talking about it’s me, but omitting the part where I told you the truth before Shu did. In this way we will avoid to stoke suspects and our secret will be safe-
- Don’t you think it's a risky move? You know yourself how good those two are in investigations-
- It is, but arrived at this point any move we will do is risky. If really Shu has suspects on us the only thing we can do is trying to smooth them out, not misleading him. If we run away he will chase after us. Stoking lies will not help, also we have already had enough of lies and personally I'm tired- she admitted.
- Keeping hidden from him that you have told me everything is a lie- she pointed out.
- In fact, that is more than enough-
- All right, if you think it will work I trust you. Tonight we will say that you are the friend I was talking about, but we'll be careful to not saying anything else- she accepted.
- Let’s hope that everything will be fine!- she sighed loudly.
- Yeah. So see you later- she greeted her - There is one good thing: we can spend an evening together again!- she tried to make her friend feel better, because at that time she needed it more than her.
- I would rather return to the arcade!- she admitted, making her smile - See you later!-

When she hung up the concern that had pervaded her was still there, perhaps even stronger than before. Surely it was the same for Jodie, that between the two was the one who was taking a big risk. One wrong word was enough to provide to Akai the evidence he was searching on a silver platter. To her nothing would happen, but maybe for Jodie there would be consequences for getting mixed up in a matter that didn’t concern her. She had to do her best to defend that friend who had shown her things from a different perspective: that was a way to return the favor.

- I think you should behave normally and say the truth, why hiding the fact that Jodie convinced you to talk to them? Basically she didn’t do anything wrong, on the contrary- asked Doctor Agasa, who for all the time had listened to the conversation.
- Because Mr. “I mind other people’s business” doesn’t like when someone mind his own business: if he came to know that Jodie did it, even if for a good cause, he will be angry with her!- she explained.
- But no, I don’t think Akai-san would be angry with Jodie because she convinced you to talk with him again- shook his head the scientist - I believe that instead he would be very grateful-
- You have a lot of imagination and trust too much in people, Doctor- she sighed, returning to the chemical formulas that she had abandoned - Come on, let’s resume our work-

No longer returning to the subject they resumed their work. She hoped that the work would have distracted her in the next hours, preventing her from thinking about the meeting of that evening; however the apprehension that had caught her after Akai’s words didn’t fade.

Chapter Text

She stopped the car in front of Kudo’s house, a few meters before the gate and pulled out the cell phone from the pocket of her jeans. Quickly she wrote the words "I arrived" and sent that e mail to Shiho. She checked one last time to be neat and then took a deep breath, looking for in herself all the calm as possible to deal with that situation. She couldn’t deny being terribly nervous, and this was at the expense of her intention to appear as normal as possible. Fear is never a good counselor and often leads to mistakes.
She got out of the car at the precise moment when the gate of the house of the Doctor opened, letting out the figure of Shiho. They greeted each other with a silent nod, despite the few meters that separated them and that became less and less as Shiho neared. They addressed only when they faced each other, so close that they can read the tension on each other face. Even her young friend shared her fears, despite her position was less at risk.

- Ready?- she simply said.
- And you?- answered the girl.

They both nodded, decided to carry out the plan they had worked out a few hours earlier. She rang the bell, waiting with her friend at her side.

- Who is it?- they heard Shinichi’s voice, which seemed metallic because of the intercom.
- It’s Jodie!- she said with her usual enthusiasm.

They heard the gate click and open, allowing them to enter and walk directly to the front door, from which emerged out of the young landlord. They expected that he was surprised to see them together, instead he received them very naturally, as if for years they went to visit him together. Probably Shuichi had warned him that they both would have come.

- Come, we've been waiting for you- he motioned them to enter.
- Hi Cool Guy!- she threw her arms around him in a burst that left stunned both he and Shiho.

She wasn’t pretending, she was really glad to see that boy that, kid or not, had won the title of her favorite detective. Even ten years older it was always amazing all what he had done in the fight against the Organization, as well as was surprising his intuition. Before knowing him she had always thought that Shuichi was some kind of genius, but now she had to admit that this guy had nothing to envy him.
She hugged him like you do with a plush, oblivious to the fact that the young detective was red-faced and quite embarrassed to find himself with his body attached to her. He was still a teenager, feeling the soft curves of a woman caused him understandable reactions.

- But you see, the investigative agency’s Miss would be very jealous if she knew that you make yourself pampered by mature women!- intervened Shiho, who until then had been watching the scene amused with a sly air.
- What are you talking about, I'm too old for him!- she finally distanced him from her.
- What does this have to do with? You're a beautiful woman with experience, the dream of every teenager-
- Will you just stop?!- he complained, more and more embarrassed.

 

They continued that interlude among digs and laughter, until they were interrupted by Shuichi, attracted by those noises. The tension that seemed to have dissolved due to that special boy reappeared, stronger than before.

- Akai-san, our guests are here- Shinichi broke the silence, smiling at his friend.
- I see- he simply replied, trying to smile back with poor results.

While Shinichi’s smile appeared natural and spontaneous, Shuichi’s one seemed almost a grimace, as if behind it there was always a certain malice, something hidden that will not bode well. She loved the man, but she had to admit that in some ways it was disturbing to the times.

- Welcome- he greeted them, trying to do the honors, although that was not his home - Your friend isn’t there?- he asked immediately, addressed Shiho.

She glanced quickly to her friend, who reciprocated: they both knew that their plan had started at that precise moment.
They couldn’t afford to make mistakes, no matter how much Shuichi could put them in awe.

- Well... to be honest she is the friend I was talking about- she replied, not with little trouble or hesitation.
- What?!- exclaimed surprised Shinichi, opening his eyes widely - And since when are you two friends?-
- Well... not too much longer!- she snapped, trying as much as possible to avoid details.
- Now I understand why you said I knew her too- he addressed Shiho.
- Eh right!- she said, forcing herself to smile.

It was a dialogue anything but spontaneous and natural, certainly they hadn’t started with the right foot. The only thing they had got to know was that Shinichi didn’t suspect anything, at least him. On the contrary, Shuichi remained impassive as ever, with that smirk on his lips. He didn’t seem barely surprised by the news, it was as if they had told him that they had seen a nice pair of shoes with heels in a store window and this, certainly, wasn’t a good sign. Usually you remain impassive in the face of something you already know. Or maybe he doesn’t care about the fact that they were friends or not? The more they tried to resolve the doubts and the more other doubts were added to those already present.

- If I had known it was Jodie I wouldn’t have even said to invite her, since I had already done it- he finally said - But now I'm very curious to know how you became friends-

She felt the blood run cold in the veins at that question, the only one for which she and her friend hadn’t planned a response. Why didn’t they think of that?! It was obvious that if they presented themselves as friends someone would have asked them under what circumstances they had become, but at the phone they had both been too busy to focus on what not to say rather than what to say. She glanced furtively at Shiho, hoping she had a ready answer: actually she found her with her own expression on her face. She refused to believe that their plan had gone up in smoke even before starting, so she did what she knew best to do in difficult situations: improvise. If she had managed to convince inspector Megure that Camel was her boyfriend she could even invent a meeting.

- Well… we met by chance! I was walking and I saw her sitting on a bench, so we started chatting about this and that and we found ourselves very well!- she smiled forcibly, hoping to have recovered that moment of initial confusion.

She prayed that Shuichi had bought it, she wasn’t sure how her lies were effective on someone like him, used to feel the rotten smell from a mile away.

- Who would have thought, I just didn’t think you'd get along so well, you're completely different temperamentally speaking!- Shinichi stepped in, more and more surprised by the news.
- What do you mean by that?- Shiho narrowed her gaze, taking the words of his friend as a warning to her character not so much jovial and expansive.
- Nothing, except that I am very surprised!- he justified himself.

She expected an answer from him who had asked the question, but it didn’t arrive. Shuichi seemed satisfied with that explanation, so it seemed to say the expression on his face. However she shouldn’t lower her guard: he was good at pretending, much more than her. He had faked his death, high-level stuff compared to a colleague-boyfriend.

- Well, then I think we can get comfortable in the lounge and eat our cake, what do you think?- he proposed, staring firstly her and then Shiho.
- Ok!- she winked happily.

As they walked down the hall, she let Shinichi and Shuichi escorting them, with a gap of just over one meter. She needed a quick consultation with her friend, to know what she thought of the behavior of her colleague.

- Do you think he believed what I told him?- she whispered.
- I don’t know, he has a strange face that doesn’t convince me at all. Better not lower our guard and keep us ready for any kind of question- advised her the auburn hair girl.

She didn’t have time to respond, because her attention was caught by the wonderful cake that was displayed on the table in the center of the room. It was really fantastic, she wondered how Shuichi could have find a cake like that in such a short time, only to live up to that little acting. If on one side that was mouth-watering, on the other it was one more reason to fear "the adversary." Even in small things he could find a convincing solution, in contrast to her who struggled to stay afloat in the innocent lie that she had created.

- Wow, that’s wonderful- she let that exclamation slip in her mother tongue, sitting down on the couch followed by Shiho - It's a shame to cut it-
- But if you don’t cut it you can’t eat it- said the girl, which however was busier at keeping an eye on Shuichi than at watching the cake.
- I'm also curious to taste it- confessed Shinichi while distributing the saucers for all.

Her gaze passed from the cake to his companion, who had started to it into slices of the same size and to put each of these in one of the saucers. It seemed quiet, maybe too much.
When all of them were seated and had had their slice they began to enjoy that masterpiece.

- It’s really delicious!- exclaimed the young detective, then turning a smile to his friend sitting next to him on the opposite side to their - Excellent choice Akai-san!-
- Thank you, I'm glad you like it- reciprocated his friend - And what do you think?- he addressed them.
- I agree with Cool Guy, it’s fantastic!- she nodded.
- I'm gaining weight just looking at it- it was the cold and listless comment of Shiho, who however continued to put in her mouth a forkful after the other, arousing the laughter of all.
- Why, do you have weight problems?- she looked at her doubtfully, but at the same time letting her know that she was joking.
- No, because usually I don’t eat cakes-
- Instead you should, at your age you work off faster-

They would continue with that comic theater if the looks of the two men on the other side of the table focused on them hadn’t put them in awe. They had let themselves go too much, they were not used to see them conversing as if they were friends for a lifetime. The difference in their looks, though, was substantial: while Shinichi’s one showed a sincere amazement, Shuichi’s one was more inquiring, veiled by a note of malice. She had the feeling that soon would have come another question: the problem was that she didn’t know which, and this didn’t allow her to prepare in advance an answer.

- Since you become so friend, I assume that you have already gone out together. Is it not so?-

Here it is, the fateful question, perhaps even worse than the previous. Why asking such a thing? It wasn’t difficult to guess, there was only one reason why Shuichi could do it: their date last night. The doubt he could know was turning more and more into a certainty. Now she was the one to have a question: how the hell did he find out in less than twenty-four hours? She turned to look Shiho, which had stiffened and was looking at her in return. Even she didn’t know what to say. There was only one option: telling the truth.

- Actually we saw each other only once- she admitted, hoping it was the best move.
- By any chance it was last night?-

She opened her eyes widely, wincing slightly followed by his friend. There could be no doubt now, it was clear that he knew. Those questions were too specific to be made at random, out of sheer curiosity. They couldn’t run away, they had fallen into his trap. Suddenly that sweet cake had become a bitter pill to swallow, as if it contained poison.

- Ho-how do you know it…?- she asked, swallowing hard.
- When I went to Doctor Agasa’s house to invite Shiho, he has bequest out a small detail, namely that our young lady had gone out last night. Therefore, by connecting the two, I deduced that she was out with you- he explained naturally and with a pinch of satisfaction.

They could argue, Shiho could say that was not assumed she was gone out exactly with Jodie; however they didn’t manage to say anything, they remained silent staring at the cake that remained in their saucers. Anything they could have said or did at that moment would have seemed just a pathetic excuse to hide the reality of the facts. Among the players seated at that table Shuichi was undoubtedly the best and, as such, took advantage of their silence to make his next move, now certain that the victory would be won.

- So, what have you been doing? You will certainly not go for a drink, since the Princess here isn’t old enough for doing so. Moreover, just like the young detective said, you don’t have many passions in common-
- What do you know about that?!- blurted out suddenly Shiho, who until then had left it was just her to talk.

 

She must have felt under pressure too, forced to keep the secret of which only she was the real culprit. She felt sorry to have put her in that situation, she didn’t want it to end like this.

- Maybe I'm wrong?- asked calmly Shuichi, staring straight at her, perhaps in an attempt to instill her fear.
- It’s none of your business what I do when I see Jodie, you should stop always pry into my affairs!- she continued with that harsh tone.
- Come on, calm down- intervened, placing his hand on her shoulder - Shu was just curious to know, he didn’t want to bother anyone. We went to eat at a very nice revolving sushi restaurant which she advised me, then I dragged her to the arcade with the promise that next time we would have gone out we would have done something she liked instead- she finally explained turned to him.
- So you dragged her into your world of laser guns and joysticks?- he joked, aware of her passion for video games.
- Oh yeah!- she smiled, although she wasn’t serene.

She removed her hand from her friend's shoulder when she felt that her tense muscles were loose again, although not completely. The latter thanked her with a slight nod. If anything she could say to have done one right thing that night.

- But if you have always complained when children asked you to play with them at the video games designed by the Doctor!- intervened Shinichi, who in that story was the only one, paradoxically, to not understand anything.
- Yes, but the ones I've played with Jodie does not have anything to do with those of the Doctor, they’re much more exciting!- she replied with a posh air, resuming to eat the cake.

The shocked face of the young detective was so funny that she smiled attracting everyone's attention. It was comical to see the detective of detectives before the only case he couldn’t solve.

- What you did in the arcade?- resumed Shuichi with his questions.
- Oh, very exciting things! We made a rally race and then we shot the space aliens!- she nodded convinced, feeling more at ease with those questions less focused than the previous.
- And so you can drive, Princess?- he addressed Shiho.
- If I could would it be a problem?- she said coldly, although the tone was not lit like before.
- Of course not. And tell me, did you manage to beat Jodie? It should be easy, since she isn’t really an ace at the wheel-
- That’s not true!- she grumbled, pouting and making everyone smile.
- Instead Jodie is very good, I didn’t manage to beat her- she confessed, smiling at her.

Between a chat and the other they all had now finished their piece of cake. Good, no doubt about it, even if not precisely tasted in the best way. That dialogue started badly, however, it seemed to have turned into a pleasant conversation. Perhaps the worst was over, maybe Shuichi just wanted a confirmation that they went out together and nothing more. On the other hand, he couldn’t really suspect what they were told. Telling the truth up to that point hadn’t been such a bad idea, at least now they had all removed a pebble in their shoe.

- Somebody wants another slice of cake?- asked Shinichi.
- I confess that the temptation is so great but I can’t afford to put on weight with the work I do- she confessed reluctantly.
- I pass, I already feel like Genta and the Doctor- stressed in a not so nice but ironic way Shiho.
- Well, since our guests are so careful about the figure, it’s better if I carry the rest of the cake in the refrigerator before it goes bad. If you wish another slice you can come back tomorrow, always if our landlord agrees- he looked at Shinichi.
- Of course, there’s no problem!- he confirmed.

When she saw Shuichi getting up and closing the cake box, she got up and began to collect the plates and cutlery.

- I’ll help you carry things in the kitchen- she justified.

Not that she cared to do well as a guest, she simply wanted to spend some time alone with him. She didn’t expect the conversation of the century but wanted to know better what he thought of the whole thing. The truth was that she was afraid that the friend had it in for her, for some reason. She had managed to establish with Shiho that relationship that he couldn’t, perhaps this hurt him even if he didn’t want to show it.
When they reached the kitchen she put the dishes in the sink and filled it with water and detergent, while Shuichi put the cake in the refrigerator. He hadn’t said a word, so if she wanted to have a conversation with him she had to be the one to initiate it.

- I hope you didn’t mind if Shiho had replied you in a rude way, she’s a bit impulsive and doesn’t like when you breathe down her neck, but she doesn’t hate you, otherwise she wouldn’t have accepted your invitation- she tried to reassure him, thinking he was a bit down because of her friend's reaction.
- You seem to know her well although you go out together only recently- he replied, remaining with his back turned.
- We become attached immediately even if it seems unbelievable- she smiled - And although you wouldn’t think in some ways we are alike-
- It’s weird, because from what I understood she doesn’t like people who meddle in the affairs of others, especially in her own-

Like the skilled sniper who he was, he took aim and shot straight to her heart, piercing it with a single, lethal bullet. She stood still as a statue, staring at him with wide eyes and the blood flowing profusely inside her from that wound just inflicted. She couldn’t understand why he was saying those things. Or rather, she knew, but didn’t want to admit it to herself, because doing so meant losing the game on all fronts.
He finally turned to her, staring at her with a serious look. There was no sign of anger in his eyes, only that twinkle he had every time that something was wrong. He kept everything bottled up, what came out were only drops of an unseen storm.

- The evening of the clarification Shiho told me she had promised a "good person" who she would have listened to me.
I gave it for granted that this person was Doctor Agasa, since she had no adult friends except from Shinichi, with whom she had quarreled. But now there is no longer any doubt that it’s you the person she was talking about. And if you convinced her to come back that means you have told her what I wanted to tell her before I did it by myself. It was the only way to convince her. This means that you meddled in affairs that don’t concern you
- he ended.

He didn’t take his eyes of her, he seemed to want to ensure that the shot that had launched had been successful. He was waiting to see her collapsing. She bit her lip, seized with a feeling of awe mixed with pain. She was aware from the beginning that she had meddled in a matter that didn’t concern her in any way, she also knew that there would have been consequences if it had come to know. She imagined that Shuichi wouldn’t take it well, but she never imagined to be treated so coldly. On the other hand if Shiho was there it was thanks to her, so he could show a minimum of gratitude after all. Over the years she realized that that man knew how to be loved and at the same time also to be hated with equal ease.

- I…just wanted…- she mumbled with a hanging head, unable to say anything.
- To get her back?- he completed the sentence in her place - Why were you so interested that she clarified with me? You are a stranger in this whole thing, what would you have made?-

In an instant the pain turned to anger. So in his personal perspective a person was bound to do something just to have a self-interest? Of course, as he had done with her, leaving her behind because his relationship with her had threatened the one with Akemi, thereby preventing him from reaching his goal. In Shuichi Akai’s vocabulary didn’t exist the word "altruism”.

- I have to do something just to have a self-interest? Cannot I just want to help someone I care?- she glared at him, more and more hurt by his words.
- You didn’t even know her until two days ago, so why you cared so much to help her?-
- I wasn’t talking about her, in fact!- she hold back her tears, although her eyes were now lucid.

There was a moment of silence, in which neither of them looked at each other in the face. They were both metabolizing in their own way what they couldn’t get over.

- You know I do not like that other nose in my business- he pointed out.
- Too bad you always do it with others!- she let out, clenching her fists to contain the anger that was growing inside her, without even looking at him.
- When did I would have done your own business?-

A part of her, the one that had silenced to convince herself that it was fine to have been dumped for a good cause, would have wanted to answer with a resounding "never", making him feel guilty for never having asked her how she was after their breakup. Not a phone call, not a message. She had told him that it was fine, but it was clear that it wasn’t so, and she had hoped until the end that he’d notice. Instead he, cold as always, had ignored everything. It was enough only a single, simple word to make him feel like he had made her feel. A word that she couldn’t say, as she had failed to tell him so many things.

- I'm sorry if I got your own business, it won’t happen again- she apologized, more to end the conversation became too heavy than to bear for sincere repentance.
- Can I know what you say to convince her?- he asked, in a tone less accusatory than before.
- Simply the truth, which actually you really cared for Akemi and you've done everything to avenge her. I couldn’t say more, since I don’t know anything more than that. I just wanted to let her know that you were not a heartless murderess as she thought, that's all-

There was again a moment of silence, in which the only noise that can be heard was that of Shuichi’s steps, who had started to head back towards the hall, a sign that for him the matter ended there. On the contrary, she remained motionless with her head down, paralyzed from the anger and the pain that were destroying her slowly.

- Thank you-

The sound of that word so kind came to her ears like a loud noise. The anger that clouded her mind prevented her from grasping the sincerity that was behind: at the time she also saw only what he wanted to see. It seemed that thanksgiving was just another way to make fun of her, to humiliate her. Firstly he attacked her and then thanked her ?!
If he wanted to inflict the coup de grace, congratulations: he had certainly succeeded.

- Don’t mention it- she replied contemptuously, with maybe more coolly than he had used with her, if possible.

Walking fast she passed him without even looking at him, coming out of the kitchen directed to the hall. She couldn’t stay a single moment longer in that place with him, not after the way he had treated her.
She found Shinichi and Shiho who were chatting unaware of all; they turned to look at her as soon as they saw her enter with the fury of a summer typhoon.

- Thanks for the hospitality, it has made me very happy to see you again Cool Guy- she greeted him hurriedly, but being careful not to sound rude, since it wasn’t his fault.
- But how, you leave already Jodie-sensei?-
- Yes, unfortunately I have work to do for tomorrow, and I just can stay here no longer, it’s already getting late!- she lied, smiling forcibly.

She wasn’t a good liar, not in situations like that one where her emotions shone from every part of her body. Surely to a smart guy like Shinichi that particular wouldn’t have escaped, but in her heart she hoped that he didn’t make questions.
She didn’t want to justify, especially not in front of Shiho, who continued to look at her bewildered and suspicious.

- Okay... I walk you to the door, then- he offered.
- Oh, you don’t need, you have to stay with your other guest!- she again tried to smile and look like the usual Jodie.
- I’ll walk you- said Shiho, standing up and reaching her out.

It was clear that she had realized that something was wrong and this wasn’t good. How could she tell her that Shuichi had treated her badly knowing that she still didn’t sympathize too much for him? She would have risked to the reconciliation that had cost her so much, perhaps too much. She could do it, she could get her away from Shuichi just for the sake of seeing him suffering like she was suffering, but she wasn’t that kind of person, being it would make her hating herself. But Shiho wasn’t stupid, certainly she had already guessed why her mood had changed. It was the same fear they had shared from the moment they had set foot in that house.
She accepted her friend's offer, greeting again Shinichi with a hand gesture. She doesn’t even try to see if Shuichi had returned, at that time she didn’t want to see his face.
They walked up to the front door and only when they were proven to be truly alone, Shiho made her the fateful question.

- Has something happened?-
- Don’t worry, it’s all ok- she continued to lie, thinking it was the right thing to do - Now come back from them, surely tonight's invitation was more addressed to you than me, so don’t make them wait-
- It’s clear that something is wrong, in these days I learned to understand your looks- she stared at her seriously.
- It's nothing, dont worry-

She wished a friend to let off steam at the time, but that friend couldn’t be her. She preferred to destroy herself rather than move her away again from Shuichi. Not for him, who didn’t deserve anything, but for her, who needed another person (in addition to the Doctor and Shinichi) to believe in and to protect her. For this reason she had to continue to lie and go away before the watery eyes would betray her.
She opened the door and went out, but Shiho followed her and closed the door so as their voices cannot be heard inside the house. It was clear that she wasn’t satisfied with that explanation, when she dug her heels in something it was impossible to make her change idea.

- Has something happened with Akai-san, by chance?- she asked, going straight to the point.

She didn’t answer to the question, she restricted herself to look down: a sufficient gesture to confirm that she had hit the mark. She had betrayed herself, as she had done before with Shuichi. She was just a stupid.

- What has he done to you?- she insisted, warming tones.
- He understood that the person who convinced you to come back to him is me- she confessed, no more escape routes - So in the end I couldn’t hide from the fact I told you the truth before him, minding in business that doesn’t concern me-
- If you hadn’t done it at this time I wouldn’t certainly come here to eat a slice of cake in his company!- she said firmly.
- I know- she nodded - But I also knew that if he had found out he would have reacted in this way, because even if for a good cause, he doesn’t like the others to meddle in his personal matters-
- Really?- she raised an eyebrow, exacerbating the tones - Strange, as he instead loves minding in other people’s business, since he has peeked at me for months! So it’s not fair that now he treats you so bad just because you wanted to help! Now let's go back inside and I’ll give him a piece of my mind!- she grabbed her by the sleeve, dragging her towards the door.
- No, please!- she pleaded, resisting - I don’t want your relationship with him spoil again because of me. And then ... I don’t want to see him now- she admitted.

The tight around her arm loosened, leaving her free. She heard her friend sighing, not convinced. She respected her decision not to face him, but it was clear that she wouldn’t mind nothing to spoil anything to defend her.
Paradoxically she became more attached to her than to the man who had protected her for months.

- Don’t worry, tomorrow I will already be over it- she tried to reassure her - But now you have to go in and spend a nice evening with Shu and with our extraordinary young detective, okay?-
- It will be hard to do so, if I think of the way he treated you- she grimaced.
- Try to make an effort, do it for me- she half smiled.
- Alright then- she sighed.
- Thanks, honey. Talk to you soon- she greeted her gently, moving toward the gate and past it, then got into the car.

She noticed looking out of the window that Shiho hadn’t yet returned home; on the contrary she had remained stood still watching at her, probably a bit worried about her. She felt reassured to know that she had found someone who cared so much for her, in her life she hadn’t had the good fortune to meet many people like that. She was the one who had to grow up quickly to take care of herself.
Fastened her belt, she started the engine and drove off, hoping that her friend came back in and didn’t think instead of going home without saying a word, ditching the two men in the house.
When she was far enough away from the mansion to be certain that no one could see her, she turned onto a side street and pulled over, stopping the car. She couldn’t drive in those conditions, with trembling hands and the view that became more and more clouded, blurred by the tears she had repressed for too long. She let herself go to a cry that shook her body for a long time, old and new tears mixed together streaking her face. We came into this world crying, naked and alone and that's how she felt at that moment: stripped from those masks she had wanted to wear to protect herself, without a shoulder to cry on. She, who for years had been living against her will in disguise, when she had finally obtained permission to recover her identity she had realized that she couldn’t use it, forced by the work she did and the life to always pretend to be someone who she wasn’t. An American English teacher on vacation in Japan, an FBI agent on vacation in Japan, a blonde bimbo, a simple colleague very caring, a friend who was happy to be just that, a former girlfriend which was fine being dumped bluntly on a speeding car. Jodie Starling wasn’t any of that. It hurt her to be treated like that, it hurt when every time she tried to help him, he never missed an opportunity to point out that she had done something wrong. Yes, because in Shuichi Akai’s eyes, Jodie always did something wrong. An incompetent, a poor incapable. She might be at the end of the games, but she certainly wasn’t a meddler or the kind of person who did something just to get something in return. What hurt even more, though, was the real reason why he had reacted that way. She knew that if Shuichi got upset so much wasn’t because she had minded his own business, but because he didn’t want anyone else to bring up the topic Akemi. That was his argument, his memory still vivid, no one could have a say about what she had meant and meant for him. Unlike her, which was probably never meant nothing and that was canceled with the same speed with which you clear an unsuccessful drawing on a white sheet. That evening she had had the confirmation that there was no hope for her, it would have been only a futile effort to confess what she felt as Shiho had recommended her. She would have always been only the colleague that never do what’s right.
She stood there crying in that dark street, lit only by a lamppost quite far from her car, until she no longer had tears to shed nor the strength to find more. Exhausted, she erased the last traces left on her face and put the car in motion, headed for her apartment.

Chapter Text

She stared at her friend's car until it disappeared completely from her sight. It bothered her that she had got away like that, with a bitter taste in the mouth, when that was supposed to be a pleasant evening with friends. She was worried and angry at the same time, she also wanted to go home without even warning, but she had promised to Jodie that she would return in order not to ruin what she had obtained at the cost of a big sacrifice. She took a deep breath, ordering her legs to move toward the door and went back into the hall, where Shinichi was waiting for her still sitting on the couch. At his side, as if nothing had happened, the man who was the cause of his anger and the Jodie’s pain was smoking a cigarette, without showing the slightest sign of repentance. This increased even more her anger, pushing her to assume that frown expression she did whenever she was nervous about something. A gesture that didn’t escape to her detective friend.

- Is something wrong? Don’t tell me that you have argued with Jodie…- he asked.
- You shouldn’t do this question to me!- she answered bluntly, sitting down with little grace on the couch and staring menacingly at Akai.

The FBI agent caught the cutting remark, but instead of responding limited himself as usual to one of those mischievous and ironic smiles, which had something arrogant in themselves.
They continued to stare at each other that way, with Shinichi who shifted his gaze from one to the other in search of an explanation, as long as the sniper finally spoke.

- It seems our Princess is angry with me again. I can’t do anything right- he puts out his cigarette butt in the ashtray.

She clenched her fists, twitching her nerves: he had the courage to be sarcastic after the way he had behaved?! She wondered for the umpteenth time what her sister and Jodie had found in him, she would have avoided like death a guy like that.

- After all in this story I'm the bad guy, while she is the "good person"- he emphasized those last words, the same ones she had used to define Jodie when she talked about the person who convinced her to return to him.

She had promised to Jodie she wouldn’t have argued with him again, breaking that relationship that was still under construction, but at that time she couldn’t not defend her, not after her sacrifice.

- Yes, it is! As much as you want to make her look like a telltale, Jodie is a good person and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her, keep that in mind! And then look who’s talking, you tell other people to meddle in their affairs?! You, who for months have controlled every single move I did?! At least Jodie has been honest when no one wanted to be, so there is nothing you should reproach to her! You should kiss where she walks for the mere fact that I'm talking to you! Think about it before treating her again like that and have respect for her feelings!-

She stopped when she realized that she had crossed the line. Not with the words used, not with the tones, but with the content. It would have sufficed to add a little more and she would have confessed what Jodie felt for him in her place. She couldn’t do that, although on several occasions she encouraged her friend to express what she felt. It was something that only Jodie could do, when and how she would have considered it appropriate. She hoped that Akai hadn’t grasped the true meaning of those words, amid all the talk, but considering that in one day he had unmasked them there was no surprise if he would understood that too.
For a moment she noticed that on the face of the young agent had appeared an expression of astonishment, a sign that her words had hit him. As with any other emotion, however, he tried to delete it as soon as possible, returning to his usual impassivity as ever.

- I see, it will mean that I will apologize to her tomorrow at work- he simply said, closing his eyes.

Now she was her to be amazed at the ease with which she had managed to convince him to retrace his steps and admit his mistakes. He was a tough cookie, one who probably always thought to be better than the others, the fact that the words of a eighteen-year-old young girl spoken in a moment of anger had even convinced him to apologize, it was a rare event. He had really changed his mind, or he was doing it just to do her a favor and avoid spoiling their relations already not too flourishing? She couldn’t know it, but in any case she was happy if she had done something good to help Jodie, it was her way to reciprocate her.

- Now it's better if I go home- she stood up, aware that she couldn’t stay there anymore because of the climate that had been created, she would have ended up spitting venom at every word uttered by Akai until the anger wouldn’t subsided altogether.
- But it’s still early, why don’t you stay a little while?- intervened Shinichi, who until then had done nothing but listening to the conversation trying to figure it out.

She knew that the request was a favor he was trying to make to his friend, but she really didn’t want to stay. Even Shuichi must have understood it, because he didn’t try in any way to stop her.

- It’s better if I come when there will be less tension, really-

Understood that it was better not to insist, the young detective just sighed, standing up to accompany her to the door. Certainly he wanted an explanation, so she had to be ready to the avalanche of questions that would come.
As expected, as soon as they were alone at the door of the house, away from the room where they had left Shuichi alone, Shinichi began with the questioning.

- Do you want to explain me what the hell happened?- he spreads his arms.
- Your friend has treated badly Jodie just because she told me personal things about him just to get me back here to clarify the matter with him!- she explained - She didn’t deserve it! It’s only thanks to her if I’m here!-
- I see, but this is a matter between them and you shouldn’t take it out so much. They are two adults, they can resolve it themselves- he declared.
- Instead they are also my business because Jodie has taken the blame for telling a truth that concerned me!- she replied.
- You're really friends, huh? Who would have thought!- he smiled.
- I really like to stay with her, she's always so cheerful and playful. She uplifts my spirit, somehow- she admitted - And also it’s my only friend since I came back to being an adult, if you exclude Ayumi but it's a child-
- So why don’t you go out with Ran, Sonoko and Masumi sometimes? So you might get new friends of your age. Ultimately, it’s as if you already knew them, you just have to make sure that they know Shiho instead of Ai- he suggested.
- You know very well that Sonoko isn’t fond of me because she thinks that there's something between us, I won’t feed the rumors and create trouble between you and Ran- she explained.
- You do not have to worry about what Sonoko says, it’s all nonsense and Ran knows it. Why don’t you come with us to the cinema tomorrow? It would be a good opportunity to make friends!-
- I’ll let you know- she acted like a snob - Now I have to go-
- Look, I’m counting on it, grumpy!- he greeted her jokingly.
- Sorry, what have you said Sherlock Holmes of the poor?- she returned with her acid way to make.
- Hey, that's a low blow!- he complained, making her laugh.

Perhaps his proposal wasn’t that bad, after all Jodie wouldn’t remain in Japan forever and when she would return to the United States she would find herself alone again. The truth was that he didn’t know where to begin to make friends, and that scared her. She always had the fear that people will misjudge her, that she didn’t deserve the friendship of anyone. Maybe it was time to overcome that fear, that too was part of her new life.

 

…………………….

 

- Are you sure it won’t happen a scandal?- she asked again, unconvinced.
- But what kind of scandal are you talking about ?! Now you exaggerate!- he reprimanded her - I’ve already told you that I warned Ran of your presence and she seemed happy, so there are no problems-

Finally she has decided and had accepted the invitation, in part driven by the Doctor who had encouraged her to enter that already formed group of friends. Shinichi had been happy and this cheered her up: it was nice to know that even though he had regained his body and his old life he hadn’t forgotten her. But the fear of facing Ran and Sonoko remained. She was the reason why Shinichi had become Conan, an outcast who had created a drug that can kill or, at best, to reverse the age of people. Who would want to be friend with a criminal who worked for a criminal Organization? She wondered what she would tell them to introduce herself. As she asked herself questions after questions, they arrived under the Mouri Agency windows, where Ran was waiting for them along with Sonoko and Masumi. She opened her eyes wide at the sight of her, so physically similar to her brother.

- You did not tell me that there was even her!- she whispered almost annoyed to her friend.
- Why, is it a problem? You know her too, right?-
- She’s Akai-san sister!-
- So? Don’t tell me you have something against the whole family now!-

It was useless to talk to him, he couldn’t understand certain things. They were feelings that only her could feel and that she couldn’t explain.

- Here it is our perennial latecomer!- it was the unfriendly greeting of the heiress Suzuki.
- I'm not late!- answered back the friend.

She thought that the quarrel would still continue for a while, instead everyone turned to look at her as if an evanescent entity of undefined nature had appeared. Certainly they were studying her, she also did it when she met someone for the first time. Also she should take into consideration the fact that only Ran had been warned of her presence by Shinichi, and the other two had every reason to be surprised. But certainly those eyes focused on her didn’t help her to loosen up.

- Hello Shiho, I'm very glad you decided to join us!- Ran greeted her warmly, giving her one of those angelic smile that reminded her of her deceased sister.

Well, at least she had the confirmation that she didn’t hate her and that what Shinichi had told her weren’t just nonsense to convince her. One out of three was on her side.

- Thank you- returned with a shy smile.

She could have tried harder, but that was already a milestone for her. Unfortunately, someone didn’t appreciate her efforts, perhaps not understanding them. Who was? Nothing less than the person from whom she expected to be judged more than any other in that group: Sonoko. The latter limited herself to make a grimace of disapproval, letting her know that unlike Ran she wasn’t happy to have her with them.

- Hello, do you remember me?- Masumi intervened, coming up to her and pointing at herself.

How could she not remember? Those eyes were the same that the previous night had made her so angry. She didn’t want to judge her by the appearance, but she really was too much similar to her eldest brother to not associate her to him immediately. This perhaps was even worse than the Sonoko’s coldness.
She studied her with a quick glance, noticing that as always she wasn’t dressed like a woman. It didn’t make things easier to see that as well as having the same face she also dressed like him. They already knew each other before the final battle against the Organization, but it wasn’t a real conversation that could establish a relationship of friendship. Later they haven’t had the chance to talk again. Masumi had shown immediately a certain interest in her and this reminded her, in a negative way, of her brother. Unlike the latter, however, she was much more exuberant, she didn’t hide in the dark to peek at her but tried the direct approach.

- You’re Akai-san sister, right?- she finally answered.
- You know my eldest brother, right?- she asked smiling.

What could she say? "Yes, your brother is the former boyfriend of my defunct elder sister who used her to infiltrate a criminal Organization of which I was a member. Ah yes, I forgot: he pretended for months to be another person and liked to peek at me”. No, definitely she couldn’t come up with such explanation; so she did what she had done for most of the time since she had arrived: she remained silent.

- Look at Miss “I Snub You All”, she thinks she’s the only one to be beautiful?- she whispered in the ear of Ran, not even too slow to not be heard.

This time she couldn’t restrain herself and returned the jibe with a glacial glare, who cringed even Shinichi. Maybe she wasn’t the life of the party or the number one in the world to relate to others, but she wouldn’t allow anyone to criticize her and give her nicknames like that, especially from a spoiled little girl who had everything in life. She was beginning to think that accepting that invitation had been a colossal mistake.

- I think she's just a little bit timid, so let’s try to put her at ease!- Masumi intervened in her defense, leaving everyone surprised, herself included.

She stared at her with wide eyes, wondering why she had done it. They had spoken once, maybe two, so why defend her rather than support her longtime friends? At that moment she seemed very different from her brother, although come to think of it he had defended her his own way.

- Please, forgive her, no one wants to be rude here- apologized sincerely Ran.
- Don’t worry, it’s even my fault, I hadn’t introduced myself with proper manners- she accepted the apology, promising to be less strict.
- So what do we do?- asked Masumi, that in terms of hyperactivity was unbeatable.
- Why don’t we let Shiho choose? So we help to put her at ease- proposed Ran.
- Everything is fine with me, as long as they do not have to do with murders and cases to solve- she squinted at Shinichi, who replied wrinkling his nose.
- Why? Don’t you like to solve mysteries?- asked Masumi almost shocked, as if for her everyone should be keen on corpses and killers.
- I've had enough and I would like to have a break- she simply said, without alluding too much to her old life.
- What do you like to do?- asked Ran.
- Let's see... I like animals, science, fashion and ride the bike- she responded exactly as she had done with Jodie.
- I have a bike!- brightened up Masumi, as if they had said her that she had won the lottery.
- R-really?- she pretended not to know it, not knowing how to approach.
- And so you like fashion...- intervened Sonoko, who until then had remained silent after the gaffe she had done a little earlier.
- Is it a problem?- she asked, with a not too friendly tone after the treatment received.
- Not at all, in fact, we have something in common it seems!- said the heiress shaking hands and smiling.
- Why don’t we do some shopping then?- purposed Ran - Or just go around the shops to see what's new-
- Please no…- complained Shinichi, the only man in the group.
- We can look in the men's department!- Masumi tried to encourage him, as if it were normal.
- What do you think of the cinema instead?- she intervened, remembering how Jodie had seemed excited when she told her of her evenings dedicated to movies - Maybe we find a movie that satisfies everyone-
- That sounds great!- accepted at a good pace Ran.
- Yes, it's fine for me- Sonoko followed her.
- I’m in!- nodded Masumi - And you?- she asked to Shinichi.
- Okay, if you do not get any better- he replied listlessly.
- So let’s go- she invited them to follow her.

As they walked directly to the cinema, she thought that the meeting with those people who she already knew but who didn’t know her wasn’t started in the best way, but in the end she had even managed to brought them together on what to do. She even had something in common with Sonoko, who seemed the one who detested her the most. If she had behaved with them as she behaved with Jodie, in a natural way and pulling out the best part of herself, she didn’t have to fear a negative judgment. She could make friends too, if only she wanted.
Arrived at the nearest multi-screen cinema, they came to the exhibited posters to consult the various movies planned. There was an embarrassment of riches,from the romantic film to the horror one through the dramatic, the comedy and the crime drama. Unfortunately, along with the variety of genres there was also their variety of personal tastes and that was how they started the debate on what to watch.

- Let’s see this beautiful love movie, it's so romantic!- Sonoko got excited.
- It seems a very sweet story- Ran supported her, then looking at Shinichi and blushing, probably imagining himself to shake his hand during the whole movie.
- I would prefer to see this- Masumi pointed to the poster with the crime drama.
- It doesn’t seem a story of the most exciting but actually seems to be the best choice among all- said Shinichi, supporting his detective friend.
- Don’t you have other things on your mind?- she reprimanded them, exasperated by the continuous research to immerse themselves in the world of investigations.
- She’s right!- Ran and Sonoko supported her in chorus.
- Don’t tell me you want to see that tiresome movie too!- his friend folded his arms across his chest.
- No, actually I was thinking of something funny, maybe a comedy- she contradicted him, relishing in doing so.
- Of course, because you're Miss Fun!- he teased her, alluding to her sombre character.

Unexpectedly, Masumi interrupted their theater putting an arm around her neck in a friendly sign, then getting her face close to hers and winking at her.

- You could take the break from mysteries another day, I'm sure that you would rather see the crime drama!-

She wished to react and refuse, but all she could do was swallow loudly and staring transfixed. It was stronger than her: every time she looked at her, her face was replaced with Akai’s one. A rather disturbing image that put her in awe.

- Hey, don’t try to bribe her- Sonoko admonished her, pointing the finger at the detective, but getting in exchange only an innocent smile.
- Since the romantic movie will remain in projection for the whole week, we can come to see it another day, so we keep everybody happy- she suggested, trying to recover from the paralysis.
- I think it’s a good solution!- supported her Masumi, who seemed to not want to remove the arm from her neck.

Again, with no small surprise, she succeeded in brought all them together. So they went to the ticket office to pick up the ticket with the number of their seats, finding a bit of queue. Taking advantage of a moment of distraction of the other three girls, Shinichi approached her with inquisitive eye.

- Tell me , why did you give up so quickly to Sera-chan’s request?- he whispered to not be heard.
- But did you see her? She’s identical to Akai-san! I can’t have a normal conversation with her!- she admitted.
- Are you still mad at him to the point of been angry even with his sister just because they resemble?- he smiled.
- Yes until he apologizes to Jodie!-

She expected an answer to her stubbornness, but something more important captured the attention of her friend: his girlfriend who was about to pay the ticket. He didn’t want to watch romantic movies, however he had no problems to do some gallant gesture; so he stopped her in time and offered to pay in her place, making her blush.

- What a touching scene, all that’s missing are the cherry petals flying graceful in the air!- said Sonoko, as if she were starring in a play - It won’t be that behind all this gallantry hides an ulterior motive? Tell the truth, you can’t wait to get into the darkened room to make out with her!- she scowled at him.
- But what are you saying, stop immediately Sonoko!- Ran scolded her redder and redder in the face.
- Don’t you ever get tired of saying stupid things?!- he supported her, perhaps even redder than her.

She couldn’t suppress a chuckle, followed closely by Masumi. She turned to look at her astonished, as if until that moment she had considered her incapable of laughing just because her brother never laughed. When she realized she had her eyes set on her, the girl smiled and winked at her again, forcing her to swallow loudly a second time. She had to stop associating her with her brother, otherwise she would never be able to be friend with her. After all she and Akemi were profoundly different too, blood ties wouldn’t necessarily lead to an equality of character. So she forced herself to smile back.
When everyone had had their ticket, they got ready to take place in the movie theatre. As she sat between Shinichi and Masumi, she thought that after all that weird company wasn’t bad, she could even get used to hang out with them.

 

………………………….

 

For the umpteenth time she took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes, unable to continue reading. Having spent the night almost sleepless certainly didn’t help to give the best of herself, despite being aware that the work he was doing was vital for her future. She had spent a lifetime waiting for the moment when she would avenge her father and slammed Vermouth in prison, but if she had presented at the trial what she had done that day, for sure she would have been the one to go to jail. She felt heavy eyelids and puffy eyes, not to mention the drowsiness: she must have looked terrible. Even James had noticed it, inviting her to lunch to pursue the matter. He asked her if she felt good not mince words and she had responded that she had woken up with a strong headache. She knew that her boss wouldn’t buy that and in fact she immediately noticed his expression not convinced; however he hadn’t insisted neither made further questions: probably he understood that the reason for her discomfort was related to Shuichi, now after all those years together he had learned to distinguish her "Akai face”. He knew perfectly her brusque reaction when she was forced to speak of him in delicate moments, if he would have investigated further he would only unleashed her anger. However he continued to hang around her all day, calling her with a pathetic excuse to work in his office rather than be alone: it was his way to demonstrate that he was there, that he wouldn’t have abandoned her. She appreciated this paternal side of James, it was like having another father, the figure of support that we all need despite the age.

- Hey, Jodie? But are you listening?- he called her attention, noticing that she was distracted again.
- Sorry James, my mind isn’t all here today- she admitted - Could you repeat?-
- Never mind- sighed the man, closing his eyes - Why don’t you go out and get some fresh air? It’s not the case that we continue on an important point if you are not concentrated to the maximum-
- No, now I put myself back on my feet and we continue, we have to finish this work as soon as possible!- she tried to be as convincing as possible, despite the fatigue.
- You’re not in the mood today, I understood it- he made her desist - Go take a walk to clear your head-

While guiltily she decided to take James advice, he had a point. Stay there only physically and taking a walk was the same thing.
She left the office direct to the coffee vending machine, thinking that that stimulating drink would help her to recover a bit. She walked with her head down, afflicted because of what had happened last night and also for the weakness that she couldn’t overcome. When she was less than four meters away from the machine, she looked up and found the very last person she wanted to see: Shuichi. On the other hand she had to imagine that he was there, where there was the coffee he was there. Stupid to not have thought of it before! She stood on the spot, undecided about what to do: go get that coffee was tantamount to face him, and go away to not see him meant giving up on coffee. She had no desire to face him, she still felt not ready for a face-to-face; so she chose to return to the office along with James without having taken anything. Just took her first steps in the opposite direction, she heard Shuichi’s voice behind her.

- Jodie?-

She swallowed hard, but her breath became heavy. She thought of being able to leave without him noticing her, instead he had caught her in the act as a thief who escapes into the night. What should she do now? Ignore him or answer? If she just pretended to not have heard him surely Shuichi would have followed her, he wasn’t the type who gave up easily, so she took courage and turned to look at him, but didn’t say anything.

- Do you have a minute? I would like to talk- he asked.

His tone was calm, there was no trace of the poison that he had spat on her the night before. Too bad she was still feeling the pungent odor on herself, as if her body had been impregnated.

- I'm sorry, I have no time, I have to get back to work- she hastened to dismiss it with an apology.
- I will steal you only a few minutes- he insisted.
- Now it’s not the time- she shook her head, returning to start down alongside the hall and leaving him there alone.

She had no idea of what he should say to her, she thought he had been already too clear last night. Maybe he wanted to make her an apology? It wasn’t like him, Shuichi the perfect man who humiliate himself to apologize for his mistakes. Moreover, it wouldn’t have pleased her another "thank you" like the one that still resonated uncomfortably in her head. She was still too angry to hold a civil conversation with him, so for the moment it was better avoiding it.

- Are you running away, Jodie?- she heard him provoke her, his voice was more and more distant.

She clenched her fists, trying to contain the anger that could explode at any moment. Her nerves were on edge and being provoked didn’t help her to calm down.

- I’m not the one who run away- she replied coldly and suggestively, hoping that man understood the true meaning.

She received no answer, she not even turned around to see if the arrow that had shot had hit the target. She didn’t care, she just wanted to go away and get away from him.
Before returning to James office she made a stop in the bathroom: she couldn’t have a coffee but at least she could freshen her face. She removed her glasses and put them in her pocket, then opened the tap and with a hands took a bit of water and swabbed it on her face. When she looked up and saw her reflection in the mirror she wrinkled her nose: she really had an awful aspect. If she had made a challenge of bags under the eyes with Shuichi for sure she would beat him. It made her wonder if her relationship with him was definitely worn as her face. She had passed a break up, three years of distance, a fake death; yet she couldn’t overcome a spat that apparently seemed much less serious than all the rest. Yeah, apparently… because for her those words had a much larger weight of a "that’s why we have to put an end to this" or "if you want to fool your enemies you have to fool your friends." She had managed to remain her friend despite the feeling that she still felt for him, but now she didn’t know if she would be able to approach again to him as a friend. He had refused her as a girlfriend and now, in a sense, had also refused her as a friend. Perhaps it would be better to be simply two colleagues working together, but in her heart she knew that this would have been difficult to achieve. Feelings can’t be erased only with the will. What would become of them, then?
Aware that she couldn’t control her emotions and foresee the future that awaited her, she remained to stare sadly at her own eyes in the mirror, waiting for an answer that never came.

Chapter Text

She plunged again the spoon in the pint of strawberry ice cream where she searched for solace after that hard day, while with the other hand continued to change channel in the hope of finding a pretty interesting program to distract her from her thoughts. That sense of depression didn’t want to leave her body and her head, the memory of the words spoken and unspoken tormented her. She felt she had lost something important, but at the same time had the bitter knowledge that she had never possessed it. You can’t lose something that is not yours.
She let slip the TV remote on the sofa next to her legs drawn up, giving up searching for something interesting: that night even the schedule wasn’t on her side. She was looking reluctantly that cheap movie from for which she had opted when the doorbell rang. She turned toward the door, bewildered: who could it be at that hour? The first thought fell on James, who during all the day had worried for her; however it seemed strange that he even went to her house, after all she wasn’t dying, she had just had a bad day.
She rose reluctantly from the couch, putting the ice cream pint with the spoon in it on the table and went to the door by pressing the button on the intercom and doing the usual question.

- Who is it?-
- It’s me- simply said the voice at the other end.

She winced, recognizing the tone of her interlocutor: the last person she would have expected to find in front of the door, but the first that occupied her thoughts since last night. The heart started to pound in her chest, she felt as seized by a panic attack. What should she do? She couldn’t pretend not to be at home, she had already responded, but she didn’t want to face him. After a moment of hesitation, she decided to do what was more civilized doing: she opened the door. She found him in front of her with a beautiful bouquet of flowers in his hands, colored anemones and some calendula in between. There were only two reasons why a man might show up at a woman’s home with flowers: tell her that he loved her or apologize. Considering the nature of their relationship at that time, it was much more likely that Shuichi was there for the second option. However, she was surprised at this unexpected gesture, it certainly wasn’t from him humiliate himself to that.

- Can I come in? I would like to talk- he said to break the silence.

She wanted to answer him as she had responded a few hours earlier at work, but she was trapped, she couldn’t said to be occupied at ten thirty in the evening. So she sighed and motioned for him to enter, gesture that the colleague understood immediately.

- What are you doing here at this hour?- she asked, even knowing the answer already.
- It’s obvious, isn’t it? I came to give up the fight and make my apologies- he handed her gently the bunch of flowers, which she took with pleasure.
- Thank you, they are beautiful- she hinted a smile, admiring them and inhaling the scent.

She looked around, looking for something where she could put them: her eyes fell on an empty ceramic pot placed in a corner on the ground near a piece of furniture. She took it and filled it with fresh water, then removing the paper and ribbon from flowers and placing them inside. Finally she placed it on top of the furniture itself, all under the watchful eye of Shuichi who doesn’t stop watching her for a second. Probably he expected that from her mouth came out a few words, whereas she was the one talkative and expansive between the two of them, but after realizing that he wouldn’t get anything he started asking questions almost silly, just to strike up a conversation.

- I disturbed you while you were eating dessert?- he nodded to the pint of ice cream that she had left on the coffee table.
- I just wanted something sweet- was all she said, closing the pint and bringing it back in the refrigerator before the ice cream melted completely.

She was escaping from him and for sure he had understood it. She would have been hypocritical to say that cute gesture hadn’t affected her or she didn’t like those beautiful flowers; but the anger was still deep and the knowledge that her feelings weren’t reciprocated prevented her to take advantage of the situation. It wasn’t the right time to have a conversation and she had to make that clear.

- Listen Shu… - she began, not knowing what words using - You've been really nice to come here to apologize and bring me flowers, I appreciate it, really. But now I don’t feel to face it, I’m not in the mood. I won’t make the situation worse, so I prefer to talk at another time, forgive me- she concluded, taking a deep breath.
- Jodie you’re not a child anymore, you're a grown woman, you should learn to deal with certain situations. Do you really want to pout and ruin our relationship because of a dispute which has now been cleared?- he fixed her with a stern look, as he used to do when he wanted to pose as a mature and superior man.

That was the straw that broke the camel, those words perhaps even worse than those of the previous evening. She a little girl?! She couldn’t be it even when the chronological age would grant it to her, let alone now! It wasn’t her who was ruining the relationship, it was him with his lack of tact and feelings. In the growing anger that clouded her mind, she wondered for the first time how she could have fallen in love with such a person , a man who wasn’t even aware of how his words could hurt more than the bullets fired by his beloved rifles. She wasn’t perfect, but she deserved better. She was wasting her time behind someone that didn’t even realize how much love she had given him without asking anything in return. It was time that he knew. Shuichi Akai had to realize that he wasn’t as perfect as he pretended to be.

- If I were a little girl I wouldn’t have borne all this, on the contrary I would have already told you to go to hell for a while!!! I wouldn’t have continued to worry about you as it does a faithful wife after that six years ago you gave me the sack with an absurd excuse!!! You're the one who ruined everything and you did it when you've never bothered to get me one, damn phone call to know how I felt after you had ditched me!!! And don’t say you couldn’t because otherwise they would have discovered you, the time to call James to talk about how your mission was going there you had it and how! I wanted to hear you saying you missed me as much as I missed you, even if it was just a lie to make me happy I would have believed you anyway! But the truth is that you didn’t leave me because you were afraid of betraying yourself during the mission… the truth is that you were already in love with Akemi. After her death you’ve shut down and although it’s already passed a year you seem to have no intention of open yourself again. It almost seems like you feel a sort of obscure pleasure in continuing to bask in your world of pain and guilt. I tried, I tried with all my might to bring you back to the surface from the abyss in which you are sunk, but you insist on refusing my hand! I... I got tired of knocking on a door that doesn’t open-

She was passed by shouting in his face with all the breath she had in her lungs to shed tears as she spoke the last words in a weak voice, all without even realizing it. She had almost caught her breath between a sentence and the other, the words flowed relentlessly like a river in flood. Words that for too long had been held inside, words she had never found the courage to say. She knew that now everything would have changed, she could no longer go back on anything, as he knew she had confessed in an indirect way what she still felt for him. This wasn’t how she had imagined the moment when she would have said that she still loved him. Confused and unable to deal with all those feelings she was feeling in a moment, she continued to cry and look him straight in the eyes, waiting for his reply. For all the time in which she railed against him, he had been looking at her with a bewildered face, incredulous that anything was really happening. He had never seen her so angry and exasperated, perhaps had never even thought she would come to that. Now, however, he stood in silence with eyes closed, probably elaborating every word and drawing his conclusions. She would have liked to hear something, anything, even negative, as long as he talked. The total indifference would have hurt her more than an icy response. But the sniper continued to stand in absolute silence.
Now unable to take any more, she walked briskly to the door, opening it wide abruptly.

- Get out!- she ordered, an unusual spark of fierceness in her eyes.

Without putting up any resistance and fight back, Shuichi walked slowly toward the door with his eyes closed, impassive as always. Certainly she didn’t expect an answer before he left her apartment, now she no longer expected anything from him. She didn’t even look at him as he crossed the threshold and walked down the corridor to return to where he came, she didn’t want to see that indifference that wore her out inside. She closed the door and leaned against it with her back, slipping to the ground like blood flowing from a wound, bursting into tears. From tomorrow, nothing would ever be the same. She had lost her shoulder, a friend, the love of a lifetime.

 

When she opened her eyes againthe sun had already risen for some time, she could glimpse it from behind the graceful curtains that covered the French doors. Despite the drowsiness indicated that she had slept, she felt tired as if she had been working all night. She rolled over on her back, moving the covers: only then she realized she was in her bed. There would be nothing strange, that's where you go to sleep, the problem was that she couldn’t remember when and how she had arrived there. The last image projected in her mind was the one of Shuichi who went away after she had thrown him out: everything else was a huge black hole. She ran her hands over her face and head, then she reached out the hand and took the phone on the bedside table to check the time. She noticed that , in addition to five missed calls from James, she also had two missed calls from Shiho dating back to the previous evening. She was so absent that she hadn’t even noticed the phone was ringing, or maybe she had heard it but had been unable to answer, and now she couldn’t remember it, like everything else. She guessed she had phoned to see how he felt after the discussion with Shuichi at Kudo’s house, but at that moment she had no desire to talk about him or them , so she decided that she would call her back when she would feel able to face the topic. She wasn’t even sure of being able to go to work, she didn’t have the head to stay focused on something that would decide the fate of her father's assassin, not to mention that she would come into office with more than two hours late. So phoned James, to give at least an explanation.

- Jodie, but where have you gone?! I’ve been trying to call you for two hours!- he scolded her immediately as soon as he answered the call, without even wishing her good morning.
- Sorry James, I woke up just a few minutes ago. I don’t feel well at all, I don’t think I could come today. I feel even worse than yesterday- she justified herself, hoping to get by.
- What's wrong?- he asked James, a bit worried.
- Nothing serious, I think it's just a little bit of flu- she lied, although she knew that James would have hardly believed at it.
- Jodie, you can’t give up right now, we must prepare us well for the process if we want to win it- he reminded her, as if she didn’t know.
- I know, and tomorrow I will do everything possible to be there, I swear, but today I just can’t do it-
- By chance the reason why you can’t come to work today is the same for which this morning Akai is more sullen and misanthrope than usual, which in recent times was no longer as he was months before?- he asked bluntly.

She remained puzzled by the question and by how, despite being aware of acumen of the man that had grown her during all those years, he managed to understand and connect everything anytime.
Recovered from the surprise, she felt the anger raising inside her. If she was sick there have to be due to Shuichi?! She cursed herself again because of the way she eclipsed herself behind the figure of that man, so as to make it visible to all. Maybe it wasn’t just James, maybe her colleagues gossiped about this behind her back. She imagined their comments, like “Have you seen how she follow him around like a puppy?” or low-level things like that. Moreover, it wasn’t her problem if Shuichi was grumpy: he was born that way band would have died that way as well.

- Is it possible that all that concern me must necessarily revolve around him?! He’s not the center of the world!!! Now I can’t even get sick?!- she shouted and then hang up the phone down.

She regretted it soon after, realizing that in the end James wasn’t the one to blame, he was just worried for her.
Exhausted by the whole situation, she turn over on her side and completely covered herself, annoyed even by sunlight filtering through. She had no desire to get up from there or doing anything.

 

………………..

 

He stood for a moment staring at the phone display where the call had just been stopped, struck by the vehemence with which his interlocutor had replied. When she reacted that way the situation was more serious than it seemed, now he knew her well.
He sighed, closing his eyes and thinking about what to do. Then he went out from his office and went to search for Shuichi, who hadn’t communicated what he would have done that day. He found him in an office isolated from the others, which they used as an archive, sitting at a desk to read some documents contained in old files. Seeing him entering, he looked up from the reading.

- Has something happened?- he asked immediately, thinking that if the boss came to him it was for an emergency.
- No, I just wanted to ask you if you could keep it all under control for a few hours, I have to go out. You're my best man, I do not know who else to ask- he admitted, renewing the great esteem he felt towards him.
- Is everything ok?- he asked again, as if sensing that he was hiding something.
- Yes, I just have to take care of something before it's too late. Then, can you replace me?- he simply replied, not wanting to tell him what he should do.
- Sure, I’ll take care of it- he agreed.

Without another word he left the room, took the elevator and went to the parking lot outside the building, getting up on his car directed by Jodie’s home.

 

About twenty minutes later he was at the door of her apartment. He rang the bell and waited until he heard the voice on the intercom.

- Who is it?-
- It’s me-

The lock clicked and the door opened, showing the young woman not quite in her best form. Her eyes were red and swollen a sign that she had cried a lot, she had tangled hair and was still wearing her nightgown which she had covered for modesty throwing a cloth over her shoulders and rolling it up on herself. Certainly her wasn’t an excuse not to go to work and loiter around the city.

- James, what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at work?- she asked surprised.
- Today I have something more important to attend than job-

 

He knew that who with time had come to regard as a daughter would understand that the important thing to which he was referring was her; in fact Jodie threw herself into his arms and began to cry again, sure he wouldn’t have considered her too immature or weak. Probably those were the words she wanted to hear from another person, the same for which she was shedding tears. He was the only one to know about their history, the only one who knew how much she had suffered in the last few years. He hugged her strongly and slowly made her walk up to the couch, where they sat down and she continued to let off steam crying into his chest for several minutes while he tried to comfort her, stroking her head. They stayed that way until Jodie calmed down, while continuing to remain embraced to him.

- I'm sorry, I'm being silly- she said, wiping her eyes.
- You're just a bit down in the dumps, it happens to everyone- he reassured her - How about I take you out for lunch to eat something good? But you have to clean yourself up-
- Thanks, but I'm not hungry- she shook her head.
- Come on, you have to eat something. If you do not like to go out I'll make you something, but you have to dress up- he recommended, as a father would.
- All right, grumpy old man!- she smiled, giving in and giving him a pinch on the shoulder, and then getting up off the couch and going to her room.
- About the grumpy I can also turn a blind eye, but about the old no! Be careful how you talk to me young lady!- he pretended to be serious, but you could tell he was joking to cheer her up.

He got up from the couch too and began to look for something in the pantry to prepare. He finally decided to make rice with meat and vegetables, a simple but nutritious dish, not to mention that there wasn’t much left in the house, as often happened to all of them agents of eating out.
He put the water to boil in a pot and proceeded to chop vegetables. After a while Jodie joined him, with a decidedly cooler look: she had rinsed the tears from her face, her hair was combed and tidy and she was wearing a blouse and a pair of jeans, definitely more appropriate than the succinct petticoat. Apparently it seemed that she felt better, but he knew that within her the fire was still burning. Probably she didn’t want to broach the subject, but he had to ask anyway.

- So, you want to tell me what happened with Akai?-
- Please, can we change the subject? Otherwise I will not be able to swallow even a mouthful of what you are preparing- she sat down at the table, sighing.
- I'm sorry to insist, I know how you feel and I will not meddle in your romantic affairs, but I'm also your boss Jodie and I would make sure that there won’t be disagreements at work among my subordinates. You are two good agents and I need both. You have to work together again for a long time and I don’t want that your professionalism will fail for personal matters- he explained seriously.
- It won’t happen- she said convinced - I just need a few days alone to dispose of the whole. In this regard, could we work alone outside the headquarters? I would feel less nervous, and I could concentrate better. We can work here, or at your apartment- she suggested.
- Jodie, you have to come to work, you are no longer a stubborn little girl with whom I have to make compromises- he reaffirmed.
- You're right, I'll try to pull myself together as quickly as possible. But you should do this speech also to Shu, because I'm not sure he wants to work with me again-
- The matter is really that serious?- he asked, more and more confused.
- Enough- she simply answered.

Going on like that he wouldn’t come to anything. He asked her questions and she answered vaguely, the whole matter was shrouded in utter mystery. But he hadn’t gone there to play the detective, he had gone there to solve the problem and whether to do so he had to be insistent then he would have been. He began to scrutinize and stare at her , trying to intimidate her to such an extent as to make her spill the beans. Usually it was a move that worked. As expected, he saw her turning her eyes in exasperation.

- We had a heavy discussion, he said things, I said things and then I kicked him out of here- she summarized briefly.
- You kicked him out?- he marveled.
- Yes- she nodded - He came to apologize after the other night at Shinichi Kudo’s house he hadn’t behaved very well towards me- she nodded to the vase of flowers over the furniture - But I had no desire to talk to him because I wanted to let off some steam. He insisted, has provoked me, and I... - she took a break, getting sad - I screwed up-
- What do you mean?-
- That I reproached him things I have kept inside for years... - she shook her head.

There was a moment of silence, during which he took the opportunity to throw the rice in boiling water and mixed it. He thought about all that Jodie had just said, imagining what might be these things that she had held inside. Once she had confessed to him some of them unwittingly, one evening when she had exaggerated with the wine, but he didn’t feel to touch the topic again. Maybe she didn’t even remember.

- Maybe it's not a bad thing that you had vented, pretending that all was ok wasn’t a solution- he finally said - In these years I’ve always heard you say "it’s all ok" every time I asked you if something was wrong with him, but it was obvious that wasn’t ok. There is nothing wrong if you felt anger towards him, the important thing was that this anger didn’t turn into hatred and to not make it happen you had to get rid of it and turn it into words. Now that you've done it you can go on-
- The problem is that I have turned them into acidic words that I can’t take back... - she looked down.
- Can I do something to help you?-
- I’m no longer a child, you've said it yourself. If I get in trouble I have to get out on my own- she tried to smile.

She was right, there were things in which he couldn’t help her. He could care for her, he could prepare lunch for her, but he couldn’t meddle in her emotional issues. All that remained for him to do was encouraging her to do her best. He returned the smile, continuing to cook for her as he did in the old days.

 

……………….

 

He closed even that file, putting it in the ranks of those already read. By now even the lunch hour had passed and no one had come to him, so everything had to be under control. He wondered if James had already returned and above what he had to do. He looked worried, but certainly if there was a problem that concerned the FBI he would have told him. He picked up another file from the ranks of the non-read, and opened it, beginning to view the documents inside it: they were all notes which he had collected during his years as infiltrated in the Organization. You could define it a blast from the past, but certainly not with pleasant memories. Every page that he leaf through was a wound that reopened. His revenge that had cost him a lot. In his mind overlapped different thoughts, from his father to Akemi. People he loved and that had been taken away from him. Suddenly, however, the memory of his break up with Jodie resurfaced as clear as if it happened yesterday. He remembered every word they had said in that car that no longer existed, as their history. Although he had tried not to give it too much weight, as he did with the things that were too uncomfortable to accept, he knew he had broken her heart, but he never thought that Jodie harbored grudge against him for that. She, who had always forgiven him everything, even the mistakes that he had never forgiven himself. For its part, even for him that day hadn’t been easy. He hadn’t certainly left her with a light heart as she thought, he hadn’t felt joy in sacrificing the woman he loved for a dirty job. His feelings were real, but now he was paying the price for never telling her or at least hinted it. He knew she still felt very strong feelings for him, he had long understood, but he preferred to play dumb to not delude her to want to start a relationship with her. His heart wasn’t in peace to start a relationship, either with her or with any other woman, but he had always tried not to make her suffer.
At that thought came back to his mind the words that Shiho had said the night before: "have respect for her feelings”. She must have realized what Jodie felt too. It was then that he realized he actually hadn’t certainly done his best to have respect for her feelings, because he had never bothered to hide his feelings for Akemi even when she was near him and could perceive them without him speak openly. Taken as he was his stoic pain, he hadn’t realized that she was suffering too at seeing him in that state and in knowing that she wasn’t the woman in his thoughts. That woman who he had had to sacrifice for his mission, that woman who first had made him feel strong feelings after he had decided to withdraw into himself because of his father’s death, had always been there for him and he had made her feel like there was always something more important of her. Jodie was a fantastic woman, who would certainly not have trouble finding a thousand men ready to make her feel like a queen; nevertheless she had chosen him, that no matter how gallant and polite was, he wasn’t the prince of fairy tales. And he had squandered that opportunity, too focused on itself and its objectives. He had been blind before all, and even when he had seen, he preferred to pretend not to have, because it was easier. To silence the feelings was the best thing to do, because facing them would have made him vulnerable and he couldn’t afford it.
He put the documents in the file and closed it, leaving it on the desk. He had too many thoughts in mind, it was useless to try to focus. He folded his hands behind his head and stood in that office isolated and poorly lit, to reflect on his mistakes.

Chapter Text

- I don’t understand anything anymore with all these big words and passages!- complained the heiress, putting her hands in the hair - But what the heck they are for?!-
- I guess for the experiments in the laboratory, right?- suggested Masumi, turning to look at her to ask for confirmation.
- If we want to put it in general terms yes, actually they are needed for many things- she pointed out, feeling proud of what she knew in that field - What is it that you don’t understand exactly?-
- Several things, for example this polymerase chain reaction- she pointed to the paragraph on her textbook - It’s explained in a difficult way!-
- The polymerase chain reaction is a molecular biology technique that can copy DNA fragments of which you know the original nucleotide sequence and the final one. As you know DNA has a double helix structure when it is complete. In this case we have a single filament, or a fragment of the entire DNA, of which we know the initial nucleotide sequence and the final one: using the polymerase chain reaction we can reconstruct the other helix, or other fragment that we need to create a complete DNA. It is more clear now?- she looked at her, without hiding a hint of pedantic air for the explanation she has just given.
- Of course!- exclaimed Masumi, excited.
- You're really talented in this field Shiho-chan!- complimented Ran, who had started to call her amicably with that suffix, then copied by the others.
- Yes, now it’s a bit more clear, thanks Shiho-chan!- smiled Sonoko.

 

It was now late afternoon, and outside there was still a pleasant climate, ideal for an exit, but they had decided to meet at Shinichi's house to prepare for an upcoming biology exam. Shinichi excluded, the other three girls (in particular Sonoko) were quite dubious about some points and so she had offered to help them to review, because of her competence in this regard. She felt proud of what she was doing, she loved her job even more now that she could use it for right purposes and benefits. It was gratifying to see how those guys, who were just two years younger than her, were looking at her fascinated by her wisdom, much more advanced than that of a normal girl of eighteen years old. They had thanked her many times and filled her with compliments, making her feel important. She had never felt like this, not even when she was working on that project that her parents had bequeathed her, and that in the end had backfired.
They were finishing to review the last points when their attention was caught by the sound of the front door being closed, a sign that someone had entered. It could have been one person, but despite this they all stared into the deathly silence the living room door, waiting for the figure in question to appear. Seconds later Akai appeared, as expected.

- Good evening guys- he simply said, in a rather detached and far less expansive way as he did when dressed the role of Subaru Okiya, without even making much attention to the fact that both her sister Shiho were within that study group.
- Welcome back!- they greeted him almost in unison.
- Shu-nii!- exclaimed Masumi, standing up and running to him and then embracing him, happy to see that older brother who she adored but with whom she hadn’t often occasion to spend time.
- No doubt that Sera-chan elder brother is so beautiful! I almost get his phone number!- said Sonoko slyly, making their arms fall.
- I’ll tell Kyogoku-san!- rebuked her Ran.

Disinterested in the subject, she turned to look at the Akai siblings, curious to know how two people so different could relate to each other. Since she had met Masumi she had always wondered if with her Akai-san was different, perhaps more expansive and less grumpy. The answer wasn’t long in coming, when she saw him melting the embrace and giving notice to her sister to return to her studies, then heading to the kitchen without saying a word. She felt sorry for that girl, who wasn’t looking for anything but the affection of her brother and at the same time she was angry with Akai for his behavior: if she had had the opportunity to embrace again her sister even for a moment, she would have done anything.

- No doubt that he’s not very friendly- let out Ran, transforming into words the thoughts of everyone present.

Masumi returned to sit with a despondent expression on her face, as if it was understandable. They tried to do their best to cheer her up, going as far as to tell her that maybe he had had a stressful day at work but certainly he wasn’t angry with her and he loved her. But they weren’t the ones who have to tell her that he loved her, it was him who had to make her understand it.
Outraged and curious at the same time, she stopped for a moment to listen to them and continued to stare at the door, as if she was trying to look through walls to see what the man was doing in the kitchen.

- Something wrong?- asked her Shinichi, who as a skillful detective must have noticed her distraction.
- I would ask a thing to Akai-san, but I don’t know if it’s the appropriate time, it seems that today he has a case of the grumpies more than usual-
- I think you should go, you know that he’s just waiting for you to go to talk to him if you have problems. Maybe seeing that you try to get close to him will lift his spirit!- he encouraged her.

She took a deep breath to work up the courage, it still wasn’t easy for her to deal with him or be alone with him in the same room. When she felt really ready, she apologized to the others and said she left for a moment, getting up and heading for the door. Before she was too far away to hear any word, she could hear the inopportune question of Sonoko.

- By any chance Shiho-chan likes Masumi’s brother?-
- But no, it's just that Shiho is a close friend of Jodie-sensei and would like to ask one thing to Akai-san since they work together she was unable to see her recently- denied Shinichi, who spoke to her aid.

She Thanked him mentally for having nip in the bud that suspicion unfounded and foolish, it did everything but it spread the rumor that she had a crush on that crabby who in brackets was her sister’s ex-boyfriend.
When she came into the kitchen she found him as he was savoring sip by sip a glass of Bourbon. Certainly it wasn’t the right time for a drink, but then he was a vaccinated adult and therefore free to do what he wanted. As soon as he saw her, he stopped drinking and stared at her in amazement, probably incredulous of the ease and speed with which she had approached him. She couldn’t blame him, until the day before she had always acted as if she preferred to avoid him rather than being his friend. Certainly she didn’t want to chat with him now, so she came straight to the point.

- Have you seen Jodie this morning?- she asked.
- Do you want to know if I apologized to her?- he replied, imagining where she was going with that question.
- I'm worried because last night I called her more than once, but she never answered. I thought she had gone to sleep and that she would have called me this morning, but I haven’t heard her all day- she explained.

She expected an answer, even sarcastic as he usually did, however the man remained silent and began to sip his Bourbon again, even averting his gaze. Gesture which, needless to say, made her furious.

- So, you saw her yes or no?!- she raised her voice, annoyed by his indifference.
- She didn’t come to work, probably she didn’t feel well- he answered, while still not looking at her face.
- And if she got sick at home and was unable to call for help?- she immediately became worried, thinking aloud.
- Don’t worry, I'm sure James went to visit her, if there were problems he would have said it- he reassured her.
- Then she must be angry with me... - she looked down - She wouldn’t make a point, it’s my fault if you two have argued-
- No, you're wrong. It’s with me that she’s angry, it's my fault- he admitted.

It was her turn to stare surprised at him: really he was admitting he was wrong? Had he really understood his mistakes and was genuinely repentant? If that were the case, he would earn some points to her eyes. She was curious to see if he really was as good as Jodie told her.

- Have you apologized to her?-
- I tried, but she didn’t like it particularly- he said, putting down the now empty glass in the sink.
- What does it mean?- she frowned, not understanding.
- What I said. In any case, don’t worry too much, you'll see that tomorrow she will call you. Now go back to your friends, or they'll think you prefer to be with me than with them- he closed the conversation, letting her know that he didn’t want to answer clearly to her questions.

Certainly she wasn’t satisfied of that explanation, not to mention that she could take back what she had thought of him before: she couldn’t see anything good in him. It seemed that he didmn’t care about anything except his huge ego. She wished that someone would made him understand that he had to come down from the pedestal.
She took the first steps out of the kitchen, then she stopped at the door and turned her head slightly to throw him one of her icy glares.

- I don’t know what are your feelings but Jodie really cares about you, try not to make her suffer otherwise you’ll be dealing with me- she warned him - I remind you that I was one of them, so don’t underestimate me- she added, referring to the Organization - And treat your sister better or she also will end up to never speak to you again- she ended.

She knew that he wouldn’t be intimidated by a young girl, she couldn’t be the person who would put him in his place; however, she wanted to make him understand that if he wanted to have a relationship with her he had to change his attitude. Maybe that would have made him desist from behaving like an idiot.

- What is this, a threat, Miss?- he made light of it, not seeming to take seriously her words.

This time she didn’t answer: she wanted to play at his own game. Without a word she returned to the other guys who were waiting for her to finish studying.

 

…………………….

 

She walked beside him down the hall, continuing to look around worried, like a spy who is afraid of being discovered. She clutched dossiers to her chest, perhaps without even realizing it, while making sure to stay as close as possible to James. She felt like a little girl who was afraid of getting lost in a large supermarket, and for this reason she never left the hand of her father. A stupid attitude if you thought she was now anything but a child. But she couldn’t help it, the fear of meeting his gaze was stronger than anything. She prayed with her whole being not to meet him, she wouldn’t know how to behave or what to say. She had exposed too much and couldn’t go back on what she had said.

- Are you looking for Akai?- asked James, noticing for a while her strange behavior.
- Huh?! N-no, no, imagine if I look for him, I don’t feel right about it!- she tried to deny the evidence, taken aback.
- If you want to go to talk to him before starting work go ahead, even I would feel more comfortable knowing that there is no conflicts among my subordinates- he encouraged her.
- No, really, now it’s not the time. If there will be an opportunity we will talk- she continued to remain firm on her position.

They entered in James office and closed the door, immediately starting to work at a good pace: they had so much to catch up.
They worked tirelessly until lunchtime, when James finally granted to both a well-earned break.

- How about going out to grab a quick bite in some nice restaurant?- he suggested, taking off his glasses and clutching his eyes with his forefinger and thumb of the right hand.
- We could go into a small revolving sushi restaurant that a friend has suggested me, you eat really well there!- she suggested.

 

It was then that it occurred to her that she hadn’t yet called Shiho after finding her missed calls on the phone. Between one thing and another, she had completely forgotten it.

- That sounds great- James agreed.
- Perfect, then let’s go!-

They went down to the parking lot, got into the car and headed down the road. After giving some indication to James, she took her phone and searched for Shiho’s number in the address book. She could take advantage of the car trip to make the phone call.

- Hello Jodie, is everything all right?- replied immediately the voice on the other end, with a visibly worried tone - I tried to call you several times but the phone rang empty… -
- Hello! Forgive me, I didn’t feel very well and at in end with work to recover and other stuff I forgot to call you back- she admitted.
- Are you ok now?-
- Yes, it's better, thank you-
- I'm happy. Listen ... can I ask you how things are going with Akai? He apologized to you in the end?-

She remained silent for a few seconds, getting sad. What could she say? If she would have told what had happened she would eventually worsen the situation not exactly rosy that already existed between the girl and Akai.

- Sorry, I am always too direct- said Shiho, not receiving an answer - I guess the reason why you felt sick is precisely the discussion you've had with him, I didn’t want to make you feel worse-
- Don’t worry- she reassured her - In any case things don’t go very well-
- He said you other unpleasant things? Yesterday when he returned from work he had a strange face and seemed more sullen than usual-
- And how do you know?- she was surprised.
- Because I was at Shinichi’s house and I talked with him-

Again she didin’t know what to say, she didn’t expect to hear those things. She believed she was the only one to suffer, because between the two she was the only one to feel strong feelings: instead she had just realized that she had hurt Shuichi in turn. Maybe they were two different griefs, maybe Shuichi had been simply point in pride, but in any case remained the fact that they had hurt each other.
She realized that James was looking at her out of the corner of his eye, probably having noticed her stricken expression. There was no need to resume the talk, she wanted to try to show him that she could be strong.

- How about if we meet and talk in person? So I explain you well- she finally said.
- Okay, tell me when you're free- she accepted.
- If that's okay we can meet even tonight-
- Perfect, I'll wait you at nine o’ clock then-
- Ok, bye bye!- she greeted her, trying to sound cheerful as not to worry her further.

She interrupted the call and put the phone in her jacket pocket, then glancing at the road to make sure that James was going in the right direction.

- Who were you talking to?- he asked, not wanting to ask her what she was talking about.
- With Shiho- she simply answered, as she had already told him the day before about the bond that had formed between them - It’s her who advised me the place where we are going now-
- What dishes they do in this place?-

She began to list all the dishes she had tasted that night, trying to recover the moral and not to fall into that spiral of depression that had swallowed her the previous days. She silently thanked James for not asking her anything about the content of the call, even though he realized that the subject was as always Shuichi.
Continuing to chat, they drove up to the sushi restaurant, where they allowed themselves a well-deserved lunch.

 

…………………….

 

She sat on the couch in front of her friend, watching the Doctor who brought them a tray with two cups, a sugar bowl and a steaming teapot. She thanked him with a smile before he left them alone to talk about personal matters. She took the teapot and poured tea into the two cups, then add the sugar in hers and stirred in order that it melted in the amber liquid. She had exchanged a few words with Shiho since she had arrived, mostly classic questions of fact such as "How are you?" or "What did you do today?": she knew that there was only one topic that the girl wanted to talk about, even though she was restraining herself to not be insensitive.
She took a first sip, noting that the tea was still too hot. It was then that her friend, who had never taken her eyes off her for a moment, decided to make the big question.

- So what happened yesterday with Akai-san?-

She took a deep breath, looking within herself both the strength to face again the topic for the umpteenth time and the right words with which to doing it.

- Last night he came to my apartment with flowers and asked to speak, probably he wanted to apologize- she began to tell - But I opposed, I didn’t want to talk at that time because I still felt hurt by the words he had said me the night before. He insisted, he provoked me and in the end anger has clouded my mind and I told him bad things with bitter tones. In the end I kicked him out of my apartment- she ended, closing her eyes.
- You kicked him out?! Now I understand why he had that face, being kicked out hasn’t certainly done good to his boundless pride- she ascertained the girl, shocked by that story.

Certainly in her thought she had to have already made an idea in which Akai was the one who had misbehaved and she was the victim; hard to believe but this time she was the one to have behaved in an unpleasant manner.

- Can I know what you told him exactly to made him more gloomy and grumpy than normal?-

She couldn’t say that she was taken aback, she expected that that question sooner or later would have come. She couldn’t just get by with a “I told him bad things”, Shiho wasn’t James, her curiosity of young teenager won on the judgment of an adult forged by years and experience. James hadn’t asked for details, she couldn’t wait to know them.
She found herself in trouble, not having a lie with which responding to her question and couldn’t telling the truth, because doing so would mean to confess that she was Akai’s girlfriend before he left her for Akemi. She didn’t want to remind her of that sister who was death, making her relive a pain that she knew herself, as she didn’t want to appear to her eyes as the former girlfriend discharged and abandoned. Her prolonged silence, however, only served to confirm to Shiho that she was hiding something big. She felt her eyes focused on her, impatient to know.

- Personal things between me and him, so to speak- she said finally, even knowing that for her it wouldn’t be enough.
- I don’t know why but I have thw feeling you're hiding something from me and I’m sorry for this, but I understand that there are things too personal that you'd rather not tell me. This doesn’t mean that you don’t trust me, right?- she asked for confirmation, perhaps fearful of the fact that having been part of the Organization leaded her to be seen in the eyes of others as a person who you shouldn’t trust.
- I'm sorry, it's not that I want to hide you things, it's just that... - she stopped, not knowing how to tell her the truth.
- What?-

She looked down, fought on to confess the truth or continue to keep for herself that secret. A part of her, the one that had always said that it was tired of the lies that had served as a framework in that whole affair, wanted to confess even that last hidden truth, but the other part told her that sometimes there are things that it’s better not to say, white lies to avoid worsening the situation.

- You know that you can say everything to me- reminded her the girl, more concerned with getting her full confidence than to make her spit it out.

Maybe it were those words to give her the necessary courage, perhaps the need to take off also that weight from the heart to finally be free. No more secrets, no more regrets, no more remorse. She wanted to have a clear conscience, whatever might be the price to pay. She stared at her intensely for a moment and then finally confessed.

- Shu and I were together before he infiltrate the Organization-

In the room fell silence again, Shiho stared at her with wide eyes as if she had told her that she had seen Cool Guy leaving the crime scene before he had solved the case. An impossible situation, almost unreal.

- Are you saying that you were in a relationship?- she asked for a confirmation, to be sure she got it right.
- Exactly-

She saw her assuming a strange expression, she was probably beginning to realize where she was going with that speech. That was the thing she feared most: her reaction.

- So you broke up because… - she didn’t end the sentence, but you could tell what she meant.
- Because he had to infiltrate the Organization establishing a relationship with your sister, and his mission was more important than anything-
- He’s the one who left you?-

She nodded sadly, but trying not to look like a victim: she didn’t want anyone's pity, there were worse things in life than being dumped from the boyfriend.

- Why didn’t you tell me this before? I’ve always thought you was in love with him for some time but that you had never confessed it to him. But this changes everything... - she reflected on it.
- I didn’t want you to think that I might have a grudge against your sister because of this- she admitted.
- I understand... but you shouldn’t hesitate, I know you're not the kind of person who hates another for something it’s not guilty- she reassured her.
- Thank you- she smiled, happy to not having made a bad impression.
- But there is one thing that is not clear to me... what has this to do with what you said to Akai-san?-
- I reproached him for having left me with a pathetic excuse and that in fact he was already in love with Akemi. I also said that he has shut down and refuses to open up even though I have tried in every way to make him understand that I was always there for him. In a nutshell I confessed him in an indirect way that still have feelings for him- she sighed.
- I was hoping that you’d confess your feelings, but certainly not in that way- she admitted.
- I don’t know if we can still be friends or even work together and this pains me, because it was the only way I could be near him without being his woman- she looked down.
- Is there anything I can do to help? Maybe if I talk to him he will listen to me, after all he’s trying in every way to have a relationship with me-
- I thank you, but this time I have to do it on my own, I don’t want to involve you in this story because if I did I would end up distancing you from Shu and this is the last thing I want. I paid a high price for your approach and also I think I’ve already hurt him enough-
- If you want I can just put a good word to you with him-
- It is very nice of you, but there’s no need to do it- she smiled - But now let’s change the subject, tell me how are you-

Maybe it wasn’t nice to break off the discussion that way, but her mood was returning to be depressed and distressed, so the best thing to do was to stop talking about what made her suffer. She knew that Shiho would have understood and also she was happy with how she had reacted to her confession, it made her feel more relieved.

- Well, I have a news- she announced, showing the happiness in telling her that.
- Oh, tell me everything!- she clapped her hands curious and excited.
- I made friends with the investigation’s agency Miss, with the rich heiress and the younger sister of Akai-san, even if this last thing seems almost absurd- she made light of it.
- Are you serious?- she was astonished - I'm happy, Ran, and Sonoko are two good girls! As for Shu’s little sister, I don’t know her well, but if you managed to make friends with her it means she must be very different from her older brother!-
- At first I found it hard even to speak to her because physically they resemble a lot, then I realized that temperamentally they are like day and night-
- I am really pleased that you have bonded with guys of your age, at least you'll have someone to go to the arcade when I’ll come back to America!- she smiled.
- And I owe it only to you. I didn’t think that I would never been able to make friends with somebody, I thought I would have been hated because once I was a criminal, and for forcing Shinichi to live a life that wasn’t his. So I thank you, because it’s only thanks to you that I found the courage to give it a try. You have encouraged me to not be afraid to start over from scratch- she returned her smile, appearing sweet as ever.
- I had nothing to do with it, the truth is that you're a great girl and even without my help you wouldn’t have problems to be appreciated from others!- she winked - So now you think you’ll enroll at the University along with them?-
- I don’t know yet- she sighed - Certainly it would be an opportunity to finally live a normal life like any girl of eighteen years old, however, in the years I lived in America I did very in-depth studies, more than those which should make a normal high school girl, so going to university seems a waste of time, not to mention that I won’t ask for money to the Doctor to pay for my studies. It would be unfair, basically I’m nothing for him even though I live in his house- she explained.
- This is not true, I think the Doctor considers you as a sort of nephew if not the daughter he never had, so he would be very happy to help you with your studies-
- I know, but I don’t want that he uses his money for me without me giving him something in return. I'd rather get a job so I can help-
- Would you like to continue to do the scientist?- she asked.
- I would like, though for nobler purposes of course- she pointed out.
- So why do not you come to work in the FBI laboratory?- she suggested brightening - You could make a nice experience and then we would work together!-
- It would be an opportunity to be seized, but for now I don’t feel to leave Japan. Although it doesn’t seem, there are many things that I care for here- she admitted.
- I understand, you know I miss America too while I love this country. You may apply to the forensic department of Tokyo Police then-
- It’s not a bad idea- she appreciated the advice - Even if I don’t know how they would take seriously a teenage girl- she wrinkled her nose .
- You have plenty of time to think about it!- she smiled.
- And then I would also like to take an animal, but Doctor Agasa is really not hip to that- she sighed.

She pulled the phone from her jeans pocket, looked for something in the gallery, and then went and sit next to her and shown her photos of some lovely Akita Inu puppies she had seen in a pet shop in the neighborhood.

- Oh my God, but they are adorable! So cute!- she exclaimed, clasping her hands and taking them near her cheek, making eyes - You absolutely have to bribe the Doctor to buy you one!-
- I've already tried, but this is still his home and I can’t insist too much- she shook her head - However, changing the subject: are you free Thursday of next week?- she asked.
- I would say yes, why?-
- Because it's my birthday and I'd love to spend it with you-
- Really?- she gushed girlishly - Oh, but then we should certainly celebrate! What do you think of making a little party by inviting your new friends instead of going out just the two of us? It would be much funnier!- she winked.
- I don’t know, I'm not the type who likes parties, I think it’s clear- she pursed her lips.
- But we don’t have to make a reception as those of the Upper East Side, just a few hours spent in company here at home if the Doctor gives you the permission-
- Yes, maybe you're right, that sounds a good idea- she nodded - But at the party I will also invite Akai-san, because if I invite Shinichi and not him I will know about it and will think that I hate him. Is it a problem for you?- she asked staring at her seriously.

She remained silent for a moment, even if the answer was pretty obvious. With the atmosphere that was between them at that time, being in the same room at the same party it wouldn’t certainly brought joy and laughter; however, it wasn’t fair to exclude him from Shiho’s life now that they had made peace, for personal matters in which Shiho had nothing to do. It was her birthday party and it was right that she invited people close to her, regardless of the relationships that there were among them. Also it could be an opportunity to reconnect, if this was still possible.

- Absolutely not, it’s right that you also invite him- she nodded.
- Are you sure?-
- Yes- she smiled - And now we just have to ask permission to the big boss! Doctor Agasa?- she him called in a loud voice, with playful tone.

After a moment the plump figure of the scientist appeared in the room. His expression was a bit dazed, probably he didn’t understand why he had been called that way.

- Is there any problem?- he asked.
- No on the contrary, we would like to ask permission to do something!- she lifted the index, winking.
- What is it?-
- Shiho would like to give a little party for her birthday, with not too many people of course. For you it would be a problem doing it here in your house?-
- You really want to have a party?- he asked dazed at the girl, in disbelief at those words.
- Why, what's wrong?- she said, crossing her arms over her chest and assuming a frown.
- Oh, nothing, nothing!- he waved his hands - I'm just surprised, that's all-
- Then, can we have a party?- she asked again, trying to look as a puppy to get him.
- Of course, if it's just for a few people there’s no problem!- accepted with pleasure the Doctor.
- Thank you!- she thanked him happy, as if the party was hers - How about if we start to organize it now?- she asked to her friend - So we’ll see what is needed and especially who invite!-
- That sounds great!- she gladly accepted, smiling.

They spent the rest of the evening talking about drinks, cakes and everything concerning a birthday party. They didn’t touch upon Akai’s matter anymore, even when Jodie wrote his name on the guest list and Shiho watched the expression on her face to capture even the smallest emotion. There was nothing else to add, now it was only up to her and Shuichi himself to make things right.

Chapter Text

- Don’t you think you have exaggerated?- complained the scientist, barely holding in his hands all those shopping bags.
- I bought only what was on the list, nothing more and nothing less- replied her, who was holding only one shopping bag.

We were days away from her party and had decided to start buying everything she needed not to find herself burdened with things to do at the last minute. Obviously she had asked for help to the Doctor, who had later regretted that he had accepted. On the other hand a little effort wouldn’t have hurt him, even that could be considered physical activity. She was doing him a favor from her point of view.
The last thing that was left to do was deliver the invitation in person to those few acquaintances who she had decided to call. Almost as if fate had read her thoughts, she saw four figures in the distance who she knows well who were approaching in their school uniforms. When they were close enough to be recognized, Masumi began to greet her, waving her arms, as if they didn’t meet for ages.

- Hello Shiho-chan, are you doing some shopping?- Sonoko asked, noticing the Doctor and all those shopping bags.
- Actually yes- she merely replied, not wanting to reveal anything of the party before the official delivery of invitations - And you? How was in the end that science test?- she asked to change the subject and avoid to be asked what she'd bought.
- They haven’t given it back to us again, but it seems to me that it went well after the study day we did together- nodded Ran smiling.
- If we pass the exam we have to do something nice to thank her, what do you say?- suggested Masumi.
- I agree!- assented Sonoko.
- In this regard I have a thing to ask you- she took the opportunity - Can you come to the Doctor’s house? I would like to give you a thing-
- What?- asked Shinichi, giving voice to the thought of all of them.

They were all very curious to know, she could see it in their eyes and the expression of their faces: they were staring at her with wide eyes waiting for an answer.

- Come and see- she smiled, motioning to follow her with his hand.

So it was that they walked along the road back, chatting about this and that under the happy look of Doctor Agasa, who couldn’t wish more for her than the company of those guys.
When they arrived home she sat them down in the living room, while she and the scientist went to put the chopping bags in another room. Shortly after they returned the one with a tray and fruit juice glasses, the other with what appeared cards handmade, decorated in an elegant way. The high school students stared at them, probably wondering what they were. She distributed one to each, giving them time to read.

- I'd love if you came to my birthday party- she finally said.
- We will come with pleasure, Shiho-chan!- gladly accepted Ran, while Masumi and Sonoko nodded at her words.
- Well, well, I didn’t expect you'd give a party!- participated Shinichi, looking sly at her - I thought you'd celebrated alone on the couch reading one of those boring fashion magazines- he laughed at it.
- Instead you will celebrate your birthday among the corpses and no one will want to come!- she replied acid at the joke, glaring at him.

They all laughed, everyone except the young detective of course, who pouted as if no one understood his passion for murder cases. They stopped only when the sound of the doorbell came to their ears. Instinctively, they all looked toward the door.

- I’ll go, you guys can continue- said Agasa.

Shortly after they heard three familiar voices: those of the Detective Boys. They cackled like every children of that age, asking the doctor to help them solve a case. They were tender, now that their friend Conan was gone continued to work hard to hold high the name of the Detective Boys, though asking for help to the only accomplice who was left: that scientist with a heart of gold.
When the gang arrived in the living room looked at each other: probably the children were surprised to see them all there as they was in seeing them turn up in all of a sudden.

- Hi guys! How are you?- let out Shinichi, who still couldn’t pretend at all before those who for him, despite the age difference, had become real friends to whom he was very attached.
- You are Ran-chan’s boyfriend, aren’t you?- asked Ayumi smiling.
- Yeah, he’s that high school detective of whom everyone is talking about. He seems to be very good- pointed out Mitsuhiko.
- Don’t take him as an example!- dissuaded them Sonoko - Rather, what are you doing here, brats?-
- You’re always nasty with us!- complained Genta.
- Come on, there's no need to fight- she smiled, trying to put an end to that childish bickering - Why don’t you sit down too?- she invited them.

She immensely loved those children, she would have defended and protected them with her life. With the purity that only kids have, they had gave her joy, friendship, affection and many other things, without ever asking something in return except her presence. With them she could see the magic of the world that hides behind the bad and the rotten.

- I’ll get some glasses for you, so you can drink juice!- said the scientist, moving away toward the kitchen.
- Bring us also something to eat!- requested Genta, who never lost his appetite.
- How cute! Can I see it, Ran-chan?- asked suddenly Ayumi, watching admired the card that the girls was holding.
- Sure Ayumi-chan!- she gave it to her smiling.
- What is it?- asked in chorus Genta and Mitsuhiko, getting closer for a better look.
- It’s Shiho-chan’s birthday invite-
- Oh, when is it?- asked Ayumi, turning to look at her.
- In four days- she answered - Speaking of, wait me here-

She left the room for a moment under the curious gaze of all, then returnd a few minutes later holding some cards equal to those who had just given to her new friends.

- These are for you- she gave one to each of the children, who smiled happily as if she had given them beautiful toys.
- Thanks Miss Shiho!- said Ayumi.
- Just call me Shiho, ok?-

Since she was back in her old body, she had had occasion to see the Detective Boys several times, because they often went to the Doctor’s home; however, they continued to call her "Miss Shiho". Not that it was a lack of respect for her, on the contrary, it was just that been called like that made her feel even more the distance that had arisen between them. She was no longer their friend Ai and therefore couldn’t act like one. In her heart, however, she hoped to build a new relationship with them in the shoes she wore now, those of the real Shiho Miyano.
She guessed that for Shinichi was the same, she saw the nostalgia that veiled his eyes as he watched them. Those naive kids didn’t know that their friends were still there in front of them: they had preferred to conceal the bitter truth that perhaps they wouldn’t have been able to understand. By mutual agreement, they had asked Doctor Agasa to tell them a lie, saying that Conan and Ai had had to move in a hurry and didn’t have time to personally greet them, but they had left them letters. Needless to say they were very angry before, then had burst into tears, making them feel guilty. However, for their sake, that was the only lie of that story that had to remain a lie.

- Why did you invited even these brats at the party?- complained Sonoko - They’ll finish by ruining it. They can’t join a party of adults!- she folded her arms across her chest, acting like a snob.
- I’m really attached to these children, I can’t exclude them from the party- she simply said.
- You're right, I understand- supported her Shinichi, smiling.
- If so you made the right thing to invite them- nodded Ran, which was perhaps the only one who understood her and Shinichi’s reasons.
- Did you invited even Jodie?- asked the friend.
- Sure!-
- Are you talking about Jodie-sensei?- asked Sonoko, visibly surprised.
- You know her well, Shiho-chan?- added Ran, also surprised.
- Let's say that we became very good friends lately. It was she who had the idea to have a party-
- Excuse me… Jodie is that blonde woman with glasses who works for the FBI with my older brother?- intervened Masumi.

It was clear that she didn’t know her well as them, when Jodie had worked as an infiltrated at Teitan high school as an English teacher, Masumi had not returned to Japan yet. Just as her she had knew her vaguely only when the fight against the Organization had led them to join forces.

- Exactly- she confirmed.

Mentioning Jodie brought back to her mind the conversation she had had with her the night before. Even if the blonde had told her to not worry, she couldn’t help but think about how to reconcile her with Akai. Someone could think that she would have to see Jodie as a rival, since she was the other woman in Akai’s heart when he began dating her sister, but now Akemi was gone and it was right that Akai would start a new life, perhaps with Jodie at his side.

- Miyano?- called her back to reality Shinichi, who often addressed to her by her last name.
- Eh?- she got herself caught off guard.
- Is everything ok, Shiho-chan?- asked Ran worried.
- Yes, I was just distracted for a moment! I was thinking about what's missing for the party- she lied.

They went on talking for a good hour, until the orange color of the setting sun filtered by the windows, giving them the signal that it was time to return to their homes for dinner.

 

Two hours later she was at the door of Kudo’s house. She rang the doorbell, waiting. While waiting, she thought that if she was going to make that gesture it was more for Jodie than for herself, even though the result in the end would have been decided only by them. There were two possibilities: either they would reconcile, or they would have plucked out eyes at each other ruining the party. She confided in the first option.
Finally the door opened, revealing the figure of Shinichi.

- What are you doing here?- he asked surprised, since they had met earlier.
- I also have to invite another person to the party- she simply said, certain he would understand to whom she was referring.

The friend smiled, motioning with his hand to come in.

- I didn’t expect this- he admitted.
- I do it only for Jodie- she clarified.

He escorted her up to the salon, where they found Akai sitting at the other side of the table in front of a chessboard. From the position of the pawns it was clear that they were playing shogi. The FBI agent turned to her surprised to see her there, since the last time they spoke wasn’t exactly a friendly dialogue.

- Well, well- he finally smiled - To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit at this hour, princess?-

Probably he thought she was there to talk again about Jodie, now he had to surrender himself to the fact their conversations were focused on that topic.

- I came to invite you to my birthday party on Thursday- she went straight to the point.

She hadn’t prepared a card for him, has she hasn’t done one for Jodie: she thought that, as adults, in their eyes it would have been a ridiculous and childish piece of paper decorated by hand. An invite in person suited them more.

- Why are you inviting me?- he naturally asked, more and more surprised by the invitation.
- It’s you who told me that I could call you when I wanted to, right?- she said, quoting his words.
- If that's the case then I will come- he smiled.

She couldn’t tell him that she wanted him to her party because she hoped that he and Jodie would talk to each other, so she played the card of the kind words that he had said her the clarification evening. No matter the means used: what mattered was that he had accepted.

- Could you tell me where you bought the cake we ate last night?- she asked - I would like to buy one for the party-
- Don’t worry, I will go myself to get one and bring it to the Doctor’s home the party’s day- he offered.
- Thank you. Well, then I go- she greeted them.
- Wait!- Shinichi stopped her - Why do not you stay a little bit here?-

She almost smiled for that funny coincidence: Shinichi was trying in every way to do for Akai what she was doing for Jodie. Both had found someone extraordinary that it was worthwhile to help, the problem was that between them there was always someone in conflict with someone else.
She hesitated for a moment before giving an answer.

- Only half an hour, then I have to go because I promised the Doctor that I would have helped him to finish one thing- she agreed.

It was just a lie, actually the Doctor had nothing to do: simply she felt too uncomfortable to stay there until late. Although she appreciated the fact that Akai had gone to apologize to Jodie with flowers, she hadn’t yet fully forgiven him for his behavior. Moreover, after what Jodie had told her about their relationship and about Akemi, it wasn’t comfortable for her to be in the middle. She wanted to ask questions to him, to know things from his point of view; but she knew she couldn’t do, she had to respect Jodie’s will, not to mention that Shinichi was also present at the time and certainly she didn’t want to blurt out from the housetops her friend's personal issues.

- Do you want to play in my place?- asked the young detective, pointing at the board.
- No, thanks, I'm not very good at this game. I'd rather watch- she sat between them.

Looking at the board, for what she could tell, it seemed that the match for the moment was drawn.

- You are all good in your family at shogi?- she spontaneously asked to Akai, without even realizing it - Your brother is the Taiko Meijin-
- If you want to find out it means that one day I'll invite you to a family reunion- he replied with that mocking smile that he made every time.
- You can always play with Masumi now that you become friends, so you’ll solve all your doubts- intervened Shinichi, having made his move on the chessboard.
- I'm glad you've become friend with my sister- said the FBI agent, returning to focus on the game.

She continued to observe them and to exchange between a move and the other a few jokes with them, wondering how the atmosphere had become incredibly less tense. She could talk to Akai almost as if they were friends. There was no rancor, no prejudice. If he had always behaved that way, it wouldn’t be bad to talk to him, she had to admit it.

 

……………….

 

She quickly flipped through the various files for the second time, but again she didn’t found what she was looking for. By now there were so many papers and folders that she no longer knew what it was really useful and what it wasn’t: every little detail seemed important, but the more she added and the more she seemed to lose the thread.

- I told you Jodie, the folder with the document we’re seeking has remained in the archive- repeated James.
- So I'm going to take it and I'll be back- she rose from her chair, sighing.

It wasn’t hard to notice her tiredness, it certainly wasn’t escaped to James; however she couldn’t afford to give up right now. For this she never complained or asked to take breaks, she waited that James suggested a few minutes of rest from time to time.
She left the office where they were working and walked briskly in the archive. When she opened the door of the latter, she found inside the person she wanted least of all to be face to face with: Shuichi. Sitting at the desk, he was reading some documents he pulled from a folder. In the last few days he seemed to have spent time there, or at least that was what James had told her. No one knew exactly why he went there and what he read, as usual everything about him was shrouded in mystery.
She stood in the doorway staring at him, not knowing what to say. It was since the day she had thrown him out of her home that they didn’t spoke, not even a greeting. They had glimpsed occasionally along the corridors, but both had preferred to ignore and pretend not to see each other. It was obvious that neither of them, who for pride and who for embarrassment, wanted to take the first step.
They stared for a few moments, that seemed years to her; then Shuichi, without saying a word, closed the file he had in his hands and stood up proceeded to leave the room taking it with him. She, grasped the message, came in
with a hanging head, going straight to the shelf where all the folders were collected. She could choose to continue to humble herself alone and shut up, or fight back and prove that she could have the guts too. More than a demonstration of courage, however, to move her was the pain she was feeling for not having him anymore to her side. Shi missed even just having a coffee with him during the break or the times when they were together with Camel talking about work and other things. She needed his presence more than she wanted to admit it to herself.

- Shu- she called him, turning to him.

 

In response, the colleague stopped at the door, turning his head to look.

- How are you?- she naturally asked - We haven’t spoken since that night... - she looked down.
- And what about you?- he evaded the question, turning it against her.
- I've had better days- she admitted.

Again there was silence between them, it was hard to have a normal conversation if she couldn’t find the words, and he didn’t even make an effort to find them.

- Listen... I'm really sorry for how I acted, I apologize- she took the first step - I don’t really think all the things that I told you-

Maybe telling a little lie could facilitate her in the attempt of an apology: actualy she really thought all that had come out of her mouth, but to lie him to reconcile and have him in her life even as a colleague was less grueling than never talk to him anymore as if he were a perfect stranger. Sometimes to get something you have to lose another and she at that time had chosen to lose her honesty to get back someone much more important.

- You don’t have to excuse or go back on what you think, in life we must always be aware of our actions and consistent with our own thoughts- was his answer, direct and sharp in a certain way.

It wasn’t the fact that he was lecturing her like a girl who hasn’t yet learned how the world go to make her sad, but the knowledge that Shuichi had understood that her justification didn’t reflect the truth. He was convinced that she had abandoned all hope to stand by him, because drifting apart from someone like him was easier than investing energy to stand by him without receiving gratification. In addition, she allowed herself to re-touch the topic Akemi, which for him was a kind of sacred taboos of which only he could speak when and how he wanted. These two elements were enough to not want her anymore even as a friend.
She heard the sound of his footsteps and looked up hoping that he was going back: in fact he was leaving.

- Wait Shu!- she stopped him, almost chasing him - Will you come to Shiho’s party?-

She didn’t know why she had made that precise question in a moment like that, but perhaps the only explanation was that she wanted to save at least the relationship that she had been able to make him build with that little girl who for him was the last thing that remained him of Akemi as well as memories.

- I'm thinking about it, I don’t want to ruin her day since I can’t get her to like me-
- You have to go there, even if she’s a little tough sometimes she doesn’t hate you, she’s just suspicious- she tried to convince him - Look, if the reason why you don’t want to go is because I’ll be there too, I give up to come. I prefer that you to spend the last days in Japan with her- she looked at him seriously.
- We are two adults, we can stay in the same room at the same party even though there were disagreements among us. We are doing it even now, in a sense- he pointed out - Also Shiho will appreciate much more your presence than mine. And I don’t even know what to give her, since knowing her only from what I could see when we were both in the Organization, I have no idea what she likes in particular-
- This is not a problem- she hinted a smile - A few days ago she told me she wishes a puppy, but Doctor Agasa doesn’t give her consent. You could try to talk to him to convince him, of course when she won’t be present. If you succeed I'll give you the address of the pet store where she saw the puppies that she liked so much, so you will go without fail-
- The problem is that I haven’t seen the picture, so I couldn’t recognize them. Obviously I can’t ask her to see it, or she will understand-
- If you want I can accompany you when you go, I remember them well- she offered with a lot of hope.
- I'll see what I can do, in the meantime, thank you for the suggestion- he ended, then going away without saying anything else.

This time she didn’t stop him, though she wanted to ask if it was all right between them. It was clear from the unfriendly way in which he spoke that it wasn’t okay, a couple of excuses weren’t enough to bridge the gap that had been created between them and never as now seemed too big to be overcome.
She quickly wiped those two, small tears that had streaked her cheeks and went back to the archive shelf looking for that folder for which she had gone there.

 

………………

 

- This stew is great, you just get better and better Akai-san!- complimented him the scientist, when he had finished even the last bite.
- I'm glad you like it, Doctor- he smiled.

As soon as he had returned from work he had asked Shinichi to take out Shiho with an apology, explaining what had to do. He knew he could count on his friend, who hurriedly had contacted all the group proposing to go to the cinema to see a film that apparently they weren’t able to see a few days before. Fortunately, even Shiho had agreed, leaving the Doctor at home alone. As soon as he had made sure that the guys were gone, he had gone to the scientist's home with a pot of stew, proposing to have dinner together and telling him that he wanted to talk about something. He decided to follow Jodie’s advice, despite everything. She gave it to him honestly, he had perceived it, so he saw no reason to not take the opportunity. As for everything else, he preferred not to think too much: he would only further tormented. He was still metabolizing and reflecting on the whole issue, he didn’t know how to deal with her at the time. Only time would have given him an answer.

- So, what did you want to talk to me?- asked curious the Doctor.
- I knew that Shiho would love to have a puppy and I was planning to give it to her for her birthday, but I also know that you aren’t of the same opinion, right?- he came straight to the point.
- How did you know?- he was surprised.
- That doesn’t matter- he smiled.
- I'm sorry, I know Shiho really wants it but a dog is a big commitment. Also, I don’t want to find the house destroyed by a little troublemaker!-
- It is true that it’s a commitment, but Shiho is a responsible girl and will educate and care about it for the best. Also a puppy would make her feel less alone, although now she has friends for her is still difficult to approach people. Or maybe just me- he laught at it.
- You still don’t get along?-
- Not really, that's why giving her a nice dog would also make me earn points- he clarified.

He watched the scientist reflecting, frowning and closing her eyes. He hoped his arguments had been valid enough to convince him.

- Alright then- he gave up in the end - But just because I want you to go along!- he made clear.
- Thank you Doctor- he smiled, happy that he got what he wanted.
- Rather, will you really want to make her such an expensive gift?- he worried.
- No problem, also like I said I need an excuse to make her hate me less- he reassured him.

They finished dinner between a chat and the other, until he decided it was time to return to Kudo’s mansion before Shiho would come home.

 

Sitting at the desk of the library, in the company of a glass of Bourbon and a cigarette, he was relaxing reading a book.
In truth, more than reading carefully he thought from time to time to all what had happened during the day, particularly to his conversation with Jodie. Although he had told himself to not care too much about it, when he was alone he couldn’t help but think about it. The image of Jodie furious that spewed on him all those words was still vivid in his mind. Every time he reflected on how he had hurt her without realizing it, he told himself he was an idiot, adding every fault towards her to the collection of committed mistakes. A collection so big to make him a bad person, romantically speaking.
He wondered if he should call her or not after his conversation with Agasa. He knew he needed help, but wanted to avoid staying in close contact with her given the tension present between them: the last thing he wanted was to make the situation worse, if that were possible. Thinking about it, though, he had told her that as adults they should behave as such. If he couldn’t even talk to her on the phone, let alone how he would have behaved when they would have been together at the party.
Determined to take that step, he took the phone and searched Jodie’s number. He waited in line until the voice of the blond answered at the other side.

- Is it you, Shu?- she asked in astonishment, probably having read the name on the display.
- Am I disturbing you?-
- No, tell me-
- I spoke with Doctor Agasa and he agreed to take Shiho a puppy-
- Really? I’m happy!-
- But now I need your help. Is it still valid your proposal to come with me to the pet store to recognize the dogs?- he asked.
- Yes, of course!- she accepted without hesitation, shown all her happiness to that invitation.
- Then I'll let you know when we're going. Thank you for the help Jodie, goodnight- he wished her.
- Goodnight Shu- she replied in a soft tone so as not to seem the same person who got angry that way a few days before.

As soon as he hung up he noticed he felt more relieved in having made that call. When they got along, talking to her was pleasant: until that moment Jodie had never judged him, she listened to him even when he had nothing to say and addressed to him with that sweet voice that gave him peace and serenity. Anyone would have hold on to a woman like her, he instead have provide everything for granted and had never been able to prove that he fully appreciate what she gave him unconditionally. A simple "thank you" or "goodnight" on his part was enough to make her happy like a child.
The knot in his stomach that he had had in those days suddenly loosened, leaving room for the contentment of having given her a smile.

Chapter Text

He knocked at the office door, waiting for an answer from the other side. When he received it, he opened the door and came in, finding that the man was alone at the desk. On the other hand, it was pretty early, many of his colleagues (or at least those who hadn’t returned to the United States yet) had yet to arrive, including her. Perhaps it was better this way, it would facilitate his request.

- You’re a morning person as always, eh Akai?- James pointed to him, not before giving a quick glance at the watch he had around his wrist.
- I have nothing better to do at home, I'm bored- he smiled, without hiding how workaholic he was.
- Rest and holidays for you are just a waste of time- joked his boss.
- Yeah- he simply answered - But it will surprise you to know that I came to ask you if I can have a half day leave from work. I would have a matter to deal with- he came to the point without a spin of words.
- Well, there’s not much work for you anyway, so just go- he agreed - Can I know what it is?-
- I have to buy a birthday present-
- A birthday? And whose?- he asked, trying to gather his thoughts and remember if it was any of his closest subordinates.
- Shiho Miyano- he answered, sure that James would have understood.
- But really? I didn’t know, the files that were collected about her didn’t include that information. Anyway, bring her my wishes too, we haven’t had many occasions to see each other or have a conversation, but she should remember me- he smiled.
- I will certainly do it-

He knew that James had understood how much he cared about establishing a relationship with that young girl, a true relationship that wasn’t based on false identity: for this reason he satisfied all his requests that had to do with her. Just pronouncing the surname "Miyano", his face became more gentle, as if he felt obliged to support him. He wondered several times if James felt, like him, somehow guilty for what had happened to Akemi, but perhaps the truth was that he felt guilty toward him, for having sent him to face such a big and delicate mission that he had paid at a high price. He wanted to tell him that it wasn’t his fault, that their work included also this, but surely James knew better than him.

- By the way, could Jodie have the same permission? I understand that at this time she’s the one that has more work than anyone with the preparation for Vermouth’s process-

He saw the expression of his boss changing radically, taking a surprise and unbelieving air. Of course James was aware of his rotten relationship with his colleague at the time, Jodie was like a daughter for him, and when she had to vent she knew who to turn.

- Shiho would like a dog and she showed Jodie the photo, so I need her help to recognize it- he explained.
- Okay, if it's just half a day, it's okay- he consented, though he was obviously hesitant to the idea.
- If it is a problem and you are back with the job I can find another solution-
- No, as I said it’s only half a day. The problem is another one- he let it slip.
- And what is it?- he asked, even though he knew it.
- I've noticed the tension between you lately and I know how Jodie feels right now. You know that I esteem you a lot for what you do, you're my best man, but humanly speaking, you're not the kind of guy a father wants next to his daughter. I don’t want Jodie to deceive herself for your little attention or you can do her, though unintentionally, something else that makes her suffer. I still remember how she was bitter and afflicted when you left her for infiltrating the Organization, I had to help her pick up the pieces. Jodie can look like a strong woman and surely in her own way she is, but she’s not made of iron and the fact that she’s in love with you pushes her to never tell you no or rebel, so I don’t want you to take advantage of her kindness towards you. I know you don’t want to hurt her and I know that you love her, but I'm afraid she might misunderstand this affection. Try to understand me- he closed his eyes.

He understood it, for sure. There wasn’t one thing that wasn’t true in his words. James considered Jodie as a daughter rather than a subordinate, it made sense he’d tried to protect her from what might harm her, even from what he considered his "best man." He esteemed him on the working level, but he wasn’t a fan of him when it came to character and attitude, he had never hidden it. On the other hand, people who had learned to tolerate his way of doing could be counted on the fingers of a hand, and among them the first was Jodie.

- Don’t worry, I understood it- he simply replied, heading toward the door and greeting him with a wave of the hand.

As soon as he left the office, he found himself in front of the person he was talking about shortly before. He crossed his gaze with her, staring at her eyes that looked like ice moons. Though there was still some tension between them, Jodie hinted a smile, probably remembering the phone call of the previous night. He returned, infected by the innocence that painted her red cheeks each time he stared at her.

- I got from James the permission to take half a day off from work to get the gift for Shiho- he told her.
- Well, then I'll ask now too, hoping that James wouldn’t say there's a lot of work to do-
- No need, the permission is for both, I told him you would come with me-
- Really?- she was surprised - When will we go then?-
- Tomorrow, as the birthday is the day after. The puppy can’t stay at Kudo’s house for a lot of time, it wouldn’t be right for the owners-
- That’s right- she nodded - So see you tomorrow- she greeted him, smiling again before opening the door.
- See you tomorrow. And enjoy your work- he wished her.

 

………………..

 

She opened the car door and sat down, fastening her belt, while on the driver's side Shuichi set the mirrors. The store where they had to go wasn’t far from there, yet she felt the trip would last longer than expected. The idea of staying closed in such a small space as a car with him made her nervous. She didn’t know how to behave, she feared that anything that had gone out of her mouth might have been misleading. She was happy with the invitation he had addressed to her, but at the same time she was aware that it wasn’t enough to heal that crack that had been created between them. The words James had told her the previous day, as soon as she came to the office after Shuichi had gone, came back to her mind. He had told her not to build again castles in the air and to play it safe, in order to avoid collecting again the pieces of that complicated relationship. She could have told him to mind his own business, that now she was an adult woman and therefore free to do what she wanted, but she knew perfectly well that he was right. She also remembered when, a few minutes earlier, he had gone to the office: for a moment, in one of her adolescent fantasies, it had seemed to her to be one of those moments when the boy goes to take the girl for their first appointment. But the reality of the facts was quite different, they were an adult man and an adult woman who pretended that nothing had happened, postponing a speech that had to be tackled sooner or later. They were just hiding a piece of paper under the ashes, a little flame was enough to revive the fire and burn it.
Akai set off the car, leaving the FBI's parking lot. There was a silence in the car that made it all even more embarrassing than it was. She couldn’t raise the word even though she wanted to, she just looked down thinking and rethinking about what she could say that didn’t seem a pathetic attempt to start a conversation.

- Where are we going?- he finally asked, not knowing the exact address yet.
- At the Haido district, at 77- she answered promptly.

However, after those short lines, the silence fell again. Whatever she would have said would have seemed a way of pretending that nothing had happened and avoid talking about the fact that she had told him bad things and that she had indirectly confessed that she still loved him.
Again he was the one who broke the silence.

- How are the preparations for the process going?-
- We are doing our best to bring all the possible evidences to the court, but they never seem enough to me. I fear no one will believe that a famous actress may have committed such crimes- she closed her eyes.
- You’ll see that everything will be all right, you have concrete evidence in your hand- he tried to reassure her.

She wanted to continue talking to him, but she didn’t want to bother him with her personal questions. Yet at that moment it seemed the only argument that didn’t sound like an excuse.
She was saved by the fact that they had arrived to their destination. Shuichi parked the car out of the shop and both went down. As soon as they set foot in the shop they were greeted by the most disparate sounds: meowing, barking, chirps, squeaks. They looked around, noticing a wide choice of animals each in their own spacious cage.

- Welcome, can I help you?- greeted them cordially the shop owner, a tall man in his forty who wore an apron to not get dirty with fur and food.
- Hello, recently a friend of us has seen in this shop some Akita Inu’s puppies. Have you already sold all of them or is there anybody left?- she asked.
- I understand what litter you’re referring to- he smiled at her - There are still four-
- Oh, very good!- she exclaimed enthusiastically - Can we see them?-
- Sure, come with me!-

 

He escorted them into the shop in the area he had reserved for them. To not separate them abruptly he had built a small fence where they could stay all together. As soon as she saw them she had been captured by an infinite sense of tenderness, by what one can call a love at first glance.

- But they are beautiful!- she let herself escape, without worrying about the ways and the tones, leaning to cuddle them all as soon as they approached her wandering.

With her back turned, she didn’t notice the way Akai was looking at her, smiling calmly.

- Shu come here, who do you like the most? I can’t really choose!- she invited him, without even realizing that she had suddenly put all the tension back.
- I don’t know, speaking of appearance, they all seem more or less alike- he spotted.

One of the puppies gave up on Jodie's cuddles to move to him, sitting in front of him and bending his head to one side. It watched him as if he were studying him, as if it was wondering why that dreary man didn’t cuddle them in contrast to the beautiful woman next to him. Now they could no longer have any doubts.

- I think this is the right puppy for Shiho- she smiled, staring touched at the scene - It’s looking at you a bit strangely that reminds me so much of her when she doesn’t trust you too much- she admitted.
- Maybe you’re right- he confirmed, hinting a smile for his colleague's ironic observation.
- So you want this one?- asked the owner for a confirmation.
- Yes!- she nodded, standing up followed by Shuichi.

The man raised the puppy gently, taking it in his arms. Immediately its little brothers stood up on their back paws trying to climb with little success on the net of the fence, perhaps wishful to be cuddled too or perhaps not yet ready to separate themselves from their little brother. It was a sweet but also a bit sad scene.

- Awww, I want one too! In fact, I want them all!- she bit her lower lip, pronouncing those words with a little voice unappropriated for a woman of her age.
- And where do you plan to put them? If I do not remember wrong the apartment where you live doesn’t have a garden and not even a large space for an animal- Shuichi told her, referring to her New York apartment.
- I know, it would also stay alone all day because I’m often out for work- she sighed.
- Why do not you take an animal that requires less care?- suggested the owner - For example a fish or a canary-
- But they aren’t cute as these puppies!- she objected with an expression that made Akai smile.

Returning to the first part of the shop where they had entered, the owner prepared a cardboard with a warm cloth on the bottom to make the puppy comfortable until he would have been released into its new home; then he put it in.

- Do you also need accessories?- he asked them.
- Since this little dog is not for us, but it's a gift for a birthday girl, I think it's better if she comes to pick the ones she prefers- explained Akai.
- Instead, I'm interested in seeing them, I think I'll give them to her- Jodie intervened.
- Haven’t you already taken a present?- asked him surprised.
- I was thinking of getting her a pretty trendy dress I had seen, but at this point I think it's better if I give her some accessories, so it will all be ready-

 

In the next fifteen minutes, the man showed her everything that could have helped to take care of the puppy, leaving the rest to the owner's free choice. At the end she opted for a soft circular bed decorated with a bow, a litter box, two simple bowls for water and food, a brush, a simple but elegant leather collar with a customizable medal (as Shiho liked fashion even her dog should have been chic) and a leash.

- Isn’t that a bit too much?- asked Akai.
- No, she deserves it- it was her simple but firm response.
- Do you need more?- asked the owner.
- Could you give me a sack of kibble and some tins to feed him till tomorrow?- asked Akai - Then the girl will come to take the food she prefers together with the rest-

After finally finding everything they were looking for, they paid each one their own check and left the store holding one cardboard each: she the one with the puppy, much lighter, and Shuichi the one with the accessories and the food. They loaded both of them on the rear seats, they didn’t feel like closing the little one in the trunk; then they also got into the car.

- Look, Shu, do not you think it would be nice to make those cartoons a little more cute covering them with colored paper and a bow? In the end they should be presents for a birthday- she pointed to her companion as she clasped her belt.
- At Kudo’s mansion there aren’t either paper or bows- he replied, starting the car.
- We can make a small stop at the minimarket that is nearby- she suggested.
- Good idea, so take advantage of it to take a couple of plastic containers to use to feed and drink our new friend-

Throughout the journey to the minimarket, she turned her head every two minutes to control the little dog, though Shuichi repeated her to not worry and that he wouldn’t overthrow.
When they finally arrived, she stuck to the glass of the car looking inside worried as a mother who didn’t want to leave her baby on the first day of kindergarten.

- I'm worried, do you think it's right to leave it alone here?- turned to him with an air more wicked than the puppy.
- We just have to buy a couple of things, it won’t take more than ten minutes- he reassured her.

She nodded even if it was clear that she wasn’t convinced, entering the shop together with him. As they turned around the aisles in search of what they needed, for a moment she managed not to worry about the little dog and finally realized how, from the time they entered the pet shop, the things between her and Shuichi seemed to be inexplicably back to normal, as if nothing had happened. Even now they were walking side by side like an engaged couple who go shopping together for their new home. She wondered if he had the same feeling or if he was just pretending to behave naturally with her, waiting to get back to acting as perfect strangers as soon as that afternoon of shopping would have come to an end. The only thought saddened her a lot.

- I found the containers- his voice brought her back to reality.

She turned to look at him, finding him with two simple round plastic containers in his hand.

- But where’s the material for the gift boxes?- she looked around, something she hadn’t done until then.

She found everything when he reached the DIY area. She took bows, colored paper and adhesive tape. They were about to go to the check-out when her eyes fell on very nice greeting cards, decorated with elegant floral motifs.

- Do we take two? A gift is always accompanied by a greeting card- she purposed.
- Right- nodded him.

They made the journey to the check-out in the most complete silence, as well as the one from the check-out to the car outside the store. It really seemed that the warm mood of just before had evaporated in a few seconds. Perhaps there was a kind of magic in that shop full of sounds and little feathered or four-legged friends.
She put also the last purchases on the back seat and took advantage of it to take a look at the little one who had lain down but was still awake and attentive and got up shaken as soon as it saw her. There was already some sympathy between them.

- Here we are little one!- she smiled, cuddling it a bit.
- It almost seems that this puppy is for you- remarked Shuichi.
- If it were for me I would go to get one now, but an FBI agent can only afford plush animals!- she curled her lips.
- A hectic life is the price to pay to assure the justice in your country- he came out in an almost-patriotic tone.

She stared at him as if he had said a twaddle worthy of the worst cabaret programs. She didn’t understand how certain things came out of his mouth at times. In response he smiled amused by her expression. It was beautiful when he did, even though he was mocking her. Embarrassed for that thought, she looked away blushing: it was stronger than her. For the umpteenth time, silence fell into the car that seemed like a one-way carriage to hell.

- Listen Jodie... I think we should talk- suddenly came out with it Akai, taking the initiative and starting what she feared would have happened since the very first moment in which she had set foot in that car.

She stiffened like a marble statue clenching her fists, not feeling ready at all to tackle the subject. She didn’t want to get a slap in her face again.

- I’m not mad at you if that's what worries you. I would just like to clarify some things to avoid continuing with this situation- he explained.
- Can we talk about it when we get there?- she asked, almost like a plea more than a question.
- What difference does it make to do it now or later? We'll have to do it anyway- he insisted.
- I prefer to avoid some discussions in the car, it’s not a place that brings me a lot of luck talking about conversations- she replied, making a clear reference at the time of their break.

She had poured out it, without thinking of the consequences. Only when she realized it she leaned her head against the window, covering her eyes with one hand, sure that Shuichi would have tied to his finger that one too. Certainly that wasn’t the attitude she had to assume if she wanted to settle things between them.

- I'm sorry, I didn’t want to be sharp. Really, can we talk about it at home?-

She had said "home," as if they were a couple who lived together and had simply had a quarrel like so many, but the truth was that there was no home (or at least not a house that belonged to them) and above all, there was no relationship. Shuichi didn’t answer and that made her fear that he was really mad at her now. He would have got a point since he was the only one who had tried to put things into place as she continued to make them worse.
When they arrived at Kudo’s mansion, they unload the cartons from the car, being careful to not be seen, Shiho could have been at the window to observe. During this operation they never spoke to each other, all they did was to exchange glances that didn’t promise smiles nor beautiful words.
The house was deserted, Shinichi still had to come back: they were alone with their problems to deal with. Akai took the cardboard with the puppy into the room and she followed him with the other, keeping her head down. Then the sniper pulled out from the minimarket bag the colored paper, the bows, the greeting cards and the adhesive tape, placing them on the table. He took out a tin of food from the cardboard with the accessories and, taking the two newly purchased containers, he went to the kitchen leaving her alone. He returned a few minutes later with the containers full: one with fresh water and the other with the food of the tin. He put them down on the ground and then pulled the puppy out of the carton and placed it in front of it. Without repeating it twice, the little one began to eat under her tender gaze. Shuichi took advantage of it to take the sack of kibble and the other tins, leaving in the carton only what she had bought for Shiho. So she set them up for good, trying to get away from that tension. When she finished she closed the cardboard with a long strip of adhesive tape. Then he picked up the colored paper and began to unroll and spread it in order to wrap the carton. Throughout that time, Shuichi had been out of the way looking at her while smoking a cigarette. Probably he also was very nervous.

- Do you want me to wrap yours too?- she broke the silence this time.

Akai didn’t answer, he approached her and sat down on the armchair not far from where she was sit.

- You can do it later. Now it really seems to me to have a conversation between adults-

The tone of his voice was strangled, anyone would have felt it. It was clear that he wanted to talk at all costs, that he was tired of that whole story. So she set down the paper and the scissors and listened to what he had to say.

- What are you going to do?-he asked her.
- What do you mean?- she replied confused, not understanding what he was referring to.
- After making me understand that you didn’t like my decision six years ago, and I can’t blame you, you said you got tired of hanging around me. So, is it your final decision?-

She couldn’t really understand where he wanted to go and why he was doing those questions when he had a thousand more to do before.

- What do you expect me to do Shu? That I spend the rest of my life going after a man who doesn’t even notice if I paint my hair of pink because he has no interest in me? Maybe if I were seventeen and I were a little girl, but I'm almost thirty years old and I'm realizing I haven’t done anything- she lowered her gaze.
- You wanted to become an FBI agent and you did it, you had a goal and you did it, soon you’ll put your worst enemy behind the bars. This for you is didn’t get anything done?-
- I wasn’t referring to my career but to my love life. There’s not only work Shu- she pointed out.
- Maybe you haven’t met the right person yet. You still have time, twenty-eight years aren’t so many-
- Or maybe I met him but I didn’t realize it why I was too focused on the wrong one- she stared at him - And yet they are almost twenty-nine-
- Then you should try to concentrate on what makes you satisfied instead of what continues to disappoint you- he pointed to her, as if he wanted to make her understand that it was better to let him go.
- You're right, I think it's time to do it-

It was easy saying it in words, but anyone who had looked at her at that moment would have understood from her expression that she wasn’t entirely convinced of what she had just said. That sentence was more to convince herself than others. She couldn’t stand it anymore, she was tired and without any strength.

- I don’t want to renounce to your presence in my life just as a friend or colleague, Shu. Even though this should lead me to not find another man for the rest of my life- she admitted, as big tears streaked her cheeks.

The truth was that she didn’t want to lose him even though she knew he would have been the cause of all her suffering.

- That would mean keeping you in a castle without escape. It wouldn’t be right and I'm not the guy who loves to deprive others of their own freedom- he closed his eyes, perhaps not to show that even him at that moment was feeling sorry to know he was her executioner.
- You're not imposing it to me, I’m the one who wants you to do it- she clarified.
- But I would live with the thought of you being tied to something from which I am the only one who can loosen you. If I didn’t, it would be like keeping you prisoner, right?-
- Then I'm wondering what you're going to do. If you don’t want to save even our friendship, tell me clearly-

She couldn’t stop crying, not at the time that would have been decisive for their future. At the end of that conversation she would know what kind of relationship would have been with him from now on and nothing could have changed it. She feared she would lose him as a friend and this weight was too big to endure.

- I just want to make sure that you won’t waste your life anymore running after a guy who probably doesn’t deserve your dedication- he smiled sincerely.
- If I should do it, it would be my choice. You aren’t required to assume responsibility. In any case, the longer the time passes and the more I realize that I deserve better- she stared at him seriously.
- If so, then it’s good to stay friends-
- Ok- she nodded.

She wiped the tears fast, then resumed wrapping up her pack in an attempt to distract herself. Certainly it wasn’t the happy ending of a fairy tale, it wasn’t like in her dreams when he told her he wanted her to be his woman again; but it was always better to have him as a friend than as a perfect stranger. Sometimes you need to make do with what you have in life. She knew that that conversation which seemed to be over once and for all, actually seemed to have been left halfway for the nth time. It wasn’t enough to say "let’s stay friends" because their relationship would return as it was before that damned evening. Shuichi was aware that she didn’t consider him a simple friend and for this he would behave in a detached way not to hurt her, while she would distance herself to not suffer. It seemed that whatever the decision they would have made, the result would always be to distance from each other. It was time to accept the reality of the facts: something had inevitably changed, that relationship that she had been trying to maintain in some way after the breakup had cracked if not broken.
In silence, Akai got up from the chair and went to retrieve the little dog, who in the meantime had finished eating and had had started to hang around the room sniffing here and there. She remained sat on the floor to carefully wrap both her carton and the puppy's one. They were in the same room, a few meters apart, yet it seemed that they were light years away and that they spoke two different languages, making communication impossible. It was the worst feeling.
As soon as she finished she collected her things quickly and pulled out the cellphone, ready to call James to pick her up. She didn’t want to stay there a minute longer and she really needed that surrogate dad who offered her a shoulder to cry whenever she made a mess. She was looking for the phone number when Akai's hands stopped her, gently gripping her wrist.

- You do not need to disturb James, I'll accompany you-

At first she didn’t know what to answer, it didn’t seem to her the best idea to come back together in a car. In the end she agreed to not go back on her promise to be friends.

- Ok. But how do you do with the little one? We can’t leave him here alone-

He was about to answer her when the sound of the door opening interrupted their conversation, forcing them to turn their heads in that direction. A few minutes later Shinichi appeared with the school uniform and his briefcase in his hand. He was astonished to find them there together, you could tell it from the expression on his face.

- Jodie-sensei, you’re here too- he commented.
- Hello Cool Guy, sorry if we made some confusion in your house!- she greeted him warmly as always.

The young detective looked around and immediately his gaze fell on the decorated cartons and on that little fur ball which was waving at him too. He kept staring at him, looking in his head for a plausible explanation for all this.

- It's my gift for Shiho, I hope it's not a problem to keep it here until tomorrow- asked Akai - Of course I will deal with it-
- No problem- Shinichi smiled, approaching and taking it in his arms - I think Shiho will really appreciate this gift-
- I hope. Could you supervise it for a while, while I accompany Jodie at home? I’ll just be a few minutes-
- Don’t worry, go as well. I'll handle that- he accepted with pleasure.

They left the mansion and as they did before they loaded Jodie's carton on the car being careful to not be seen. During the journey, they didn’t spoke too much, as it was expected.

- Could you tell James that tomorrow in the morning I'll be a little late because I have to go and pick up the cake I booked for Shiho?- he said out of nowhere.
- Haven’t you already told him?-
- I forgot between one thing and another- he admitted.

When they arrived in front of the building where there was her apartment, she got out of the car and picked up her carton from the back seat. Shuichi also got out and came up beside her, placing his hand under the carton.

- Do you want me to help you? It's pretty heavy- he asked.
- Thank you but I don’t need it, as soon as I get in I’ll take the elevator- she hinted a smile of thanksgiving.
- Well, thanks for the help then- he said, ready to leave her.
- You’re welcome, we'll see tomorrow at the party-

She gave him shoulders and she head off towards the entrance of the building. She had almost reached the door when she heard his voice calling her.

- Jodie?-
- Yes?- she turned her head to look at him.
- That day I didn’t want to hurt you at all not I wanted to do what I did. To give up on something that you care for is never easy for anyone. If I didn’t call you, it's not because I didn’t want, but because doing so would only complicate things. I didn’t think it would have hurt you so much, I'm sorry-

She opened her eyes wide to those words, unbelieving for what she had just heard. Those were apologizes? Shuichi Akai, the impassive rock, was humiliating himself apologizing for a thing that had happened six years earlier. If her hands hadn’t been busy holding the carton, she would probably have pinched herself to make sure she was awake and not dreaming. She was distant from him and couldn’t see his eyes well, but from the expression of his face and the tone he had used he seemed sincere and truly repentant to her. For the first time she felt that she had always been wrong, that she had never understood his feelings for real. Concentrated on her pain, she hadn’t seen that Shuichi had suffered for that broke up story as well, for that feeling that he had to fade against the will of both. She didn’t know why, but she felt more serene in knowing it, in knowing that for him she had been important. Perhaps if he had said those words years before, they wouldn’t have come to the point they were now. But, of course, she knew, Shuichi wasn’t an ace talking about timing in the field of feelings.
She wondered if at the end of the day she had sins as well. If it needed very little to make him fall in love with another woman, maybe then she wasn’t perfect either. But at this point it didn’t matter, she could no longer change what it had been. Admitting their own guilt would have helped them to move on but not to go back.

- You do not have to give me any explanation, whatever your motivations are. If she has won you over so much then maybe I missed something. The blame is always half and half, right?- she smiled mentioning his words, though her eyes had become shiny betraying the emotions she was feeling - I accept your apologies, anyway. We'll see you tomorrow at the party-

She greeted him one last time for that night, entering the building without turning back.

 

……………………..

 

He remained there, standing still to look at her perfect figure, moving away from him, as in the scenes of those pathetic love movies that women liked so much. He thought of everything she had said and of what was still to be said. He couldn’t bear to see her cry, and still less to know that the cause of her pain was him. In life he had made experiences and learned many things, perhaps even more than a young man of his age should know, yet he had never learned to be more human in the relationships with people. Perhaps that was why he kept losing people he cared for one by one. The more he reflected on the words he had told her in the living room of Kudo’s mansion and the more it seemed to him to have push her away on purpose. He should have told her she had no fault and that she was a perfect girlfriend: the problem was him. He knew that she still loved him and in an attempt to be detached so as not to create false hopes and to delude her, he had ended up wounding her again, reopening that scar in her heart that probably had never recovered. He only realized it now. He had promised her to protect her at the cost of his life and instead he was killing her with his own hands. He, the Silver Bullet, the only one able to eliminate the bad guys, was nothing but one of them. He smiled bitterly at that thought.
As he lighted a cigarette, he wondered if things would ever going to be ok again if that friend, partner, colleague that up to that moment had supported him would still be there for him. He realized how important her presence was only now that he might have missed her. As for his father and Akemi, he felt again that he had lost something he cared for, with the only difference that Jodie was alive. And perhaps the worst side was just this: knowing that she was still there beside him but feeling that she was far away as the soul of a deceased. With the bitter awareness that he had added another victim to his collection, he started the car and went home, wrapped in the darkness of the night that had fallen on the city.

Chapter Text

They were all gathered in the same room as a large family on Christmas Day, even though they were divided into groups engaged in different activities. On the one hand, Shinichi and Ran, who at that moment seemed like loving parents, tried to help the Detective Boys with a riddle devised by the Doctor to keep them busy, so they didn’t get bored too much since there were just adult people. With them there was also Masumi, who like Shinichi was constantly attracted to the scent of puzzles. On the other hand, sitting on the couch, she and Sonoko were browsing a fashion magazine commenting on the latest trends. There were only two people missing.
She arranged the neckline of the beautiful colored kimono that Doctor Agasa had given to her. In Japan it was tradition that the birthday girl would wear one. On the table where the others were solving the riddle there were a series of board games brought for the most part by Shinichi and Sonoko, but they still haven’t tried them while waiting for the last two invited guests to join them.

- Ah, I get it!- echoed the enthusiastic voice of the little Ayumi.

She and Sonoko interrupted the reading and turned to look, finding all them smiling: certainly they managed to solve the riddle.

- Since we have solved the mystery, can we have the cake as prize?- asked immediately Genta, who couldn’t wait for that moment to come since he had set foot in the house.
- Come on, try to be patient Genta, later we'll eat it all together- answered the Doctor.

She checked the time on the clock hung on the wall, hoping that Akai hadn’t forgotten it. In the end he was the one who had to bring the cake. She didn’t even have time to finish to think it that the doorbell rang, sign that at least one of them had arrived. She went to open the door as it should have been, since it was her party, finding them both in front of her, side by side.

- Welcome- she greeted them with a smile.
- Happy Birthday!- said Jodie excited, returning the smile with an even more radiant one, holding a big package in her arms.
- Best Wishes- was Akai's simplest answer, who showed her the box with the cake.
- Thank you so much, please come in- she let them in.

As soon as they set foot in the house, everyone turned to greet them, some astonished to see two adult FBI agents at a teenager party. The most obvious reaction was that of Masumi, who after shouting "Shu-nii!" ran at her brother and embraced him. This time, instead of reproaching her, Akai smiled at her ruffling her hair, leaving astonished people who knew him well. But she was focused on another fact that had affected her more than the affectionate and fraternal moment of that seemingly emotionless man, namely that he and Jodie had come together. So she approached her blonde friend with a pretext.

- Thanks for this gift, you didn’t have to do that for me. It’s huge!-
- You deserve it!- she winked, putting the package together with the others.
- Rather… how is it that you and Akai-san coming together? It seemed to me that there were tensions between you until a few days ago- she came to the point.
- Well, it’s true, but yesterday we had a chance to speak at last and let’s say that we have come to a sort of armistice- she explained, though her expression while she was telling the story had changed as fast as a blast.
- Do you want to talk about it?-
- In due time, I'll do it- she said - Today we just have to think about having fun because it’s your birthday!- she took her by the shoulders and shook her slightly, transmitting her all of her liveliness.

Smiling, she laid her jacket, under her unconvinced gaze. By now she had become an open book, she understood immediately when she was really carefree and when behind the smiles there was a silent cry. However she was right, it was not the case to pull out some arguments in that circumstance.
Her attention shifted again to Masumi, who in the meantime had abandoned the others to look desperately for the attention of the older brother, who was putting the cake in the fridge in the company of Doctor and Genta, who has dashed to see in an attempt to get them to eat it right away. She noticed that the scientist and the agent were speaking intensely with each other and it seemed strange to her such a degree of confidence, too much considered that for Akai the Doctor was only the man who provided him with the instruments for his disguise. She tried to read the labial, uselessly. Finally she followed them with the eyes as they walked away from the living room to move to another room. She was going to follow them when Masumi preceded her, but she had been immediately stopped by her brother who seriously told her something she couldn’t understand, masked by the confusion the children were making. she thought that Akai hadn’t learned the lesson and that she would have seen again Masumi's disappointed and sad look, just like that afternoon at Shinichi's home; instead, with great surprise, she saw her smiling and nodding to him, and then getting back to her as if it were nothing. Okay, she'd always thought they were a strange family, but now she had the absolute certainty.

- Who knows where those two are going- she let it slip.
- Maybe they just want to talk about men things that we don’t care about, so let's go party!- promptly answered Jodie, coming behind her as a ghost.

She pushed her without forcing her close to the table together with everyone else, then she greeted everyone with the same energy of each time.

- Hello guys!-she smiled radiant.
- Jodie-sensei, you’re here too!- exclaimed Ayumi.
- But don’t you get bored at a teenager party with kids furthermore?- Sonoko asked, raising an eyebrow.
- Of course not!- she answered.

The only one who hadn’t said anything was Masumi, who looked at Jodie as if she was trying to study her in every particular detail. On the other hand, she was the one that knew her less than all of them. Even Jodie had to be aware of it, as she looked at her, surely noticing her resemblance to that man she loved so much.

- You’re Shu’s sister, right?- she asked to break the ice.
- Exactly. Instead, you work with my brother at the FBI. Do you know him well?-

It was a good question, a question she wasn’t sure that Jodie had a clear answer. She had discovered herself some sides of Akai she had never seen before, so all her certainty about his person had collapsed. Even for Jodie it had to be the same.

- Well ... let's say yes, we work together for many years now- she managed to get by, though that was the most obvious answer.
- Don’t you also think that Sera-chan's brother is beautiful? Tell the truth, is there something among you? You've come together!- Sonoko intervened, out of place as usual.

An even harder question than the previous one, which didn’t receive a quick response. Jodie blushed visibly, not knowing what to say. She couldn’t tell the truth, in any case not in front of Shuichi's sister.

- But Sonoko, what do you ask ?! Don’t you see that you're making Jodie-sensei feel very uncomfortable?- approached in her help Ran, who was much more sensible than her friend.
- Yes and then Jodie-sensei is in a relationship with agent Camel!- Mitsuhiko intervened, obviously remembering that colossal lie she had invented to save Camel from the murder charge in that hotel.
- What?! Really?!- Ran and Sonoko exclaimed in unison.
- No, wait, there is a misunderstanding!- shook her hands the blond, caught off guard.
- Do you mean that you are no longer with agent Camel?- asked Ayumi.
- Don’t tell me he betrayed you!- immediately jumped to conclusion Sonoko.
- No no, actually I’ve never been in a relationship with Camel!- she finally confessed, smiling embarrassed.
- So you told a lie?- turned his nose Genta.
- I needed a way to get him out of trouble!-
- That’s not cool!- reprimanded her Mitsuhiko.

In response, the ex-teacher lowered her gaze, mortified in hearing the preaching from elementary school children.

- So, do you like my brother?- Masumi asked again, curious to know if her beloved brother had impressed her.
- Eh?! Well… - blushed Jodie, unable to articulate a meaningful phrase.
- But look how she became red!- Sonoko made fun of her, making a sly smile.
- If you want I can ask if he likes you too!- Masumi offered herself, as if it was the least embarrassing and most natural thing in the world.
- No! It’s not necessary!- the blonde hurried to answer - We’re just friends and colleagues, nothing more!-
- Now stop to torment Jodie, why don’t we all play together with some of these games?- she intervened, trying to get her out of that embarrassing situation.

The proposal was welcomed and so they looked at each game, trying to choose one that could be suitable even for the younger ones. The final choice, worthless to say, fell on the Cluedo which had brought Shinichi, who had received it from his parents directly from America. They placed the game board on the table and sat in circle around it, while Sonoko read the rules at all and Ran and Shinichi placed the pawns. As they were listening, Dr. Agasa and Akai reappeared as they had disappeared. She watched them for a while, trying to figure out from the expression on their faces if something was wrong, but she didm’t seem to notice anything strange. They both looked strangely serene and smiling. Yet she felt that they were hiding something.

- Where have you been?- she asked, abruptly interrupting Sonoko's reading.
- Nowhere, the Doctor wanted to show me one of his new inventions and know what I think of it- Akai said calmly.

That response didn’t convince her at all, because when the Doctor was working on something new, she always had to help him, and in recent times apart from fixing things he hasn’t done anything. However, she didn’t want to ask any other questions in front of others.

- Do you want to play with us, Shu-nii?- asked Masumi smiling.
- Come on, an adult man will not want to play with little boys!- Sonoko commented, more to make herself great in his eyes than to avoid him sitting at the table with them.
- Also Jodie-sensei is an adult, but she has agreed to play with us!- pointed out Genta.
- I join you gladly, it will be fun to play against an excellent detective- gladly accepted Shuichi, surprising everyone and staring at the person concerned, Shinichi.

The young heir of Holmes returned the smile, a thing that the others didn’t do since that collective play would certainly have become a confrontation between titans of the investigation.

- But how do we play?- Ayumi intervened, staring at the board - The game is for up to six people and we're in ten-
- Yes, you’re right- agreed Mitsuhiko.
- Why don’t we play in pairs?- suggested Jodie.
- That’s a great idea!- approved Ran.
- It’s ok for me, as long as Kudo and Akai-san don’t pair, otherwise they’ll win even before we start- she said, crossing her arms to her chest.
- Right then they would act like the best pupils in the class!- Jodie nodded, shrugging her nose.

There were several complaints about who should or shouldn’t stay with before coming to pairs that could be good to everyone. Jodie and Akai couldn’t be together because they were both FBI agents, Akai and Shinichi because they were two skilled detectives, same for Akai and Masumi and Masumi and Shinichi. At the end they all agreed on the following couples: Shiho and Ayumi, Shinichi and Ran, Sonoko and Masumi, Akai and Genta, Jodie and Mitsuhiko. They played for a good hour, laughing, joking and eating appetizers. They seemed a big family where the age difference didn’t matter, because there was affection from everyone. Even though her biological family couldn’t be there to celebrate with her, she still felt happy and could say with certainty that this was the nicest birthday she had ever had occasion to celebrate.
In the end it won, as expected, Shinichi, though Akai had come to the same solution but had been preceded. They all snorted, though they still had fun.

- It’s no fun playing with you!- she complained with her friend, making him smile.
- Let's do another game!- suggested Ayumi, who was very excited about that new game.
- Why don’t you come and eat the cake and unwrap the gifts?- suggested Agasa.
- Yes!!!- they exclaimed in chorus, running away like lightning.
- I'm going to cut it then- Akai stood up, heading toward the fridge.
- I’ll help you- offered Jodie, chasing him.

They moved all around the counter that served as a kitchenette, where not far away there was also the fridge. Shuichi took the box with the cake, opened it and began to divide it into slices of the same size, while Jodie put them in dessert saucers. She watched them carefully as they exchanged some stealthy look and it seemed to her to see less embarrassment among them than she had ever noticed until then, though they were far from the looseness they had before that whole story. It was clear that things hadn’t properly returned to normal, but at least there was no tension. Also the other guys looked at them in an attempt to see if there was anything among them, except the children who were too young to be interested in such things and above all too busy looking at the cake.

- It seems to me that Jodie-sensei really likes Sera-chan's brother!- whispered Sonoko.
- Again with this story, Sonoko?- Ran reproached her.
- What if it is? It’s their business, they are two adults and they’ll figure it out- concluded Shinichi.

After gossip, they came closer to the table and took a saucer each, beginning to savor their slice of pie, not before singing all in chorus to her the typical birthday song. The cake was delightful as she remembered it and also the others seemed to like it, complimenting her choice. The happiest of all was certainly the Doctor, who at last could, after so long, enjoy a cake and put an end to that strict dietary regime to which she constantly subjected him.
When they finished eating the cake, it was time to unwrap the gifts. Though she had told everyone she didn’t want anything, each of them had brought her something. She started with Sonoko, who had given her a beautiful brand-new fashion dress (something expected from a wealthy heiress), then went to Ran, who instead opted for a beautiful necklace with a pendant shaped like a feather, symbolizing freedom. A sensitive gift from a person who was even too much sensitive. She thanked both of them for those gift which were so good. Shinichi's turn came, he had only brought an envelope. At first she thought he had took her at word about the story of not giving her gifts and that he had only written her a greeting card, but then she found inside the envelope some tickets for the best seats in the next Big Osaka game, which puzzled those who didn’t know her.

- But how, you are from Tokyo and you’re a fan of Big Osaka?- asked Sonoko.
- Yes, but just because she has a crush for Ryusuke Higo- confessed Shinichi before she could answer.

Good friend, really. She had to leave him in the shoes of a brat, that was what he deserved. She pouted, scowling at him and blushing for the embarrassment.

- Who is this Ryusuke Higo?- asked Jodie curious.
- A Big Osaka team’s football player- explained Shinichi.
- Oh, but you know that those are not serious men! They change girlfriend every week! I prefer basketball players, tall and with wide shoulders- shook a hand the FBI agent.

Perfect, now even her friend supported that two-bit detective! She glanced at her as well, while all the others laughed cheerfully for her words.

- She hasn’t said that she wants to marry him, it’s just an idolatry infatuation. Much like the one you have for our young detective- Akai intervened in her defense, leaving her surprised in taking her parts mocking his colleague.

After various pouts and embarrassment, it was the turn of unwrapping Masumi's gift: a chemistry book and a frame with a photo they made all together during one of their exits. She particularly appreciated the latter, taking it as a confirmation that beyond her physical appearance Masumi was much more sensitive than her older brother. She thanked even her with a smile, making her happy.
It remained only Jodie's gift to unwrap, the biggest one of all, but before she could take it Akai stopped her.

- Could you wait a moment before opening Jodie's gift? There is another one before- He said, with that enigmatic smile.

For a moment she didn’t know what to answer or to expect, it seemed almost unthinkable to her that that man had given her a present. She looked at Jodie as if to ask for confirmation; her friend smiled and nodded, making her understand that she knew and that she had nothing to worry about. Akai walked away in the same direction he had taken a few hours before with the Doctor, disappearing to another side of the house and leaving everyone with the curiosity to know, in a general voicing. She reflected on something that had always been in front of her eyes, but to which she had given little importance: only then she realized that while everyone was intent on playing, Agasa had often gone that way, coming back shortly afterwards. She didn’t know what it was exactly, but at least she had the confirmation that the invention was just an excuse.
The pensive FBI agent returned a few minutes later holding a package of the same size as Jodie’s. They probably bought their gifts in the same place, maybe together. A good news. He put the carton in front of her and wished her a happy birthday, smiling enigmatically. She was a little scared to open it, seeing the expression on his face. She looked better at the package and found out that it had already been cut and opened at the top, but all was masked by the fact that it has been covered with some colored paper. She frowned, finding it strange and in poor taste: no one would have wanted to receive a gift which had already been opened for their birthday. Determined to find out what it was holding, she opened both the flaps looking inside. Immediately a soft head covered with hair came out, accompanied by a pair of little paws hanging on the edge of the cardboard and a tail that had started to move fast as soon as she had looked at it. It, a beautiful puppy of a few months. She opened her eyes wide and opened her mouth, unable to say anything. She didn’t even breathe so she was enraptured and surprised. She would have expected anything less than to receive what she longed for so long, and more to the person she less liked among all the presents.

- So cute! It's a beautiful gift!- Ayumi exclaimed, approaching to see it better.

They all smiled tenderly and tried to look closely at the little hairball that had plenty of joy to give to anyone.
She looked up and crossed her gaze with Akai's, and for the first time there weren’t reflexed fear or anger, only gratitude, happiness and amazement.

- Thank you!- she said simply, but with sincerity and a sweet smile on her lips.

She did not notice, caught up in the moment, but not far from them Jodie looked at the scene and felt perhaps more happiness than she was feeling to.
Finally she took her new four-legged friend, filling it with cuddles. The kids, the most curious and excited among all, approached her, asking her to caress it. She allow them, remembering when she was a little girl with them and she loved to pet the animals. It seemed to her to have come back a few months earlier. Even Shinichi, Ran, Masumi and Sonoko came close, curious.
She turned to thank Doctor Agasa too, since she knew that if Akai had given her that gift it was just because the scientist had given his consent to keep an animal in the house. It was then that the latter brought them to attention.

- I know you are all taken with this little boy, but there is still a gift to open. It wouldn’t be nice to ignore the kindness of Jodie-sensei-
- Don’t worry Doctor, she will have time to open it later!- replied the blonde shaking her hand.
- No, the Doctor is right. We can continue to cuddle it afterwards- she intervened, not wanting to seem rude to her friend.

She asked Ayumi to keep the puppy as she opened the last gift and she accepted with joy. When she saw that inside of Jodie's package there were accessories for dogs she had the confirmation that she and Akai were in agreement and she has been the one to tell Akai about her desire to have a puppy. She also understood why she had done it she was grateful to her for the umpteenth time. Instead of trying to fix her relationship with him, she was worried about her. She smiled at her and thanked her; Jodie answered back.

- I thought you needed at least essential things, you can go to choose the rest by yourself!- she winked at her.
- Everything is perfect!-

She immediately put the collar on the puppy, who didn’t back down but instead seemed happy to wear that new accessory.

- How about going out in the garden to play a bit with him?- she suggested, especially to the younger ones.
- Yes!!!- they accepted with joy, running to the exit.

Within a few seconds the room become empty and remained only Doctor Agasa, Jodie and Shuichi, who now thought they had lost their age to play together with little boys.

 

………………………

 

She smiled as she watched her young friend go away happy with the gift she had wanted so much in her arms. She thought to herself that in the end it was even thanks to her, just as thanks to her she had finally got a little more closer (maybe) to Shuichi. Her sacrifices were worth something.

- Well, I would say it's all gone for the best, right?- she said, turning to the other two.
- Let’s hope for the best, I’m a little worried- admitted the Doctor, taking off his glasses and wiping the lenses with a tissue.
- You don’t have to, as you see Shiho is already taking care of the little one. She is a responsible girl- Akai reassured him as he put the leftovers of the cake in the fridge.

She helped him, picking up all the dishes and cutlery and then putting them into the dishwasher. She hadn’t talked to him again since last night, she had barely seen him at work. Even though she didn’t feel resentment or sorrow towards him, she felt strangely serene despite everything. Perhaps they really needed a clarification, pretending things went well had been a mistake right from the start. She hoped that he would think so too.

- Don’t you go out, too? I’ll tidy up- the scientist interrupted them.
- Let the kids enjoy themselves a while, we're a bit old! And then you have been so kind to make the house available for the party, it doesn’t seem right to me to let you clean it all by yourself!- she smiled.
- That’s fine, thank you Jodie-sensei. Then I go and check that they don’t destroy the garden!- he took leave, leaving them alone.

Finally, they would have had the opportunity to speak again and establish whether it was really possible to fix the relationship between them, with no old grudges or no words spoken.

- Are you happy?- she suddenly asked him.
- Eh? What are you referring to?- he replied, caught off guard.
- Well, it seems to me that Shiho appreciated your gift more than anybody else. I saw how she smiled at you and it didn’t seem to me she has ever done it before. I think you have earned several points- she explained.
- I hope so, but I think the road is still long. As soon as I’ll do something that she won’t like, she’ll hate me again- he smiled, aware that it was probably not so easy to conquer her if he hadn’t succeeded after all that time.
- So don’t misbehave!- she replied.
- It’s hard, since what makes her more susceptible is the relationship I have with you-

She remained silent, not knowing what to say. He was right, if she hadn’t told her what she felt for him, perhaps Shiho would feel less involved and wouldn’t try to take her parts going every time against him. But she didn’t do it with malice, she certainly didn’t want to be the savior and to make him look like the devil. He should have understood that too, since there was no reproach or annoyance in his tone, but everything was a mere statement.

 

- I’m sorry if she take it out on you because of me, I told her more than once she doesn’t have to take it out for things that concern me but she doesn’t listen to me- she finally said, starting the dishwasher.
- It's not your fault, you've managed to be well regarded than I did. But in the end it's understandable, whoever would prefer your company to mine- he admitted.
- This is not true. Ok, you’re not really the life of the party and we have confirmed this, but… when you’re not in one of your bad days it’s pleasant to spend time with you- she bit her lip in uttering the last words, fearful of having said something untoward.
- You have strange tastes- was his ironic response - Anyway thank you for having advised me to get her a puppy, I owe you one-
- You don’t owe me nothing, I had made a mess and I wanted to fix it. We're even now-
- Actually I made a bigger mess, I have a lot to make up for-

She understood immediately that he was referring to having left her on the spot and to everything they have said to each other. She felt him sincerely repentant, she could read the guilt in his eyes. She was wrong to think that he had never cared about her and what she felt, she understood it only now.

- There is nothing I must forgive you. Everything is ok, really- she smiled sincerely, going to bring the rest of the leftovers into the fridge.

 

…………………

 

There was nothing he has to be forgiven for, she told him. Yet he knew, he knew that there were things that she had never truly forgiven him. He wondered if one day he could fix his mistakes, to see again Jodie smiling blithely at him as Shiho did just before. He thought of the latter, about how he had made her happy and after a long time he felt a bit happy too. It was what he'd always wanted since he had made that promise to Akemi. He wondered if he really was able to deliver on that promise at his best, if he had done all he could to take care of her.
He was distracted by his thoughts when he heard the voices of the guys and children who had come back. Shiho left the puppy free, who immediately began to hang around and sniff to know its new home. Jodie, however, who hadn’t yet had the opportunity to pet him, took it back in her arms and began to cuddle it and make it a lot of compliments.

- You seem to like this gift more than the recipient- he approached her smiling.
- Only a fool wouldn’t like it, look what a little face!- she replied, approaching the little dog a few inches from his face.

The puppy looked at him in the same curious way he had done at the shop for the first time, wagging its tail. And just like then, he stared at him without moving a finger.

- Come on, pet it! Don’t you see how he looks at you?- Jodie exhorted him.
- Outside we have taken photos all together with the puppy, you’re the only two left- interrupted them Shiho, who probably had taken the opportunity given by the atmosphere that had been created.

He smiled thinking about how she could be almost subtle at times. She tried in all possible ways to approach him and Jodie, to push him to court his colleague. More than annoying him, he had to admit that this thing amused him.

- Well, then come here and let’s make one all together- suggested Jodie.
- Do you mind if I first take one with you two?- she asked, making him smile and embarrassing her friend.

He noticed that his detective friend was shaking his head, while his sister and Sonoko were laughing up their sleeve. Obviously, he wasn’t the only person to find the situation so funny.
Without saying anything, he approached Jodie more, as if to give a tacit consent to take that photo. The blonde, caught off guard, turned to look at him with those blue eyes full of that love that he, foolishly, was obstinate to not want to return back.

- Jodie... to take the picture you have to look at me, not at him- called her Shiho.

The colleague blushed visibly, then tried to pretend indifference by smiling and bending her head to one side, clutching the puppy. Finally Shiho took that much-desired photo.

- I also want a picture with Sera-chan's brother!- asked Sonoko, who obviously had a soft spot for him.
- But… Sonoko!- Ran scolded her, crossing her arms to her chest.
- I will never had another occasion again to take a photo with a real FBI agent!- she defended herself, even if the excuse didn’t convince anyone.
- Even Jodie-sensei is an FBI agent, so you can take the photo with her- emphasized the brunette.
- There is no problem if she wants to take a picture- he intervened, amused.
- Thank you!- said excited the young heiress, standing beside him.

After that, even Masumi asked to take a photo with him, so she would show it to their mother.

- Why don’t you take one with the best pupils of the class?- Jodie began, referring to him and Shinichi.

They take also that one and many others to follow, including one all together with Doctor Agasa. They stopped only when the puppy, visibly tired, fell asleep in Jodie's arms and Shiho laid him in the dog basket that the blonde had just given her.
They then split into three different groups, each of whom devoted themselves to an activity: Shiho, Sonoko and Jodie looked at clothes on a catalog, as the birthday girl wanted to know Jodie's opinion about some dresses; Ran kept busy the kids playing with them at a board game, while he, Masumi and Shinichi had set apart to talk to Doctor Agasa.

- Shu-nii, do you like Jodie? She’s a beauty and she’s also funny- his sister suddenly came out.
- And you are very curious- he simply answered.
- She likes you very much, everyone has seen it!- she insisted, as if she was in on with Shiho.
- Is it not time to stop it?- Shinichi interrupted her, almost annoyed - You’ve spend all the afternoon instigating them, even if there were anything it would be their business. If someone of our knowledge would stop playing Cupid...- he gave a quick glance at Shiho, curling his lips.
- Don’t worry, she doesn’t do it with bad intentions- he defended her.
- I know, but don’t you find it annoying?-
- It would be annoying if she wanted to mend me a disagreeable woman both in looks and in character, but Jodie is a beauty and she’s also funny- he repeated his sister's words, looking at her as he did it.
- So you like her!- she smiled excitedly, taking it as a confirmation.

Again he didn’t reply, he only turned his back to not let her see the smile painted on his lips. Perhaps those young detectives were better than him.

 

An hour after the party had come to an end, everyone slowly returned home after thanking and wishing again a happy birthday to Shiho. Only he and Jodie remained, since they had finished to tidy up the last things they had overlook before.

- Well, then we go too- said Jodie, taking off her jacket from the coat rack at the entrance.
- Thank you for coming- Shiho smiled, especially to him, just as she did as soon as she had discarded his gift.

He didn’t say anything, he just smiled back despite having wanted to be able to say so many things. They left the Doctor's house walking side by side, heading to the car. It was then that Jodie repeated the same question she asked him shortly before.

- You’re happy, aren’t you?-

Of course she must have noticed Shiho's smile, and above all she must have read inside him as she only knew, understanding what were the words he couldn’t say.

- I'm not sure how it feels to be happy, but I can say with certainty that I feel good than I’ve felt in a long time- he admitted.

Sometimes he felt that he could confess everything to that woman, because she would never use his weaknesses to hurt him. She wanted to protect that heart that others had broken.

- Well, it's a sign that things are going in the right direction, right?- she smiled.
- Maybe you're right-

 

…………………..

 

She smiled, putting that greeting card in its envelope and put it with the others on the bedside table in the row of those already read. Next to her, the Doctor was already asleep, just like the puppy whose dog basket had been placed next to her, so she could help it if it needed to go out at night. She had decided to read the greeting cards everyone has gave her with the gifts, because she hadn’t had time to read during the party (or rather, she had chose not to do so because she preferred to read all of those personal dedications).
She took one of the last two cards that had left and recognized it at once: it was Akai's one. She was astonished that a man of very few words like him had even managed to write a greeting card, probably he had just fill the space with a "Happy Birthday". Instead, with great surprise, she found few words written in English but with an intense meaning.

“I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again”
- Francis Scott Fitzgerald-

Only someone who could understand what her situation had been so far could have been able to dedicate such words. She had to admit that reevaluating her thinking on Akai hadn’t been a bad idea, perhaps he was the man Jodie had always described. She smiled, accepting the fact that that man really loved her, not just because her sister asked him.
Without thinking twice, she picked up the cell phone and searched for Akai's number in the phone book, sending him a short response message. She simply wrote "You too", attaching the picture taken a few hours before with him, Jodie and the puppy. She was certain he would understand.

 

……………………

 

He had just laid down, ready to read a few pages of a book before sleeping, when the cellphone rang on the bedside table. By that time the only people who could contact him were his FBI colleagues, so he hoped nothing had happened. With his great surprise, however, he found a message from Shiho. He smiled, guessing she wanted to thank him again, but he realized that it wasn’t so when he saw that the title of the mail was "Fitzgerald". Certainly she was referring to what he had written in the greeting card, even though he couldn’t guess what she wanted. Perhaps she didn’t like it and wanted to reproach him for not having written a regular greeting card. Entertained by the idea, he opened the message and found only two words: "You too", accompanied by the photo he had done with Jodie at the party. There was no need to ask for further explanations, everything was clear and crystal clear. He had given her that advice, but in fact he had to be the first to succeed in applying it. More than writing it to her it was as if he had directed it to himself.
He watched for a moment that picture, focusing on how they both smiled and for a moment it seemed to him that that photo had been taken six years ago. He had to have one like that in his apartment in New York, inside a box he'd locked up in a drawer together with everything that had to do with his past and he didn’t want to bring back. He had to put it there when he had infiltrated, to try to forget what could no longer be, but in the end he had forgotten it for real. He promised to find it as soon as he came back. The meanders of a drawer weren’t the right place for it.
Smiling, he also saved that new picture, the portrait of a future that had just begun.

 

AUTHOR’S CORNER

Sorry for the late, I know a lot of time passed since I updated this fiction and probably other time will pass until I’ll update it again because I want to finish it in Italian first, then dedicate all my time and energy to the translation.
This chapter came longer than I expected and I also had to alternate often the point of view, as there were three people at the same time who were having thoughts on a single situation. I hope I haven’t created too much confusion and you can understand who thinks and says what! Honestly, I’m not satisfied with this chapter, I’m sorry if I disappointed you too.
If you have questions about something, just ask me as always!
Kisses
Place

Chapter Text

She focused also on that last photo, which portrayed them all smiling and carefree together, as they should have lived from now on; then she closed the album, running gently a finger over the cover. She had done it on purpose, to keep the memory of that special birthday forever. It was now over a week since the party, yet so many things had changed that it seemed like years had passed. By now the disagreements with Akai seemed only a distant echo, there had been no more quarrels or jabs, so much so that she had gone more frequently to the Kudo house, bringing with her also her new friend who she had called Mendel, in honor of the genetics’ father (a name that had puzzled everyone). However, it was still not clear what exactly had happened between him and Jodie, as her friend had continued to evade her questions. She wondered if Akai really understood the meaning of the message she sent him on the night of her birthday or if he simply ignored it.
She remembered a conversation she had had with Jodie a few days earlier, in which her friend had informed her that everything was ready now and the FBI would be leaving Japan in four days. She didn’t take it well, even though she now had new friends, she didn't feel ready to part with the one who had become the best of all. Jodie sometimes made her feel like she went back to when Akemi was giving her older sister advice: giving up that newfound feeling was a big thing to get over.
While she was absorbed in these thoughts, a sudden idea came to her. Instinctively, she picked up her smartphone and searched for Akai's number among the last few calls.

- What a surprise, to what do I owe this phone call?- the voice of the man answered on the other end after a few seconds.
-I wanted to know if you have any plans for the last night the FBI will spend here in Japan. I thought about going out the four of us, me you Shinichi and Jodie, since we won't see each other for a long time- she explained.
- Well, the last night I imagine we would have a lot of things to pack and the suitcases to finish. Maybe it would be better to do it the day after tomorrow, as long as it's not a problem-
- No, not at all, I preferred to ask for this reason. Do you inform Jodie?-
- I thought you called her before you phoned me- he answered stunned.

To think of it, he wasn’t completely wrong, until that moment she had always addressed first to Jodie than to him, for anything. Instead, now she found herself calling him almost without realizing it, leaving her friend in second place.

- It wouldn't make sense, since you work together you can spread the word to her- she found a plausible excuse.
- And why didn't you call her so that she would then tell me? - he turned the question around, almost finding pleasure in embarrassing her with that interrogation.
- Does it bother you so much if I make you a phone call?! - she cut him short, not knowing what to say, with an almost irritated tone of voice.
- No, on the contrary. It's just that I'm surprised, that's all- he admitted.
- Well, then you will tell her. Tell her we'll go to dinner at the place where we went the first time we went out together, then she'll take care of explaining where it is-
- Okay princess, as you want- he ironized, amused by her authoritarian way of giving orders even to those who were higher than her.
- Well, then we'll talk soon- she hung up.

Satisfied and a little less sad at the idea of that evening they would spend together, she went back to leafing through the photo album from the beginning, looking forward to other moments like those immortalized.

 

……………………….

 

- I will miss this place, it is small but cozy, you can enjoy your lunch there- commented his colleague.

- Did you come often? -
- Well, being so close to the FBI headquarters it was convenient to come here for the lunch break- she explained.

He had decided to invite Jodie out to lunch, to talk about the phone call he had received from Shiho a few hours earlier. However, he hadn’t mentioned anything, he had limited himself to simply say "I need to talk to you about something", even knowing that this vague explanation would lead his friend to be very nervous, especially considering the current situation between them. In fact, as expected, Jodie appeared visibly agitated, she kept wringing her hands as she waited for the waiter to bring them what they had ordered and came up with comments like the one just made (on topics such as the environment or the climate) in an attempt to strike up a conversation that would sweep away embarrassment and tension. Perhaps she feared that they would return to the topic of their last discussion, so it was better not to make her suffer more than she had already done.

- Shiho called me a few hours ago asking if we are free the day after tomorrow. She would like to go out to dinner with the two of us and the young detective for the last time before our departure - he finally told her.
- Did Shiho really call you to ask this? - she seemed surprised, perhaps even more than he was at the moment he received that call.
- Why? Are you jealous? - he teased her - You no longer have the primacy of best friend? -
- What are you saying, I'm not jealous at all! - she shook her head - On the contrary, I'm really pleased. Did things between you really improve that much after the party? -
- Yes, and I have to thank you for that, if it wasn't for your help and the idea of the puppy, by now we would still be at the starting point- he admitted.
- I already told you that you don't have to thank me, I did it with pleasure because I knew how much you cared- she smiled sincerely.

It was that smile that reminded him of the message Shiho sent him, which was nothing more than a reply to his greeting card. He had perfectly understood what the girl meant to him with that "You too": start all over again with Jodie. It sounded easy in words, but the reality was very different. One part of him wanted to tie her to himself before someone else could take her away from him, but the other, the darker one, pushed him to continue his lonely journey through sad memories and guilt. Sometimes he felt like he didn't deserve a second chance, much less with a woman like Jodie. It was like inserting a rare pearl into a necklace made of wear-damaged rope. The pearl deserved better. His head pushed him to her, his heart pushed him away. He still didn't know who would win that battle, but he certainly knew that at that moment he didn't feel ready to end the fight.

 

…………..

 

She left the gate of the Doctor's house and headed for Shinichi's, finding her friend and Akai outside the gate waiting for her and Jodie. They were men, therefore impatient by nature.
She had put on for the occasion the dress that Sonoko had given her, a black dress with lacing behind the neck that fell softly on the hips and reached above the knee. She liked it very much and, modesty aside, she thought it looked well on her. She had completed the outfit with a not too heavy veil of make-up and heels.

- Look how beautiful our princess has become- commented Akai smiling when she saw her arrive.

She smiled too, realizing that it was meant to be a compliment but that like every cute word that came out of his mouth it seemed more like a mockery.

- Thank you- she simply replied, making him understand that she understood his intent.
- And where is the little one? - he asked, referring to the puppy.
- Mendel stayed at home with the Doctor, unfortunately, animals are not allowed in the place where we will go-
- But how do you call a dog Mendel?! - Shinichi shook his head, every time he heard that name he could not help but comment.
- Look, it's the name of an important person in the history of science! - she pointed out.

They could have continued that funny bickering for a while longer, but the arrival of a sparkling red Mustang interrupted them. It parked right in front of the gate of Kudo’s house, although it would have to stop there for a short time anyway. They heard the sound of the passenger side door opening, but they saw only a head of blond hair poking out over the roof, which they knew perfectly well who it belonged to. A few seconds later Jodie showed herself in all her beauty: she was wearing a red sheath dress with a showy neckline on the back that showed most of her back skin. She wore that dress to perfection, also thanks to her enviable physique. Now she no longer felt like Sonoko's dress looked so good on her. The beautiful agent greeted them with one of her splendid smiles, passing her gaze on each of them, who had been staring at her.

- Here, now I will look like a beggar in comparison! - she commented, twisting her mouth.
- What are you saying, you are beautiful! - replied her friend, admiring her dress and passing a hand on her arm in a friendly and comforting gesture.
- Sure, I was before you arrived with your long legs and your curves! - she pointed out.
- But do we have to go to dinner in an exclusive restaurant? In this case, I believe that both me and our skilled detective were wrong to dress us- Akai interrupted, looking first at himself and then at the friend at his side, dressed in casual clothes.

He was probably waiting for the young detective to express his opinion by supporting him, but this didn’t happen: in fact, Shinichi was still intent on staring at Jodie all red in the face, he seemed a bit of a fool to look at him closely.

- I think you impressed him, Jodie. Tell the truth: did you do it on purpose to enchant our Sherlock Holmes? - Akai smiled, amused.
- What are you saying?! I'm not attracted to teenagers, no offense Cool Guy! -
- N-no problem Jodie-san! - he managed to stammer.
- But isn't it time to stop calling me Jodie-san? Just call me Jodie!- she retorted him without malice, patting him on the nose with her index finger.
- You, rather, don't you tell her anything? She is beautiful, you should compliment her- she intervened, turned to Akai, who hadn’t expressed any opinion on the matter.
- Oh, but it's no use, really! - Jodie shook her hands, embarrassed.
- It seems to me that she understood it even on her own, seen all the praise- was his reply.

She gave him a dirty look, to which he replied with an ironic smile: he was stubborn as a mule and there was no way to make him do something if he didn't want to. Of course, however, he could also waste a few nice words on that woman who perhaps wanted to receive them more from him than from two teenagers.

- Well, do we want to spend the whole evening talking about me or are we going to dinner? I'm hungry! - the blonde tried to get out of that situation.
- Yes, I would say we can go- she agreed with her, climbing into the back seat of the car with Shinichi.

She had to admit that the car was even more beautiful than James' Mercedes. Certainly the FBI agents treated themselves well for what concerned cars.
Jodie circled back to the driver's seat, but was promptly joined by Akai who preceded her, opening the door.

- I’ll drive - he said without too many compliments.
- Why? Do you still think I can't drive? - she asked annoyed, wrinkling her nose and frowning.
- Apart from that, I want to take a ride in this car- he smiled at her.

Puffing and muttering in a low voice, Jodie went back to the passenger side and climbed in, buckling up. Akai started the engine and drove off, following the directions his colleague gave him step by step.
At the same time, in the back seat, she and Shinichi had begun to converse whispering, so that Jodie's voice covered their words.

- Are you still trying to be Cupid among them? - her friend asked, annoyed.
- Is that a problem? Don't tell me you've lost your mind over Jodie and are jealous! Does Ran know?- she joked.
- Don't be silly, it's just that you shouldn't interfere! -
- Even you!-

They must have turned up the tones a little too much, as the blonde turned to look at them and Akai peered in the rearview mirror too.
- Is everything ok back there? What are you gossiping about? - she asked curiously.
- Nothing! - they answered promptly in chorus, a gesture that left Jodie even more perplexed.

However, they did not ask any more questions and they ended that discussion there, it was not the case to have it inside a closed car with those directly involved.
About twenty minutes later they reached the small restaurant, which Shinichi recognized immediately. They entered and took their seats at the counter with the sushi conveyor belt.

- It's been a while since I went to eat in a place like this- commented Akai, looking around.
- Because you were too busy preparing raw stews and taking them to the Doctor's house? - she asked sarcastically, although unlike the previous times there was not too much nastiness in her tone.

Jodie and Shinichi giggled at that joke and even Akai seemed to take it well, replying with "Are my stews really that bad?".
As soon as the conveyor belt was well stocked with several freshly prepared dishes, they began to take the ones they liked more.

- Do you want some salmon roe? - she joked again, waving a plate under her friend's nose, knowing how reluctant he was to that particular food.
- How funny, did you suddenly become nice? - he replied, pushing away the plate and twisting his mouth.
- Why? Don't you like salmon roe? - asked Jodie, to whom the young detective replied by shaking his head.

The dinner went on in absolute harmony, without any quarrel: they ate and joked as if they were friends for a lifetime, as if all tensions had suddenly disappeared. It was as if all the events that had taken place in the previous days had been erased from history. Maybe they had achieved a balance, everyone had got what they wanted (or almost).
After dinner, they paid by splitting the bill and left the restaurant with a full stomach.

- I must admit that it was all very good, a very good choice- Akai complimented her.
- Thanks to Doctor Agasa who introduced us to this place-
- Do you want to do anything else now? - asked Jodie, who as always was all perky and seemed tireless.
- Why don't we go to the arcade? So let's see if these two phenomena are at our height- she proposed in a defiant tone, pointing to Shinichi and Akai.
- I'm not a video game fan, I'm sorry- the young detective declined the invitation.
- Me neither, I prefer to shoot with a real rifle rather than with plastic weapons- Akai supported him.
- Always at the top of the class! - snorted the blonde.
- In fact, you can even lower yourself to the level of mere mortals every now and then! - she crossed her arms across her chest.
- So what about the cinema? Or is that too banal? - her friend looked for an alternative.
- Yes, the cinema is better than the arcade- Shinichi nodded - What do you think Akai-san? -
- If that's okay with you - replied without enthusiasm the man, who in terms of entertainment was certainly not to be consulted.

Having reached a common agreement, they walked towards the cinema, since there was one right nearby and it wouldn’t have made sense to start the car to cover so little road. She found herself walking side by side with Akai as Jodie and Shinichi preceded them. The woman had put her arm around the young man's neck (as a friendly sign) and started asking questions about why he didn't like video games and whether he would like to try a gun, even if it was a fake one. For his part Shinichi did not know how to behave and what to answer, so he just giggled embarrassed scratching the back of his neck. Behind, she and Akai enjoyed the scene laughing silently. Suddenly the agent looked at her, perhaps amazed to see her smile and she did the same, probably for the same reason. The more she got to know him, the more she realized how much they had in common.

- It seems that things between you are going well - she said referring to Jodie, sure that he would understand without need of explanation.

“Why shouldn't they?” he replied very naturally.
- I'm not stupid, I realized that in recent times there was a lot of tension between you two-
- Don't worry, we won't stop talking to each other if that's what you're afraid of. On the other hand we work together, it would be impossible-
- Don't you really feel anything for her? I mean, look at her: she’s perfect and for some strange reason she adores you and would do anything for you. No offense but I doubt you can find another woman willing to give you what she is offering you- she pointed out without too many compliments.
- No doubt that you have a good opinion of me- he smiled, not at all offended - In any case this is my business, don't you think? -
- Is it the answer you always give when you don't know how to get out of an uncomfortable situation? - she tried to put him on the spot, tired of the fact he didn’t want to answer.
- It's the answer I give to those who want to mind my own business - he replied, without malice in his tone, however.
- Did you get my message on the night of my birthday?- she asked, to make sure he really understood what it meant.
- Yes, message received-
- I wouldn’t say-

They stopped talking only when they realized that Jodie and Shinichi had stopped talking to each other and were walking with their heads slightly turned back in an attempt to listen to their conversation.

- Is there perhaps some problem? - Shinichi asked.
- No, no, all right! - replied her, who certainly didn’t want to bring up the question so openly, both out of respect for Jodie and because she knew that her friend wouldn’t approve.
Arriving at the cinema, they looked at the programming on the poster, trying to choose something that could satisfy everyone's tastes. She might have been willing to put up with a love movie if that allowed Jodie and Akai to create an intimate atmosphere, but her friend seemed to be just as interested in action films as the other two. She sighed: being a Cupid was more difficult than she thought.

- There is no movie with the FBI! - the blonde complained.
- I remind you that we are in Japan, they don’t dedicate movie to us- Akai pointed out.

After a careful analysis, they opted for an old film they were re-broadcasting, Sakebi, whose plot intertwined the detective and horror genres. Needless to say, she didn't like that choice at all, since she hated horror movies.

- Can't we watch something less scary?- she complained.
- Are you afraid of ghosts, Princess? - Akai teased her.
- Shu, it's not nice to laugh at her! - Jodie defended her - Do you prefer that we watch something else? -
- No, that's okay- she gave up, not wanting to make a fool of herself, but not failing to give Akai a dirty look.

They entered the hall, bought tickets and went to take their seats: Shinichi sat next to Akai, probably eager to comment on the case with him, while she sat in the seat after Akai's, skipping one.

- Are you afraid to be near me?- he asked her.
- Not at all, I just kept the place for Jodie - she said, as if it were obvious, making him smile as much as her real intent was explicit.

The person concerned returned a few minutes later with a glass of Coke in hand. When she saw that her seat was next to that of her colleague, she looked at him for a moment and then sat down without saying anything, taking a sip of her drink through a straw.
Ten minutes passed before the lights went out and the movie began. Right from the start, her attention was not focused on the screen but on what was happening next to her: she peered insistently out of the corner of her eye what Jodie and Akai were doing, hoping to see their hands intertwined or her head settle on his shoulder.
Needless to say, none of this happened, much to her regret. On the contrary, when the film reached its most terrifying part it was she who clung to Jodie's arm, who tried to calm her while the other two laughed at her.

- Do you want to swap places with me? Maybe being close to two men makes you feel safer- she proposed.
- No- she shook her head determined, not wanting to smash her plan just for a stupid fear.

The halftime break finally came and Jodie took the opportunity to go to the bathroom, giving her a way to talk openly with Akai.

- So, do you think you’ll hurry up and do something with her or not? - she scolded him in a low voice, so that Shinichi couldn’t hear.
- What do you expect me to do?- he replied.
- What all men do with their women in the cinema: take her hand or put your arm around her neck! I certainly don't have to tell you what to do, you are the man! -
- I already told you that this is none of your business, Miss- he replied smiling.

She wrinkled her nose irritably: there were moments when she really couldn't stand him and regretted having accepted to be her friend. She didn't have time to reply, as Jodie had returned from the bathroom; so they all started talking about the movie together, trying to hide the conversation they had just before.
Even throughout the second part of the movie nothing happened, Akai was adamant about his positions. She couldn't believe that Jodie didn't even interest him one bit, he must have been really crazy. It was as if someone kept offering him a million yen but he constantly turned them down. Certainly there was something underneath, something he didn't want to say.
After the movie they left the cinema and returned to the car, then headed home. During the whole journey there were no big conversations, the atmosphere of joy seemed to have died down. This time, however, the cause wasn’t a quarrel or a misunderstanding, but the knowledge that this was perhaps the last moment they would all have the opportunity to be together before the departure of the FBI. There would be no more evenings in good company. They had met by chance, all involved in a terrible story that had marked them but also helped them grow, but now they couldn't imagine not having each other in their own lives. They had created a true, strong bond that went beyond collaboration for the defeat of a common enemy. They had become a family. Distance, however, would have made that bond difficult. She wondered if Jodie would forget her with time: after all she was just a teenager and Jodie certainly had older friends in New York. And Akai? Could she really have relied on him if she needed it? How could he help her if there was an ocean to separate them? She guessed that even for Shinichi it was hard to say goodbye to that friend with whom he had lived, collaborated and planned fake deaths and new identities for a whole year.
They reached the gate of the Doctor's house, where they stopped the car and got out. They said goodbye, trying to smile and not think about the short time left, promising to meet at the airport the following day, where they would say goodbye again, but for the very last time. Jodie hugged her tightly, a hug that conveyed all the affection the woman had for her. She reciprocated as her eyes became watery. They remained like this for a while, until Jodie detached herself to go to greet Shinichi in the same way, who did the same this time without embarrassment but with the only regret of no longer having that nice FBI agent around.

- Well, I have to go now. It is late and I have to work tomorrow- she greeted them all.
- And Akai-san? Don't you greet him? - she intervened, emphasizing the fact that he was the only one who she hadn't hugged.
- I'll see him tomorrow morning at work, I'm tired of his face! - she answered ironically, shaking her hand and making everyone laugh.

She went aboard the Mustang and started the engine, not before waving her hand once more. Then she left and disappeared at the end of the road.

- I have to go too, I have school tomorrow - Shinichi said, waving to them and walking towards his house.

She knew that her friend had no particular problems to stay up late and that it was just an excuse to leave her alone with Akai. Perhaps he wanted them to greet each other with no one around, so that if they touched sensitive topics there would be no prying ears to listen.
So only the two of them remained, standing facing each other. Neither was good with words or a talkative, even in a situation like that. In the end, she took the initiative.

- I'm glad I met the real Akai and not Dai Moroboshi. You're not bad after all-
- Thank you-
- I want you to know that I’ve forgiven you for Akemi's story, I realized that you really loved her despite everything- he admitted - I think I'll follow your advice and call you sometime if I need to-

The man didn’t answer, he just smiled at her but in a different way from the mocking one he usually used. She understood that it was his way of saying "I'm happy", but as always he couldn’t do it with words.

- But you have to make a move with Jodie, otherwise you will lose her- she reminded him again, as she had done all evening.
- I don't feel ready to start a relationship yet. The memory of Akemi is still here and moreover, before being with another woman, I have to work on myself in order to not make the same mistakes - he confessed.

Finally he had given her that answer she wanted so much, clearing up all her doubts. He was still tormenting himself for her older sister, so he couldn't be happy with Jodie. This displeased her, both for her friend and for him.

- I understand your point of view, but Akemi is gone by now and you shouldn't fossilize yourself on this, because she too would like to see you happy and I'm sure she would approve Jodie. She can make you really happy-
- I promise you I'll work on it, Princess - he promised.
- I'm counting on it-

By now it was time for them to say goodbye, all that remained to be said had been said at that precise moment. They could have hugged like Jodie had done with her and Shinichi, but they weren't the kind of person to do such a thing, so they opted for a solid handshake, which sealed their new friendship. She was the first to hold out her hand and he did the same, smiling. They greeted each other like that, in silence, looking into each other's eyes; then she went back into the house and he walked towards Kudo’s mansion.

 

……………………………

 

Narita airport was teeming with people coming and going, all with their suitcases in hand. People who greeted each other with tears and hugs, others who gathered after a long time with a smile on their lips. And then there were them, sitting on one of the many rows of chairs waiting to board their flight. Most of the FBI agents had already left on previous flights, including James who had boarded on a special plane to transport Vermouth to the American prison. She would have liked to board on that plane too, but in the end she had preferred to stay and say goodbye one last time to those two “kids” she liked so much. There would be time for Vermouth and with James and ten other men there was no danger of her running away. The last ones left were her, Shuichi and Camel, the only ones who had someone to say goodbye too. Akai's family had come a few minutes earlier, so she had also managed to see his mother and brother, the first a beautiful woman even if quite austere (now she understood to whom Shuichi looked like) and the second a handsome boy but with a look a bit scruffy, completely different from the older brother. They stayed for a while, then they left with Masumi who was about to cry. There were only two people left to the appeal, who didn’t take long to arrive. As soon as she spotted them in the crowd, she immediately stood up and went to meet them, followed by the other two agents. Shiho held little Mendel in her arms.

- Sorry, there was traffic and we were late - said the young scientist.

None of them answered, they simply remained like that, standing in front of each other, smiling at each other without saying anything. Sad smiles, imbued with the knowledge that this was really the last time. They wanted to say so many things, too many for those few minutes, but they couldn't say even one. Yet it was okay, their silence was full of words.
In an attempt to break the ice, she got closer to Shiho and began cuddling the puppy, who was very happy to see her again.

- Did you bring him too?- Akai asked, breaking the silence.
-I took him for a ride- she replied.

They didn't add anything else, as the metallic voice coming from the loudspeakers called the passengers to boarding.

"Passengers on flight 707 to New York are requested to go to the gate for boarding."

707, their flight. There was no time left, they had to go and return as they had arrived. Before leaving for that adventure, she would never have imagined that she would have liked Japan so much that she would never want to leave. As a true American she was, she had always thought that nothing could please her as much as her native Country and its traditions: only now she was realizing how wrong she was. But maybe she didn't like Japan, with its diverse culture or cherry blossoms, but the people she had known and who had earned a special place in her heart. The brilliant young detective, her favorite, and that incredible scientist who was basically a girl like any other. She would never forget them, even if she never had a chance to see them again. They had given and taught her so much and in her heart she hoped that she too had given and taught them something. She had wanted to do something for Shiho but in the end, perhaps, it was Shiho who had done something for her.

- I'm going, I'll wait for you at the gate- said Camel, who probably had understood to be the only one a bit in the way, moving away from the group - It was a pleasure! - he greeted both Shinichi and Shiho with a wave of the hand, which they reciprocated.

She noticed that Shiho, since she arrived, had done nothing but look down with a melancholy expression on her face; she decided to let go of the puppy for a moment and hugged her without warning, holding her tight. The girl returned, and then wiped away with a gesture of annoyance a tear that she didn’t want to show to the other two, proud until the end.

- Oh, no, don't cry! We can see each other with the webcam and you can call me whenever you want, ok? - she stroked her face gently.
- It's not the same thing - she replied with watery eyes.
- Then as soon as they give me a vacation, I'll come and see you! - she winked at her, a gesture to which the young woman nodded, even though she didn't seem too convinced.

It was difficult for everyone to separate, but for those like Shiho who had never had friends it was even more. She also went to greet her favorite detective, who seemed to accept the separation better.

- I will miss you a lot Cool Guy, remember that if you want to join the FBI we are happy to have you on the team! - she said hugging him, making everyone smile.
- For now I prefer to be a detective here in Japan! - he replied.

She stepped aside when it was her colleague's turn. Although Shuichi wasn’t talkative, he certainly had something to say too. After all, he had bonded with those people even more than her.

- Stay out of trouble Princess, and call if you need - he said approaching Shiho.
- And you better get a move on - replied the girl, perplexing her and Shinichi who didn’t understand the meaning of those words.

Akai smiled back, probably to let her know he got the message. Then he turned to that boy with whom he had lived until a few hours before and alongside whom he had achieved his goal of destroying the Organization.

- It was a pleasure to work with you - told him the high school detective.
- Same goes for me. Who knows if it won't happen again in the future, young Sherlock Holmes- he held out his hand, which the boy shook.

"Passengers on flight 707 to New York are requested to go to the gate for boarding."

The metallic voice rang out again, warning them that time had indeed come to an end.

- I think we really have to go now- she said to Shuichi.
-Yeah- he replied simply.
- Have a good trip then and come back and visit us! - Shinichi recommended.
- That's sure! - she replied in her native language.
-Jodie?- Shiho called back.
- Tell me sweetheart-
- Thanks for everything-
- Thanks to you- she answered smiling and hugging her again.

She understood that other words would be useless, those thank you were worth more than anything. They had helped each other, everyone owed everyone.
They greeted one last time with a wave of their hand and then turned their backs on the two guys and walked quickly towards the gate to reach Camel and board. Their adventure ended there.

 

………………………….

 

She watched the two figures of her new friends move away, mingling in the crowd, until they disappeared completely. It was then that she vented everything she had repressed up to that moment, bursting into tears in silence. Mendel tried to wipe away the tears that fell by licking her face, without even realizing why his owner was crying. It wasn’t a goodbye, she knew that sooner or later they would return to Japan even if only for a few days of vacation, yet the idea of not being able to see them every day hurt her. She had already lost a family once, she didn't want to lose the second one she had created as well. Although she had met girls of her age and still had Shinichi, the Doctor and the children, Jodie would always have a special place in her heart, a friend that no one could match, a step-sister. She was surprised to think that after all she would miss Akai too, that the idea of having someone who always protected her didn’t mind when the fear that the Organization might return was still vivid in her mind. Both had left a void that couldn’t be filled.
At that moment she felt alone, despite the fact that the airport was crowded with people: it was then that she felt Shinichi's hand resting on her shoulder. She turned to look at him with her face streaked with tears and saw him smiling, as if he wanted to remind her that she wasn’t alone, that he was still there and that he would always be there, because if the rise of the Organization had united them, then its defeat wouldn’t have separated them: they were now linked by much more than a common destiny. With that knowledge, she dried her tears and patted the puppy to thank him for his support; then she walked out of the airport together with her detective friend, who put his arm around her shoulders. From that moment on, his new life would begin

Chapter Text

It was now more than three months since the FBI had returned to the United States, three months in which they had had to deal with the time zone and in general with readjusting to their normal everyday life. Living for an entire year in another state had made her lose many habits that were previously very normal, such as pizza every Friday night or going out into the streets of New York and hearing voices speak in English rather than those melodic sounds. typical of the Japanese language. One thing, however, had remained unchanged: the shadow of the Organization that still fell on them like a dark cloak that they seemed unable to remove. Only one of them remained to be defeated in order to finally be able to conclude that case that had lasted too long: her historical enemy.
Vermouth’s trial had started a few weeks ago, the FBI had presented to the prosecutor all the evidence collected to set her up and the same thing had done the CIA: in fact she had learned that Hidemi Hondou would also attend the trial as a direct witness of the facts. When they presented the evidence, the prosecutor initially had a hard time believing it (as they already expected), both because the accused was a famous actress, and because the story of a pill that reversed to childhood or a drug capable of stopping aging forever was really worthy of a science fiction film. However, it was not even possible that both the FBI and the CIA had time to waste making up such nonsense and even putting in place a trial; therefore in the end they had communicated to Vermouth, closed under strict surveillance in the federal prison, that she had been accused of murder (among other things towards a federal), of being part of a criminal organization operating all over the world and of all the others things she had done in those years. Chris Vineyard had therefore chosen to be represented by a lawyer assigned to her by the Government, which had surprised everyone since they believed that a famous actress had at least one valid lawyer behind her and perhaps she had one too, but for some strange reason she had preferred not to use it, as if she had resigned herself to her fate even before starting. It had seemed strange to her, it wasn’t like Vermouth to give up without a fight, but if she had preferred not to use her best weapons it was a point in her favor and she couldn’t complain about it.
The prosecutor then convened a large jury made up of about twenty members, as was customary, all selected by a group of ordinary citizens who were unrelated to the matter and therefore impartial. As in the case of the prosecutor, however, even the citizens had struggled to believe that such a beautiful and good actress, who had never been the subject of scandals or gossip, could have committed such atrocities. It angered her that the role played by Chris Vineyard led her to be seen regardless as a person worthy of respect. The beautiful exterior facade that she had built was a point in her favor that benefited her greatly; for this reason, when she was called to testify to the murder of her father, she tried to be as convincing as possible: if the exterior mattered so much, then she too as an FBI agent had to receive a minimum of respect. It had been hard to get naked in front of all those strangers, remembering that night where the fire had taken everything away from her. Telling the story down to the smallest detail made her feel as if she had relived it all over again and the wound in her heart that had never healed had reopened. Hidemi Hondo had also testified with her: she had imagined that even for her it was not easy to tell how her father died. James and other FBI agents had lent a hand, eventually leading the grand jury in the secret ballot to mutually agree that there was sufficient evidence to indict Vermouth and begin the criminal trial. Although some evidence such as APTX could be absurd and not very credible in the eyes of those who had not experienced the whole story, other evidence was too overwhelming not to be considered reliable.
The next day Vermouth had been summoned before a magistral judge for a first hearing, in which her rights and the reasons for which she had been accused were explained more clearly. The judge had finally decided to keep her in prison until the date of the trial, as she was considered too dangerous to release her. Here too, as in the lawyer's case, Vermouth didn’t object; however, when the judge asked her if she pleaded guilty or not, she smiled mischievously and replied with a provocative "you tell me". After that, the actual preparation for the trial began and both sides had organized themselves at best. The prosecutor then reread all the files provided by the FBI and CIA again, spoke again with the witnesses and worked out the best strategy. As for Vermouth, she was probably trying with her lawyer to find a foothold to clear herself, she certainly didn't expect her to like the idea of spending the rest of her life behind bars.
Two weeks later the preliminary hearing had been held, a sort of mini-trial that preceded the actual trial: there the prosecutor had invited witnesses like her to present all the evidence that indicted the accused, while on the other side the defense had questioned them trying to put them in difficulty and to find even an error in their testimonies that could question their veracity. The attempt was useless, since in the end the judge had found Chris guilty again and thus established the final date of the trial and the place where it would be held: October 10 at the federal district court in southern New York.
Those four weeks before the trial had seemed like years to her, she had spent them with the anxiety of being on the verge of doing justice to her father's death but at the same time with the fear of not being able to achieve anything. She kept wondering if there would, in any case, be a just punishment for Vermouth. Nothing would give her back her father, her home or the years in which she had to hide by pretending to be another person. Even now, sitting outside the door waiting to walk into the courtroom and begin, she was thinking the same thing. The big day had finally arrived and she was very nervous. Some people had already come in, especially those who intended to attend the trial as spectators; instead she was waiting outside with James.

- Have you calmed down? - asked her James, who hadn’t stopped for a moment to slide his eyes from her face to her trembling hands.

She nodded, aware of lying: she would never be able to calm down, there were too many things at stake to be able to take it lightly even for a second.

- Then come on, it's time to come in- he urged her to get up and follow him.

They opened the door of the courtroom and entered walking side by side. As she proceeded to the first places, she looked around and noticed the presence of some familiar faces, including Yukiko Kudo (probably coming to witness the trial of her former colleague and rival) and Shuichi, who was sitting in the last places as if didn't want to get too involved. She was surprised to find him there, wondering if he had come for her or just to make sure that even the last member of that Organization he hated so much had got what she deserved. He glanced at her as soon as he saw her enter, then nodded to her and hinted at a smile, as if to reassure her. Without saying anything, she reciprocated.
She took a seat next to Hidemi, who greeted her with a nod and looked at her as if she wanted to ask if she felt ready for this, perhaps because she too was visibly nervous. On the other side Vermouth, who was already present in court with her lawyer, looked at her and smiled mischievously, making her clench her fists in anger. She continued to make fun of her despite everything, she didn’t realize the situation and above all she showed no sign of repentance for everything she had done. The orange suit she was wearing wasn't a threat strong enough, the idea of wearing it for the rest of her days didn't seem to affect her in the slightest. In order not to get even more nervous, she turned to the opposite side, where there was the jury of twelve people that the prosecutor and the defense attorney had chosen from among many in the list of potential jurors of that federal district. She trusted their common sense and prayed for them to make the right decision. At that moment the judge came in, took his place and finally began the trial with the ritual blow of the hammer. He then invited the prosecutor and the defense attorney to briefly present the facts that had occurred. Once this was done, the prosecutor was able to examine his first witness: James as the head of the FBI team that had carried out the investigation of the organization. James took his place in the witness stand and the prosecutor's attorney began questioning him. An hour passed and the man illustrated all the data they had collected on the Organization and in particular on Chris's role within it. After James's testimony, the second witness was called: her name and surname resounded in the courtroom. She took a deep breath, trying to fight against those accelerated heartbeats that threatened to destroy that moment at which she had worked so hard, she got up and went to sit at the witness stand next to the judge.

- Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? - he asked her, in the ritual oath formula.
- I swear - she nodded .

The attorney of the public prosecutor then began to ask her all the various questions that they had previously prepared.

- Miss Starling, you were a direct witness to the murder of your father, who was an FBI agent like you, at the hands of Sharon Vineyard over twenty years ago, right? -
- Yes, I am-
- Could you tell us how it went exactly? -

Once again that question that in the eyes of others would have been easy to answer, but for her it was equivalent to remembering once again what she would have preferred to forget. She took courage and began to expose the facts.

- My father was in his office at home to check some files containing information on Sharon Vinyeard, at the time he was investigating her and the Organization she belonged to. My mother was sick and couldn't get out of bed. I was waiting in my room for my father to come and read me a bedtime story like every evening, but as he was late in arriving, I got out of bed and went to the office to call him: there I found Sharon-
- So Mrs. Vineyard broke into your house to steal the files containing incriminating material about her? -
- I don’t know if her purpose was simply to steal the files or if she had already planned to kill my father, in the end even by getting rid of the evidence contained in the files my father was already perfectly aware of their contents and could have simply rewritten them. Eliminating him was the only way to ensure that he took his secrets to the grave. Among other things, I don't remember hearing the doorbell ring, so she sneaked into the house-
- Objection: Miss Starling admits that she isn’t sure of the true purpose for which the mother of my client was at her home, not to mention that she’s only making assumptions based on no concrete evidence- interrupted her Vermouth's defense lawyer.
- Objection rejected- the judge stopped him -Please, continue on-
- I still remember how she was dressed: she wore a black jumpsuit and a cap of the same color that kept all her hair tied up, probably so as not to leave DNA evidence at the crime scene. I asked her who she was and she replied that she couldn't tell me because it was a big secret. Then she added a phrase that I will never forget, a phrase that I have continued to repeat for years so as not to forget the words and the voice of my father's murderer: "A secret makes a woman woman". I realized she was holding my father's glasses and so she handed them back to me. They were all crooked, as if they had been hit-
- Objection: the glasses could have been in bad condition even before that night - the defense lawyer interrupted again.
- Objection accepted-
- No, I remember them well and they were in perfect condition. Anyway I didn't worry too much about the glasses when I saw my father's body lying on the ground, with his back against a wall. Naively, I thought he had fallen asleep and forgot to come and read me a story. Sharon asked me to stay there with him until he woke up and I accepted. Then she left, but not before having set fire to the house-
- Was your father already dead when the house collapsed in flames? -
- Yes, he was already dead since I set foot in the office. Sharon shot him in the chest and then altered the crime scene to make it sound like a suicide. A stupid move, since an FBI agent with a nice family and a daughter he adored would have no reason to do that - she glanced contemptuously at Vermouth, perhaps without even realizing it since she was so taken by her same words.
- Objection: the witness' comment is of no relevance to the case-
- Objection accepted-

She clenched her fists, trying to calm down and not go too far with other similar comments, despite that cheap lawyer was doing everything to provoke her and drive her out of her mind. If he thought he was getting away with these senseless objections, he was very wrong, just as the judge was wrong to support them.

- How did she save herself from the fire? - resumed the prosecutor's lawyer.

- I went out to buy the orange juice that my father used to drink as soon as he woke up. When I returned I found the whole house on fire-
- Did you meet Mrs. Vineyard again after this episode? -
- No, but I couldn't even if I have wanted to since my father's colleagues placed me in the Witness Protection Program, completely changing my identity and address. I was raised by James Black, a close friend and colleague of my father - she looked for James and hinted a smile, which was returned by the man.
- But you say that Mrs. Vineyard searched for you to eliminate you as soon as she learned that only two bodies were found in the remains of the burning building instead of three-
- Yes, she confessed to me when we met face to face a year ago in Japan-
- Objection: there is no evidence that such a conversation took place - the fool tried once again to get away with it.
- Objection rejected. Go ahead -
- Thank you, Mr. Judge. Miss Starling, you further claim that Chris Vineyard, daughter of Sharon Vineyard, is actually Sharon herself. Two names for a single identity in a nutshell. Can you explain to us why you say this? -
- The first time I saw Chris Vineyard was at the funeral of her alleged mother Sharon. In front of the grave I heard her utter the same words that Sharon said to me on the night of my father's murder: "A secret makes a woman woman". So I immediately began researching in hopes of finding answers. The night of the murder I had brought my father's glasses with me, which is why they escaped the fire: Sharon's fingerprints remained on them, later collected by the FBI. I compared them to Chris's and surprisingly found they were exactly the same. As everyone knows, even if there is a close family bond between two people, it is genetically and scientifically impossible for two individuals to have the exact same fingerprints. So there was only one solution: Sharon and Chris were actually the same person - she explained clearly.
- But all of us have seen Sharon Vineyard with a different face to that of Chris here. How do you remember Sharon? -
- With the same face as now, which is why when I discovered that the footprints matched I wasn’t able to understand how it was possible that after twenty years Sharon had not aged even a bit- she admitted.
- Until during the FBI research in Japan you met a young scientist who in the past had been part of the same Organization that Mrs. Vineyard was involved in, right? -
- Exactly. The Organization had several shady trades and among these there was the creation of a drug with incredible properties, the Silver Bullet. The research and the various scientific tests had already begun for several years and carried out by a team of selected scientists, among which the parents of this girl stood out. But the Organization eliminated them for some unknown reason, before they could complete the project, which then passed into the hands of their youngest daughter, who became a scientist like them-
- You gave us some pills of this drug that this girl gave you in person-

The lawyer took the transparent envelope containing the white and red pills and brought it to the judge, who carefully observed them.

- Unfortunately, those pills are not those of the Silver Bullet, but those of the APTX 4869 created by the girl after the death of her parents. Unfortunately, all the notes for the creation of the original Silver Bullet were lost in the fire where the two scientists lost their lives - she specified.
- Tell us about this APTX 4869-
- It is a drug that the Organization had created to kill its victims without leaving traces, they made them swallow a pill and in a few moments death occurred. However, during her studies, the young scientist noticed that one of the laboratory animals she had used to test the drug, instead of dying, was rejuvenated, as if time had turned back. She didn’t disclose this detail to the top management of the Organization, so when they used the drug on some people it achieved the same effect. Even the girl herself took it and on her too the effect was to make her rejuvenate of ten years-
- Objection: all this makes no sense, it's a pure fictional story! -

Perhaps this was the only reasonable intervention that stupid lawyer had made since her interrogation began. Indeed, for those who hadn’t followed the whole story, it was normal to believe that those were all lies or at least inventions worthy of the imagination of a Hollywood director, they had anticipated this kind of reaction from the beginning. What surprised her was the judge's response.

 

- Objection rejected. Please continue-
- We have evidence of Miss Starling's claims - the prosecutor argued - We considered it appropriate to repeat the experiment with the guinea pigs, filming and monitoring everything in order to prove that the guinea pigs inside the cages have not been replaced-

The lawyer turned on the screen of a television that had been brought into the courtroom and inserted the videotape by pressing the "play" button: the first images that materialized showed the different cages with the different guinea pigs that had been subjected to the administration of the APTX . Throughout the video, it was clearly seen that the cages were never opened and that therefore no one would have had the opportunity to replace the guinea pigs. The last part of the video showed most of the guinea pigs dead and two that instead seemed smaller than at the beginning. The two cages with the guinea pigs in question were therefore brought in, plus a cage with a guinea pig in its original state, as were also those before the experiment. The judge examined them with the utmost attention, even more than he had done before with the APTX pills and like everyone in the room (excluding those who already knew) was visibly surprised that the size regression of the two guinea pigs subjected to the experiment could clearly be seen compared to the original one. There was a general buzz of comments that prompted her to look around, noticing everyone whispering in everyone's ears. For the first time since she had set foot in that courtroom she felt more relieved: maybe they had hit the mark.

- This would explain the mystery, however you claim that Sharon Vineyard's face was the current one twenty years ago, so when she later appeared in the media with the face of a middle-aged woman it was only the result of a disguise? - the prosecutor started again with questions, bringing everyone back to attention.
- Yes, Sharon is famous for being perfect with disguises. However, I would like to point out that Sharon's drug is not APTX, created only later, but the original Silver Bullet. I believe that that prototype had different effects than the APTX, so if the latter is able to rejuvenate, probably the former was even able to block a person's physical growth forever-
- How can you be sure that Mrs. Vineyard took that specific drug? -
- Because while trying to kill her she confessed to the daughter of the two scientists that she had to blame only her parents, who had forced her to live in those conditions-

In the following minutes, she was then asked about the clashes with Vermouth in Japan, especially the one that took place during the Halloween Party. She couldn't quantify exactly how long it had been since she sat in the witness stand, but it felt like days instead of hours. She was tested by all this, it hurt her to remember her father and her ruined childhood and Vermouth and her lawyer did nothing but make her even more nervous, the first with her continuous mischievous smiles and the second with his "objection".
When the prosecutor's attorney finished with the questions, she realized that in reality the hardest part to deal with was coming at that very moment: the cross-examination. Vermouth's lawyer got up and went in front of her, immediately starting to ask her questions to put her in difficulty and make everything she had just said lose credibility. He had done it before with James too, but he had proved to be very good at answering, as was expected of an FBI chief. She wondered if she could keep her cool and be just as good as him too.

- Miss Starling, you say that at the time your father was murdered, you were eight years old, right? How did you know that the files your father was viewing were exactly on my client, who you claim is Sharon Vineyard? I don't think your father would let you read his work notes, let alone keep you informed of what he was doing at work, not to mention that I doubt you can remember such precise details considering your young age-
- I have never read that dossier nor heard my father talk about it so much: what I learned was later reported to me by his colleagues, first of all Mr. James Black. I doubt that any FBI agents would have lied about such a matter, don't you think? - she replied scornfully, finding that question nonsensical.
- I'm the one who’s asking the questions here, if you allow it. You also claim that Sharon Vineyard shot your father and then changed the crime scene by passing the gesture as a suicide, but you didn't witness the scene directly, so you can't consider yourself a real eyewitness-
- There was no one else in the house but me, my parents and Mrs. Vineyard, so who else could it have been? Also, if my father had committed suicide in front of her, why wouldn't Sharon have tried to stop him or at least call for help instead of bothering to straighten my father's glasses that were twisted? -
- I repeat that I’m the one asking the questions. You have stated with certainty that after killing your father Sharon Vineyard set fire to your house, but again you have not seen anything, as you yourself told us a little while ago you went out to buy some orange juice for you father and you have found the house engulfed in flames only after your return-
- If my father was dead and my mother was sick in bed, who else could have started the fire if not the only person who shouldn't have been in that house that evening?! - she raised her tone, tired of those insinuations aimed at tarnish her truths.
- Miss Starling, moderate your tone and please answer my questions with clear answers and not with other questions - the lawyer resumed, looking for the complicity of the judge.

She took a breath and tried to calm down, apologizing for the tones used. She had to maintain a certain demeanor if she wanted those in the courtroom to believe her and not that criminal.

- We come to the most important point: you accuse my client Chris Vineyard of being Sharon herself, who until now was known by all as the mother - resumed the defense lawyer - You declared that you were at Sharon's funeral, so who is he in the grave now? You also said that you heard Chris Vineyard say the same words that her mother Sharon said on the night of your father's murder and from this you immediately deduced that they were the same person? They were mother and daughter, assuming Sharon actually killed your father that night, her daughter Chris might have heard her those words from her mother on another occasion. As for fingerprints alike, it could very well be a counterfeit, just like the experiment with those strange pills that you claim have a miraculous and disastrous effect. You realize this kind of thing is only seen in science fiction movies, right? You are an FBI agent, the pride of the US, you should be smart enough to understand that you can't fool people who have faith in institutions with cheap fairy tales, it won't do your reputation-
- Objection: the lawyer is only provoking my client without asking specific questions of any kind and without allowing her to answer - the prosecutor intervened in her defense.
- Objection accepted. Lawyer Williams, just ask the witness questions - the judge admonished him, thus avoiding her having another outburst to defend the honor of the FBI.
- Forgive me, Mr. Judge. So, you claim that two scientists from this Organization created a drug called Silver Bullet, which was then taken by my client, which has the power to stop a human being's aging process forever. However, you said that the two scientists died and that all the projects behind this drug disappeared with them. In short, there is no concrete evidence of its existence, right? -
- The evidence lies in the fact that the daughter of the two scientists managed to recreate a new drug based on the old one-
- But you yourself told us that it’s another drug, not the one taken by Mrs. Vineyard-

She bit her lower lip and looked down: unfortunately, she didn't know how to answer that question. It was the pure truth, there was no way out. Not even Shiho had been able to explain to her how things had really gone: the only two people who knew had dragged the secret into the grave with them.

- Assuming that, hypothetically, my client may have taken this new drug instead of the old prototype, the experiments you conducted show that the body of some individuals can rejuvenate for several years, but then the growth process would resume normal flow. So, if the person you saw on the night of the murder was the same age and the same face as Mrs. Chris Vineyard here, today sitting at that counter there should be a woman at least twenty years older or am I wrong? -

Again she could not find a logical answer to that question. She just stared with hatred at that lawyer who seemed to have managed to put her in the corner of the ring: unfortunately what he was saying was the pure truth and it was this, more than anything else, that annoyed her. The truth always hurts, especially when it backfires.

- Chris is Sharon's daughter, so it makes sense that she can also look a lot like her physically. It wouldn't be the first time the daughter looks exactly like her mother when she was young. So there is a possibility that the woman you saw that night was Sharon as a young man, while the woman who is now in court is her daughter Chris, right? -
- Two people cannot be identical! - she answered, showing a certainty that in the end she didn’t have.
- You also stated that Sharon was considered a disguise magician as well as an excellent actress: what makes you think that what you saw wasn’t the mother of my client wearing a mask that concealed her real face? -
- Explain to me how it is possible that she could know exactly what face his daughter would have had twenty years later and then reproduce it in a theatrical mask used to commit a murder?! Which woman would blame her daughter for a crime?! - She raised her tone again, now in exasperation.
- I know that the relationship between my client and her mother wasn’t rosy. Anyway, I think you mistook my client Chris Vineyard for her mother Sharon, blaming her for a crime she didn't commit. That’s all-

Without even waiting for a hypothetical answer from her, Vermouth's lawyer sat down again next to his client, a satisfied expression was painted on his face. As for her, she remained seated in the witness stand, since as usual practice she had to be questioned again by the prosecutor to clarify any doubts to the jury. However, despite clearly answering questions, her tone was dull, as if she was resigned to the fact that any answer or explanation she would give would never be enough to convince the jury.
Eventually she returned to her place too, filled with anger and frustration at how things had gone. That lawyer who at first seemed incompetent to her, actually turned out to be better than she had imagined at turning the knife. By now she had understood his intent, probably everyone in that courtroom had understood it: even if he couldn’t clear Vermouth from the crimes she had committed within the Organization, he wanted to prevent her from paying for the murder of her father as well. She wondered if this strategy had been worked out by Chris herself, who wanted to make fun of her to the end: the very thought made her blood boil in her veins. One hundred years in prison wouldn’t have been enough for her to feel even the slightest repentance for what she had done.
She hoped that the situation would be resolved as soon as possible, she trusted in the next testimony that would be the one of Hidemi, but now it had been several hours since they had started and everyone was tired and under pressure. It was known from the start that it would be a long and tiring process. The judge's voice echoed in the courtroom, putting an end to that first part of the trial.

- The court is adjourned tomorrow-

Chapter Text

The second part of the hearing that took place the next day had been focused entirely on the CIA testimony (especially on that of Hidemi, a key witness as an infiltrator), as had happened the day before for the FBI. In the end, there was no witness left to question, no one had agreed to testify in favor of Vermouth. All the members of the Organization had been knocked out and those of the good ones who knew her would never have spent magnanimous words towards her, not after all she had done. The few righteous actions she had taken weren't enough to erase years of crime. Finally, the prosecutor and the defense attorney were both ready to make their own speech, addressing the jury one last time and trying to convince them of the veracity of their arguments.
The first to start was the prosecutor, who perhaps, paradoxically, had the harder task of the two. Convincing ordinary people that a simple pill could make them rejuvenate was a difficult task.

- As you can see, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, two national security agencies gathered in this courtroom, both bringing concrete evidence of the guilt of Mrs. Chris Vineyard or better yet Sharon Vineyard, whatever you want to call her. I don't think two bodies of the caliber of the FBI and the CIA have time to waste bringing counterfeit evidence to court for the sole purpose of putting a famous actress behind bars. You have seen for yourself the results of the scientific tests regarding that drug, although it may seem science fiction it’s not at all, just as it’s not just imaginary adventures that Miss Hidemi Hondou told us when describing her experience as an undercover agent in the criminal Organization of which the accused Chris Vineyard was an integral part. As for Miss Starling, she would have no interest in coming here to painfully remember the death of her missing father if the perpetrator of that murder wasn’t the one accused here. Have you wondered why, despite being a famous actress, no one came to testify on her behalf? I therefore ask you to make an effort and open your horizons, beginning to believe in progress and in what science has come to be able to do over the years. If it is possible to create a drug capable of changing the physical age of an individual, then it is equally credible that the identity of a murderer and a criminal can be hidden behind a face known to all the United States. Chris Vineyard has committed several crimes and has to be considered a danger for our nation and also for others, since she has also acted on Japanese territory. That’s all-
A short speech but which concentrated in itself the essence of all the words that had been spent. A speech that left burning that last, faint hope of obtaining the much-desired justice they craved. She wanted it, James wanted it, Hidemi wanted it, all those who over the years had sacrificed so many things for this case that was finally ending wanted it.
The prosecutor returned to his seat, leaving room for the defense lawyer.

- Members of the jury, I ask you to be objective for a moment: how many of you really believe in the existence of a drug with similar capabilities? I imagine none and it’s understandable: such fantasies can’t be believed. If such a drug really existed, why would the Organization have kept it hidden instead of taking advantage of it to make money? It’s not possible to stop time, a human being can’t stop aging. Chris Vineyard is ready to serve her sentence for joining that gang of criminals, but she’s not the murderer of FBI Agent Jodie Starling's father. It was her mother, Sharon Vineyard, now deceased, who committed that murder: a completely different person. I understand Miss Starling's desire to do justice to her father's death, but the real culprit has now paid with her life and it’s no longer possible to do anything. Chris Vineyard and Sharon Vineyard are two distinct people, it’s not right that the mistake a mother made twenty years ago should fall on her daughter. I therefore ask you to be as objective as possible in your judgment. Thank you, that’s all-

She clenched her fists, trying to contain her anger. She had tried to prepare herself for this too, but only then she realized that perhaps she would never be ready. She knew right away that in order not to get out of it as a perfect loser, the lawyer would try to cling to even the smallest foothold to reduce the guilt and therefore the penalty of his client: the only thing he could get attached to was precisely the fact that Chris couldn't be Sharon. If the jury had believed his words, justice wouldn’t have been done for her father. In the end, she would have been the only one to leave that courtroom empty-handed, mocked by her historical enemy who continued to smile in her orange suit as if that affair didn't concern her at all. After the two pleadings, the judge informed the jury on the most appropriate laws for the case in question and what they should do to reach a verdict. They all knew that the decision would be difficult and that someone might not like the outcome: in federal trials, in fact, the jury must unanimously agree for the judgment to be valid; a single discordant opinion and the whole process would have to start over with a new jury. It was the option that everyone feared the most, considering how much they were under pressure for that situation. The last thing they needed was to enter a vicious circle with no exit.
Now in possession of all the necessary information, the jury withdrew to deliberate, moving under the eager eyes of all to a room adjacent to the court.
A nerve-wracking wait began and lasted for hours, until one of the members of the jury reappeared in the courtroom, but only to inform the judge that for that day they hadn’t reached an agreement. The latter was therefore forced to postpone the final verdict again until the next day. For the second time in that courtroom the words "the court is adjourned tomorrow" rang out, exasperating most of those present, who however closed in sad silence.

The next day was no different from the previous one: they entered the courtroom, sat down and waited in silence, praying that the torture would end as soon as possible. They waited for hours, hours and hours, until overwhelmed by despair they prepared themselves to hear that cursed sentence come out of the judge's mouth for the third time. It was then that the jury, to everyone's surprise, announced that they were ready to pass judgment. They all stood up, holding their breath with their eyes fixed on that group of people on which the outcome of a long battle depended. One of the members handed the folded sheet with the verdict on it to the judge, who opened it and slowly read it aloud:

- The jury agrees to find Mrs. Chris Vineyard guilty of being part of a dangerous criminal Organization and of committing crimes during that time; however, despite careful consideration, it failed to reach a unanimous verdict on the murder of FBI agent Ryan Starling and the rejuvenating drug issue. For these reasons, the jury considers it necessary to punish Mrs. Chris Vineyard only for the crimes committed relating to the Organization-

That sentence was like a punch in the stomach for her, a well-delivered and devastating blow. She felt she had failed and disappointed herself, James and her father first and foremost. Vermouth couldn't get away with it, couldn't help but pay for taking her family and childhood away from her. It couldn't really end like this, it wasn't fair that she was the only one who didn't get anything.
The judge continued, issuing the final sentence:

- Thanks to the jury for their work. The court is adjourned: taking into account the will of the jury and the evidence reported, I declare Mrs. Chris Vineyard guilty of the crimes committed as a member of the Organization. However, since there was no unanimous agreement on the murder of Federal Agent Ryan Starling, a retrial with a new jury will be held as required by law. Therefore, until a date to be determined, the defendant Chris Vineyard will remain in New York’s federal prison. The case is closed-

She lowered her head as if she were the one who had just been judged, like a guilty party at the gallows that gives her head to the executioner's ax. James and Hidemi, sitting to her right and left respectively, turned to look at her with deep regret. She was unable to see this feeling painted on their faces (and in any case she wouldn’t have wanted to see it anyway, she certainly didn’t need the pity of the people at that moment), just as she didn’t see the mischievous smile that had painted on Vermouth’s triumphant face.

- Come on Jodie, let's get out of the courtroom- James invited her to leave that large room that suddenly became too small, gently passing a hand on her back in a paternal gesture.

She got up with an almost mechanical gesture, as if the body and mind were no longer coordinated with each other, walking towards the exit like a ghost dragging its chains. She felt her strength fail, she wobbled at every step and for this she accepted James's arm, which gently supported her. Maybe he was the only one who could understand what she was feeling, he too hadn't been able to get justice for his old friend. She kept her head down to not see all those eyes she felt on her, those expressions of regret that at that moment would only get on her nerves. She didn't even turn to look at Vermouth who, handcuffed, was being taken away by the guards: she didn't care anymore.
She went through the door of the courtroom and left, continuing to walk along the corridor to get further and further away from that place. Behind her James and Shuichi, who had joined them, followed her at every step like two guardian angels who, however, didn’t have the power to do anything. She stopped suddenly, she didn't even know where she was going and what she was running away from: everything in her head was foggy. James stood in front of her and gently placed his hands on her shoulders.

- Come on Jodie, it's not over yet. We haven’t lost, we just have to be patient and wait a little longer to have our victory. We will do more research, we will find new evidence and we will be able to frame Vermouth! - he said, trying to be as convincing as possible.

She didn't know if he really believed what he was saying or if it was just a way to make her feel better; but surely those were the last words she wanted to hear. Not at that moment, no. They didn’t make sense, they were empty like the conscience of those who had believed in the innocence of that murderer.

- Of course, we will also find a pill that makes you age prematurely, so we will send everyone on the jury to the hospice where they should be!!! - she screamed, finally raising her face and staring at him with a nastiness that she had never dared to show until then and that didn’t belong to her - Let's face it James, no one will ever believe that a person can stop aging thanks to a pill, especially considering that we won’t find a single remnant of that drug created by the Miyano spouses! How can we prove the existence of something that doesn’t exist?! -

James and Shuichi stood staring at her without words: certainly that outburst was the consequence of her state of mind that had exceeded the allowed level of despair; however for them it must have been like being in front of a Jodie who had nothing of the person they knew. But she didn't care about that either, if they wanted to consider her a monster they were free to do so.

- Don't say that Jodie - James tried to reassure her - Maybe the next jury will be more inclined to believe that story, since even in this one there is still someone who believed it. If it were as absurd as you say, not even one in twelve people would have been convinced-

She shook her head, looking him in the eyes serious but at the same time unmotivated, as her soul had been drained of all emotions.

- You know James, I chose to do this job because I had enough faith in justice to think that someday my father's killer would pay for his sins. But today I don't know if I still believe it-

She spoke these last words, words that had determined her own judgment. Now James was the victim and she was the judge who had told him the only thing he didn't want to hear.
Without adding anything else, she walked to the exit and left him there with wide eyes to feel the blow.

- Wait Jodie! - he tried to stop her when he recovered, but she didn't hear him, she was too far away.
- Let her go, James- stopped him Shuichi, who had remained silent until that moment - Now it’s not the case that you start arguing, she’s too disappointed and she’s not willing to listen to you. I'll take care of it to make sure she's okay, don't worry- he smiled.
- Okay- he nodded giving up - Thanks Akai-

After greeting his boss, Shuichi joined her outside the courthouse, finding her in the parking lot sitting in the car crying. He had to smile when he thought of the wickedness of a moment before, compared to those tears that made her vulnerable as the puppy they had bought to Shiho. He approached trying not to be noticed, and then got into the car and sat next to her. Taken by surprise, she quickly dried her tears: she had never liked to be weak in his eyes. She wanted him to see her as a strong woman.

- What do you want? - she asked, almost annoyed and with her voice still broken by tears.
- You want to talk?-
- Not now- she dismissed him.
- If you surrender before the battle is over you have lost at the start - he ruled, with his usual way of acting like a glorious general leading his army.
- The battle is over-
- It seems to me that the judge said it's only postponed-
- And what’s the difference? It will always be the same story-
- No, if you improve the mistakes you've made-
- Oh, we missed the life lesson of the great FBI agent who never misses one! It’s easy to talk when you sit at the back of the courtroom with your mouth closed! You got what you wanted, your enemy is underground and you got justice for your loved ones, so you can't understand! - she thundered.

She looked like a snake ready to spit poison in the face of anyone who approached her. If she had looked in the mirror at that moment, she wouldn’t have recognized herself.

- Do you think it was easy for me to get what I wanted? - he stared at her seriously and maybe even a little hurt.
- I didn't say that, but you certainly didn't face a trial-

There was a moment of silence in which neither of them dared to open their mouths, they probably both knew that they would end up fighting sharply if that conversation went on longer than it should.

- Come on, I'll take you home- her colleague finally said.
- No need, I'll wait for James and come back with him- she declined the invitation.
- I think he will be busy for a while, since you are tired it’s better if you go to rest. I already told him that I would take you home- he lied.

She sighed, lacking the strength necessary to resist that piece of ice with human features. So she gave up, getting out of James's car and locking it with the key’s copy James himself had made for her. She still hadn't been able to buy a new car since she returned to the United States.
She followed Shuichi to his car and got in, never opening her mouth. The same thing did her partner, who started the car and got away from that place which, that day, had taken away everything she believed in.

 

Only after several kilometers she realized that Shuichi was not taking her to her apartment. The road was familiar to her, but it wasn’t the one leading to her home.

- Shu, following this way you don’t get to my apartment- she finally broke the silence.
- I know, in fact we are going to mine- he answered naturally.
- Why? - she raised an eyebrow - I don't know what your intentions are but I'm tired and I need to rest-
- Don't worry, I just want to offer you a drink. I think you need it-

She didn’t reply, actually maybe a little drink would help her to relax.
Arriving at their destination, Shuichi parked the car while she looked around. They took the elevator and went up to the fourth floor. Upon entering the apartment, Shuichi invited her to sit on the sofa while he prepared two glasses of Bourbon with ice. He joined her shortly after, sitting next to her and handing her a glass.

- Do you want me to make you something to eat or would you rather order take away?- he asked

She was so lost in her thoughts that she hadn't even noticed it was dinner time yet.

- I'm not hungry- she replied, taking a long sip of liquor.
- Come on, you have to eat something- he insisted.
- No Shu, really, I don't want to- she twisted her mouth.
- I get it, I'll take care of it-

He got up from the sofa and went back to the kitchen, leaving her there to roll her eyes: she loved him but when he acted like that she found him unbearable.
He returned after about ten minutes with two plates, each one containing a simple sandwich with lettuce and a few slices of baked ham. They looked appetizing, even if her stomach wasn’t about to introduce food.

- You don't understand the word NO, do you Shuichi Akai? - she retorted him.

In response, the man smiled at her and sat down next to her again. She took a bite of the sandwich and found it delicious in its simplicity. So they started eating, watching a cheap movie on TV.
After dinner, Shuichi went away to take his laptop, which he placed on the coffee table in front of the sofa.

- What do you have to do?- she asked, worried that he wanted to talk about work.
- I have to watch a live shoji game being held in Japan- he explained while looking for the website - A person I know well is playing the match-
- And who? -
- My younger brother-
- You have a brother?! - she rolled her eyes - You never told me! -

Shuichi didn't answer, he was too busy tuning in to the live broadcast. When he did, the game was about to begin, so there was no time to talk about this mysterious brother. They both watched that match carefully, each one for their own reasons. It wasn’t difficult for her to identify which of the two was Shuichi's younger brother, as the other player was clearly older. When they framed him in the foreground, she brought her face so close to the screen that she almost seemed to want to step inside. She stared at him for a long time, until the shot changed.

- What is it? - Shuichi asked her.
- You don't look much alike- she shook her head.
- My brother is more like our father, but I look like our mother - he explained.

After that brief conversation they went back to watch the game in silence, until sleep came to visit her and her head rested delicately on his colleague's shoulder. She didn't even notice when Shuichi put his arm around her shoulders to make her more comfortable.

 

…………………………

 

When he felt Jodie's head resting on his shoulder, he turned to look at her: although she was relaxed, the expression on her face was tired and sad. At that moment she seemed like a helpless child who just needed to believe again in the magic of the world. Maybe he wasn't the best person to give her back the positivity, but he still wanted to help her in his own way. He smiled, gently putting his arm behind her and being careful not to wake her. He let her sleep curled up against his chest throughout the match, hoping she'd feel better when she woke up.
Even when the game ended with his brother's victory, he paid no particular attention to it: he was too focused on finding the best way to implement the plan he had planned from the beginning, in anticipation of the unfavorable outcome of the trial. Because yes, he already knew in his heart that Jodie wouldn’t get what she wanted on the first try: the road to closing the accounts with the past was still long.

 

…………………………

 

When she opened her eyes she realized it was already morning. She didn't even realize she fell asleep during the shoji game. She rubbed her eyes and searched near the bed, feeling with her hand, the bedside table where her glasses were supposed to be. She put them on and began to look around: it was there that she realized she was in Shuichi's bed. She winced, immediately thinking of the worst: perhaps Bourbon and desperation had gone to her head and she had ended up making a huge mistake. She lifted the sheets to check the situation and realized she was dressed; this comforted her a lot, dismantling her earlier thesis. Also, Shuichi wasn't there next to her.
She got out of bed and walked slowly into the kitchen, where she found him sitting at the table drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. More than a young man in his early thirties, he seemed to her a man on the threshold of seniority, the same age as James.

- Good morning- he greeted her, realizing her presence - Did you sleep well? -
- Why am I still in your home and moreover in your bed? - she answered his question with another question.
- Last night you fell asleep suddenly, you could see that you were very tired and so I let you sleep. I was sorry to wake you- he explained.
- But if I slept in your bed, where did you sleep?- she asked, not yet fully convinced that nothing had happened.
- In my bed of course- he replied without the slightest embarrassment.

She felt herself flush, she must have taken on a purple color on her face. Had she really shared the same bed with Shuichi and didn't remember it? In any case, she could (maybe) rest assured: Shu was certainly not the type who would take advantage of her in a moment like that, confirmed by the fact that he was enjoying looking at her embarrassed face.
She walked over and sat down at the table, watching every move he did as he poured her a cup of freshly brewed coffee.
- Do you want me to make something or do you prefer to have breakfast in a bar? - he asked, handing her the sugar bowl.
- Coffee is enough, thank you- she smiled in response.

Her stomach was still closed, a night of sleep wasn’t enough to swallow the bitter taste of defeat. In all honesty, she didn't know if she would ever be able to swallow that bite. Maybe this was what Shuichi had felt when Akemi died, only now she could understand it exactly.

- Then I'll take you home, so you can change and get ready to go to work - the colleague interrupted her thoughts.
- I don't think I'll go - she shook her head - I don't have the slightest desire-
- Surely we will talk about the trial, James will want to prepare a new strategy- he tried to make her understand that her presence was essential and that she wasn’t the only one to long for victory against the enemy.

In response, she just shrugged, as if it didn't concern her. She knew very well that James also wanted to do justice and that he certainly wouldn't give up, but in that moment James had one thing that she, instead, had lost along the way: the strength to stand up and fight.

- Okay, then I'll take you home and you'll stay there to rest for today. But you'll have to call James to explain why you will be absent from work today. Remember that he’s your boss as well as being worried about you on a personal level- he concluded, getting up from the table and taking the cups into the sink.
- I will- she nodded.

She got up too and went to the bathroom, where she washed her face. She stood for a few moments staring at her reflection in the mirror: the total absence of make-up, the sketchy dark circles and that beaten dog expression made her rather sloppy, like those girls who no one would like to go out with. She had let go and couldn't find the motivation to make even the slightest effort and react. It was certainly not the attitude of an FBI agent, but that day she had decided not to be an FBI agent.

- Are you ready? - she heard Shuichi's voice outside the bathroom door.
- Yes, I'm coming-

So it was that they left Akai's apartment, heading towards hers which wasn’t too far away.
When they arrived, she got out of the car and turned one last time towards what she had always considered her guardian angel.

- Thanks for everything Shu. And I'm sorry if I was unpleasant yesterday outside the court- she looked down.
- Don't get down on yourself, Jodie. If even an FBI agent loses faith in justice, the world is bound to collapse-

Wise old Akai…always had the right sentence at the right time. How he did it was still a mystery, even after all those years together. They smiled at each other, without saying anything else. Then Suichi greeted her with a nod, rolled up the window and left for the FBI headquarters.

 

………………………

 

He parked the car, went inside and walked with a calm but not too slow step towards James's office. He found him, as expected, at his desk, reading files and paperwork most likely related to Vermouth.

- Can I come in?-
- Oh, Akai, good morning. Come in-
- I just wanted to let you know that Jodie isn't coming to work today. She said she would call you, but I reserve the doubt that she might not do it-
- I thought so - his superior replied simply, taking off his glasses and narrowing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger respectively - How is she?-
- She has seen better days. Her mood could compete even with mine - he tried to play down.
- I don't know how to behave with her- James admitted.
- How about giving Jodie some vacation? Given all the hard work of the last few months and the accumulated stress, maybe switching off would be good for her- he suggested.
- It could be a good idea - he accepted - I'll try to communicate it to her tonight or at the latest tomorrow. However, I don't think a few weeks of vacation will be enough to put things right-
- Are you referring to what she said yesterday in court? -
- I never thought I'd hear her speak like that ... Just her, who wanted to be an FBI agent since she was a child-
- Don't give too much weight to her words, in this moment she’s not clearheaded. Give her time and she will come back- he reassured him.
- I hope it's as you say-

He took his leave with a nod, closing the door behind him. Until then, his role had been quite marginal in the preparation of Vermouth’s trial, his job was simply to provide information gathered during his years as an undercover. On the other hand, Vermouth had never been his main target, so he preferred to leave everything in the hands of Jodie and James. But now that the thread that bound them seemed to have somehow broken, it was his turn to enter the scene. Even if that woman wasn’t his target, she was still the last piece that remained of that Organization that had taken away his father from him and that had forced his family into hiding. It was time to close the accounts once and for all.
Ignoring even the poor Camel who called him from the corridor to greet him, he headed to the archive, the only place where it was possible to make a phone call without too many ears hearing. He looked for the number in the phone book, pressed the green button and waited on the line.

- Hello? - the voice on the other end finally answered.
- I know this will sound strange to you, but I need your help. Or rather, Jodie is the one who needs it. Are you ready to give me a hand? -

Chapter Text

Those three weeks of vacation had certainly not helped her to accept what had happened. She had spent them mostly staying at home, allowing herself only a few outings to the cinema from time to time but finding all the films of poor quality (or maybe it was her mood that made them look like that). There was nothing she really wanted to do, she felt unmotivated and unable to get up. That process had been what could be called the greatest disappointment of her existence.
Despite the few friends she had asked her to go out or tried in every way to cheer her up, she had always declined invitations. The only company she had allowed herself was Shuichi's. Although she kept telling him not to worry, he had gone to see her undeterred almost every night after work, staying at her house for hours. She couldn't understand the reason for so much interest, Shuichi was one who undoubtedly cared for others, but not so explicitly. She was amazed to see him so close, especially after the talks they had had months earlier in Japan and to which they never returned. Between them the situation had remained unchanged, they were always two ex-lovers, two alleged friends and two colleagues. That evening, like the previous ones, he had gone to her.
They were sitting on the sofa drinking a glass of Sherry when his sudden question finally made it clear to her why he'd been all over her so much in those weeks.

- Do you still believe in justice? -

That question was clearly related to what she had said in court after the sentence. So he was worried that she might really no longer believe in those principles that are fundamental to an FBI agent.

- Only time will tell. Right now I can't answer your question- she answered him in all sincerity.

They were interrupted by Shuichi's cell phone, which suddenly started ringing. She thought she saw a strange expression on his face when he read the name on the display, but she couldn't say for sure if it was just the figment of her imagination.

- Sorry, I have to answer- he got up from the sofa, going to the bathroom and closing the door behind him.

Even that gesture seemed strange to her, it had to be a really private conversation if he didn't even want her to hear it. But she told himself that basically he was like that, he meddled in the affairs of others but didn't want anyone to know anything about him.
She sat on the sofa sipping her Sherry, until a few minutes later Shuichi reappeared in the living room with a slight smile on his lips, a detail that didn't escape her.

- Did something happen? - she asked him.
- Yes, I received good news that I had been waiting for a while - he sat down on the sofa again.
- Really? And which one? - she became curious.
- It's about my family - he answered vaguely.

As usual, it was impossible to get one more word out of his mouth. She leaned her back against the sofa, reflecting on the fact that even when they were a couple Shuichi had never told her much about his family. She knew he had a younger brother and a little sister, who were of British origin but nothing more than that. She would have liked very much to know everyone, to understand who he got that bad temper from and above all to enjoy for a moment the fleeting happiness of being in that large family that she had always wanted but unfortunately never could have.
Shuichi's voice brought her back to reality.

- Do you feel ready to go back to work tomorrow? -
- Honestly? No, I don't think I can do it all over again. But I have to go back, whether I like it or not- she closed her eyes.
- You’ll see that this time it will go better- he tried to reassure her - I will try to give my contribution too-

She had to admit she was a bit skeptical about this latest statement: what could Shuichi know more than what everyone didn't already know about Vermouth? Although he had been an undercover in the Organization, he had never discovered anything that could actually frame Vermouth. Still, it was sweet that he was trying to help her, she appreciated his effort.

- Thanks- she smiled.
- Now I have to go- he got up from the sofa, placing his empty glass on the coffee table - See you tomorrow at work-
- Okay- she nodded.

She accompanied him to the door and remained on the jamb to observe him until she saw him disappear inside the elevator. Then she went back into the house and went straight to bed, hoping to be able to sleep well enough to cope with her return to that job for which, at the time, she had mixed feelings.

 

…………………………

 

When the elevator door closed and he was sure he was out of Jodie's eyes and ears, he took the phone from his jacket’s pocket, quickly checked the time and then looked for the number in the phone book. A few minutes later he heard the voice on the other end.

- Hello, Akai-san? Everything okay?-
- Hi young Holmes, sorry if I disturb you while you are at school but Shiho called me a while ago. She said it worked-
- Are you serious? So fast?! - the boy wondered.
- I'm surprised too, but apparently she still had the formula to recreate the drug fresh in her memory-
- If she had taken the same time to remember the one for the definitive antidote, I would have saved myself a lot of trouble! - he complained.
- But maybe you wouldn't be here to tell it- he smiled - Anyway now we have the proof we needed, but besides that it’s good to have as many testimonies as possible, so get ready to fly to New York. I will keep you informed of the trial date-
- Okay, I'll wait for news from you then-
- Very well, see you soon guy- he prepared himself to end that phone call.
- Wait ... - he stopped him - Jodie-sensei…how is she? - he asked, becoming serious.
- I think she will be fine only when she will get the justice he wants - he said, without adding anything else, certain that the boy would understand.
- I'm sorry- he sighed.
- Don't worry, you'll see that we can make her feel better-
- I hope-

By the time he closed the phone call with his detective friend he was already in the car, he got in and fastened his seat belt. Before starting the engine, however, he looked for another number in the phone book and prepared to make another call.

- To what do I owe the honor of this call? - the female voice answered piqued on the other side.
- I thought you were happy to hear from your son - he replied.
- I'd be happy if he called me more often! - she scolded him, as if he were still a middle school kid.
- You know I'm always very busy- he justified himself - And speaking of that, I would need your help-
- Do you call me just to ask me for favors? -
- It's important-
- What is it about?-
- I need you to testify at a trial. It concerns the Organization ... -
- Explain yourself better- she became serious.
- The trial that was done to Vermouth a month ago didn’t go as hoped. The jury didn’t entirely believe the story of the drug that makes a person's physical age regress. On the other hand, I can't blame them. The result is that Vermouth is still behind bars but without a proper sentence, so we’ll have to take part in a retrial. A colleague of mine didn't take it well, since Vermouth has been her sworn enemy for years, so I'm trying to gather more evidence and information than we had in the first trial. This time we can’t afford to be wrong. Since you too have an unfinished business with Vermouth, I thought you might like to contribute to the testimonials - he concluded.
- "Pleasure" is a term that doesn’t suit my thoughts on that Organization ...What should I do? - she asked.
- Simply telling the truth, that is, that Vermouth forced you to ingest a drug that made you go back to the age of a middle school girl. If you could also get some recent photos of when you were still in the body of a teenager it would be better, possibly with the date of the shot to avoid thinking of an old photo of when you were really a middle school student-
- Why should I do this, Shuichi? Why should I put our family in danger again by exposing myself in this way? Who can guarantee me that there aren't any of them out there yet on the loose ready to hunt us down? Just now that we have found your father, that Masumi can have a father! - the tone of her voice altered, a sign that the request didn’t suit her.

It was understandable that after all they'd been through, his mother just wanted to enjoy their finally reunited family. She too, like all of them, was tired of being involved in those events and living in hiding with the fear of being found. But this wasn’t the time to be afraid, this was the time to go all out. They had to win that game, at all costs.

- You’re telling me that an MI6 agent is afraid to expose herself to bring a criminal to justice? - he provoked her.
- This has nothing to do with my work! -
- But instead it has to do with it. You too were on their trail, you too experienced their cruelty on your skin and you wanted to put them behind bars to avenge dad when we thought he was dead-

He was trying in every way to leverage on her weak points, to turn the knife in the wounds to force her to react. He wanted to get her to do exactly what he wanted. She probably understood it too, on the other hand they looked too much alike. He knew that when she faced the “Tsutomu argument”, his mother weakened the armor. She loved her husband too much to remain indifferent.
There was a long silence on the other side of the phone, no reply. Maybe he had hit the mark.

- I'm just asking you to do the right thing, even if the price to pay seems high. Right now a woman is feeling what you felt: she would like justice for the death of a person she loved but can’t get it because she doesn’t have evidence enough convincing to execute those who deprived her of her happiness. But while you got your husband back, she can't possibly get back the father that Vermouth took from her. All she has left is the hope of doing justice, but she’s losing it- he paused - Besides, I'd say you owe me, after all-
- I understand, that's enough- she interrupted him- I'll do what you asked me, but if something should happen, remember that you’ll be held responsible. And stop blaming me for that story! -
- I’ll take my responsibilities- he smiled, proud of having got (as always) what he wanted.
- Do you care so much about this woman? Is she your girlfriend?-
- This has nothing to do with the trial - he dismissed her.
- What an ungrateful son, he asks me for favors and then doesn't even answer my questions! - she complained.
- Now I have to go, I'll let you know the date of the trial so that you can arrange to come to America. See you soon mom- he closed the call.

 

…………………….

 

He walked along the corridor sipping a can of black coffee that he had just taken from the vending machine and returning the greeting of some colleagues, headed for his boss's office. James was the last person left to tell the good news after all the phone calls the night before.
He knocked on the door and waited for him to invite him in.

-Akai, come in-
- Good morning James, I bring you good news- e straight to the point.
- Really? About what?-
- Vermouth’s trial -
- What news?- he widened his eyes a little, surprised by that revelation.
- I have collected irrefutable evidence, this time that cheap lawyer won’t get away with it - he smiled mockingly - So you can proceed to set the date of the trial-

James stared at him for a few seconds with his mouth open, not knowing what to say. It was obvious that of all the news he could have given him, this would be the last he could have imagined. After all, he had moved in the shadows, as he always did, without letting anyone know about his research. He knew that this lone wolf side of him sometimes bothered James, but he also knew that the man placed his total trust in him.

- I didn't imagine you were collecting evidence too- he admitted - Can you show it to me? -
- I'd like to, but unfortunately at the moment I don't have them in my hands yet. The people I asked for will bring them directly when they come to America for the trial- he concluded.
- Sorry Akai, but how can I set a trial without first seeing the evidence you speak of? - he asked doubtfully.
- The sources are reliable, we can trust them one hundred percent- he reassured him.
- And may I know who these people would be? -
- You know them very well too: our young detective, the scientist girl and my mother-
- Well, a remarkable cast...but are you really sure it will work? I remind you we can't afford to lose again-

He smiled, realizing that his concern wasn't so much for the FBI's reputation if they were defeated in two consecutive trials, as for Jodie, who was like a daughter to him. In those weeks he had suffered with her, even though they had been far away. He knew that he had phoned her often and sometimes even went to see her, hoping to see her get better.

- You have my word that this time we won’t fail- he stared him straight in the eye.

Their conversation was interrupted by someone knocking on the office door. Jodie's head peeked out of the half-open door.

- Am I bothering you?- she asked.
- Of course not, welcome back! - James welcomed her warmly, smiling at her and standing up.

In response, Jodie forced a smile, but her discomfort was evident. She probably wanted to be anywhere but there. Everything around her must have reminded her of that failure.

- You arrive at just the right time, we have excellent news! - he tried to cheer her up, using the card that Akai had just placed on the table.
- That is? - she just replied, frowning.
- Akai found additional evidence to support the rejuvenating pill theory-

He saw her shift her gaze to him, staring at him doubtfully. Under normal conditions she would have trusted him blindly, but right now Jodie couldn't even trust herself.

- How long has it been since the trial? A month? Little more? How do you think that the evidence found in such a short time could be the key to victory? - she asked skeptically, crossing her arms to her chest - Especially if we consider that we have spent years collecting the evidence we had. Let's be honest, we probably have no chance of winning. If I hadn't lived this story firsthand, I probably didn't believe the miraculous pill story either-

Those words were enough to extinguish James' enthusiasm, who lowered his head like a beaten dog. He felt sorry for him, because he was trying as hard as he could to make happy the capricious child he had raised in the place of his dead friend. He too wanted justice for Jodie's father, but he didn't know how. And now he also had to take care of recovering Jodie from that abyss she had fallen into.

- Trust me Jodie, my plans always work and you know it- he intervened to help his boss - You shouldn't have that negative attitude, otherwise you’ll be the first to make our second chance fail-

He hadn't moderated his words too much, but on the other hand he didn't usually do it. He said what he thought, what he thought was right. He could understand Jodie's pain, but he didn't justify her attitude. Busy as she was crying on herself, she didn't even realize how much James was suffering.
He saw the expression on her face changing, skepticism had given way to anger. She probably felt like no one really understood her. But he didn't care, he just wanted to let her know she was wrong.

- What attitude should I have?! - she altered, raising her tone.
- That of someone who trusts her colleagues-
- Oh, but I trust you: it's the jury who thinks we are all visionaries who believe that people shrink with a pill! Why don't you go tell them to trust your evidence ?! -
- Come on, now calm down, both of you- James tried to pacify souls.
- I'm going to my desk- she concluded angrily.

She turned her back on them and strode out of the office, completely ignoring poor Camel who tried to greet her.

 

…………………….

 

They had all gathered in his apartment, which was perhaps a little too small to accommodate so many people. They were sitting in a circle around a small table, where they had placed all the material to be viewed. It had been three weeks since he called them and now, finally, he could hold the evidence in his hands. The trial was scheduled for the following week, so they had little time.

His mother was showing photos taken when she still looked like a middle school girl under the influence of the drug. The date and time appeared on the photos, as he had asked. He hoped that being an MI6 agent would have helped her to seem more credible.
Then it was Shinichi and Shiho's turn, who also had photos of when they were Conan and Ai. But actually it was Shiho who had the most damning proof of all, enclosed in that small USB stick in the center of the table. He inserted it into his PC and opened the video file contained within it, while everyone's eyes were fixed on the screen, eager to know.
The video was shot with a camera that reported a fixed date and time and showed seven mice in the foreground, all of the same size, locked in a cage. Several seconds later Shiho was seen giving them something, a half red, half white pill. Within minutes, six of the seven rats were visibly dead, lying with their paws curled up and showing no signs of life. The seventh, on the other hand, was still alive, moving among the lifeless bodies of his fellows. But the most surprising thing was that the size of the latter had significantly decreased. If it hadn’t been for the date, time and timer with the time running out, one might have thought that someone had replaced the mouse with a smaller one. He smiled satisfied, interrupting the video, while the others didn’t even seem so surprised by that. It was understandable, on the other hand three of them had experienced that metamorphosis firsthand.

- Excellent, I would say that this is the decisive proof-
- How can you be sure it works? - Shiho asked - I mean, do you think people will just believe this video or try to find an easier explanation, such as accusing us of having falsified the date and time of the video and of having replaced the mouse in the cage with a smaller one? -
- Of course you and Jodie are just two drops of water - he let out in a low voice, but not so low as to prevent everyone from hearing - In that case, be ready to support your thesis by all possible means-
- You make it easy, but my position isn’t the best. I remind you that during the trial it will come out that I was also a member of the Organization and moreover the creator of that drug. Do you think people will have so much faith in me after this? -
- Yes, but it’s also true that in the end you turned your back on the Organization and allied yourself on the right side - Shinichi intervened - Perhaps emphasizing your "redemption" could help not put you in a bad light because of your past-
- If that's why then my sister, your mother, was also a member of the Organization before you, so I'm also an MI6 agent with a sister involved- intervened Mary, who had remained in silence until then - I think none of our positions are easy-

Shiho stared at her, shrugging: she probably hadn't gotten used to that new aunt yet. Many things had changed in the six months that had passed since the FBI left Japan. Mary had wanted to meet her and she had been afraid of it. More than understandable, since the aura that his mother emanated was even more frightening than the one he emanated himself. It was certainly not the living portrait of the sweet mother ready to cuddle you. It was more likely to receive punches and harsh words from her.
She didn’t understand why she wanted to see her, by now the history of the Organization was dead and gone. Eventually she accepted, thus learning that Mary was her mother's sister, as well as her aunt. This meant that she was directly related to their family and that, consequently, he was her cousin. The thing had upset her to the point of escaping in the middle of the conversation and taking refuge at the young detective's home.
For days she had been prey to mixed feelings, anger on the one hand and curiosity to meet the only people in the world still alive who were actually part of her family tree on the other. By now she had got used to considering Doctor Agasa as her family, even if there were no blood ties between them. But she had to admit that that aunt who came out of nowhere had made her curious to know more about that mother she hadn't been able to have. So, also encouraged by Shinichi, she put aside her anger and contacted Mary again, this time talking to her without running away. She certainly wasn't the caring and sweet aunt that everyone would want, she was a cold woman worthy of the eldest son she had given birth, yet she couldn't say that she seemed like a bad person. Perhaps in some ways she also resembled her.
She then phoned him to find out what he thought of all that story. He couldn’t help but express his disappointment, not so much for the fact that his mother had kept hidden an aunt and two cousins from him all those years, but because he just couldn’t accept the idea that the woman he was still consuming his mourning for was actually his cousin. In Japan there would have been nothing wrong with that, but growing up in England meant that his mentality was that of a Westerner.
He was so angry that he never called his mother again for a whole month. Then, little by little, tempers had calmed down and now everyone was doing their best to reunite that family that had been separated for too long.
Tsutomu had proved to be the most affectionate of all with Shiho and happy to have acquired a granddaughter, apart from Masumi who hugged her all the time as she did with any other living being.

- Rather, why isn't Jodie around? This process concerns her more than all of us- Shiho asked, trying to change the subject.
- I think it’s better not to stress her too much and leave her calm as much as possible. Jodie hasn’t yet recovered from the previous trial, she’s very sensitive and gets easily nervous if you touch on the subject. I would like not to tell her anything about you and these tests until the day of the trial- he explained.
- Do you want to keep her in the dark?! - she disapproved.
- Think how surprised and happy she will be to see that you and the young detective have come to help her-
- I remind you that it’s not her birthday party, it’s a trial in which her father's murderer will be judged-
- I know well, for this reason I count on the collaboration of all of you-

They discussed the strategy for the next twenty minutes, then the guests took their leave. He accompanied them to the door and reminded them of the date and time they would have to go to court.
When the others walked away to the elevator, Shiho stood there at the door staring at him.

- Still no progress with Jodie from what I see. Are you waiting for old age? -

He smiled, expecting the usual lecture she had continued to give him over the phone.

- I would say that this is not the time to talk about relationships and these last few months have seen us busy concentrating on other things - he justified himself.
- If you want to tell yourself these lies, go ahead, but it doesn't work on me. Your sister keeps telling your parents that Jodie is your girlfriend, so you'd better get ready because when they meet her it could be a little embarrassing ... - she warned him, then took a few steps and walked away to reach the others who were waiting for her .
- I will survive- he replied simply.
- Seriously, stop stalling. Sooner or later someone will steal her from you-

He closed his eyes for a few seconds, reflecting on those last words. Then he opened them again and closed the door, returning to his apartment. That know-it-all girl was right, Jodie wouldn't wait for him forever, it wasn't fair. But it wasn't even fair for him to try hard to start a new relationship when he was still gripped by the ghosts of the old one. And then there was the trial, the result of which would forever mark Jodie's fate, for better or for worse.
Now it wasn’t the time to be her man. Now he had to be her hero. At least he could do this and he knew he could do it better than anyone else.

Chapter Text

At eight o'clock they were already in the court, ready to enter the courtroom. She, James, Shuichi and Camel were sitting just outside the door, locked in an almost religious silence. She realized that she was waving a leg nervously, perhaps more than she should: she was visibly anxious and hearing the looks of her colleagues aimed at her certainly didn't help. They must probably have noticed it too. Everything around her made her terribly restless, almost annoyed.
As for the previous trial, Vermouth had chosen to be defended by the same conceited lawyer: understandable, since he had allowed her to delay her official sentence. Perhaps this time she was even hoping to get away with it and perhaps she would even succeed. This was her greatest fear. If it came true, she would really have nothing left to believe in.
The prosecutor had convened a new jury, as usual: it wasn’t possible to get the same jury back from the previous trial, but perhaps this was good. She hoped these people were more likely than previous people to believe to the story of the rejuvenating drug.
Her flow of thoughts was distracted by the arrival of Hidemi, who greeted them and sat next to them, then remaining silent. The atmosphere was heavy, it was possible to read the concern on everyone's faces: it was at that moment that she realized she wasn’t the only one to be afraid or disappointed by the last trial. They all wanted the same thing.
While she mulled over all this, a group of people walked in from the front door. When they were close enough to recognize their faces, she was speechless. Nobody said anything, two of them just smiled at her.

- Cool Guy ... Shiho ... - she only managed to say in a feeble tone, seized with emotion.
- It’s been a while, Jodie-sensei - Shinichi greeted her.
- We couldn't miss it - added Shiho.

Behind them the rest of the group waited their turn to say greet, not wanting to be too intrusive. The Kudo spouses, Shuichi's parents and his little sister. She thought that she hadn’t had the opportunity to know them well, although she would have liked to know better the origins of the man she loved.
She got up from her chair, animated by an unknown inner strength that woke up in her every time she saw those two guys.

- How are you? - she hugged them both, first one and then the other.
- Not bad and you Jodie-sensei? - replied the young detective.
- Still with this "sensei"? - she scolded him.
- Forgive him, he's a boring and habitual old man in the body of a seventeen-year-old - Shiho didn’t fail to joke.
- Look who's talking!- he replied, muttering and twisting his lips.
- But did you really come all the way here just to see the trial? she asked incredulously.
- You're wrong- she heard Akai's voice behind her - They are the guests of honor of this trial-

There was no time for further explanations and presentations, the door of the courtroom opened and they were called to enter. As she walked those few meters to take her seat, she ran her gaze over the faces of all the twelve new jurors, as if just looking into their eyes she could tell if they would believe their version of the story or Vermouth's.
Sharon was sitting in the same seat as last time, opposite to her. It was as if they had gone back to that day two months ago, as if time had gone backwards to give her a second and last chance to achieve the goal she had worked a lifetime for. The awareness of being able to get, on the one hand, everything she had always wanted, but on the other hand, to be able to lose everything with the same ease only increased that grip in the stomach that had never abandoned her since the day of the sentence.
She sat in the front row seats, along with James, Kir and this time Akai as well, who sat next to her. To her astonishment, Shiho, Shinichi and Shuichi's mother immediately stood behind them in the second row. Usually the front rows were intended for witnesses. She looked at Akai for explanations, but all she got, like last time, was a half-smile of encouragement. He seemed calm, as if nothing touched him at that moment, as if he had the absolute certainty that victory was already in their hands.
She noticed that Vermouth was looking at them one by one, smiling, amused. She gritted her teeth, refraining from standing up and going to punch her in the face. She composed herself when she saw the judge entering, taking his seat and sanctioning the start of the trial with the blow of the hammer.
Everything took place as in the previous trial: she, James and Hidemi were called one after the other to testify, repeating nothing less than what they had already said previously. This time she tried not to get too nervous about the tricky questions of that cheap pettifogging lawyer who was trying to defend the indefensible corrupt actress. The only extra card the FBI had put on the table in this second round was Shuichi's testimony. When the judge called his name, he got up and went to sit at the witness stand, all with enviable calm.
- Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?- the judge asked the ritual question.
- I swear - he replied.

The prosecutor's attorney began to question him, holding in his hand the file with his information.

- Mr. Akai, here it is written that you have been an undercover in the Organization of which Miss Vineyard was part of for three years, under the code name of Rye and the alias Dai Moroboshi, is that correct? -
- I confirm-
- I guess this has given you the opportunity to see closely Miss Vineyard's work. Can you tell us about this? -
- I didn’t collaborate closely with Vermouth, let's say that she has always liked to move alone. She knew she could do it, since she was the Boss' favorite, but the other members of the Organization didn’t look favorably on her for this reason. All I can say is that she’s a woman as charming as she’s ruthless, a real rotten apple-

The defense lawyer immediately tried to get in their way, as everyone expected.

- Objection: the witness is using defamatory nicknames against my client-
- Objection rejected- said the judge -Please proceed-
- In your years as an undercover in the Organization, have you ever seen with your own eyes the process used to make this drug that have rejuvenating properties? Have you ever seen someone take it and shrink in front of your eyes? -
- Unfortunately no, I only found out about this drug two years after leaving the Organization - he admitted - But in the last year I have met several people who have been victims of that drug-
- How can you be sure that these people actually ingested the drug? -
- Because they were all people I had already met in the past, only with a different biological age. If ten years ago I had met a kid of six or seven years old, today that kid would have to be a teenager around seventeen. But a year ago I met the same kid again and I was somewhat surprised to see that he was still seven years old. Peter Pan exists only in fairy tales, right? -

There were distinct murmurs of amazement among the jurors and also among those attending the trial. Akai was one who knew how to speak as well as act, in some cases he would even be able to sell icicles to the North Pole. Which was good in a situation like this.

- Are you absolutely sure that the child is really the same and not someone else who looked like him? -
- Well, one thing is to look alike and one thing is being two of a kind. Not to mention that that child, today, is sitting here to watch the trial- he declared, turning his gaze to his young friend sitting in the benches not far from him.

Automatically, everyone began to look around searching for the elusive child, including the prosecutor's attorney, but in the end they felt more confused than before and found no trace of what they were looking for. Only those who knew looked at each other and smiled. Akai was always a trump card on the table. Now she began to understand why the Cool Guy and Shiho had flown here from Tokyo. Akai was using them as living evidence to support his theories.

- Sorry but there are no children in the courtroom today - the judge looked at him confused.
- Exactly, so there will be a kernel of truth in this history of the drug - he affirmed convinced, almost mocking.
- I still don't understand, could you be more explicit please? -
- For every poison there is an antidote that cancels its effects. If the drug APTX4869 rejuvenates whoever ingests it, the antidote to this drug causes the person to return to their original age-
- Objection: why this antidote hadn’t been mentioned in the previous trial? If it’s not the result of pure invention then you should have said it immediately- the defense lawyer intervened again, eager to object to every word that came out of their mouths.
- Objection rejected. There is no prohibition on finding other evidence to support one's thesis between one trial and another. Did you bring any evidence of this antidote, Mr. Akai? -

The prosecutor's lawyer approached the judge, handing him an envelope containing pills in two-tone capsule format. The judge took a few seconds to examine them, but didn’t take them out of the sealed envelope.

- So this would be the antidote to the drug? - he finally asked, turning his gaze back to Akai.
- I confirm-
- Objection- Vermouth's lawyer intervened - How can we be sure that they are not normal placebo pills with no effect? -
- Objection accepted. Can you explain this to us, Mr. Akai-
- Simple: do you see those two guys and that woman sitting in the second row? - he smiled, pointing to Shinichi, Shiho and his mother - Several months ago they were respectively two elementary school children and an almost teenage girl, you can also see it from the photos that the FBI provided-

The judge carefully looked at the photos with the date and time stamped on them. Although he tried not to show any emotion, the expression in his eyes made it clear to the most discerning that he was visibly surprised. He then handed the photos to the public prosecutor, who showed them to the jurors: just like the judge, they too were incredulous when they saw the actual similarity between the children in the photos and those three adults sitting in the second bench. Their gazes moved from the photos to them with an almost regular movement, as if they were robots programmed to always perform the same gesture over and over again.

- They had been forced to ingest APTX4869 - Shuichi began to speak - I saw them with my own eyes take that antidote and return to their real age in seconds. The woman is my mother, so I'm sure her looks must be what you see now and not that of a middle school girl. Not to mention that that antidote was created by the girl with auburn hair, whom Vermouth will surely recognize: it is Shiho Miyano, codenamed Sherry. She was a very valuable member of the Organization, as well as the creator of APTX-

There was a general murmur in the courtroom, everyone had their eyes on Shiho, who as soon as noticed it lowered her head and shrugged. It was not easy for her to endure all this, it was like being in a sort of purgatory where many, too many judges were condemning her for her past sins.

- Silence- the judge called to order - I believe that at this point it is necessary to call to the witnesses stand the people just mentioned-
- I would have one last question for Mr. Akai before he returns to his seat- the cursed pettifogging lawyer stood up.
- Please Lawyer Williams-
- You just said that this little girl was part of the Organization and she was also a prominent figure given her abilities- he walked confidently towards Akai -Why did you take a member of the Organization as a witness? How can you be sure that she’s telling you the truth? -
- Because a person who escapes from captivity and risks her life to be free shouldn't be so bad, don't you agree too? Unlike your client, who preferred to stay until the end in that golden cage that allowed her to commit the worst crimes without ever atoning for her sins-
- Objection: these are just your assumptions-
- You forget that I was part of that Organization too, I know its modus operandi perfectly. Believe me, you better not know what the woman sitting next to you might be capable of-
- It may be enough, you can go to your sit Mr. Akai - the judge intervened, putting an end to that dialogue destined to arrive only at a dead end.

Shuichi stood up and sat back in silence beside her. She wasn't sure what he had accomplished with his confession, but his face seemed relaxed and smug, like when he knew he had made the right move. She stared at him for a few seconds, as if she wanted to ask him without saying it out loud if he was sure of what he was doing. The answer she got was yet another enigmatic smile. The more that trial advanced, the more she had the impression of being the only one in that courtroom who didn’t know what the hell her colleagues had planned: this awareness only increased her state of nervousness.

- At this point I would say that it is appropriate to listen to the scientist in question - the judge resumed - Miss Miyano, come and sit at the witness stand-

She turned to look at her and Shuichi did the same. They saw her take a deep breath, which, however, didn’t help to erase the worried and almost frightened expression on her face. She smiled at her, trying to convey all the support and gratitude possible with her eyes. Shinichi put a hand on her shoulder to encourage her, Mary just looked at her without saying anything.
Eventually she got up and walked slowly towards the witness stand, which in that moment should have seemed more like a gallows to her.

- Miss Miyano, do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? - the judge asked her the same question he had asked to Akai a little earlier.
- I swear - she replied, her voice low.
- You were a member of the Organization, correct? -
- I confirm-
- And what was your role? -
- I was a scientist, as my parents had been before me-
- So your whole family is involved in the Organization? -
- They were, I'm the only survivor- she closed her eyes.
- Do you mean that the Organization killed your family?-
- That's right-
- Why did they spare you? -
- Because I was too precious to them, I was the only one able to complete the job that my parents had started. I was too important to them-
- But why did they kill your parents if they were working on such an important project? -
- Because they wanted to get out of it and the Organization didn’t forgive those who turned their backs on them. They paid dearly for the desire for freedom- she closed her eyes, trying to hide the pain in a remote corner of her heart.

The intervention of Vermouth's lawyer, however, managed to cancel it much better than she herself would have been able to do, replacing it with a sense of anger and wounded pride. It was that one which lit the fuse that would burn until the end of her confession.

 

- Objection: in the file it’s written that at the death of your parents you were only a child. Why would the Organization have to invest so much in someone who at the time had no basis to carry out the project of this drug with miraculous properties? -

 

How did that cheap lawyer, whose only word he knew was "objection," dare to question her skills as a scientist ?! There were few people in that room with above average brains and she was certainly part of it. Perhaps she might even have been the most brilliant of them, considering the drug she had been able to create. She was a genius and no one had to argue with that. Morally speaking, she wasn't proud of what she had given birth to, but as a scientist she was proud of her enormous potential.

- Maybe because when you were still trying to graduate from Harvard I had already created a drug capable of modifying the DNA of some living beings and instantly killing the rest? Or maybe Harvard is too much for you? - she replied acidly, narrowing her eyes.
- Miss Miyano, please respect and moderate your tone! - the judge resumed her, raising his voice.
- I apologize - she pretended to repent, but didn’t fail to throw a dirty look at the lawyer.
She didn't notice that her friends, including the stoic Shuichi, were trying to hold back a laugh.

- When you created that drug did you know what you were doing? asked the judge.
- Yes, I knew perfectly well. And if you're wondering why I did it even knowing it, the answer is that I didn't want to end up like my parents and above all I didn't want my older sister to do it. If I obeyed their orders like a trained dog, they wouldn't have touched us-
- But in the end you managed to escape-
- After they killed my sister, breaking their word. I was left alone in the world, I didn't even care about dying anymore-
- How did she manage to escape without being killed? -
- I ingested the drug I created myself, hoping it would kill me before they did. But apparently I was one of the "lucky" few people who, instead of dying, gained a few years less-
- So you confirm that you are the girl in the photos? - he showed her one random picture taken from the ones he had on the table.
- Yes, that was how I looked until about six months ago-
- Objection- the lawyer tried again - The photo could be from years ago, when the witness was actually a child-
- There is the date in the photo! - she replied, raising the tone of her voice.
- Nowadays there are programs to edit photos, a smart one like you who claims to have created a miracle drug will have had no difficulty in changing the date and time on a photo - the lawyer provoked her, perhaps in an attempt to take revenge of the dig she had thrown at him just before.

She clenched her fists to release the anger that was building up faster and faster, before she was overcome by it. Anyone who had looked at her could easily have guessed her state of mind at that moment. She wondered if this was how Jodie felt at the previous trial and wished she would never try it again. It wasn’t easy to make the world believe something that in the eyes of anyone would only appear as a nonsense. Yet she felt that she had to do it, she had to prove the truth to everyone, at the cost of being remembered forever as the outcast of the story. She had to do her best to put on once again the indestructible woman’s mask she had worn for years.

- Mr. Judge, there is another photo in the file - she began to speak, after having found only an apparent calm - I’m there with some children. Can you show it to the lawyer and jurors? -

The judge agreed to her request and turned the photo around in the courtroom so that everyone could see it. Nobody seemed to understand the intention behind that request, but basically it was a legitimate reaction.

- And with this, what would you like to prove? - asked the lawyer, almost mocking her.
- If the date on this photo had been falsified and the image had actually been immortalized years ago, then the other children today should also be around the same age as me, right? she asked, turning to the judge.
- What’s your point?-
- Can I have a mobile phone? -
- To do what?-
- I would like to make a phone call to prove that the date in the photos hasn’t been changed-
- A phone call? - the lawyer smiled, happy to be able to make fun of her every time she opened her mouth - Do you really think that a phone call could be a proof? -
- Objection rejected - the judge stopped him - If she has a phone she can make this call-
- Can I also connect the phone to the monitor? - she pointed to the screen already present in the room, which was used for the video testimonials - I would like to show everyone the images of the video call-

 

Having obtained the judge's consent, she got up from the stand and took her mobile phone from her trouser pocket, connecting it to the monitor and turning it on. She could feel everyone's eyes on her, but by now she had managed to go further and not pay any more attention. Indeed, perhaps it was better this way: everyone had to see, everyone had to know.
She searched in the phone book for Doctor Agasa's number and started the video call. Shortly thereafter, the Doctor's face appeared on the monitor.

- Hello? Shiho? But have you already finished the process? - he asked incredulously.
- No, actually you are connected live with the courtroom-
- What?! - he was alarmed.
- Listen to me Doctor, it's important: are the children there with you? -
- Well yes, but they're sleeping. Don't forget that here in Japan it's eleven o’clock in the night-
- I'm sorry, but you have to wake them up-
- But Shiho, try to understand ... -
- Nothing but, I need you to shoot the children with the camera! - she raised her voice.
- Can't I just shoot them without waking them up? -
- Okay- she sighed - But hurry up-

She remained silent and watched the Doctor move to another room, where he had probably put the children to sleep. While waiting, she took the opportunity to look around with the corner of her eye, but she saw only confused faces around her. The fact that he was speaking in Japanese didn’t help them understand the content of the call.
Finally Agasa showed the children who were sleeping on futons. Perfect, just how she needed them to be. She smiled with satisfaction: everything had gone according to plan. She herself had asked the Doctor to let them sleep there that night, as she had foreseen having to "use" them to show that, until a few months earlier, she had looked the same as them too. She hadn't told anyone, not even Shinichi; she wanted everyone's shocked reaction to be as credible as possible. And so it was: when the jurors and all those present saw that the children recorded on the mobile phone camera and those in the photos were identical, their rumor became a buzz that increased more and more, while incredulous expressions were painted on their faces. She turned to look at Vermouth's lawyer and saw him swallow hard, while in his head he was desperately searching for a plausible explanation. She smiled pleased: now she understood how Shinichi felt every time one of his deductions turned out to be correct. Only one person smiled with her: Vermouth. She had never understood her, she had never understood if she loved or hated that Organization and now, after years, she still didn’t understand. But basically it was okay, she didn't care. If she was happy to spend the rest of her days in jail, good for her.

- Silence - the judge invited everyone to order.

Now satisfied that she had achieved her goal, she thanked the Doctor and ended the call, disconnecting the cell phone from the monitor and returning to sit at the witness stand.

- Well Miss Miyano, after this demonstration have you anything else to tell us? - the judge asked her.
- I don't know if anyone has noticed, but in the photo there is another child who was missing the video call. You see the one with the red bow tie? Well, that child is sitting among the witnesses today. I'm talking about Shinichi Kudo- she turned to look at him, making his eyes widen.
- Could Mr. Kudo stand up, please? - the judge invited him.

Trying to appear bold and confident as always, Shinichi obeyed the order and stood up, amid the still astonished gaze of the people. There was a hint of embarrassment on his face, despite the fact that he was used to being the center of attention. On the other hand, that was still an American courtroom and he was caught off guard.

- Mr. Kudo, do you confirm what Miss Miyano just said?-
- I can confirm that it's all true, Mr. Judge. I too was forced to take the drug created by Miss Miyano and this is how my appearance became that of the child in the photo-
- Thank you, you can sit down - the judge told him, waiting to be able to question him better later - As for you Miss Miyano, tell us about how you have created this drug-
- My parents had been working on another drug for years, called Silver Bullet. The formula to create it was lost in the fire that the organization set up in the laboratory to eliminate the evidence together with my parents. Before she died, my mother left me a tape saying she regretted working on that drug, because it was really terrible. I’ve never known its effects and as far as I know Vermouth is the only one to have taken it, so I can deduce that one of these is the permanent blocking of a person's natural aging process-
- So you also claim that Sharon and Chris Vineyard are the same person? -
- There’s no doubt about it, the evidence that Agent Starling brought to the previous trial is sufficient to confirm it. Fingerprints don't lie. Also, Vermouth has always hated me for what my parents had done to her, she never hid it-

The lawyer suddenly woke up from the state of tranche in which he had fallen, in an attempt to recover the lost points.

- Objection: we don’t know whether the reasons for the hatred are precisely those indicated by the witness-
- Objection accepted: are you sure that the defendant hated you because of your parents? -
- Her exact words were "Don't hate me Sherry, hate your parents for what they did to me". How would you interpret this sentence? -
- I remind you that I am the one asking the questions, you just answer them. Proceed with your exposition of the facts-
- After my parents were killed, the Organization sent me to America to study until I turned eighteen. When I was prepared enough to continue what my parents had left behind, they took me back to Japan to complete the work. But I had no idea what my parents had planned and in an attempt to emulate them I created APTX 4869, the drug that I took myself and that Shinichi Kudo and Mary Akai were also forced to ingest. You know the rest- she concluded.
- Can you provide us with concrete evidence that the drug you created can really make a person rejuvenate? -
- The evidence is inside that USB stick - she pointed with a nod of her head at the small stick contained in the file bearing her name - You can show everyone its contents-

The judge gave the key to the prosecutor to connect it to the monitor they had used earlier for the video call. Once done, he hit the play button on the remote. Everyone's eyes were focused on the image of the cage with the seven mice, date and time fixed at the side of the frame.
As the video reached the main scene, the spectators' mouths opened wide, as if their jaws wanted to touch the ground under the force of gravity. Those who knew just smiled, anticipating a victory that was taking too long to come.

- Objection- the usual irritating voice of the lawyer broke the silence of dismay, on closer inspection he seemed on the verge of despair - The date and time of the film may have been distorted, as well as the content! The witness would have had plenty of time to replace the mouse in the cage! -

It was obvious that he would try to cling to that, all the doubts she had expressed the night before at Shuichi's house were proving to be true. Instead, she prayed that her fear of not winning the trial would be proven unfounded: Jodie wouldn’t take it again.

- Objection rejected - said the judge, unable to take his eyes off the monitor which now only showed a black veil, a sign that the video had come to an end - If the date and time had also been changed, there is no prerequisite for thinking that the footage is. There are no cuts in the video, the scene proceeds linearly-
- But Mr. Judge, do you realize that we are facing a scientifically inexplicable and impossible phenomenon?! - the lawyer complained.
- Silence! - he silenced him - I think that's enough. You can go and sit Miss Miyano- the judge dismissed her, looking at her as if he were trying to understand her real nature.

Probably from that moment on and until the end of the trial, many people in that courtroom would have seen her as the devil himself, others as a kind of god capable of giving life to something that mere mortals could not even understand. Whatever the outcome of the trial had been, for better or worse, probably in the following days all the newspapers would have talked about her and that drug. Or maybe they would cover it up, since disclosing such a discovery meant presenting a kind of lethal weapon to the eyes of the world.
She walked to her seat holding everyone's gaze, with her head held high. She didn't even wonder what they were thinking, she didn't care. A part of her, in a remote corner of her being, was regretting what she had done, knowing that for the rest of her life she would have to live with the label that had just been assigned to her. The other part, on the other hand, the one that she was showing to the whole world, was proud to be the creator of the drug that had upset the frontiers of science. If being the outcast of the scientific world was the price to pay to help Jodie redeem herself on the woman who had ruined her life, then she could pay it ten, twenty, fifty times. It was like making good out of bad, turning a mistake into something right.
The judge's voice interrupted her thoughts.

- This may be enough for today, the court is adjourned tomorrow-

Chapter Text

That evening, after the first part of the trial, they had all gathered in his apartment, although the space was not designed to hold all those people. Using the culinary techniques learned from Yukiko, he had prepared a seemingly simple dinner that left everyone surprised.
After dinner, they had gathered in the living room, arranged in a circle, to discuss about the process. They had talked about other topics as well, but it was difficult to converse about their lives as if nothing had happened when their minds were projected on one goal.

- You were great today, now we have this in the bag! - Masumi complimented Shiho.
- I agree, with the testimonies of the young detective and those of Mrs. Akai we can’t lose- Camel supported her.

The young scientist, however, said nothing, her face was tense and her expression serious: there was certainly something that worried her, perhaps even more than one. She was taking a big risk with that confession and more than anything else she was afraid. He could see it in her face: Shiho was afraid. Yeah, but what about? Usually interpreting people just by looking at them was easy for him, but that little girl had always been an enigma, just as he appeared in the eyes of others. Maybe it had to be a family trait.

- What's wrong Shiho? Are you worried because now that you have revealed you’re the creator of the drug, you fear that people will look at you as if you were a devil? - asked her Shinichi, who, like him, must have noticed her bad mood.

- You're wrong, I don't care what people think. After the trial I’ll go back to Japan and I’ll never see the faces of any of the jurors again, so they can think whatever they want. What worries me is Jodie- she replied, pointing to the French window that led to the small balcony where the blonde FBI agent was at the time.

Jodie had gone out a few minutes earlier, saying she wanted to get some fresh air. The fact that they kept talking about the trial probably didn't help her relax for a moment, they had exaggerated and hadn't taken into account her susceptibility. They all turned to look at her, but they could only see her back. She had her back to them, leaning her elbows on the balcony railing.

- I’ll go out for a smoke- he said, even though it was clear to everyone the real reason why he was going out on the balcony.

He opened the door of the French window and closed it immediately behind him, not wanting to let the others participate in his conversation with Jodie. This meant that he too couldn’t hear the comments that followed.

…………..

- Do you think Jodie is afraid of losing the trial?- Masumi asked.
- Of course- Shiho replied.
- But why? The evidence we have brought is overwhelming-
- Even with valid evidence it’s still difficult to convince people that an incredible story like ours can be true. For those who haven’t lived this experience on their own skin, the story of the drug that rejuvenates can only seem the plot of a science fiction novel - explained Yusaku, whose insight always went beyond that of everyone.
- If necessary, I’ll repeat the experiment in front of everyone until they believe it - the scientist said with conviction.
- I see you rather fierce- Shinichi smiled.
- Jodie has too much to lose, so I’ll do everything I can do to help her-

They all looked in the direction of the balcony, where now in addition to Jodie's back they also saw Shuichi's at her side.

- Do you think we should all go and say a word of comfort to agent Jodie? - Yukiko broke the silence.
- Don’t nobody move!- Shiho stopped her instantly, with an almost threatening tone.

They all turned to look at her in disbelief: no one would have expected such a reaction to a question full of good intention like that of Yukiko.

- Leave them alone, woe to you if you interrupt them - she added.
- Still with this story?! - Shinichi rebelled, since he was the only one who understood the motivation of such impetus - Can you stop trying to arrange marriages?! -
- Shut up- she silenced him, looking at him threateningly and making his blood freeze in his veins.
- I didn’t know there was something between agent Akai and agent Jodie- Yukiko was surprised, her eyes clearly said she wanted to know more about the subject.
- Jodie is Shu-nii's girlfriend- stated with certainty Masumi, whose conviction went beyond all limits.
- What a rude son I have, he has a girlfriend and doesn't even introduce her to his family. And to think that he had some opportune moments to do it… - Mary complained with folded arms.
- He didn’t say anything because they aren’t dating - Shinichi specified.
- Not yet, but something will happen between them soon so no one has to interfere- Shiho reiterated.

……………

When he stepped out onto the balcony he found her staring straight ahead, but he couldn't tell if she was admiring the glimpse of New York at night with its lights and illuminated skyscrapers or if she was lost in her thoughts and wasn’t seeing none of this. He found an answer to his doubt when he placed by her side and saw her wincing slightly, taken aback. She hadn't noticed that he was gone out too, a sign that her head was elsewhere.
He lit a cigarette and leaned his elbows on the railing too, staring at the view.

- Why are you standing out here all alone? Those people have come for you, it would be nice if you can honor them with your presence - he exhaled the smoke, which dissolved in the humid night air.
- I needed to get some fresh air...forgive me- she lowered her head.
- Jodie? - he called her, but still not looking at her face.
- Yes?-
- Don't worry, everything will be fine. Vermouth will pay for what she has done-
- Did you organize all this for me? - she smiled - Did you call all these people from Japan just to help me? -
- I promised myself to send every member of the Organization to hell, so I also do it for myself and for my family-

He finally turned to look at her and saw her nodding and smiling. She was beautiful, terribly beautiful lit only by the artificial lights of the Big Apple, her cheeks colored by the cool night weather. She deserved to always smile like that, to be happy. She deserved the best in life, because in during her life she had always given the best of herself to others.

- About your family - she brought him back to reality - I had the impression that your mother was looking at me insistently all the time, maybe even a little bad I must say. Maybe it was just the figment of my imagination, but it seemed to me that she didn’t like me very much- she twisted her lips in displeasure.
- Don't worry, it's not you. My mother looks at everyone badly, sometimes I have the impression that she doesn't like people in general- he put out his cigarette, now reduced to a stub.
- Oh, now for some reason I have a lot fewer questions about your attitude- she joked, poking his shoulder with her index finger and getting in return one of those smiles that looked like grimaces - Anyway you have the same eyes, you look a lot like each other. I must say that even Shiho looks like her if you look at them well-

Probably Jodie expected to receive an answer to that statement, but it didn't come. He remained silent, looking straight ahead, until he noticed out of the corner of his eye that the smile had disappeared from her lips and that she had bowed her head like dogs do when their owner scolds them for doing something they didn't have to. He realized he had made a mistake not replying.

- I’m sorry Shu, I spoke without thinking ...- she apologized, even if she had no reason - You still haven't been able to completely overcome this matter, right? -
- I'm trying, but it's tough- he admitted.
- You couldn’t have known Shu, you had no clue to even be able to assume that you were cousins. Don't be so hard on yourself- she stared at him seriously, even if her eyes betrayed the sorrow for his situation and maybe even the pain of having to face the “Akemi issue” with him.
- I felt bad enough before, now that I know she was my cousin I feel even worse-

He didn't know why he was exposing himself so much, it wasn't like him. He should have kept his feelings inside, as he always did, especially considering that he was talking about his ex (who still occupied a space in his heart) with the woman he left to date her. Yet he felt that Jodie was the only person with whom he could speak openly about that thing, the only one who would have supported and understood him. Maybe it was the romantic atmosphere given by the city lights, or maybe it was just the fact that he had never really forgotten that perky blonde. However, it wasn't fair to talk to her about Akemi as if nothing had happened, not after he dumped her to date the other.

- You have to stop blaming yourself Shu- she continued, as if she wanted to speak about that in every way - Shiho has forgiven you too, so now you must be the one to forgive yourself-

She put a hand on his shoulder, forcing him to look into her eyes, a thing that he had tried not to do too much until now.

- You're lucky, you have a beautiful family- she smiled at him - You should enjoy it-

Despite that attempt to smile, her eyes betrayed the sadness with which she had uttered those words. In that moment he realized how much Jodie envied him: he had regained a father that she wouldn’t have got back even if they had won that trial. Maybe that was what hurt her more than anything else, the knowledge that even doing justice she wouldn't get back what she lacked most in the world. It was what he felt when he killed Gin. The revenge hadn't erased the pain of losing Akemi, much less his feelings of guilt. The only way they had to accept what they couldn't change was to learn to live with it.
Instinctively, he placed a hand on her back and ran it up and down, caressing her gently. Jodie said nothing, she stared at him surprised with her eyes blue as the sky, she blushed and put a half-closed hand on her chest, as if she wanted to try to stop the suddenly accelerated beats of her heart.

- Come on, now let's go inside, it's cold. Let me introduce you to my family, so you will understand that my mother hates everyone - he tried to get her back in a good mood.
- Thanks Shu- she smiled at him again - Can I ask you a favor? -
- Sure-
- Tomorrow morning, before going to court, would you pick me up? I would like you to take me to a place-
- Okay - he accepted, without asking for further details despite the curiosity that had born in him.

They both went back into the living room and found the others in a clumsy attempt to strike up a conversation they were certainly not having until recently. They had probably spent all their time spying on them, but he didn't care. He was happy with that brief moment spent alone with her, he didn't have to give explanation to anyone.
He saw Jodie taking a seat next to Shiho and smiling at her: she really loved that young girl very much. This was what made Jodie such an extraordinary woman, the fact that she could also love the sister of the woman who she would have had every right to consider her rival in love. But Jodie knew no hatred, except for Vermouth.
He sat down beside them too, just in time to hear the short conversation.

- Are you all right? - the girl asked.
- Sure, I'm glad you're here-

 

……………

 

The next day, as he had promised, he picked her up from her house at half past seven. The trial would begin at nine, wherever Jodie wanted to go they would be in time.
He found her already outside the palace door, standing, holding a bouquet of white lilies. It wasn’t immediately clear to him what she was doing with those flowers, until a suspicion crept into his mind.

- Good morning Shu - she greeted him, as she got into the car and fastened her seat belt, with the bouquet of lilies resting on her legs.
- Good morning. So, where are we headed? - he asked her, now impatient to know.
- At Green-Wood Cemetery-

That answer was enough to confirm his theory: it was now clear what she intended to do.

About twenty minutes later they arrived at the cemetery. They parked the car and then they started walking on the turf on which the gray tombstones stood out like cold flowers. He had never liked cemeteries, walking among thousands of crushed lives made him feel uncomfortable. It was never nice when a life ended and he knew it well, he had seen too many deaths in the last years.

- If you wanted a date with me keeping a low profile, you could at least choose a nicer place - he tried to play down.
- I thought you liked the taste of the thrill- she teased him.

They walked for a few seconds in silence until Jodie, who had always been next to him, lengthened her pace passing him and stopped in front of a tombstone that seemed simple but larger than the standard ones. He stayed a few steps behind her and read the engraving:

Ryan Lewis Starling
1957 - 1995
Beloved father and husband
FBI Special Agent

On the left side in the upper corner he noticed the emblem that distinguished the FBI.
Jodie knelt down and placed the bouquet of lilies at the foot of the tombstone, arranging it carefully. Then she stroked the tombstone by touching it with her fingertips and stood there for a while, silently staring at that cold stone, as if she were saying a secret prayer in the hope that the person to whom it was addressed would be able to hear it. He closed his eyes and waited for her as long as necessary, respecting that moment which was as intimate as, in a way, heartbreaking. After a few minutes, he couldn’t decipher how many, he saw her getting up and turning her head back to look at him.

- It had been a while since I came, I didn't have the courage to do it after the sentence of the first trial - she admitted.
- You know Jodie, once someone told me "you have to stop blaming yourself" - he grinned, making her smile too - Maybe you should follow this advice too-
- Maybe you're right. But why are you standing there? Come closer- she waved her hand to tell him to approach her - I asked you to accompany me here because yesterday you introduced me to your family and I wanted you to meet mine too-

He saw her staring at the tombstone with a sort of pride in her eyes, then she addressed directly to the person who was now underground, inches from their feet.

- Did you see who I brought dad? He's almost as great as you- she turned to him for a moment, smiling and winking, and then she went back to staring at the tomb in front of her- It’s thanks to him that we will win the trial today-

She turned back to him, looking him in the eye, and this time she stood staring at him, looking for confirmation of what she had just said in his eyes or in his words. At that moment she was placing all her hopes in him, a rather large burden that he had chosen to carry on his shoulders and now he couldn’t and above all didn’t want to back down. He had promised to be his hero and he would have been. He would have honored the man who now lay lifeless in front of him, because he deserved it and because Jodie deserved it too.
He smiled and nodded at her, but he felt that it wasn't enough: so he reached out and put his arm around her shoulders, drawing her towards him without saying anything. There was no need for words, he was sure that for Jodie that gesture would have been worth more than any catchphrase. He was making a commitment to that sort of hug, a commitment that went beyond the promise of winning the trial.
He felt her gently resting her head on his shoulder, but he couldn’t see the blush that had appeared on her face. They remained like that for several minutes, moments that seemed infinite, while the red leaves of the maple that wasn’t far from them hovered in the air, dancing gracefully pushed by a gust of wind that had come and gone soon after. They both enjoyed that moment of fleeting happiness, knowing that it wouldn’t last forever. It wasn't time to rest, they weren't dead. They were alive and had to live. And now it was time to fight to live.
Reluctantly he released that embrace, wishing with all his heart that there might be others in the future. He had earned at least those, perhaps, despite his mistakes.

- We have to go, the time has come - he said, looking into her eyes.

She said nothing, she just nodded with a serious expression and turned to greet her father one last time.
Then they both walked back to the car, headed for the courthouse.

Chapter Text

By the time they arrived in front of the courthouse and parked the car, the others were all inside. They found them a few meters from the entrance door of the courtroom, waiting to be called inside to start the trial. Someone was sitting on the rows of chairs arranged on either side, someone else was left standing, walking back and forth in a vain attempt to dispel the tension.
The sound of their approaching footsteps echoed in the corridor and everyone turned to look at them.

- Here you are, I was wondering where you two ended up- James went to meet them.
- Sorry James, I had to go to a place before coming here and I asked Shuichi to accompany me-

As she said those words, she saw Shiho striding towards the one she had just mentioned, then grabbing him by the arm and dragging him away from them. She probably had to tell him something she didn't want the others to hear, but the enthusiasm with which she acted had left everyone off guard. The idea that she was the subject of their discussion flashed through her mind: seeing them arrive together, perhaps Shiho wanted to ascertain if there had been progress in their relationship. The thought embarrassed her a lot, especially considering that Shuichi's family was there.
Unfortunately, the girl's voice was too low and they were too distant to hear what they were saying; so she stood there staring at them like everyone else, even if the curiosity to know burned inside her.

……………………..

When she saw them arriving together, something inside her snapped like a spring. She had to know, she wanted to know. And above all, she hoped that the answer to her question was the one she expected to receive.
Now she was there, alone with him in a corner, ready to ask him that question.

- What's going on? - he asked her, rather thrilled by being dragged away by the group.
- So, have you finally made up your mind? -
- What are you referring to?-
- Don't play dumb, you and Jodie arrived half an hour late and together. Where have you been?-

She saw him grinning as usual, a sign that he had finally understood why they were on the sidelines away from the prying ears of their friends and relatives.

- It's not your business where Jodie and I go and in any case this is not the right place and time to talk about certain things- he dismissed her.
- I saw the scene last night at your house - she insisted, not at all satisfied with his answer - To tell the truth, we have all seen it. The way you stroked her back…where are we, in high school?! You can do better than this! You are two adults, so be an adult and tell her how you feel! -
- Who tells you that even behaving like a high school student can't be a winning strategy to conquer her? - he teased her - Anyway I have already told you that these are neither the right place nor the right time. Now we have other things to deal with-

She was unable to answer because the door of the courtroom opened and they were called to enter. But that conversation certainly wasn't going to end like that.

……………………..

When the courtroom doors opened, her heart skipped a beat. The time had finally come, the showdown that would forever change their lives, whatever the outcome would have been. They had put themselves on the line, all of them, and all of them hoped to get out of that courtroom victorious.
They all entered together, like a platoon of soldiers ready for war, and sat in the same seats as the previous day. The judge called the first witness of the day: Shinichi Kudo. She turned to him, who was sitting in the back row, smiled at him and nodded her head as if to say "Come on Cool Guy, give your best as always." She was sure he would understand and in fact the boy answered her with a quick wink, before standing up and going to sit at the witness stand.

- Mr. Kudo, do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? - asked the judge.
- I swear-

The prosecutor's lawyer took the file with the boy's name and began to question him.

- Mr. Kudo, here it says that you have ingested the drug APTX4869 created by Miss Miyano. How did this happen? -
- I was at Tropical Land amusement park in Tokyo with a friend and I saw two suspicious guys dressed in black. I followed them and discovered their skullduggery. Then they noticed me and took me from behind, hitting me on the head and knocking me unconscious. While I was almost completely unconscious they made me swallow a red and white pill and then they left. I felt an excruciating pain, as if my whole body was disintegrating and then I passed out completely. When I opened my eyes I discovered that I returned to when I was 7 years old- he explained, with a certainty in the tone of his voice that would have made all of them, who had found themselves sitting at that stand before, envious of him.

Obviously, after such a certain and detailed answer, the reply from the devil's advocate wasn’t long in coming. The very sound of his voice got on her nerves like nothing else, if someone had pressed a chalk on a blackboard making it screech it wouldn't have bothered her as much as hearing that idiot exclaim "objection".

- Objection: how can you be sure of the veracity of your story if you almost passed out? - she stared at him convinced, as if she had asked the smartest question in the world.
- Objection accepted-
- Because I distinctly remember the two men, the pill and the shock of waking up ten years younger- he replied simply, but without leaving anything out.

If there had been a scoreboard, Cool Guy would have gone to ten in one fell swoop, while Vermouth's lawyer would have stayed at zero. That boy was even better than Shuichi sitting in that stand.
The prosecutor's attorney continued with the questions.

- Mr. Kudo, you then teamed up with the FBI to destroy the Organization of which Miss Vineyard was part of. Did you have any other close contact with her? Did she try to hurt you? -
- Yes, I had several direct encounters with Vermouth but she never tried to harm me. On the contrary, she went out of her way to save my life on every occasion. I was her favorite, she considered me the only one capable of defeating the Organization. She calls me the "Silver Bullet": legend has it that werewolves can only be defeated with a silver bullet in the heart. But to be honest I never understood why Vermouth cared so much that I destroyed that Organization she herself was part of-
- Objection: If it’s true that you had regressed to childhood after taking that drug, can you explain why Miss Vineyard would have had to rely on a seven-year-old to defeat a criminal organization? - they heard for the second time the voice of that damned lawyer, but this time he had asked a logical and sensible question.
- Objection accepted-
- Because she knew that my real age wasn’t that one and my mind remained that of a seventeen-year-old, the same seventeen-year-old detective she had known before. She had nicknamed me "Cool Guy", but a person who hadn’t been aware of my real age would have called me "Cool Kid" since I was apparently 7 years old. For the rest, ask your client directly-

Cool Guy Twenty, Lawyer One. He was doing great, he was able to cope with him without difficulty, as if he had trained for years to find the right answers to those questions. Not for nothing he had become her favorite detective as soon as she met him. It was the only point she had in common with Vermouth: the admiration for that boy and the confidence in his infinite abilities. She too had leaned on that seven-year-old boy, in the belief that he could be an ace in the hole for the FBI. And so it had been. Even Shuichi, who never trusted anyone, had made with that child a secret alliance that made the worst criminals in the world shiver.
She turned for a moment to look at Vermouth, curious about her reaction: she was smiling as she stared at Shinichi, who in turn was looking at her.

- You took on the fake identity of Conan Edogawa after going back to when you were seven. Why didn't you keep your real name? - asked the prosecutor.
- Because it was too risky, the Organization had made me take the drug with the aim of killing me and therefore in their eyes and in the eyes of all Shinichi Kudo must have been dead. If they had discovered the double effect of the drug, I think there would have been unpleasant consequences- he explained.
- Objection: Can you prove that Conan Edogawa isn’t actually a real existing seven-year-old boy, who simply looks like you? Maybe you used it to set up this story and accuse my client - the lawyer tried to put him in a bad light.
- Objection rejected-
- Mr. Judge, I would still like to answer the lawyer's question if I can-
- You can go ahead-
- You can also immediately search all the evidence you want in Japan: you won’t find any trace of Conan Edogawa, because Conan never existed. Although I was involved in numerous cases when I was in Conan's shoes, I always went out of my way to prevent the police from taking my fingerprints: if they did they would find that they matched those of Shinichi Kudo. Fingerprints don't lie, that’s why we're all convinced that Chris and Sharon Vineyard are the same person-

Cool Guy one hundred, lawyer underground. She smiled, turning to look at Shuichi who in return smiled at her nodding: he knew he had played the winning card. It was a meaningless match: the young detective would always be light years ahead of that pseudo-lawyer who would have done better to change job.
For the first time in more than a month she felt again pervaded by those feelings that the previous trial had made her lock in a drawer: hope, faith, desire to believe. She felt that this boy could have given her father the justice he deserved.

- Objection: Who can guarantee us that the reason why Conan Edogawa didn’t allow the police to take his fingerprints wasn’t because by doing so the police would have discovered that he was someone other than Shinichi Kudo? -

She clenched her fists, trying to contain her anger: if she hadn't held a respectable role like that of an FBI agent she would have stood up and punched that moron in the face. Didn't he realize the absurd questions he was asking ?!
Someone from the second row thought the same as she did, since she distinctly heard Masumi whispering "What kind of question is that ?!" and Shiho answering her, always keeping an almost inaudible tone, "That of someone who pretended to graduate from Harvard". She tried to suppress a chuckle while Shuichi, who must have heard that speech too, turned and tried to glare at them to make them understand that it was better to hold back any comment for later.
Without even waiting for the judge's answer, Shinichi expressed what all of them were thinking.

- And why on earth should we have feared such a thing? I think it’s more troubling if the police find out that a seven-year-old's fingerprints match those of a seventeen-year-old high schooler, rather than discovering that the child has no correlation with the boy, right? -
- But if they had discovered that there was no correlation, your plan would have ended up in smoke even before starting -
- Plan? Are you still convinced that we have planned everything from the beginning? - he asked, smiling mockingly - Take a good look around, Mr. Williams. Look to your right: there are FBI agents, a CIA agent, two MI6 agents and a girl who could revolutionize the world of science with her skills. Do you really believe that these authorities and this prodigy girl have time to waste putting on a plan to take revenge on an actress who has disappeared from the scene long time ago, whose name is hardly remembered by anyone? Who is the visionary now, you or us who support the existence of a pill that makes you rejuvenate? -

By now she had lost the point counts, the young detective had crushed his opponent with that answer. Shiho wasn’t the only prodigy inside that courtroom.

- Compliments to our apprentice of Holmes- she heard Shuichi whispering beside her.
- It's going great, isn't it Shu? - she asked smiling happily.
- I would say it's perfect-
Their brief dialogue was interrupted by the lawyer's voice.

- Objection: the witness accuses me of not supporting the truth! -
- You're doing exactly the same thing! - the boy complained.
- Shut up! - the judge called them both to order - Mr. Kudo, address to Mr. Williams with more respect-
- I'm sorry, Mr. Judge, but I don't think I’ve said anything that isn't true - he said convinced and without fear, and then turned to look at Vermouth with intimidation - Come on Vermouth, confess. By now you are trapped, there is nothing that can exculpate you-
- Objection: the witness turns disrespectfully towards my client! -
- Shut up-

They were all surprised to hear her voice echoing in the courtroom for the first time after two trials. Perhaps Vermouth felt none of them were worthy of her attention, other than the one she thought was the best. But more than anything else it was surprising how she had done them a favor by silencing her own lawyer, a gesture that could cost her dearly. In response, the lawyer stared at her stunned, open-mouthed, incredulous.

- I'm waiting for the plot twist - continued to speak her historical enemy - Is that all you can do? You disappoint me a little. Come on, show me what my favorite detective really can do. Show me your magic, Cool Guy- she smiled at him, looking at him in a provocative and mocking way.

What was she trying to do? What did she hope to achieve by provoking him like that and silencing her lawyer? What game was she playing? That woman had always been a mystery to her, only questions and no answers. The only thing she could be sure of was that Vermouth was unable to repent for the crimes committed, because she didn’t see them as crimes. For her, killing was like eating, drinking or sleeping: a justified gesture. Shinichi's voice brought her attention back to what was happening before her eyes.

- If you believe you can redeem yourself, know that you won’t succeed. She's not there, Vermouth. She hasn’t come and she won’t come. Angel won't come to save you. She hates you for what you did-

That strange and incomprehensible answer made Vermouth's eyes widen, leaving her as if she was paralyzed for a few seconds. She didn’t understand what Shinichi meant, perhaps none of them had understood since they kept looking at each other hoping that someone would be able to give a logical explanation, but one thing was certain: he had hit the mark.
When the moment of astonishment ended, a melancholy expression appeared on Vermouth's face, despite the fact that she was smiling. She bowed her head a little, as if she had resigned herself. Cool Guy had shown her his magic, but for some reason she didn't like it.

- That's enough - the judge interrupted that dialogue - You can go to your seat, Mr. Kudo. Mrs. Mary Akai, please take your seat in the witness stand-
- No need, Mr. Judge- Vermouth intervened again - By now you have enough evidence to incriminate me-
- What do you mean Miss Vineyard?-
- What Shinichi Kudo says is true. It's all true, including the history of the rejuvenating drug. I’m Sharon Vineyard and I’m also Chris Vineyard. And I killed the father of FBI agent’s Jodie Starling-

There was a noticeable buzz in the courtroom, the jurors and those who had come to attend the trial out of curiosity began to murmur to each other. They, on the other hand, couldn’t say anything: they looked at Vermouth shocked, incredulous, unable to understand that sudden confession. If she had done it months ago they would have spared all that effort and thoughts. But why had she done it? Why had she given up like that? Was it just part of her game or was she really tired of fighting? It made no sense, the more she thought about it, the more convinced she became that it couldn't be possible. For years she had tried to cover up her crimes, to deny her misdeeds, and now the indecipherable words of a little boy were enough to get her to admit before a judge in a courtroom that she was nothing more than a murderous cheater.

- But she really gave up like that?- asked Hidemi.
- She saved us the job, but it's strange... - answered Camel, scratching the back of his neck.
- I think the boy said something that made her collapse- Shuichi intervened, then turning to the young detective sitting behind him - Who is Angel? -
- Vermouth's weak point - he replied smiling, without adding anything else.

Angel… Vermouth's weak point… But what did that mean? She wrinkled her nose: at times that boy seemed to her a photocopy of Shuichi. Maybe that was why she liked him so much?
Their conversation and the buzz in the courtroom were interrupted by the voice of the lawyer who was desperately trying not to sink with his client.

- But Mr. Judge, do you realize that they pushed my client to confess something she didn’t do?! -
- They didn't push me to do anything, I just got tired of playing. I am ready to receive my punishment, Mr. Judge- she continued, not leaving him a way out.

The lawyer put his hands in his hair and dropped exhausted on his chair: not even his beloved "objection" could save him from the abyss into which he had fallen. She had never been a sadistic person, it wasn't part of her nature, but she had to admit that seeing him in that state gave her immense satisfaction. The incredible thing was that she owed this only to Vermouth.

- Miss Vineyard, you then confess that you have assumed two different identities, that you have been part of the criminal Organization concerned, that you have taken a drug that has blocked the progression of your age forever and that you have killed the FBI agent Ryan Starling? - the judge asked her for confirmation.
- I confess - she admitted again.
- In the face of this confession, the jury will be informed by me of the most appropriate laws for the case concerned and will withdraw to reach a verdict-

Having said those words, the judge got up from his chair and left the courtroom followed by the members of the jury. She knew where they were going: in that same room where, a month earlier, some of them had decided not to believe that this woman was her father's murderer. Who knows if this time they would have believed Vermouth's spontaneous confession...Well, who would have wanted to believe the words of someone who had just professed to be a criminal of the worst kind? So what did those jurors believe? If they didn't believe her and they didn't believe Vermouth either, what did they believe in?
She clenched her fists tightly when she realized that the doubts that had gripped her in a lethal stranglehold all that time and that seemed to have gone away when Shinichi had brilliantly passed his interrogation, had returned stronger than before. She felt a hand resting on hers: it was Shuichi's. He must have noticed her nervousness, on the other hand he noticed everything. She didn't say anything, didn't look at him, she just placed her other hand on his and they stayed there, waiting to know what would have been of Vermouth and their lives.

After only half an hour, which however seemed like an eternity to all of them, they heard the door open and saw the jury and the judge returning in the courtroom. The judge announced that they had reached a unanimous agreement. That was certainly good news, it meant that they would no longer have to face other trials, but was the agreement reached really what they hoped for? They had to be prepared that they might not like the answer to that question.
She let go of Shuichi's hand and took a deep breath as she listened to the judge's words.

- According to the evidence presented by the FBI, CIA, MI6 and all the other witnesses involved, and taking into account Miss Vineyard's spontaneous confession, the jury reached a unanimous verdict: the court states Miss Vineyard guilty of the crimes committed as a member of the Men in Black’s Criminal Organization and the murder of federal agent Ryan Starling, and sentences her to life imprisonment. Members of the Jury, this Court dismisses you and thanks you for a job well done. This court is adjourned-

Those words were like a blessing, rain falling from the sky after years of drought. They had made it. It was over. Vermouth would have spent the rest of her days locked in jail, even though it might not be enough for her to reflect and regret what she had done. But that was okay, it was enough for her to know that she would have never seen the sunlight again, just as her father could have never seen it again.
She exhaled the air she had held up until then and closed her eyes, silently thanking the fate that had decided to give her that much desired gift. Around her she could hear the buzz of people talking and the cheers of her friends and colleagues, who like her were happy to have won the battle. She opened them again when she felt a hand rest on her shoulder: it was James.

- Did you see that we did it? Are you happy? - he asked, smiling.
- Thanks James and sorry if I was unpleasant. I love you, you know it right? - she answered, while two big tears fell from her eyes, forcing her to take off her glasses to dry them.

She had never been afraid to cry in front of James, who for her was the only family she had had since Vermouth had taken her real one away from her. In that moment she realized how unfair she had been to exclude him, closing herself in her pain and letting him know that she didn't trust him and what he was doing for her. She hoped he could forgive her, but she knew that he had already done it, fathers always forgive their children.

- Your father would be proud of you, you held out until the end - he hugged her, making her cry even more.
- Sorry... - they were interrupted by Hidemi's voice, who felt a bit embarrassed to intrude in that intimate moment.

She wiped her eyes and put on those glasses she loved so much, smiling at the girl to let her know she didn't have to worry.

- I just wanted to congratulate you on the victory Jodie- she shook her hand.
- Thanks, it's also thanks to you and the CIA that we got this far-

Not far from them, Masumi was giving Shinichi a high five. She then tried to give it to Shiho too, who at first was perplexed, then smiled at her and accepted. By now she had learned to love that cousin so exuberant and different from her.
The young detective then turned to Shuichi, smiling at him and holding out his hand. His gesture was reciprocated in the same way.

- It seems that we made it boy and as usual it's thanks to you- her colleague complimented him.
- I would rather say it was a great team effort-
- Thanks Cool Guy- she came forward and thanked him too - And thanks to you too, sweetie- she then turned to Shiho, smiling sweetly at her.
- I also had an unfinished business with Vermouth, let's say I took the opportunity to take my revenge- the girl replied, returning the smile.

Finally she turned to him, who had remained by her side the whole time. She had kept him last, perhaps because she had destined the most beautiful words to him. She looked at him intently, getting lost in those green eyes that had captured her from the first moment their eyes met. Who knows if there would be a happy ending for them too, one day. For the moment it was enough for her to know that he was there, beside her, taking her hand as he had done a few moments before.

- Are you happy? - he asked.
- You know Shu, sometimes I think that you are a kind of guardian angel who always saves me, even if your face isn’t exactly that of an angel- she laughed, certain that he would have caught the irony but also the thanks that was hidden behind those words.
- So let's say I'm a hero like those you see in comics - he posed as a superman, but this time just for fun in response to his joke.

She wanted to tell him that, to her, he really was a hero, but she preferred to keep that confession to herself. After all, heroes are unattainable creatures and in any case he probably already knew that. She had never been good at hiding what she felt about him.
In response to his statement, she smiled at him and then allowed herself that one madness to celebrate the victory: she threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly, regardless of the looks of his family, their friends and their colleagues. She hold him tightly, inhaling that perfume of male cologne and tobacco that was for her the best perfume in the world. At first she felt his muscles stiffen, probably her hug had caught him off guard; then he relaxed again and to her surprise, he returned that embrace, encircling her waist and holding her closer to him.
She was enjoying that special moment so much that she didn’t see the satisfied expression on Shiho's face, who was staring at them from the bench behind.
Their celebrations ended when they noticed that the prison guards were handcuffing Vermouth, ready to lead her to the jail where she would have spent the rest of her days. After making sure that she couldn’t harm anyone, the two guards positioned themselves one on her right and one on her left, starting to escort her along the central corridor of the courtroom. It would have been her walkway to hell, everyone would have looked at her one last time before closing that chapter of their lives forever.
The killer stopped in front of them, looking at them all one after the other, and then focused her attention on Shinichi, her favorite.

- Tell Angel that I'm sorry. I was hoping so much that she would come, but angels never smiled to me, not even once... - she smiled sadly.

Angel, that nickname again. She was more sorry that this mysterious person hadn’t come than for all the crimes she had committed. She wondered what was so special about this "Angel" which had pushed her that far. Maybe the young detective would clarify her ideas later. She turned to look at him, waiting for his response to Vermouth's comment, but the boy said nothing.
It was then that Vermouth turned to address her directly.

- Even if I rot in prison, you won't get your father back. Are you satisfied anyway? -

She clenched her fists so hard that her nails could have sunk into her flesh: how dare that dirty killer turn to her like that, talk about her father after what she had done?! She had deprived a little girl of her childhood, her family and a normal life and had never felt the slightest remorse for it all. That woman was a real monster, a devil who came to earth to sow death and despair.

- I hope you’ll die devoured by the flames of hell, Vermouth. So you’ll experience the same feeling he felt when you left him there to burn in that house- she replied, with a hatred in the tone of her voice that not even she herself would never have thought to feel in her entire life.
- He didn’t feel anything, he was already dead when I started the fire - replied her enemy, smiling mockingly as if she wanted to make fun of her and her pain.

Before the situation degenerated and she found herself putting her hands on her, Shuichi grabbed her arm holding her and Shiho intervened to help her.

- You’re such a bastard Vermouth! - the young scientist yelled in her face.
- You are too, Sherry. I will be remembered as a criminal, but ask yourself how all these people will remember you after knowing what you are capable of - she nodded at all the people in the courtroom, who were watching them - You’re the devil’s daughter Sherry, never forget that-

 

Before any of them could reply, the prison guards put an end to that unpleasant conversation by dragging Vermouth away and disappearing behind the courtroom front door. They could rejoice or comment on what Vermouth had just told them: instead they stood there, silently looking at that closed door, each of them closed in their own thoughts. Vermouth had all the flaws in this world, but her words hit the mark just as Shinichi's had hit her. They were celebrating the end of a long battle, they were convinced they had closed the chapter with Vermouth’s life sentence, but could they really say with certainty that it was the end? Reality hit them like a runaway train: it would never really end. The pain, the memories, the guilt, the mistakes made…maybe time would make them less heavy to bear, but it would never completely erase them. The scars they had earned in that battle would mark them for the rest of their lives, they would walk side by side with them like silent ghosts. She couldn’t get her father back, the memory of that burning house and of James telling her that his father wouldn’t return to her would do no less harm when she would have thought about it in twenty years. Shuichi couldn't change the fact that he used the woman he loved, who moreover was his cousin, to achieve his goal; the guilt would hold him in its grip every time he thought of her. Shinichi would look into the eyes of those children who had been his companions of adventures and for the rest of his days he would lie to them saying that Conan would come back to see them one day, knowing that, instead, that child with glasses would never come back because he never really existed. And finally Shiho, who would have carried the greatest weight of all of them: the awareness of having created that drug that had upset the lives of all of them, some directly and some indirectly. The truth was that that day, in that courtroom, there had been no winner. They had all lost something.

- Come on, let's go- Shuichi broke the silence, inviting them to leave that courtroom and never return again.

“People say hell is endless. They say it’s our worst nightmare, the face of our darkness. But whatever it is, however it is, I say hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”

Chapter Text

After they left the courthouse that morning, they had agreed to reunite all together again in the evening to celebrate the victory. Although some of them, including her, were still shaken by the words Vermouth had spoken before being taken away by the prison guards, they had tried not to be discouraged and to take the revenge they had so desired. And now they were all in her apartment, larger than Shuichi's but still too small for all those people.
While the others were divided into small groups of two, maximum three people and talked about the most disparate topics, she was in the kitchen with Shiho who offered to help her cut and wash the fruit to prepare a fresh and healthy "dessert" , perfect for the after-dinner.

- Is everything okay? - the girl asked suddenly, stopping for a moment to cut the apple she was holding in her hands.
- Why are you asking me? - she looked at her dazed.
- I got the impression that what Vermouth told you about your father had put you down a bit. She shouldn't have allowed herself to say those things, she really is an ignoble woman! - she tightly squeezed the handle of the knife she was holding.
- You’re very kind to worry about me but I knew from the beginning that Vermouth wouldn’t regret what she did, just as I knew that even if I won this process I couldn’t get my father back. But I avenged his death as I promised myself to do years ago and I hope that if heaven exist my father is looking at me from up there and is proud of me - she looked up at the sky, as if she was hoping to really cross her gaze with that of her father.
- I'm sure he is- her friend nodded - I wonder if my parents are proud of me too after what I did- she lowered her gaze.
- They are for sure, they have an amazing daughter who did the right thing and fixed her mistakes. We are all wrong, the important thing is to become aware of our mistakes and treasure them in order to not repeat them again - she put her hand on her shoulder - Are you okay? Vermouth was nicer to me than to you, she said you’re the devil ... -
- I know I am, so I certainly can't be offended by her words - she resumed cutting the apple into small cubes.
- You're not a devil at all, you're just a girl much more smarter than your peers. So don't think that what that witch said was true-

 

Silence fell between them, they both had a lot to think about. She thought back to how Vermouth had gave up so easily after that sentence pronounced by Shinichi, she still couldn’t understand it and what there was in those words to have shaken her to such an extent. "Angel won’t come to save you," the young detective had said. But who was he referring to? Certainly "Angel" was a nickname, a nickname that she had the impression to have heard before. It was then that images came to life in her mind, one after another in a quick flashback: the writing "Angel" on Ran Mouri's photo that she had found during her research on Vermouth, the clash that took place during the Halloween party in which Vermouth herself had called Ran by that nickname. Now it was finally clear who was the angel Shinichi was talking about. Ran Mouri, daughter of the famous detective Goro. Yeah, but what did Ran have to do with Vermouth? Why was it so important to Vermouth that Ran came to trial? She finally had the name of the mysterious person, but she still didn't understand. The only one who could give her an explanation was the one who had used Ran as a double-edged sword.
She turned to look where he was and found him not far from the kitchen corner where she and Shiho were, he was talking to his father, Shuichi and Shuichi's father. She placed the knife on the cutting board, quickly wiped her hands with the dishcloth and walked over to them, interrupting the conversation and ignoring Shiho asking where she was going. They all looked at her inquiringly, probably the expression on her face betrayed the emotion of the discovery just made.

- Cool Guy, can I talk to you for a moment? -
- Sure, but did something happen? - asked the boy, not understanding.
- Nothing serious, don't worry. Come to the kitchen for a moment- she invited him to follow her.

She didn’t want to have that conversation in front of everyone, it was her own curiosity and besides, starting to talk about the trial again would have ruined the beautiful atmosphere that had been created among her guests.
The detective followed her to the kitchen, where Shiho looked at them both without understanding what was going on.

- What is it Jodie, why do you want to talk to me here alone? -
- Why is Ran so dear to Vermouth? - she asked him bluntly.

In response, the boy stared at her puzzled, waiting for an explanation for that unexpected question.

Vermouth gave up when you told her Angel wasn't coming to save her. I thought about that name a lot, I was sure I had heard it before and now I remembered where: on the photo of Ran I found while I was investigating Vermouth it was written "Angel" and she called her by the same name even when we clashed that Halloween night. Angel is Ran, isn't it? -
- Worthy of an FBI agent- smiled the detective - Yes, I was talking about Ran when I turned to Vermouth with that nickname-
- But what does Ran have to do with Vermouth? What connection do they have to make her confess all her crimes just by hearing that nickname? -
- For some reason Vermouth had a penchant for me and Ran. I was the one who would defeat the Organization and she was the angel who gave her hope. It all started years ago when Ran and I came here in New York and my mother took us to see the show "The Golden Apple" in Broadway: in short, Ran saved Vermouth's life and since then she has started to consider it as her angel, the only one who ever smiled at her. She considered us as the most cherished things she had in life, I think seeing us both turn our back on her made her give in. It wasn’t clear to me why Vermouth had never spoken during the trial, nor why she was so quiet about it: then I realized she was hoping to see her, Ran I mean. For her, seeing that angel she cared so much for meant still having a hope of redeeming herself. Vermouth was looking for redemption, but when I opened her eyes saying that her angel wouldn’t come to save her, the last hope she had left collapsed and so she accepted her destiny - he explained.
- I see...then thank Ran for me. In the end she’s the reason we won-
- I don't think Ran will want to know much, she's already got involved enough in this story and doesn't want to be any further. When I asked her if she wanted to come to the trial too, she replied "I don't even think about it!". But I'll still bring her your thanks-
- Then run to call her, otherwise she will feel neglected and hate you even more than she has already done - intervened Shiho, who until then had remained silent listening to their conversation.
- And who’s to blame for that? - the boy narrowed his eyes.
- You should thank me, I gave you the opportunity to relive your childhood a second time. Aren’t you happy? A carefree child is always better than a problematic teenager- she said without even looking at him in the face, busy putting the freshly cut fruit in the appropriate cups.
- To thank you? Happy? Carefree child? - he repeated those words, with a vein pulsing visibly in his temple - I hope you choke with that fruit! -
- Jodie please call the police, soon there will be a death body here. Where your favorite detective is, there is always a murder and since he just threatened me, my fate is sealed- she ironized without too much emphasis.
- Can you two stop teasing each other all the time? You look like a grumpy old married couple- she scolded the, but actually she was enjoying listening to that back-and-forth dialogue.

Eventually the young detective walked away from them muttering, returning to talk to his previous interlocutors.

-Do you still have a soft spot for him?- she asked to her young friend point blank.

She didn't even know why she had asked her that question all of a sudden, the words came out spontaneously without worrying too much. She immediately regretted it, hoping it wasn't too inappropriate. She knew more than anyone else what it meant to have feelings for someone who didn’t reciprocate them and it was a feeling that she wouldn’t have wished for anyone, much less a friend.

Shiho wasn’t angry nor he was sad: she looked at her with the funny expression of someone who hadn't understood anything.

- When you were still Conan and Ai I realized you felt something for him. You considered it special despite you tried to disguise it- she explained.
- You're wrong- she posed - And then he has his missus from the detective agency. Who would want to be with a devil when he can be with an angel? - she added.
- Listen to me carefully - she took her by the shoulders, forcing her to look into her face - One day you’ll find a boy who will love you and accept you even if you have to take him with you to burn in the flames of hell, understand? -

She spoke those words with all the seriousness in the world, convinced of her affirmation. She was certain that one day even that special girl would find an equally special man worthy of her.

- You know something about burning in hell with someone you love- she replied smiling - By the way, is there any news with Shuichi? I saw how you hugged him at the trial and this morning you arrived late and together. Where have you been? - she winked, as if she wanted to imply that something spicy had happened between them.
- I'm sorry to disappoint you but there is nothing new, our relationship has remained the same as always. I don't know if that spark that ignited six years ago will ever return to us, but it’s enough for me that he’s present in my life, even if only as a friend or colleague. This morning he accompanied me to my father's grave, I wanted to introduce him since he brought his whole family here to help me-
- Are you really happy? - she asked in surprise - Masumi is a messy tomboy, my aunt is the icy sergeant ... the only one who’s ok is my uncle. And also my other cousin, the Meijin, even if at times he’s so careless that he seems dumb and has a girlfriend who is a bit crazy-
- Well, you certainly can't get bored with them- she laughed heartily - Anyway I'm glad you call them "aunt", "uncle" and "cousins", it means that you have accepted it-
- I can't do otherwise, they are the only family I have left. I mean, genetically speaking - she corrected herself, to make it clear that Dr. Agasa had also become part of her family in all respects.
- Do you think you will stay and live with the Doctor or will you go with your uncle and aunt? -
- I don't know, they would like me to move to their home but...that's my home now- she said, referring to the scientist's house and looking down - But I don't want to continue to be a burden for the Doctor-
- But you’re not a burden to him at all, on the contrary - she stroked her face - I think he’s happy to have your company, he would feel alone if you weren't there-
- Do you need a hand? - Shuichi approached, interrupting them.

He took them by surprise, they hadn't even heard him coming. On the other hand, he was a true magician in this kind of thing, a wolf capable of getting close to his prey without giving any clue of its presence, and then popping out of nowhere and attacking it when they least expected it. She wondered if he hadn't overheard their entire conversation undisturbed. With him there was also Shinichi.

- No, we're done- she hastened to answer him.
- And then if you take the same time to prepare the fruit as to ask a girl to go out for dinner, we will eat dessert on my fortieth birthday- Shiho joked, not failing to throw him the usual digs on that subject.
- Haven't you already celebrated them? - Shinichi intervened in favor of his friend.

The scientist gave him a dirty look that would have made even a brave warrior tremble with fear and then walked away making the rounds of the guests with the tray in hand, so that everyone could take a bowl of fruit.

- Cool Guy it’s not nice all to tell a girl that she’s old! - she scolded him, but without malice.
- Jodie, my mother is over fifty years old...if she hears you say that one is old at forty, you'll see how she will look bad at you seriously- Shuichi replied, referring to what she had told him the previous evening on the balcony about his mother's gaze.
- Oops- she put a hand over her mouth, pretending to be sorry.
- Congratulations Jodie, this fruit is delicious! - Camel approached them too, probably looking for company.
- Thanks Camel, but I just washed and cut it- she smiled at that so naive comment from her colleague.

Meanwhile, Shiho had also returned and had placed the tray with the leftover cups on the table. Then, without saying anything, she opened a door of the kitchen cabinet and took out a decorated paper envelope, the kind you usually fill with gifts. They all stared at her trying to figure out to whom it was destined for: she didn't know it was the birthday of any of those present, at least those she knew well. She hadn't even seen her put it inside the cabinet, so she wondered when she had acted. Shuichi's worthy cousin.

- What is that? - she finally asked her, eager to get rid of her curiosity.
- Here, it's a gift for you- she handed it to Shuichi, ignoring her question.
- For me? Why?-
- I saw it and thought it was suitable for you-

Intrigued, they all approached the table waiting for Shuichi to open the envelope and reveal its contents. Masumi had also joined them and the rest of those present had focused their attention on them. Shuichi opened it without asking further questions and pulled out a box containing a small doll, one of the classic ones with long blonde hair, blue eyes and peach cheeks. In addition to the doll, the box also contained its related accessories: a comb, a pair of shoes and a spare dress.
A deathly silence fell in the room, everyone stared at that gift like a group of idiots who didn't even know what day it was and why they were there. They were confused, they didn’t understand what was happening and what that absurd gift meant. Shiho was the only one who smiled mockingly, enjoying the moment of confusion she had generated.

- What does this mean? - Shuichi asked, looking at her.
- I thought that since you like to put things off indefinitely, spending your time combing dolls would be a perfect activity for you-

She stared at him defiantly, as if that gift were some kind of revenge for something Shuichi had or hadn't done. She didn't know exactly what was behind it, but she understood that by "put things off indefinitely" Shiho meant that Shuichi was not taking any steps towards her to turn their relationship into something more than just friendship. She had taken that situation to heart more than anything else in the world and this made her immensely happy and made her feel all the affection she felt for her. She could have never replaced that older sister she missed so much, but she would have done anything to be present in her life even if an entire ocean separated them.
Around them they could hear laughter barely held back, she too covered her mouth with her hand and looked away, trying not to burst out laughing without restraint. Shinichi was visibly embarrassed, as if the gift had been given to him. The recipient of that gift, on the other hand, just smiled, grinning as usual, a sign that he wasn’t mad at all for that joke. He seemed just as amused as everyone else.

- Thanks, you shouldn't have bothered - he said.
- No problem-

 

Now none of them could restrain, the room filled with their laughter. The only ones who contained themselves were Shinichi, who put a hand on his face shaking his head and Mary, who despite being smiling remained unperturbed. In terms of apathy she seemed even worse than her son.

- You're having fun I see- he turned to her, who was laughing out loud right next to him.
- Oh yes, it's funnier than that time when Camel cut his hair! - she admitted, continuing to laugh - But she's very pretty, I'm a little jealous. Will you lend it to me every now and then? - she teased him.

Shuichi shook his head and put the doll back in the bag, looking at Shiho with the air of one who wanted to say "okay, you won this time". The scientist took back the envelope and put it back in the cabinet, putting an end to that funny moment. After a few minutes everyone was back to chat divided into groups: Mr. Kudo with James and Shuichi's father, Yukiko with Shuichi's mother and they remained around the table.

- You’re really a witch, did you really need to embarrass Agent Akai in front of everyone? - Shinichi scolded her.
- If he doesn't like my gift I can take it back, but on one condition- she crossed her arms over her chest.
- Would that be? - asked Shuichi, who immediately showed interest.
- Introduce Jodie to your parents-
- Eeeeh?! - she exclaimed taken aback, raising the tone of her voice.
- What kind of compromise is that?! - asked the young detective.
- We’ve been here for days and apart from talking about the trial he has done nothing else. Since they have come here to help her it seems to me the least you can do to introduce her to them properly-
- Nice move! - Masumi patted her on the shoulder.
- And you two since when did you join forces? - Shinichi was getting more and more bewildered.
- I think this conversation is becoming embarrassing, so it's better if we close it here- she intervened, starting to feel a little too much involved.

Shuichi completely ignored her desperate request, focusing all his attention on Shiho: by now it had become a fight to the death between the two, neither was going to give up and both wanted to win that game at all costs.

- You think I don’t have the guts to do it, right? - he asked, grinning.
- Can you blame me? -
- No, but I can surprise you-

After saying that, he left the table and walked over to his father, who was still talking to James and Mr. Kudo a few meters from them. He said something to him, but the distance and the tone of voice were such that none of them could understand: the only clear thing was that they were talking about her, as she saw Shuichi nod his head towards the table and then look straight at her eyes. His father also turned to look at her and at that moment she wished only to sink into a pit and never return. The situation worsened when he saw them advancing towards them.

- Why did you do that? - she whispered to Shiho, visibly agitated.
- I thought you would like it - she replied innocently.
- Don't you want to meet our father? - Masumi asked with puppy eyes, as if she were sorry that she wanted to avoid that meeting organized in such an embarrassing way.
- Of course darling, it's just that I would have liked to have known him in a way a little less forced and embarrassing - she admitted, forcing herself to smile when in reality she was as taut as a violin string.

By now Shuichi and his father were just a few steps away from her, she could no longer escape that meeting. She took a deep breath, tried to calm down so as not to give the impression of being a hysterical madwoman and gave the two men one of her best smiles. While Shiho was trying to drag Masumi and Shinichi away to leave them alone, she wondered how she should have behaved and what she should have said in front of the father of the man she loved: she didn’t want to make a fool of herself but she knew nothing about that man. He had seemed kind to her and Shiho had defined him as the only "sane" of the family, but it wasn’t enough to understand his character.
They stopped a few steps away from her, who continued to hide her embarrassment behind a smile.

- Jodie, this is my father. I'm sorry not to have introduced you properly before, unfortunately there haven’t been many occasions-
- Nice to meet you Mr. Akai- she leaned slightly forward, making the traditional Japanese greeting in respect of the nationality of Shuichi's father.
- The pleasure is mine, I’m almost embarrassed to introduce myself to such a beautiful girl. Call me Tsutomu-

She blushed at that compliment made with such kindness and elegance: at first glance that man seemed very different from his son. She looked at him for a while, studying his facial features. It seemed to her that he looked like someone she had seen before, but she couldn't remember who and where.
Shuichi abandoned them almost immediately, throwing her into total panic: what conversation could they have had without him? They didn't know anything about each other, she wasn't sure they had anything in common to talk about apart from Shuichi himself. She tried to hint at a dialogue, so as not to seem like a fool who stared at him and smiled without saying a word.

- Thank you very much for coming here to testify at the trial Mr. Akai. I'm sorry that in the end, however, you did practically nothing-
- Call me Tsutomu, otherwise I’ll feel old- he smiled at her - And don't worry, in the end we all got what we wanted and this is the important thing. I prefer to have come to witness the end of the last remaining member of that cursed Organization without having lifted a finger rather than having fought like a lion for leaving empty-handed-

She nodded and smiled, she was happy that he too thought so. On the other hand, he had been forced to stay away from his family for years, without being able to see his children grow up. He too had paid a very high price. But could they really say they got what they wanted? Was this really all what they wanted, that Vermouth would go to jail? Who would give them back all the things they had lost along the way? She immediately pushed back those bad thoughts: they were neither the time nor the place to indulge in sadness.

- Shuichi told us about your family...I'm very sorry, you mustn’t have had an easy life- Tsutomu continued.
- No, not at all, but it mustn’t have been easy for you too to live apart for years. But you’ve had a second chance and it’s something that doesn’t happen every day. You’re really a beautiful family-

Her gaze became sad as she said those words and Tsutomu noticed it too, since he looked at her displeased as if he understood that he had hit a nerve. She cursed herself, she certainly didn't want to be pitied or look depressed. She wondered what he thought of her now, perhaps that she was an unhappy girl with whom it was impossible to have a carefree dialogue.
Fortunately, Tsutomu tried to put her at ease by breaking the silence that had been created between them.

- So, what's it like to work with my son? - he changed the subject.
- Difficult- she admitted - He’s a workaholic, a perfectionist and at times he really blows your nerves - she twisted her mouth - But we are lucky to have him with us, he’s an exceptional agent and an irreplaceable resource for the FBI-
- All his mother - he joked - And what relationship is there between you? Masumi keeps saying that you’re his girlfriend-

That question dramatically increased the embarrassment she already felt, to the point that she was left with her mouth open in an attempt to pronounce something that never came out. She gasped like a fish taken out of the water, but in the end she didn’t answer Tsutomu's question. As perceptive as he had been up until that moment, the man laughed and patted her on the shoulder, understanding her difficulty.

- Sorry if I was indiscreet, I was just curious to know. My wife and I were amazed when Shuichi called us and insisted so much that we come and testify at the trial, saying that his colleague absolutely needed help and that you had to win at all costs; so I thought you weren’t a simple colleague given all his interest-

Those words made her unexpectedly happy, but at the same time she tried to keep her feet on the ground: Shuichi was the kind of person who would have done anything to help everyone he cared about, but that certainly didn't mean he loved her. She didn't want to have any illusions and above all she didn't want to lie to his family. It wasn't fair to anyone.

- We're just good friends and colleagues, that's all - she admitted
- My wife said so too, then I convinced her to marry me-

She couldn't hold back a laugh, rubbing off on Tsutomu himself. That man was the exact opposite of his son: empathetic, sweet, with a sense of humor. Now she understood why Shiho liked him more than the others.
They stopped laughing when Shuichi approached them again, perhaps attracted by that sudden hilarity.

- You know Shu, your father is really funny, he doesn't look like you at all- she teased him.
- I told you he looks like my brother-

She stopped for a moment to reflect on those words and finally realized why it seemed to her that she had already seen Tsutomu: he really looked like Shuichi's younger brother, that boy she had seen playing that strange chess-like game the night Shuichi had brought her at home with him after the first trial.

- That's why it seemed to me that he had a familiar face- she give a slight punch in the palm of her hand.
- Have you met Shuichi's brother? - asked Tsutomu surprised.
- No, we only saw a shogi match broadcast live on the web - Shuichi clarified the misunderstanding.

While they were having that dialogue, she noticed that Shuichi's mother had left Yukiko and was advancing towards them. She felt even more nervous than when Tsutomu had approached her a few minutes earlier. Mary made her feel uncomfortable with her penetrating gaze, much more than her son's. She didn't even know anything about her but she could be sure of one thing: if they had had a conversation, she certainly wouldn't have put her at ease like her husband did. She had to be careful to what would have come out of her mouth.

- I wanted to introduce you to my mother too - the colleague told her, after the woman had already joined them.

They stared at each other for a moment, she tried to smile at the woman but all that came out was a strange expression.

- I'm Mary, the mother of this wretch. Nice to meet you - she introduced herself, holding out her hand, since unlike her husband she had more Western habits that betrayed her origins.

Her lips quivered in an awkward attempt to hold back a laugh. With Tsutomu she could also let herself go, but with Mary she couldn't afford to laugh at her face after she came to introduce herself. However, despite her good intentions, she couldn’t hold back a laugh in front of that statement. She never expected to see her introducing herself like that, it was amazing how hilarious she could be despite her icy coldness.
When she managed to contain the laughter, she reached out and shook Mary's.

- Nice to meet you-
- You must have a lot of patience to tolerate him, I congratulate you-
- I didn’t know that it was the evening of "everyone against me", if you had warned me I would have spared myself the trouble of coming- intervened Shuichi, who despite everything seemed to be enjoying himself in front of that little drama.
- Instead of complaining why don't you introduce us to your girlfriend properly? Indeed not, tell us about it Jodie, because you never get to know anything from him - she addressed to her directly, placing herself by her husband’s side and crossing her arms.

For the umpteenth time that evening she felt her cheeks flush, embarrassment had become her best friend. This time Shuichi was there too, he had heard everything and this made her want to cry with despair. How the hell did she get there in that situation ?! She promised herself to make Shiho pay for it in one way or another: it was only her fault if she was now having to explain and clarify misunderstandings. In her heart she hoped that evening would end as soon as possible, as it was getting harder to bear than Vermouth’s trial.
But here is her new guardian angel intervened once again to help her.

- Mary, there was a misunderstanding...- Tsutomu tried to explain.
- What kind?-
- Jodie is not Shuichi's girlfriend, Masumi was wrong-
- Well, I thought I only had one wretch child but actually I have two. Luckily Shuukichi saved himself- the woman shook her head in disappointment.
- Making preferences among your children instead is not the behavior of a wretch mother? - Shuichi felt called into question
- Shu! - she scolded him - You shouldn't talk to your mother like that! -

She didn’t like that there were disagreements between them, especially if they were generated by a misunderstanding of which she was the protagonist. They had already spent too much time apart, now they had to make up for lost moments rather than insulting each other over trivial matters like this. Shuichi ignored her words and preferred to get away to put an end to that bickering, going to talk to Camel and James. She was left alone with the Akai spouses and with the task of restoring peace. She sighed, thinking that sometimes the man she loved so much was capable of turning into the worst of idiots.
- I'm so sorry- she apologized to Mary - He doesn't do it on purpose, the fact is that Shu is a bit...- she couldn't find the right word not to sound rude.
- Don't worry, I know my son is an idiot-

Great, Mary had taken care of bringing her thoughts to life. All the better.

- Come on Mary, now calm down - her husband tried to reason with her, placing both hands on her shoulders.
- Yes, you’re perfectly right. He's a real idiot sometimes- she supported her.
- You're a good girl, you're wasted on someone like him. You better get him out of your head-

Those words hurt her, tightening her heart in a cold grip. It was as if by saying them Mary hadn’t given her blessing to their potential relationship, not because she didn’t accept her but because she thought that Shuichi didn’t deserve something beautiful in his life. It was sad to think that a mother thought so little of her son. She would have given anything to be able to hear her father's voice once again telling her how proud he was of her. She was happy to have made a good impression on that woman, but she wanted to hear her say that she would have been a perfect girl for his son, not a wasted girl. Even if it was hard for her to admit it, she wanted that consent from the moment Shuichi introduced them to her. If they liked her, then maybe she would have had a hope...But she was no longer a child, she knew that the stories her father told her were just fairy tales. Even if his parents liked her, it certainly didn't mean that Shuichi would have loved her. She had to keep her feet on the ground.

-But Mary...- was all her husband could say.
- I told you, we're just friends and colleagues - she replied, looking down.
- You can keep repeating it but the way you look at him and you behave betray your feelings all too well. You're in love with Shuichi, aren't you? - she cornered her without too many compliments.

Tsutomu tried to stop her from continuing, that woman clearly didn't mince words. She felt trapped, she didn't know what to answer her. If she would have lied, Mary would have certainly noticed and counterattacked; if she would have told the truth she would have instead appeared as a desperate woman who was running after a man who didn’t care about her, at least not in that sense. She would have lost anyway, so she decided to get out of that situation with style. As a loser, but with style.

- Sorry but I don't think this is any business that concerns you. And in any case Shuichi deserves to be as happy as anyone else in this room. He has already sacrificed so many things...-
- Jodie is right- Tsutomu intervened in her defense- You know, I'm a little sorry that there is nothing between you two. We would love to have you in the family-
- I'd love it too, but I'm not the one who have to decide it- she smiled -Pardon me-

She took her leave from them without giving Mary the time to reply, if she intended to do so. She didn't want to continue that conversation any further. She left the living room and her guests and headed for the bathroom, she needed to be alone for a few minutes after that sort of "clash" (if she could call it that) with Shuichi's mother. Her plans went awry when she found him in front of the bathroom door, with his back leaning against the wall and his arms folded, in the company of Shinichi. Maybe they had withdrawn as usual to talk about things they didn't want others to hear or maybe they were just queuing for the bathroom. This bothered her: there were too many people in her house at that moment, she couldn't even be alone for a while because every corner of the house was occupied by someone. She tried to calm down, she couldn't be rude and it wasn't anyone's fault, but that dialogue with Mary had made her nervous.

- What are you doing here?- she asked them.
- There is a queue for the bathroom, Shiho and Masumi have been inside for centuries - Shinichi replied.
- Have you finished talking with my parents yet? - Shuichi asked her.
- Well...let's say that the atmosphere had become a little heavy and I might have replied rudely to your mother...- she bit her lower lip, fearing he would get angry.

From what she understood the relationship between Shuichi and his mother wasn’t exactly bright, but Mary was still his mother and perhaps knowing that she hadn’t behaved well with her could have disappointed him.
On the contrary, the colleague seemed to take it rather well.

- Why? Didn't you get along? You were also defending her when I left- he teased her.
- Yes, but then she started to get too personal and I reacted instinctively...I'll go and apologize properly afterwards-
-What did she ask you? - he looked at her seriously.
- N-nothing, just nonsense! - she shook and hands - I shouldn't have taken it too personal-

She certainly couldn't tell him that his parents had understood everything about the feelings she felt for him and besides, Shinichi was there too, it just didn't seem appropriate to broach the subject.

- I leave you alone, I feel awkward- the young detective seemed to read in her mind, walking slowly back to the living room with his hands crossed behind his neck.
- Are you sure everything's okay? You can tell me, I know what my mother is like- he asked her again, never taking his eyes off her to catch every expression on her face.
- Don’t worry Shu, it’s all right- she reassured him, although her face probably said something else.

She didn't really feel like bringing up that topic again, the last time they had discussed it she had risked losing him and she didn't want it to happen anymore. She needed Shuichi to be in her life, whatever his role was.

- Rather, what are those two doing in the bathroom? I'm worried ... - she tried to change the subject.
- Don't worry, they're fine-
- And how do you know?-
- Let's say intuition- he closed his eyes.

An awkward silence fell between them, broken only by the voices of the others from the living room. Neither spoke and there was no sound from the bathroom.

- Thanks Shu- she spoke suddenly.
- For what?-
- For everything you've done for me. Calling all these people here, looking for other evidence to win the trial, introducing me to your family, accompanying me to visit my father’s grave…You were closer to me than anyone else and you didn't even have to. Cool Guy is extraordinary but...in my story you are the real hero- she admitted.
- I don't feel like a hero to be honest - he looked up at the ceiling, his head leaning against the wall.

It broke her heart to see him like this, tormented by his sense of guilt to the point that he couldn't see how important the gestures he had made were for so many of them, including her. He had sacrificed so many things and it made her angry that she couldn't do anything to give him back at least one. She would even have been willing to sell her soul to the devil just to give him something that would make him really happy, even if that something would have been Akemi.

- I didn’t say that you’re the only hero of this whole story: I said that you’re the hero of my story - she underlined the word “my”, to make him understand what she meant.

Shuichi said nothing, just closed his eyes and smiled. Who knows if he had really understood.

- Okay, since those two are having a party or I don't know what in my bathroom, I take this opportunity to immediately apologize to your mother-

It was better to end that speech there, she couldn't afford to add anything else and judging by his silence he had nothing more to say to her. But that was fine too, after all.
She turned away from him and started to leave but Shuichi took her by the wrist and stopped her.

-Jodie? -

Surprised by that gesture, she turned back to him and stared at him with her big blue eyes.

- What’s up Shu? -
- If one day I’ll manage to put aside my ghosts and my sense of guilt...if you haven't already found the person you deserve, does it bother you if I invite you to go out to dinner? -

Her eyes widened and her mouth opened but she said nothing. From Shuichi she would have expected anything but those words he had just spoken to her. She had waited for them for so long, six very long years that it seemed like a lifetime, so much so that she stopped hoping for it. She felt her eyes become shiny, she wanted so much to cry with joy but she held back, trying to keep a clear head. After all, Shuichi wasn’t making a promise, he wasn’t giving her any guarantee of being able to defeat his ghosts and even less he was asking her to wait for him forever, maybe in vain. Yet she, deep in her heart, hoped it would happen more than anything else in the world.

- If I won’t have already other appointments, I’ll gladly accept the invitation- she smiled.

Who knows, maybe tomorrow she would have met another man who would have made her heart beat as it did now for him or even more: in that case she wouldn’t have let him slip away to wait for someone who hadn’t been able to seize the moment when he had had the opportunity to do so. She couldn't keep waiting for him forever and he knew this too well. But for the moment both had left the door open to each other.
At that moment the bathroom door finally opened and Shiho and Masumi came out with a huge smile on their face and a satisfied expression.

- Can you please tell me what you were doing in my bathroom? - she spread her arms.
- Peeing - answered Masumi, who was still smiling.
- Half an hour of pee seems a bit long to me...-
- Be careful, spies never end well- Shuichi smiled mockingly before entering the bathroom and closing the door behind him.
- Were you spying on us?! - she reproached them, raising her voice.
- We have heard everything, every single word - Shiho confirmed satisfied, completely ignoring her reproach.
- So, when are you going out together? - asked Masumi, who apparently couldn't wait to have her as a sister-in-law.

She shook her head and twisted her mouth: taken individually those two would have surely caused troubles, but put together they were a guaranteed catastrophe. She wouldn't have bet a penny that they would get along so well.

- Go immediately in the living room, you old gossips!- he pointed her finger, indicating the direction.

The two girls laughed and left, now satisfied that they heard what they wanted to hear and aware that she wasn't really mad at them. She sighed and enjoyed for a few moments the happiness she had felt just before, before returning to her guests too.
As soon as she reached the living room she immediately looked for Mary, who at that moment was talking to Yukiko and Tsutomu. She took courage and walked over to them.

- Excuse me, can I steal her from you for a moment? - she gently placed a hand on Mary's shoulder, almost touching her.
- Sure, no problem- Tsutomu smiled at her.

They moved away a few meters, she preferred to have that conversation alone with her.

- I wanted to apologize for what I said earlier, I was rude to you-
- You don't have to apologize, you had an understandable reaction. But you don't need to hide your feelings for my son - she proved to be less tough than before, perhaps after suffering the influence of her husband.
-What I feel doesn't matter-
- But it does. What are you going to do, waiting all your life for him until he’ll decide to do something? You’re a smart girl, you’re young and you’re beautiful: don't ruin your life to chase after someone who doesn't appreciate you, even if that someone is my son-
- But I have no intention of living like that. If one day I’ll find a man who will appreciate my qualities and I’ll appreciate his ones, you can be sure that I won’t let him slip away- she affirmed convinced, looking into her eyes.
- So what are you going to do with Shuichi? - she asked, probably not convinced by her answer.
- I won't do anything: what I had to tell him I told him and what I had to do I did: now it's all in his hands. If he won’t do anything, I won't keep waiting in vain-
- It was the answer I wanted to hear- she smiled.
- Thank you, Mrs. Akai-
- Call me Mary. I must confess that I hope Shuichi comes forward, he would be a real idiot to let you go- she greeted her with a wave of her hand, returning to her husband and Yukiko.

She smiled happily as she watched her go: her words had made her happy. After all, Mary wasn’t as cold and numb as she wanted to appear and she loved her son despite everything. They were simply too similar to always be in love and in agreement. But now she knew that Mary too, like her, wanted Shuichi to stop locking himself in his pain and not giving himself any chance to be happy again.

 

An hour later her guests had all left except Shiho, who wanted to stay with her to sleep since two days later they would have left for Japan and didn’t know when they would have met again. They had got ready for the night and then they had slipped under the covers to chat, despite the tiredness they still had many things to say to each other. They talked again about the trial, about what they had felt in facing all that, about her and Shuichi and what they had said to each other outside the bathroom door. Shortly before falling asleep, Shiho showed her photos of little Mendel, who was no longer so little. She would have missed that girl, the younger sister she had never had, the person who had supported her rapprochement with Shuichi more than anyone else. She didn't know if her efforts would ever lead to anything, but it didn't matter: she would be eternally grateful to her anyway.
She fell asleep with the knowledge that tomorrow would only be the beginning of a new chapter in her life.

 

……………………

 

He sat down on the bed and took his cell phone from above the bedside table where there was also a lit lamp, the only source of light in the room at that moment, a pack of cigarettes and a little box with some matches. Dressed in his usual white t-shirt and the usual fluffy pants he used to go to sleep, he was ready to leave that day behind. He checked for any new messages or important emails, as he did every night before bed. Then, driven by that feeling which he had never known how to call but which had taken possession of him several times, he searched among the memorized messages the one Akemi had sent him shortly before she died. He read it over and over again, despite the fact that he knew its contents by heart. He closed his eyes and thought back to the day he left her telling her he had only used her, the same day he signed her death warrant. The images were still clear in his head, as if only a few hours had passed since that day instead of a full year. Then his thoughts shifted to the day his mother revealed to him that Shiho was his cousin, effectively making Akemi so too. It had been a hard blow to take, knowing that he had loved someone who was blood of his blood but in the wrong way. For him who had grown up with the mentality of a Westerner, there was no place for a relationship between cousins. But now she was dead, they couldn't have a relationship even if they wanted to. Now it was the knowledge that he had caused the death of a member of his family that haunted him, and it hurt even more than the knowledge that he had lost the woman he had loved, despite the lies.
The carousel of his mind swung, swung, swung and finally stopped on Scotch, on the day he shot himself in front of his eyes. He had tried to save him but hadn’t succeeded: so out of penance he had assumed the guilt of his death, pretending for years to be his murderer and antagonizing Bourbon. He had even stopped drinking that liqueur which had his same name and that he had always liked: its taste seemed no longer so pleasant.
He opened his eyes and looked at his reflection in the mirror that was above the chest of drawers in front of him: his face betrayed the inner pains he carried with him. Jodie, Shiho, his mother...they were all right, he couldn't continue to torment himself like this, he couldn't go to bed every night with ghosts, sleep with them and wake up the next morning with the taste of regrets on his lips. He had to go on, he had to let them go.
He clicked on the "Delete" button on the display and his cell phone asked him for the last time if he was sure he wanted to delete all that was left of Akemi. He took a long breath, searching within himself for the strength to carry out that gesture, he stared at the writing one last time and then selected the "Yes" option: the notice "message deleted" appeared on the phone display. He couldn’t define the sensation he felt at that moment: it was as if he had freed himself from a burden but at the same time he lacked something that nothing and no one could have ever gave him back.
The cell phone screen then returned to the list of stored messages and his eye fell on the message that Shiho had sent him on her birthday, in response to his greeting card. He opened it and found that photo he had taken with Jodie and the puppy that day. He smiled remembering the promise he had made himself that evening: to find the old photo similar to the one taken six years earlier.
He got out of bed and went to the chest of drawers, bent down and opened the last drawer, lifted some winter sweaters and found a box at the bottom in a corner. It was red, simple, without any decoration. He took it and went back to sit on the bed placing it next to him, opened the lid and revealed its contents: several photos dating back to the time he and Jodie had been together, some gifts she had given him including a keychain with a pistol-shaped pendant, the coaster of the place they went to when they first went out together, a birthday card that Jodie had written to him decorating it like a high school girl. He smiled at all those things he had tried to forget, as if they were part of a past that could never return. He had hidden them in there for fear that they might make him desist from his goal, but in the end he really forgot them. He had preferred to remember everything that had made him suffer rather than what had made him happy. Those were carefree days, before everything got complicated. It would have been nice to be able to relive even just one of them.
He looked at the photos one after the other until he found the one he was looking for: it portrayed him and Jodie on an autumn day, together with a little dog. He remembered the moment when they had taken it: they were walking in a park among the dry leaves that had fallen to the ground and a dog had approached them, looking for someone to play with him. Jodie had started giving him pampering and compliments and seemed to have completely forgotten about him. The dog’s owner had approached them and Jodie, full of enthusiasm as a child, had asked him if he could take a picture of them with his little dog. Rubbed off on her vivacity, the middle-aged gentleman had agreed. Jodie had then printed that photo in duplicate and had given him one copy, so that he could remember that moment which had an immense value to her. She was like that, she was satisfied with the crumbs and said they were a whole cake. He wondered if she too had kept her copy of the photo or if, in a gesture of anger, she had got rid of all their memories together after he had dumped her without too many compliments. She would have had every reason, but knowing her she had surely kept everything, even the smallest nonsense. She had never been able to definitively put an end their story.
He closed the box and put it under the bed, with more time and calm he would have found a better place for those things that didn’t deserve to be locked in a drawer. He kept out only the concerned photo, placing it on the bedside table: for that one he would have found a special place. He slipped under the covers, looked at the photo one last time and, smiling, turned off the light.

Chapter Text

Chapter 26: Winds of change

 

Seven months had now passed since Vermouth had been sentenced to life imprisonment and each of them had returned to their usual lives, as if the Organization had never existed. The young detective was facing his last year as a high school student, an experience that for a normal teenager meant preparing to enter the adult world but which for him, who had already known that world too soon, meant just enjoying time with his friends. Shiho helped Doctor Agasa with his inventions, waiting to decide what job she really wanted to do. She had remained with him, also because of Mendel who would thus have had a garden where it could stay, since Mary and Tsutomu lived with Masumi in an apartment on the sixth floor of a building, but she went to visit them every weekend and she stayed with them. They had built a good relationship and she had accepted them as part of her family. As for her and Shuichi, nothing had really changed compared to when they left Japan: their relationship was always the same, colleagues and friends. They never went out alone after work but always with Camel or James.
Also that evening they had planned to go out, Camel had invited them to a nightclub of those open for all ages where they also played live music, a quiet place without the risk of running into drug dealing or other things that they were forced to see every day at work. James had felt too old for such a place anyway and he declined the invitation, so only the three of them would go. It was still pleasant, they could have fun, talk about personal things and have a relationship also as friends and not just as colleagues.
By now she had almost got used to the idea that their relationship would always be like this, nothing more than a friendship. Shuichi was nice to her, sometimes he would pick her up and take her home after work, protect her, keep her company, have lunch with her ...he was close to her somehow, but that invitation to go out, of which they had talked about the evening of the trial at her house, had never arrived and in the end she convinced herself that it was simple kindness towards her. He cared about her (after all they had always had a past together) but he didn't love her. Despite this she still felt serene: perhaps she had really managed to move on.
That evening he had offered to pick her up at nine, while Camel would have gone to the club alone. They found themselves in front of the club and lined up to enter. The place actually seemed quiet, not too noisy like those discos where it was impossible to talk to each other because the music of the DJ would have covered even the shots of a rifle. It was called "Pentagram", a rather unusual name for a night club, although it was accessible to all ages. When they entered it was immediately clear why: on the opposite side of the entrance there was a stage, not too big but just the right size to accommodate a band. It was clearly a place that had made music its strong point.
She and Shuichi sat down at the first table they found available while Camel went to the counter to order drinks. He returned to them shortly after with three whiskeys with ice.

- It seems a nice place, how did you find it? - she asked to Camel.
- Roger recommended it to me, you know he’s passionate about music and therefore knows well all the places where they play live music- the colleague replied.
- But are there any good bands or are there some novice kids? -
- Well, I would say that we won’t have to wait long to find out- Shuichi intervened.
- And how do you know? - she asked him.
- The stage has already been set up, the guitars are connected to the amplifiers, so there will certainly be a performance this evening-
- I thought it was always arranged like this, to make a scene- Camel wondered.
- Nothing gets past you, eh Shu?-
- When I was in college, to pay for my studies, I played the accordion in a club like this, perhaps looking a little more retro - he confessed while sipping a drop of his whiskey.

She and Camel stared at him in shock, even more so than the time he admitted he could cook. They would never have imagined even in their wildest dreams that he had done that kind of work and played an instrument like the accordion.

- Do you really play the accordion?- Camel asked, stealing the words from her mouth.
- Why? Is it that strange? -
- No no, I'm just surprised- he shook his hands.
- Why don't we ask the barman if they have an accordion? I want to hear you play! - she enthused, wanting a demonstration.
- No thanks, fortunately I no longer have to support myself in college- he refused.

Their conversation was interrupted by a guy who went up on stage and announced on the microphone the entry of the band that would have performed that evening.

-Good evening everyone and thank you for being here tonight. Are you ready to listen to good music? - he asked, waiting for the positive feedback from the audience before continuing - So without further ado, give a warm welcome to Endless Doom! -

They heard an applause echoing in the room and a few whistles from close fans, but she had never heard of them. Not that she was a great music expert, but she could say she knew enough about the subject and that band certainly wasn't one of the most famous or well-known.

- Do you know them?- Camel asked, evidently as unaware of their existence as she was.
- Never heard of it, but I'm not a great music expert and I don't keep up to date with it- Shuichi admitted.
- I follow some groups but I've never heard of this band-

The band took the stage, revealing a decidedly gothic style in clothing. The singer, a tattooed guy with shoulder-length black hair, had visibly black make-up eyes. He greeted the audience by introducing his band and then they started playing with a guitar solo. The style of music mirrored that of the clothes they wore.

- They're too much rock for my taste- Camel twisted his mouth.
- Yeah, they make a big noise- Shuichi supported him.
- Don't tell me you don't like rock music? - she looked at them as if he wanted to scold and judge them.
- I like it, but not that heavy...I prefer a lighter rock- Camel explained.

While the band played, the guy who introduced them walked over to the counter not far from their table and started talking to the barman. He was probably also part of the club's staff, despite not wearing the t-shirt with their logo. She looked at him for a few seconds, it seemed to her that she had already seen him somewhere but she couldn’t remember where. Unfortunately she could only see him from behind or in profile and when he was on stage before he was too far away to be able to see his features clearly.

- Is there something wrong Jodie? - Camel asked her, noticing her distraction.
- Eh?- she turned to his colleague, fearing she had missed something.

She didn't even realize she got distracted and kept staring at the guy at the counter.

- What are you looking at? Is there anyone you know? -
- I thought I had already seen the guy who introduced the band and who is now at the counter, but maybe I was wrong. You can't see very well in the dim light of the clubs-

Shuichi swirled the ice left in the glass, by now he had finished his whiskey. She and Camel had finished theirs too.

- What do you say, shall we go for another round? - Camel shook his glass, rattling the ice cubes inside of it.
- Beware that then you have to drive to go home- Shuichi warned him.
- I can hold two glasses of whiskey well-
- I don't drive, I have a driver- she joked, pointing to Shuichi.
- What if the driver took part in the second round? - he looked at her defiantly and with a mocking smile on his lips.
- It will mean that we will crash somewhere - she replied shrugging.
- So I'm going to order three more glasses - Camel cheered, standing up to go to the counter.
- Wait Camel- she stopped him - I'll go, so maybe I can see that guy up close and understand if I know him or not-

She walked over to the counter, alongside the guy. He was tall, more or less the same age as her, hair between ash blonde and light brown, blue eyes and a muscular body clearly visible from under the shirt he was wearing, which fitted perfectly to his body. He was smiling at the bartender as they talked and she thought he really had a beautiful smile, perfect white teeth. Objectively he was a beautiful boy who wouldn't be hard to notice. Now that she had seen him more closely, the feeling of having already known him somewhere became even stronger.
She realized she was staring at him too much when the barman turned to her and asked her what she wanted to order. She asked for three more whiskeys pointing to the table where the other two were waiting for her. Camel was watching the band and Shuichi was watching her, probably waiting to see her return. She also ordered some snacks, to put something in the stomach in addition to alcohol even if they had already dined before arriving at the club.
She noticed that the boy was staring at her and turned to him giving him a quick glance: he smiled at her and she returned the smile, then turned back again. She didn't feel like giving him too much confidence and felt embarrassed by his smile.

- I can’t believe we meet again after ten years and you don't even greet me? - she heard him speaking next to her.
- Are you talking to me? - she turned back to him, pointing an index finger at herself.
- And who else, Jodie Starling? -

Her eyes widened, surprised: he knew her name and surname perfectly well, so he had to know her well. Unlike her, whoever he was remembered her very well.

- Do we know each other?- she asked him, afraid of hurting his enthusiasm in revealing that she didn't remember him.
- You really don't remember me? Yet we went to the same high school, we went there for three years to tell the truth-
- Seriously? In fact, I had the impression that I’ve already seen you somewhere, but I just can't remember who you are. Sorry...- she made an expression of sincere repentance.
- I mustn’t have left an indelible mark then- he laughed, shaking his head - I'm Clay Parker, we were in the same literature class-
- Clay Parker...- she repeated that name, digging into the drawers of her memory.

Finally, after a journey through memories, she managed to remember him and her eyes widened while she opened her mouth wide.

- Don't tell me you're that Clay Parker who always went around on the skateboard with those oversized sweatshirts?! - she looked at him in shock.
- Exactly, it's me- he tapped a hand on his chest.
- I can't believe it, you've changed a lot! -
- For the better I hope-
- Well I would say yes, those sweatshirts were really awful! - she admitted.
- Hey, I loved my sweatshirts, I still keep them! - he laughed heartily - You changed too anyway, you put on glasses and you shortened your hair- he pointed to her face.
- I mustn’t have changed so much if you recognized me after a single glance-
- Let's say that I noticed you already ten years ago, even if you tried not to attract attention you were really beautiful, you didn't go unnoticed. Unlike me, from what I see - he referred to the fact that she hadn’t recognized him.
- But you dated Abby Morgan, one of the most popular girls in school. I'm not used to putting my eyes on taken men and in any case I tried to keep away from the circle of celebrities- she posed as a fake snob.
- The "circle of the famous" - she made him laugh again - Rather, what do you do in life? I remember everyone laughed every time you said you wanted to become an FBI agent-
- Well if you want to laugh then do it, because I do exactly that- she wrinkled her nose.
- I don't believe it, you're kidding me!-
- If you want you can ask for confirmation to my colleagues with whom I came here tonight- she turned to look at the table, noticing that Camel and Shuichi were staring at her - And maybe it's better that I go back to them, I left them there alone to wait for their drink-
- So are you really an FBI agent? - he asked again, as if he didn't believe it.

She sighed opening the small bag she had carried with her and looked for her badge, which she always carried with her even when she wasn't at work. She pulled it out and showed it to him, but being careful not to attract attention.

- Wow, that's really amazing! You're great!- his eyes lit up, as if he had witnessed a miracle.
- I know, thanks- she pretended to put on airs.
- What is an FBI agent doing here? -
- She relaxes with her colleagues after work. We're human too, you know-
- Touché-
- What about you? Do you work here?-
- Yes, I take care of finding bands for live music nights. After high school I did an internship in a record label in Los Angeles, I was able to make contacts with people from the environment. I stayed there for seven years, but Los Angeles and the conception of music that the record majors had weren’t for me, so I went back to New York and somehow continued to deal with music- he explained.
- Don't you go on the skateboard anymore? -
- Sometimes- he smiled.
- Look, now I have to go back to my friends otherwise they’ll think I gave them up, but I was really pleased to see you again. Maybe I’ll come back here sometimes after work, but I expect there will be some great bands- she pointed the finger at him.
- No come on, we meet again after ten years and you go like this? Let's stay here to talk about the old days, when we were young and full of hopes and dreams - he joked.
- I'd love to, but it's not nice to just leave people I went out with like that. And then you're not working? -
- Yes, but the band will play a few more songs, so I have time-
- Why don't you come to sit with us? So I’ll introduce them to you-
- Okay, I gladly accept the invitation-

She took two of the glasses the barman had left on the counter in front of her, while Clay took the third glass and bowl of pretzels. They walked to the table under Shuichi's inquiring gaze and Camel's puzzled one. When they reached her colleagues, they placed everything on the table.

- Sorry for the wait but I met someone I hadn't seen for years - she pointed to her old school friend - He's Clay, we went to high school together. Clay these are Shuichi and Andrè-

The two shook hands with the newcomer, but while Camel smiled at him, Shuichi remained serious and stared at him with an inquiring gaze. On the other hand, putting people at ease had never been his strong suit.

- Nice to meet you, I confess I'm a little nervous at the idea of sitting at a table with three FBI agents- he scratched the back of his neck.
- Do you have a guilty conscience Parker?- she teased him.
- Maybe - he joked, giving her another beautiful smile.
- Do you work here at the club?- Camel asked.
- Yes, I take care of hiring bands and soloists, both famous and new emerging ones-
- I guess those of tonight aren’t particularly known- Shuichi intervened, until then had remained silent.
- No, not yet at least. They may never go platinum, theirs is a niche genre, but I think they have potential. Their lyrics are excellent if you think they are only twenty years old-
- You know a lot about music- Camel complimented.
- I've always loved music, I'm happy to have been able to make my passion my job- he nodded.
- I thought your passion was skateboarding. And also falling off the skateboard- she teased him as she twisted a couple of peanuts in her fingers.
- This is a low blow, I’ve fallen at most two or three times!- he pointed out, but in reality it was evident that he was having more fun than her.
- One of which a few meters from me-
- Good thing you didn't remember me until ten minutes ago!-
- My memory is back- she sipped her second whiskey pretending indifference.
- I confess you a secret: that time I fell in front of you it was because I got distracted. I was looking at you and I didn't jump right on the bench that was an obstacle- he laughed.
- You were looking at me?- she was surprised - But if we barely talked! I remember I talked to you about a research we had to do together and then for that special lesson where the literature professor paired us with people we didn't normally hang out with to get to know each other better. I think that was the day we talked more than in three full years of high school! - she raised an eyebrow.
- Well that's exactly the day I started looking at you. I reevaluated you, before you were just the cute but silent girl who seemed to want to avoid everyone, but after I got to know you better you became the cute girl who struggled to make friends even if she wanted them. But at that time I was dating Abby, even though we had problems. But I remember that I said to myself "what a pity not to have met her before, maybe now she could be there instead of Abby" -
- No thanks, I don't want to be compared to the party queen who got drunk and messed up - she pursed her lips in an expression of disapproval.
- I didn't mean that! -

Camel listened to them carefully, but from the expression on his face it was clear that he was not understanding anything of their conversation. Every now and then he glanced at Shuichi who, on the other hand, didn’t seem at all interested in participating in that dialogue. He watched the band on the stage while tracing the round edge of the glass with the tip of his index finger. Shuichi had always been a bit of a loner, but after the end of adventure with the Organization it seemed to her that he had become less asocial. Instead that evening the old Shuichi had returned, the one who after Akemi's death had withdrawn into himself. Maybe he didn't like the place or maybe he didn't like Clay, but he wasn’t the kind of person who judged apparently so the second hypothesis seemed strange to her. He could also just be absorbed in his thoughts, mulling over something.

- Shu, is everything okay? - she asked.
- Why do you ask me that?-
- You seemed distracted ... -
- Maybe we're boring them with our high school anecdotes- Clay said.
- No, on the contrary, I was listening. Since you kept an eye on her so much, I hoped to know a little more about how Jodie was in high school- he finally turned to look him in the face.

She almost thought she saw a defiant look in his eyes, as if he were somehow facing Clay. The question was why. Perhaps even that was only the result of her impression, in the dim light of the clubs it was difficult to read people's eyes.

- Let's just say she was someone who didn't like getting noticed. Few friends, always the same, silent. An excellent student though. If I can say it, she was also very beautiful and it wasn't difficult to notice her, but she kept herself away from everyone so in the end, even the others didn't get too close, including me-
- And after that what happened to you? Why did you become such a chatterbox party girl?- he turned to her, with that usual grin on his face.
- I'm not a "party girl" at all - she mimicked the quotation marks with her fingers to underline the word - I like to have some fun after work every now and then. And for you we’re all chatterboxes, you never talk! -
- I must say, however, that she came to parties every now and then, mostly to those we organized in the small club run by the father of a boy who came to high school with us. It was a quiet place, very similar to this, where even teenagers could go. We organized evenings with live music and there were some well-known musicians- Clay continued.
- Seriously? I didn't know you were a groupie- Shuichi continued to make fun of her.
- I'm not a groupie at all, I like listening to live music what's wrong with it? - she looked at him with an annoyed expression.
- But are you two always like this? - Clay laughed, amused by that little theater.
- Only when Shuichi acts like he’s the tops of the class- it was her turn to throw a dig.
- I raise my hands then. However, if you’re interested this Friday Marjorie Fair will play here, I can get you special passes to enter by skipping the line and saving the cost of the ticket-
-You are very kind, but I don't know who the… - Camel tried to thank him, but was interrupted by her exclamation.
- Are you joking?! Will Marjorie Fair be here?! I love their songs, especially "Empty Room"-
- Good thing you weren't a groupie- Shuichi took the opportunity to strike the blow.

She gave him a dirty look, glaring at him. The attitude he had begun to have since Clay arrived at their table was getting on her nerves a lot. It seemed that he wanted to be great in the eyes of all those present, even if there was no reason to do it.

- I see you're the only one who knows what I'm talking about, so I'll get you that pass- Clay told her, saving her from throwing a punch at Shuichi.

She smiled happily like a child at those words, it had been a long time since she had attended the concert of a band she liked and the idea thrilled her.
After about four or five songs, the band finished their performance, greeted the audience and left the stage to applause, which was not as loud. It was clear that they were an emerging band and that they hadn’t yet made a name for themselves.
Clay got up at the same time, placing the palms of both hands on the table.

- Unfortunately I have to leave you, work calls me-
- But they don't have to play anymore - Camel pointed out.
- Yes, but part of my job also consists of looking after the bands behind the scenes. Check that they don’t take drugs, don’t get drunk and don’t cause damage to the place. Rock star’s life is beautiful- he laughed ironically.
- Ah, sure, I understand-
- Well, I would say that we can go too, tomorrow we work so we must be rested- Shuichi said.
- You're really a workaholic - she teased him.
- Are you leaving already? Too bad, I was hoping to meet you later...- Clay was sorry.
- We will come back to see you if you propose bands that are worth listening to - she replied.

The three of them got up from the table and went to the cashier to pay for their drinks. She was about to follow Camel and Shuichi when she felt her arm gently grabbed: she turned to look and saw that Clay was holding her back.

- At least leave me your number, otherwise it will be another ten years before we meet! And then I have to give you that pass for Friday night-
- This sounds like a big fat excuse…- she wrinkled her nose.
- It's true I admit it - he laughed - But see it this way: you’ll see Marjorie Fairs for free and I’ll be able to invite you to dinner. What do you say?- he asked, giving her another of those beautiful smiles that he had given her all evening.
- Are you asking me out? - she asked bewildered but in a way also flattered.
- Do you find it strange? -
- Considering that it's been centuries since a man last invited me to dinner, I'd say yes-
- Aren't you busy then? -

She thought back to the conversation she had months before with Shuichi and also to the one with his mother, about the fact that if the opportunity had happened she wouldn’t have waited in vain. At that moment Clay represented her chance: he was handsome, very handsome, with an enchanting smile, nice, he knew how to handle things. They were very similar temperamentally speaking, she perceived it from the fact that after ten years they didn’t see each other, it was enough to talk to each other ten minutes to establish a harmony that made people think that they were friends for a lifetime. She wondered if there was perhaps something that should keep her from not accepting that invitation and her gaze inevitably fell on Shuichi. He was at the counter in front of the cashier with Camel, but rather than paying attention to the bartender they were both watching her and Clay. They must have understood it too that Clay had hit on her all evening, yet Shuichi hadn't lifted a finger; on the contrary, he had been very interested in her high school life and made fun of her. For a moment it had seemed to her that he was jealous, as if those questions he had asked Clay had been asked for the sole purpose of challenging him and proving that he was better than him, but perhaps it had all been a figment of her imagination. She had to stop building castles in the air: it was time to turn over a new leaf, to give herself another chance. She deserved it.

- No, I gladly accept the invitation. Give me your mobile-

Clay handed her his smartphone and she typed in her number and saved it under the name "Jodie from high school."

- What kind of name is that?- he laughed.
- So if you know other Jodie you’ll recognize me- she returned the phone.
- I was very pleased to see you again- he stared at her intently.
- Me too-

She waved goodbye and walked over to Camel and Shuichi, who were still watching them.

- Sorry, I let you go alone. I’ll pay my bill and then we can go-
- No need, I've already thought about it- Shuichi told her, in an almost annoyed tone.
- But why? You shouldn't have done it Shu...- she was surprised at that gesture.

Maybe it was moments like that which made the idea of letting him go more difficult: he knew how to be a gentleman and make her feel as if they were on a date together when in reality they weren't at all.
He didn’t answer her question, he just walked towards the exit of the club followed by Camel. She sighed and quickened her pace to join them. When they were out of the club they said goodbye and went to their respective cars, which were parked in different places.
As soon as they got into the car, Shuichi started the engine and drove away. There was silence inside that car, a heavy silence.

- Thanks for paying my bill too, you shouldn't have done it- she tried to have a conversation with him.
- Don't worry - he answered simply.

It seemed to her that he was behaving strangely, like he was hiding something. He was different from what he was before they arrived at the club, something in him at some point had changed and made him more silent and more grumpy. The question was what.

- Is there something wrong? - she asked him.
- You also asked me at the club, I told you that everything is fine-
- You seem almost annoyed ... is it my fault? I know I haven't been paying much attention to you tonight but I hadn't seen Clay in ten years and it seemed rude to stop the conversation there and ignore him- she looked down.
- You don't have to justify yourself, you did the right thing-
- Maybe you don't like Clay?- she ventured the hypothesis.
- I don't know him to be able to judge him-
- Shu I know you, you have the face of "I'm mulling over something"- she tried to put him with his back to the wall to make him talk.
- I'm just a little tired, that band wasn't for me-

She knew perfectly well that it wasn't true, but it was useless to insist: he didn't want to confide in her, as always he preferred to keep everything inside. This hurt her deeply and she wondered if it would ever stop hurting so much. She wanted to be his support even as a friend, but he preferred to keep distance. He was his friend within certain limits, beyond which he didn’t go.
In a short time they arrived in front of the building where she lived and Shuichi stopped the car, turning to look at her for the first time since they had left the club.

- Thanks for the ride and thanks again for paying the bill. Now get some sleep, tomorrow in the office I don't want to see that long snout- she tapped her index finger on his shoulder, in a last attempt to melt that ice armor he had worn for the umpteenth time -Good night Shu-
- Goodnight Jodie- he answered simply, but looking into her eyes.

She got out of the car and walked into the door of the building, not realizing that all along he had been following every single movement she had made.

 

……………………..

 

He waited to see her entering the door of the building before restarting the car and going home too. He wanted to make sure she was safe, as a good guardian angel would have done. That "goodnight" he had pronounced and which must have seemed to her ears only as a formal greeting, to him had had the meaning of a farewell. He had seen all too well how that Clay had looked at her all the evening, the words he had addressed to her: he had courted her without too much trouble. But the thing that hurt him the most was seeing how happy she seemed to receive that attention, the way she listened to him, the way she joked with him, the smiles she gave him. Those smiles that, selfishly, he would have liked her to continue to reserve only for him. But Jodie wasn't his, she hadn't been for a long time and he had chosen that. Months earlier he had asked her if it would have bothered her if he invited her out, but in the end he never did. Even after deleting Akemi's message and starting drinking Scotch again, the ghosts weren't gone. He had learned that it wasn’t enough to eliminate the proof of the crime to clear his conscience, that the road to redemption was long and there was no certainty of reaching the goal. The straw that broke the camel's back had been seeing her saving her number on Clay's phone. It could only mean one thing: they would meet again, but this time not in his presence. Clay had gotten to where he hadn't yet had the courage to push, perhaps out of fear, perhaps because something was holding him back. The truth was, he had been thinking for a long time about inviting Jodie out alone, without Camel or James or anyone else. They had been sometime alone at his house or at her house or at lunch, but he wanted theirs to be a real date, he wanted to give Jodie what she deserved. The problem was that he had spent too much time on perfecting the details and had not foreseen the arrival of someone who, in that area, was ten steps ahead of him. It was certainly not enough to pay her a drink to convince her to come back with him. If it had been work, he would have done anything to defeat his opponent, but Jodie's happiness didn't compare to all of that. What right did he have to interfere if she wanted to move on? If that man had made her happy, could he really distance him from her knowing that he would break her heart again? No, he couldn't. Jodie's happiness came first, before his plans, his own feelings and his regrets. All he could do was watching what would have happened, but deep down he didn't know what to hope for: that Clay would turn out to be a failure and Jodie would leave him sooner or that things were going well and Jodie was happy. If he had hoped for the first, he would have been an insensitive selfish who wanted to condemn her to being alone while waiting for him to make the first move; if he had hoped for the second, he would have condemned himself to yet another regret and he would have been unhappy. He was losing in any case.
He had exposed himself too much, Jodie had immediately noticed his change of mood and attitude. He didn't have to do it anymore, it made her worry and it wasn't fair. He had to keep his anger and regrets inside and always appear as the hero she believed him to be. This too had to do a hero: to pretend for the good of others. He wasn't able to make Jodie smile like Clay had, he had only been able to make her cry. The next day at work he would have been the usual Shuichi, they would have had coffee together and he would have look into those blue eyes cursing himself for letting her go.
He parked the car and entered the building where his apartment was located. He just wanted to go to sleep and put an end to that evening, even if he certainly wasn't going to have quiet dreams: that night he would have had a new ghost to keep him company.

Chapter Text

When Jodie arrived at the office the next morning he was already there, sitting at his desk with his now no longer hot black coffee. As expected he had slept very badly, almost for nothing, tossing and turning in bed and trying to read something several times in an attempt to find peace. Even his dark circles were more pronounced than usual. As expected, Jodie saw this right away and frowned at him and brought her face a little closer to his.

- Geez Shu, look at your face! You’re worse than how I left you last night! - she exclaimed.
- Thank you for letting me know-
- Seriously, are you sure you're okay? -
- Yes, I just slept badly-
- Why?-
- I have many thoughts - he admitted, however remaining vague in his explanation.
- Do you want to talk about it? - she insisted.
- Don't worry, it’s gonna work out-

He noticed the disappointed expression on her face when he said those words again: he knew that Jodie would only have wanted him to confide in her, but he couldn't do it, in that moment more than ever. He couldn't tell her the truth, he had to make her suffer once again but for a good purpose. Who knows if he was really doing what was best for her.

- Have you already had your coffee?- he asked, trying to change the subject.
- Yes, I had breakfast at home-
- So let's start now, we have been assigned a new case-

He handed her a dossier containing documents, all relating to the information gathered. It had to be said that after the Organization story, any other case seemed to them to be deadly bored. He got up from his desk chair and sat on Jodie's desk, which was next to his, and took a sip of his coffee as he watched her reading the papers.

- Have you already read them all?- s asked, without taking her eyes off the papers.
- Obvious-
- Stupid question- she shook her head.

He waited for her to finish reading everything and then they began to discuss the case. Shortly afterwards Camel joined them and they gave him a summary of the situation.
They worked for the next four hours without interruption, until it was time for the break.

- I'm going to lunch with Dave and Joshua in a new restaurant that has opened not far from here. It’s a quiet and unpretentious place but it seems that you can eat well. Are you coming too? - Camel asked them.
- Thank you but for today I’ll pass - he declined the offer.
- Me too, it will be for next time - said Jodie.

Camel greeted them and walked away from the work station, leaving them alone.

- If you wanted you could go - he said.
- I know, but I didn't want to leave you alone-
- Look, I don't need a babysitter. I'm fine, really. Besides, I'm not even very hungry so I think I'll skip lunch for today - he started reading some papers he had scattered on his desk.
- Shu this isn’t good, you have to eat something. You can't just fill yourself with coffee- she scolded him as even his mother never did.

Even though he'd always pretended otherwise, Jodie's concern and reproaches pleased him deep down. It was nice to have someone who cared about him, it was nice that she gave him all that attention. But in the end even that was more bad than good, because doing so she would have always been bonded to him. Maybe he could have never given back to her that part which had remained so attached to him, it was normal: after all they had been together, they had loved each other and there was still affection between them even after the breakup, Jodie would have never behaved like a perfect stranger to him. However, he feared that this might hold her captive in that cage from which Clay was trying to free her.

- I didn't know you had become my mother- he ironed.
- Don't be sarcastic, if I don't worry you will end up losing health! Come on, let's go to lunch. I offer, to pay off the bill you paid last night- she stood in front of him, with no intention of giving up.
- No need-
- If you don't come I'm offended-

He knew he couldn’t win that match, Jodie was like a hound: she wouldn't let go until she was sure she got what she wanted. After all, a lunch couldn't hurt any of them, right?

- If I say yes will you stop? -
- Hurray! - she clapped her hands like an excited child.

He didn't know how it was possible, but she could be beautiful even when she acted like a little girl. Perhaps it was precisely that freshness that made her fascinating in the eyes of many. Clay must have noticed it too. He squeezed the septum between his thumb and forefinger, in the inner corner of his eyes, in an attempt to dispel the thought of Clay taking her away. He had to convince himself that this was right and stop wishing he had her only for himself. He couldn't give her what she deserved. Yet, for some strange reason that only she could have explained, she was smiling at him. It was like in the fairy tale: the beauty enjoyed the company of the beast, despite the latter being just a monster. At the end of the story the beauty returned to the dying beast and saved him by confessing her love to him, but he wasn’t so stupid as to think that the ending of a fairytale could correspond to reality. When she would have seen what was best out of that universe in which there was only the long wait for a love that didn’t seem to want to return to her, Jodie wouldn’t have come back. He was the beast from which the beauty wouldn’t have returned.
He got up from his chair and followed her, trying to smile back and hiding that tired face he found himself.
Twenty minutes later they were seated at a small restaurant, nice but not too expensive, where they used to go often for lunch. They made great roast beef, but nothing like the Kobe beef they ate in Japan.
They were eating and chatting when Jodie's cell phone, placed on the table, rang and vibrated: a message had arrived. He looked at her expression as she read it, to understand its nature: when he saw her smiling he realized that it wasn’t James or work in general. So there were two options left, Shiho or Clay. She quickly replied to that message and finally turned back to him.

- Sorry, what were we saying?- she asked, after having distracted herself from their conversation.
- It's all OK?-
- Yes, it was just a message-
- If it's Shiho, say hello to her - he tried to get the information he craved so much.

He didn't have to meddle in her business, but it was stronger than him. At that moment he felt the need to know, not for the sheer pleasure of satisfying his curiosity as it often did, but to try to calm that inner turmoil that was slowly consuming him inside since the previous evening. The answer he received didn’t please him at all.

- No, it wasn't her-

She had been vague, but the haste with which she dismissed the question and the nervousness he had read in her eyes were a proof strong enough to confirm his suspicion that the message was from Clay. He had probably already started the attack and asked her out. Jodie's reaction, however, revived that little flame of hope that was dying: she certainly didn’t suspect that his feelings had changed in those months, that he felt more and more the desire to have her by his side and not only at work or as friend, so she shouldn't have been afraid to hurt him by telling him she was dating a man. Instead she held back, she was afraid to tell him the truth. Maybe she did it because it seemed like a lack of respect for him, but even then he didn't see the point: in her eyes he was just her ex who no longer felt anything for her.

- Shall we have coffee and go back to work? - he shifted the conversation to another subject, not wanting to insist
- Sure, but first I have to go to the bathroom-
- I'll wait for you here and in the meantime I order-
- For me a macchiato, thank you- she smiled.

He watched her getting up from her chair and walking towards the bathroom. Inevitably his eye fell on the cell phone she had left on the table. He shouldn't have done it, but he convinced himself it was the right thing to do. He lied to himself saying he was doing it for Jodie's sake: after all he didn't know Clay at all and wanted to make sure he was a good guy, one to trust, one who deserved to be with her. He had to be sure his sacrifice was worth it, Jodie had to be happy.
He reached out and took the cell phone, pressing the power button: on the screen appeared the request to enter the code to unlock the screen. Fortunately he had seen her doing it several times, so he remembered the combination by heart. The screen unlocked and he wasted no time, opening the message box and reading the first conversation on the list.

“Hello silent girl! I Got the pass I promised you for Friday night, ready to see Marjorie Fair live? ;) I thought I'd give it to you tomorrow night for dinner, what do you think? Will I pick you up at eight? I don't take no for an answer! ;)
- Clay-"

A rather idiotic message from his point of view, full of smiley faces with a wink as if he wanted to pose as he was the cool one in that situation. Did he really think he was winning Jodie’s heart with a pass to a band of mediocre fame? He had needed much less in his old days. He certainly didn't earn points with that pathetic request to go out to dinner.
He glanced in the direction of the bathroom to make sure Jodie wasn't coming back and then read her answer.

“Hi boy falling off the skateboard! I can't wait for Friday, thanks again for the pass! :) For dinner I wanted to say no but since I'm not allowed then I just have to accept. See you tomorrow!"

It hurt him to see that despite the idiotic message she still accepted, but it was understandable: she had to have her pass somehow. He had seen her happy but certainly not enthusiastic, a sign that Clay hadn't broken into her heart that much for the moment, despite the obvious complicity between them. He could only wait and see how that situation would evolve.
He got out of the message box and put her cell phone back where he found it, calling the waiter to order coffees. He knew exactly where he should have been tomorrow night.

 

………………………

 

She looked in the mirror, slowly spinning around for a 360 degree view. She wondered if she was fine dressed like that, it hadn't taken long to find the clothes to put on and it seemed odd since this was her first date after six years of waiting for a man who never came. Still, the first time she went out with Shuichi it had taken two hours to find the right dress. Clay was cute, she liked him and had a wonderful smile, but she didn't want to expose herself too quickly. After all, they hadn't seen each other for ten years, she knew practically nothing about him.
She adjusted the collar of the white satin blouse she'd been wearing over a pair of classic, tight jeans that hugged her slender legs perfectly. On her feet she had opted for a pair of beige shoes, high-heeled pumps.
Satisfied, she took a not too bright lipstick from the cosmetic bag and put a veil on her lips. At that moment the cell phone rang. She walked briskly to the bedside table where she'd put it in charge and read the name on the display: Shiho.

- Hello?- she replied.
- Hi Jodie, how are you?-
- Hi sweetie, I'm fine thanks. What about you? Why did you call me?-
- Nothing in particular, I was waiting for dinner and I thought to call you. Am I bothering you?-
- No, it's just that I'll be out for dinner soon and I'm sorry we don't have much time to talk-
- Are you dating Shuichi?- was the first thing she asked, with an unexpected rush.
- No, I'm going out with an old friend from high school. I met him by chance the other night in a club where I went with Shu and Camel and we started talking about old times. He clearly flirted with me even in front of them, then yesterday he sent me a message to ask me to go out for dinner-

Silence fell from the other end of the phone, the enthusiasm that the girl had just before had disappeared. She knew she had somehow disappointed her, Shiho was the person who most of all had wanted a rapprochement between her and Shuichi and learning that she was going to go out with someone else thwarted all the efforts she had made. Even though she was very sorry about this, it was the right thing to do and Shiho had to understand it too. It was her life and she couldn't spend it waiting for someone who never seemed to arrive.

- Are you still there?- she asked her.
- Yes - simply answered the young scientist.
- I know you wanted to see me dating Shuichi, but I can't wait forever. You understand this, right? It's not fair, I have to live my life-
- I know Jodie, I’m not mad at you- she sighed.
- You don't have to be mad at anyone, it's nobody's fault. Maybe things just had to go like this. And then it won't necessarily work with Clay, for the moment it's just a dinner with an old high school friend-
- Clay ...- she repeated the name, as if she wanted to memorize it - But do you like it? Is he a good boy at least? -
- Well, in high school he was a quiet guy and had good grades, he made a good impression on me even when I saw him again the other night. And it's nice, very nice. A tall, athletic physique, blue eyes and a beautiful smile-
- I see…-

Silence fell again between them, interrupted only by the sigh she made not knowing what else to say to the girl to get her back in a good mood.

- Forgive me Jodie, I'm a bad friend - she finally said.
- Why do you say this?-
- I should encourage you to throw yourself headlong into this thing and support your enthusiasm, I should be happy that you have found a man you like ...-
- But he’s not the man you would have wanted- she completed her sentence.
- No, he’s not the man you wanted - she highlighted the word "you" with the tone of her voice.

That sentence made her think: she was so pleasantly impressed by the flirting that Clay had done to her that she had tried to put aside the fact that until the day before she had continued to hope for a rapprochement with Shuichi. She had covered up her feelings, but Shiho was right: Shuichi was the man she had always wanted and that part of her that she had silenced to go out for dinner with Clay still wanted. She was trying to convince herself to go on, because if she didn't, she would have been trapped forever in that long wait that wouldn't have made anyone happy.

- We can't have everything we want, sometimes we have to let go of something to get something else in return - she replied, but it was more an attempt to convince herself than her friend.
- I hope you’re okay with it and that you are happy, I don't want anything else-
- Thanks, sweetie-

Their conversation was interrupted by the intercom ringing: Clay had arrived.

- I have to go now, see you soon-
- Have a nice evening Jodie-

She closed the call and put the phone in her purse, stared one last time at her reflection in the mirror and took a deep breath. Shuichi had to stay out of her life, at least for that evening. She had to try. When she felt ready, she ran to answer the intercom and joined Clay who was waiting for her in front of the door.

 

………………………

 

He hadn't stopped staring at the front door for a moment, waiting to see Clay arrive and ring the bell. Despite his car attracting a lot of attention due to the color and the model, he had tried to camouflage it as best as possible among the others parked nearby, however positioning himself in a strategic point where he could keep the situation under control. On the other hand, for someone like him, a stakeout was an amateur thing. Leaning in the beverage compartment next to him there was a can of black coffee: it was going to be a long night and he would need it considering that he had several hours of sleep deprivation. He had already smoked a cigarette but felt the need to smoke a second. Being nervous certainly didn't help his addiction.
After about twenty minutes, he finally saw a car arriving and stopping next to the front door. He recognized Clay immediately when he saw him coming out of the door: shirt that highlighted his trained pectorals, hair with a crew cut but perfect, jeans and combat boots. He watched as he rang the doorbell and waited for an answer from Jodie.
At that moment his cell phone rang. He quickly read the name on the screen, to assess if it was really worth answering: when he saw that it was Shiho he pressed the button to accept the call and inserted the speakerphone.

- To what do I owe the honor of this phone call? -
- YOU DUMB IDIOT, STOP MAKING THE COOL ONE OF THE SITUATION AND DO SOMETHING BEFORE IT'S LATE !!!- he heard her screaming and ranting from the other end of the phone.
- Good evening to you too princess, it's always a pleasure to talk to you-
- PRINCESS, MY FOOT! THANK YOUR GUARDIAN ANGEL THAT AT THIS MOMENT I’M AN OCEAN AWAY FROM YOU, BECAUSE OTHERWISE I WOULD HAVE ALREADY MADE YOU FEEL THE EXCITEMENT OF SWALLOWING THE LAST REMAINING APTX PILL!- she continued screaming, throwing up the words one behind the other one.
- Hold back your anger, what's wrong with you?- he asked, a bit annoyed by those insults.
- What's wrong with me?! What’s wrong is that if you don't move and do something you’ll lose Jodie forever! -
- Are you just calling me to talk about this? -
- Someone has to do it since you're wasting time combing the doll I gave you instead of taking your woman back! Do you know that right now she’s going to dinner with someone else?! Do you feel satisfied?!-
- Not at all- he admitted - I won't be until I understand if the intentions of Jodie's new squeeze are good-
- And you worry about this?!?! You don't have to figure out if he's okay for her or not, you just have to send him away!!! Make him understand that Jodie is yours! -
- But she's not mine. Jodie isn’t an object, she doesn’t belong to anyone. She is free to decide what to do with her life-
- Maybe I didn't explain myself well- she tried to calm down, but it was impossible for her - Jodie goes out with that guy only because he told her a couple of sweet words and she was flattered. She’s a woman, she just wants to feel desired and beautiful in the eyes of a man. Since you’re entertaining yourself making the braids on the doll, she has fallen into the net of the first who had flirted with her, but it’s you who she really wants. It’s with you that she wants to go out for dinner, it’s from you that she wants to hear that she’s beautiful and special! If she's dating that Clay it's only because she's trying to convince herself that she has to go beyond her unrequited feelings for you. Is it possible that you don't understand it?! Do you really feel nothing for her?! -

She had uttered those words almost all in one breath, as if she felt the urge to get them out of her stomach. She was angry, perhaps even more angry than when she found out he was Dai Moroboshi. And she was right. He himself was already aware of everything Shiho had just told him, but like Jodie he was trying to ignore it and go further, convinced that doing so would have been the best thing for her.

- It doesn't matter what I feel, it matters what she feels. If she wants to move on, it's right that she does, I can't stop her- he replied.
- Please stop with this nonsense!!! She doesn't want to move on, she doesn't want Clay and she doesn't want anyone else but you! Do something, damn it!!!-
- I'm already doing it right now-
- And that is to say?- she asked skeptically.
- I'm making sure he's a suitable man for her. If I’ll be satisfied, then I’ll have no regrets letting her go-
- I'm not following you...what the hell are you doing?! -
- I'm going to see where he brings her and especially how he behaves-
- Oh my God, now he’s starting again with spying! -

He laughed at how much she had hated Subaru for it. She had never liked being watched and hated those who spied on others.
- But you have to admit that it's effective-
- No, it's a waste of time. Just go to them and say something like "This is my woman!", Then take Jodie away. She will certainly like this heroic gesture- she cut it short, as if that were the solution to the problem.
- If necessary I’ll do it-
- BUT IT IS NECESSARY, HOW SHOULD I TELL YOU?!?!- she raised her tone again, now impatient.

He would have liked to continue that conversation, after all he was having fun and it was a way to have some company during that solitary espionage, but Clay and Jodie had now arrived at the restaurant where they would have dinner. Not too luxurious but still elegant, a good choice.

- Sorry but now I have to leave you. I'll keep you up to date-
- No wait...-

He ended the call without even giving her time to answer and parked the car trying not to be noticed. He saw Clay getting out of the car and running to the passenger side to open the door for Jodie. He wasn't missing a shot.
Once they entered the restaurant they were too far out of his control range, he knew that sadly he would have missed the dinner part. He couldn’t enter the restaurant, he wasn’t dressed properly and would have risked being discovered, not to mention that he had no desire to eat. Also, he was heartened by the fact that this was just the first date, surely they weren't going to let themselves go so much, especially Jodie. So he took a sip of coffee from his can and he prepared himself spending the next two hours in the car, waiting for them to come out of the restaurant and decide what to do for the rest of the evening.

 

…………………………

 

- But you have to admit that I was good with the shooter! - he took his eyes off the road for a second, just long enough to turn to look at her.
- But if you looked like Winnie The Pooh with a gun in your hand! -

They both laughed heartily as the car drove towards her home. She had had a wonderful evening with Clay, she had never been bored even for a moment and had discovered that they had more in common than she thought. That boy had turned out to be a real surprise. After an excellent dinner in a nice place, he had enthusiastically accepted the idea of going to the arcade, since he was also passionate about video games. They had stayed there for at least an hour, laughing like crazy and trying any game they could find. It had been a long time since she had enjoyed herself like this and above all that she hadn’t felt courted by a man. Clay had been very respectful, but every now and then he had thrown jokes that made her understand clearly his intentions. It certainly wouldn't have been the last time he'd invited her out, it was up to her to decide whether to continue or to end it.
When they reached the front of the building where she lived, Clay stopped the car and got out with her, accompanying her to the front door. For the first time in the whole evening she felt embarrassed, wondering if he had come down just for gallantry or with the intention of kissing her. Wasn't a kiss on the first date too soon for two who had just met? Clay stood in front of her and stared at her with a smile. She put her hair behind her ear and smiled back, thinking what she should say to greet him.

- Thanks for the evening, I had a very good time. And thanks also for the pass, I can't wait for the concert on Friday- she finally said.
- I also hope Friday will arrive soon-
- Come on! You work in the music scene, by now you have seen so many famous bands that I don't think you can get excited for a niche group like Marjorie Fair-
- In fact, the reason I'm impatient for Friday to come is another- he admitted.
- And what would that be?- she asked, even though she already knew the answer.
- Because I’ll have the opportunity to see you again-
- Oh- she could only say, smiling and biting her lower lip as she looked away.
- Don't tell me you're embarrassed for so little- he laughed.
- I haven't dated a man for years, okay? - she justified herself.
- I don’t believe it! A beautiful woman like you will have many guys who wish to date you-
- I’m a federal agent, who do you want to approach me? - she joked.
- But you don't go around with a sign that says "I'm from the FBI"-
- Yeah, maybe then the reason is another-
- That is? -
- And who knew- she lied.

She certainly couldn't tell him about Shuichi and the last six years spent waiting for him and hoping for a date with him like the one she had had that evening.
They remained in silence staring at each other for a moment, she could see in Clay's eyes the desire to have a kiss as a final greeting. But she still didn't feel ready for that step. one thing was trying to move forward in small steps and another was to throw herself headlong with no guarantee of success. She had already suffered once, she didn't want to do it a second time: so she put an end to that awkward silence by approaching Clay and hugging him quickly, withdrawing before he could hold her too tightly.

- Goodnight Clay, thanks again-

She tried to enter in the building but he stopped her by taking her hand.

- But how, do you run away like this?-
- It's late and I wake up early in the morning- she tried to find a plausible excuse.
- I don't want to hold you back any longer, but that hug was really...- he stopped, not knowing how to describe it.
- I know, it's just that...- she couldn’t complete the sentence too.
- I didn't invite you to go out just to give you the pass, it seemed clear to me-
- It is, Clay, but I don't feel like rushing things. I had a good time with you tonight but that doesn't mean I should kiss you or invite you to come in and if that's what you were hoping for, then I'm sorry, I can't give you what you're looking for - she clarified the situation, looking at him with a serious expression.
- I'm sorry, I didn't want to give you the impression of wanting to get straight to the point- he shook his head, taking her other hand too and stroking the backs of both with his thumbs- I was just expecting a slightly less hasty greeting, it almost seems that you want to run away from me-
- It’s not like that, believe me. I just want to take my time and take it easy, if something has to happen it will happen by itself and in due course-
- You're an old-fashioned type- he smiled.
- I'm just a serious woman with principles-
- Who had been hurt by a bastard who didn't deserve her-

Her eyes widened, not expecting such insight. He was certainly not a fool, on the contrary, but she was surprised at how he could have read so well behind the lines. On the other hand, she had always had the word "Shuichi" printed on her face, anyone who knew her knew what her weakness was.

- Why are you saying this?- she pretended not to understand.
- Come on, first you tell me that you haven't dated a man in years, that you aren’t used to being courted and now you tell me that you want to go slow. Typical attitude of someone who has come out hurt from a relationship and now struggles to let go again for fear of being hurt again- he explained.
- Nothing gets past you-
- I don't want to hurt you Jodie. I really like you- he stared at her with his eyes of an even more intense blue than hers.
- I know- she smiled.

Before she knew it and did anything, Clay brought his face close to hers and gave her a small, gentle kiss on the cheek, pulling away from her soon after.

- Goodnight Jodie- he greeted her with a smile, turning away from her and heading towards the car.

She stood there without reacting. She slowly brought a hand to her cheek, touching the place where Clay had kissed her. When she finally realized what had happened, she smiled happily to have found out that he was really a good guy if he had agreed to wait for her and respect her. Maybe things could have really worked with him.
When Clay was gone, she opened the door and entered, unaware of the red Mustang that was slowly passing behind her on the road outside the building and of those green eyes that had kept an eye on her all evening.

Chapter Text

Over the next few days he continued to keep an eye on Jodie, observing her behavior and following her every time she went out with Clay. The day after their first appointment she had arrived at work with a smile on her lips, a sign that she had slept soundly and had started the day well, unlike him who continued to lose hours of sleep and torment himself. The happier he saw her, the more he realized how far away she was from him. On the night of the first date, when Clay hugged her and kissed her on the cheek, it was a bitter mouthful to swallow and he could still taste it in his mouth. On the Friday of the concert he too went back to the club, mingling in the crowd, without ever losing sight of them: all evening he had to watch the hugs that Clay gave her, watch how he held her close and how she slowly let herself go and reciprocated, always with a smile on her lips. He had had to pay the ticket to listen to a band he thought was mediocre and to see in the arms of another the woman he had realized (too late) that he wanted.
His mood was getting worse and worse, along with his dark circles and late hours of sleep. Camel had noticed it too, and above all, Jodie herself had noticed it, she never stopped asking him if everything was okay and worrying about him.
After the concert night, Jodie had gone out with Clay two more times and he obviously had followed them both. It was during the last date, which took place the night before, that he had seen something that, selfishly, he had hoped he would never have to see: they greeted each other in front of Jodie's palace door with a kiss on the lips. Clay held her close with one arm, while with the hand of the other arm he gently stroked her cheek; she had placed her hands on his chest and allowed herself to be kissed. Of course he was the one who had taken the initiative, but she hadn’t rejected him. It was there that he realized he had to step aside once and for all, that the train had passed and he had arrived at the station too late. Now all he had to do was continue to live with his regrets, aware that he had just added another to the collection.
That morning in the office he had been quieter than usual and had kept the conversation on a simple business level. At lunch he had refused Camel's invitation and had also managed to escape Jodie, who, as always, had insisted on making him eat something and get out of there. He had locked himself up in the archive, the only place where he could be alone. It was his refuge, sometimes he went there and thought while the smell of the old files stung his nostrils.
He was checking the news on his cell phone, hoping to get distracted, when an article caught his attention. It was about a "comet rain", defined in scientific jargon as a "meteor shower", which would have taken place in two days. He had actually been hearing about it since two weeks, even on radio and television, but he had never paid any attention to it until the day before, while they were talking about this and that during the lunch break, Jodie had expressed a desire to see it. He would have liked to invite her to watch all those meteors shine in the sky just to see her smile, but now that things seemed to be getting serious between her and Clay he couldn't intrude and threaten her happiness.
He put down the phone and closed his eyes, putting his hands behind his neck and pulling his legs up, resting his feet on the desk that was inside the archive. He tried to relax, but inner peace seemed far from coming. He was forced to reopen his eyes when he heard the phone vibrating above the desk: again a call from Shiho, yet another in a long series that went on since the day Jodie told her she had started dating Clay. He didn't want to touch the subject again, especially after what he had seen the night before, but he didn't want to ignore the girl's call either. He loved her and felt he had to endure all the lectures she wanted to give him to repay the debt he owed to her.

- What new insults have you reserved for me today? - he asked her, without even saying "hello?".
- I believe that there isn’t yet such a great and perfect insult that suits you. Jodie just called me, she said she kissed the blondie last night! Are you satisfied now?!-
- "The blondie"- he smiled - I see you don't like him either - he was pleased.
- Oh no, on the contrary, I like him very much. He's a smart guy, he saw Jodie and took her while you were wasting your time-

He said nothing, strange to say but he didn't know what to say to argue. He could not deny the reality of the facts. That girl was the only one who could beat him with words, she was a champion in throwing poisonous arrows at people.

- You don’t say anything? Are you really at peace with yourself?- she asked him, not hearing him reply.
- Not at all- he admitted.
- So if you want her why don't you go get her back? -
- Because she’s happy and I have no right to ruin her happiness-
- What the hell are you saying?! She wants to be happy with you!- she raised the tone of her voice.
- She kissed another man. Jodie isn’t someone who kisses anyone, if she does it is because she really likes that person-
- Actually she told me that it was Clay who kissed her-
- But she didn't reject him-
- She didn't even realize what was happening! -
- Listen, I know you would like me to do something and I can’t hide that I’ve been thinking about doing it since days- he became serious - But what right do I have to interfere? I have already deprived her of her happiness once, if I did it again I would be really unfair. She doesn't deserve it, she deserves to be peaceful next to a man who makes her laugh instead of turning her off-

He heard a long silence from the other end of the phone: he had managed to silence her for the first time. Perhaps she too was finally metabolizing the reality of the facts.

- You always say that I'm an idiot and that I can only make her suffer. What do I have to offer her that Clay doesn't have? I can't give her smiles and good nights with famous bands-
- You have something that he doesn't have and that is worth much more than his smiles and his fairy world made up of famous bands- she said seriously.
- What would that be?- he asked.
- Her heart. She gave it to you and never got it back. If you don't want it then give it back to her and let her give it to someone else. But if you want it, then use it as a winning weapon. It's your only chance-

He was surprised by those words, as if she had just made a shocking revelation to him, but actually he could have come to that conclusion on his own, he had all the elements to do it: he simply couldn’t see them because he had imposed himself not to see them. By hiding his feelings, he thought he was doing both Jodie and himself a favor, but he was doing neither. Jodie hadn't kissed Clay first because part of her was still tied to him somehow and that part was just her own heart. He smiled at the thought that he hadn’t been afraid to face an entire criminal organization, but now he was afraid at the thought of having to face his own feelings. The human being is complicated, we are always ready to make war on others but when we are faced with our worst opponent, that is ourselves, we retreat. He had always told himself that if he wanted to win a battle he must also be willing to die on the battlefield, yet with Jodie he wasn't practicing his own motto. He had to do something and he had to do it immediately.

- Are you still there? - Shiho asked, not hearing him argue.
- Yes, I was just thinking-
- Think a little less and act more-
- I was thinking about how to act-
- There is nothing to think about, you go to her and say "I want us to be together". It will be enough to make her fall at your feet-
- You always make everything easy-
- It’s you who complicates even the elementary things-
- Then I'll take your advice-
- Well, go and come back as a winner- she encouraged him but in her own way.
- Was it a “good luck?”-
- No it was a "get a move on"!-

He laughed heartily, that girl was really a tough nut to crack, the exact opposite of her older sister. With that temper she could have torn an entire army alive.

- I'll let you know how it ends-
- I hope for you it will end well, otherwise I'll take the first flight to New York and make you swallow the last remaining APTX pill. In the worst case you'll be ten years old again and you'll have fun combing your doll like you're doing now-
- Are you threatening me?- he grinned amused.
- No, it's just a warning- she feigned indifference.
- See you soon then-

When that call ended, his mood had definitely improved compared to when he had set foot in the archive. Now he had a hope that he hadn't been able to see before and had a whole day at his disposal to turn it into a reality.
After the lunch break he reunited with Jodie and Camel again and they continued to work on the case that had been assigned to them. He acted as if nothing had happened, he didn't want his personal matters to interfere with his work; so he waited for the day to end and for the time to go home. It was then that he began to implement his plan.
- I see you better than this morning, Shu - Jodie pointed out as they took the elevator together to get to the ground floor and reach their respective cars in the parking lot.
- Yes, I was able to get some sleep during the lunch break, I needed it-
- Do you suffer from insomnia?-
- Sometimes-
- You know that if something is wrong you can tell me-
- I'm fine, don't worry. Rather, I've noticed that these days the news is focusing a lot on the comet rain that will take place in two days-
- True, they talk about it everywhere- she nodded - I confess that I would really like to see it- her eyes lit up.

Great, that was exactly the answer he wanted to hear.

- I know a place away from the city lights, where you can better see the starry sky. If you like we can go there, I admit that I'm also curious to see this phenomenon-

He turned to look at her to understand what she thought of that proposal and found her staring at him in surprise, but he didn't know if she was doing it because of what he had just proposed to her or because she was incredulous about his interest in it. He didn’t have time to understand it, as the amazement on her face soon gave way to a sorry expression, followed by a sigh. Something was wrong.

- I would love it Shu but...unfortunately I have already made another commitment- she lowered her gaze, as if she were ashamed of that confession.

He tried to take the blow he received, he couldn't get knocked out in the first round. If he was to die on the battlefield, he had to do it with style as it was in his DNA.

- Oh, are you already going somewhere to see it?- he asked, pretending not to know.
- No- she shook her head - I won't see the comet rain, I'll be at the club where we went the other night with Camel. A band that I really like will play and...-
- Clay got you a free pass- he finished the sentence, not even bothering too much to hide his annoyance.
- How do you know?- she alarmed, as if she didn't want to be discovered.
- Well, it's not difficult: he also offered it to you the night you introduced him to us, so I guess it keeps you informed about the bands that play and lets you enter for free-
- I'm sorry Shu, I didn't know how to tell you...- she continued to keep her head down, torturing her hands.

She felt guilty, as if she was confessing to him that she had done something serious when in reality she had done nothing but getting on with her life. He would have never scolded her for this, yet she was terribly afraid of touching this subject with him.

- What? That you are going out with Clay? You didn't have to tell me, you are an independent and free woman, you can do whatever you want. I'm no one to get involved in your business- he lit a cigarette, since they had now left the building and there was no ban in the parking lot.

He realized only after saying it that that sentence could be a double-edged sword. That "you can do what you want" could be interpreted as "I don't care who you hang out with because I don't care about you." He hoped he hadn't made the situation worse, but Jodie's silence and the expression on her face seemed to tell him the exact opposite. This was not good, he had to be more direct and appear less disinterested.

- What band are you going to see? - he tried to liven up the conversation.
- The Perisher- she answered in a low voice, without looking him in the eye.
- Don’t get offended if I tell you I've never heard of them-

Again Jodie didn't answer, it was as if she didn't want to have any conversation with him right now and it wasn't hard to understand why.

- It's a real shame though, you'll miss the comet rain-
- I know…-
Nothing, there was no way to make her talk. He had obviously made a mistake in his plan (and he also knew what) and now he had to change the tables again to win the game. Maybe Shiho was right, maybe he should have just gone to her and said "Listen, I like you and I want to go out with you", but Jodie deserved so much more. She had been waiting for him for more than six years, arranging a decent confession was the least he could do for her. For now he could only retire, he would return to the scene the next day with the surprise he had planned.

- Good evening Jodie- he greeted her, opening the door of his red Mustang.
- See you tomorrow Shu - she finally looked into his eyes, showing him all his sadness and making him feel awful.

The doubt crept like a poisonous viper into his mind, as he watched her getting into the car looking in the rearview mirror: could he really win the comparison with Clay or, as he thought, would he just make her suffer for the umpteenth time?

 

……………………….

 

She sighed loudly and threw on the bed that umpteenth dress too, which rested together with the others previously tried on the pile that had formed. There was an hour left for her appointment with Clay at the club and she still hadn't decided what to wear. As soon as she thought she had found the perfect dress, she could see one flaw in it, then another and another. It was probably her mood that didn't help her in her choice. Since she had had that conversation with Shuichi the day before, the sadness that seemed to have left her had returned to visit her, persistent and unwanted. Things were going well with Clay, she even gave him a kiss and she felt peaceful when she was with him; she had tried to leave the past behind and to move forward without that man who for years had been the only object of her desire, but she only realized at that moment how wrong she was. She couldn't shut the past out the door and think that it would just leave by ignoring it: it would have kept knocking to come back. It had only taken her to talk to Shuichi just once to question what she was building with Clay. When he had kissed her the night before, she hadn’t been able to describe with certainty the sensations she had experienced. Sure it had been very nice, but she'd had the feeling that something was missing to make it truly perfect. Instead, when Shuichi asked her to go and see the meteor shower together, she knew exactly how she felt: her heart was filled with joy, but as always she hid it so as not to delude herself. Then, after taking her to heaven, with just one sentence he was able to throw her back to hell. “You are an independent and free woman, you can do whatever you want. I'm no one to get involved in your business”: so he said, as if he didn't care that she was dating another man. Why had he invited her to watch the “comet rain” together if he had no interest in her? Why every time he seemed to be on the verge of taking a step towards her, then he back off? This attitude infuriated her as much as it destroyed her. It wasn't fair, it wasn't fair to continue to suffer for someone who didn't care about her as a woman when on the other hand she had a wonderful guy who was making her realize how interested he was in her.
Until the day before, she had been so excited about seeing The Perisher live and had adored Clay for that gift, despite the fact that it meant missing the “comet rain” she wanted to see so much; now she didn't even know if she really wanted to go out or if it was better to stay home and fill herself with ice cream in an attempt to appease that inner torment.
Eventually, tired even of trying on clothes, she returned to her initial outfit: black leggings, black high-heeled shoes, a red top tied behind the neck and with a deep V-neck and a light faux leather jacket. She wanted to feel sexy for one night and she also wanted Clay to look at her, since someone else didn't. She had to put an end to the domination that Shuichi exercised over her, she had to regain control of her emotions and had to let herself go more with Clay.
As she spread a layer of lipstick over her lips, she heard the intercom ring. She wondered who it was since she wasn't expecting anyone. With Clay they had decided to meet directly at the club because he had to go there first to organize the evening. She went to the entrance and looked at the camera shot on the intercom monitor: she felt her heart skip a few beats when she saw Shuichi waiting for her answer. What had he come to do at her house? Just yesterday she told him she was going to be busy that night, but he seemed to have forgotten or maybe just ignored it. She began to look around, not knowing what to do. She could open up and get rid of the doubt or she could pretend she wasn't home so she wouldn't have to see him. The intercom rang again, a sign that Shuichi really wanted to talk to her.
Finally she replied, convinced herself that it was the best thing to do. She had to clear all her doubts before going to Clay, once and for all.

- Come up Shu- she said simply, opening the door and hanging up.

After a few minutes her doorbell rang and she opened it. She found him staring at her, holding a package decorated with a bow in his hands. The questions that were already racking up in her head only increased: what was he doing at her house with a gift? It wasn’t her birthday and there was nothing to celebrate.

- What are you doing here? I'm about to go out- she cut it short.
- Will you let me in or do I have to talk at the door? - he asked, perhaps a little offended by that not very friendly welcome.

She sighed, moving away and inviting him to enter with a wave of her hand.

- So, what did you come here for?- she repeated the question.
- I wanted to give you this- he handed her the package.
- What is it?- she asked skeptically, taking that gift and turning it over in her hands, trying to guess what it contained just by touching it.
- Open it-

Without being told twice, she unwrapped the package revealing its contents: a silver photo frame, one of those which were “double” and could be closed like a book. The silver had been expertly engraved, giving life to very elegant floral motifs, which made that object truly beautiful. Now she really had no words, but in return she had other questions added to the list. Why had he given her such a gift? Was it a totally disinterested gesture or did he perhaps want to be forgiven for something, as always?

- It’s wonderful Shu- she said, passing her index finger over the incisions without being able to take her eyes off that object.
- You have to open it though, I didn't take it for the cover- he smiled.

He turned the little hook that held the two halves closed and opened the photo frame, revealing the two images inside: the first was a photo taken years ago, dating back to the time they were together, during one of their dates where they had met a cute little dog while strolling in the park; the second was instead more recent and they had taken it with Mendel during Shiho's birthday party. She felt her hands shaking as the tears pressed to come out despite her effort to hold them back. Damn treacherous tears, revealing the most intimate feelings. She didn’t know what to say or what to do, she only managed to squeeze that photo frame tightly and stare at the two photos in front of her. Why was he doing this to her? Why did he want to see her cry and suffer? What had she done to deserve it?

- You don’t like it?- he asked, interrupting her silent thoughts.
- Of course I like it- she managed to answer, even if her voice trembled like her hands and she had to swallow in an attempt to undo the lump that had formed in her throat.
- I wasn't sure if you still had your copy of the first photo, it's been several years, so I thought to print it again, when in doubt-
- I have it- she whispered, keeping her head down to the point that her hair fell on her cheeks, covering her face and not allowing Shuichi to see her - I still have everything-

There were a few seconds of silence, none of them said anything. She felt Shuichi's gaze weigh on her, staring at her waiting for her reaction which, however, didn’t come. It was as if she was no longer in control of herself: her body was paralyzed and she was unable to move from that position; her mind couldn’t formulate thoughts that she could turn into words. The only thing that still made her aware of being on this earth was the grip in her stomach that almost prevented her from breathing. Those photos only reminded her of how much she had loved that man and how much she still loved him, despite everything. The scars of the past burned and the old wounds she believed she had tamed reopened. How could he doubt that she had kept their photos and all their memories? Maybe he could have thrown it all away, replacing it with Akemi's memories, but she could have never erased anything from their past, not even material things. She had tried, but in the end she couldn't.

- Ok, I admit that this isn’t exactly the reaction I expected- he said, taking a few steps towards her - Look, if you don't like it you can say it-
- Why?!- she finally found the strength to look up at him.

Her eyes were full of tears that clouded her vision, but she still tried to convey the anger and pain she was feeling.

- Why are you doing this to me Shu?- she asked again.
- Because if you don't come with me tonight to see the meteor shower you'll make the biggest mistake of your life and your reaction is proof of it- he replied calmly, as if trying to calm her too.
- But how can you?- she put the photo frame on the table, running a hand from her forehead up to her head, ruffling her short tuft - How can you show up at my house with some photos of us and tell me that I should go out with you when you know very well that I'm dating another person! Does it bother you so much to see me happy?! Is it so important for you to prove that you’re the best, to the point of making me suffer just to prove to Clay that you can have me and he can't?!-

She pronounced those words one after the other, gesturing and raising the tone of her voice. She felt that she had to get rid of that burden, that she had the right to an explanation.

- Do you really think I'm doing it for Clay? - he asked, staring at her with a frown - If that's the case then you're very wrong, I don't care about him-
- Then why?! Why now?!-
- I’m aware that I didn’t choose the best time, I was too late, but you have to know that I was going to give you that gift and to invite you out before you started dating Clay. I was just waiting for the right moment, the moment when I would have been really sure I could have given you what you deserved-
- And this moment came just when I started dating someone else?! When I decided to go on with my life and stop waiting for that invitation to go out that you’ve never done to me?!- she reproached him, almost shouting it in his face.
- It wasn’t planned, but the idea of you alongside someone else made me understand that I had to do something if I didn't want to lose you-

All those words he was saying to her, those words she had been waiting for for years, seemed to her now just a way to keep her under his rule. She couldn't grasp his sincerity, she only saw that side of him that always wanted to have everything under control and who wanted to be the best.

- Yesterday you told me that I didn't have to tell you about Clay and that I was free to do whatever I wanted. It was a very elegant way of telling me that you didn't give a damn if I went out with someone because you didn't feel anything more than a simple affection towards me- she reproached him, wiping her tears with a quick gesture of the back of her hand - And now you expect me to believe that you came here to tell me how jealous you are of Clay, how much you want me and that I should go out with you and send to hell with a guy who in the last few weeks has made me feel like a woman should feel: desired by her man. Do you realize how selfish that is of you?! You knew from the start how I would react seeing those photos, you know very well what I feel for you and yet you enjoy tormenting me for the sake of feeling invincible! I don’t deserve it...- she couldn’t finish the speech, she covered her mouth with one hand and began to cry again.
- And aren't you selfish since you go out with a man just because he makes you feel desired, when in reality you’re in love with another? You're no better than me right now-
- I'M TRYING!- she screamed through tears.
- To do what?-
- To love Clay-

Shuichi nodded, without saying a word anymore. Theirs was a dialogue that would lead them nowhere, they were blaming each other for their mistakes but neither of them thought about hugging each other or smiling as they had done in those photos. Could love be at the same time a hell full of pain?

- I came here to bring you those photos in the hope that you would be happy and agree to go out with me. I wanted a second chance to be with you, I thought it would make us both happy. But maybe I should have listened to that voice in my head telling me not to, because I would have only made you miserable again-

She wanted so much to answer to him, but she lacked the clarity to do so and the sobs would have prevented her from speaking.
She heard the sound of Shuichi's footsteps approaching her, until she found him in front of her. He was staring at her with the most sorry expression she had ever seen him doing since she knew him and at that moment she realized she was wrong to treat him that way. He wasn't there for the sake of demonstrating his dominance, he really wanted to be with her. It was she who was wrong this time.
She felt his hand caress her cheek, with his thumb he tried to erase those tears that he himself had generated. He rested his forehead against hers and whispered those last words.

- I'm going to Forest Park, in Queens, where I had planned. I'll wait for you there, in front of the Bandshell, to see the “comet rain” together. If I don't see you coming by midnight, I'll give up on you and let you be free to stay with Clay-
When she managed to open her eyes, Shuichi was back away from her again. She missed the feel of his hand stroking her cheek and the warmth of his breath so close to her lips. It was enough for him to touch her to give her shivers all over her body.
She followed him with her eyes as he approached the door and left her apartment as he had entered it. Part of her wanted to chase him, hug him and go with him to Forest Park; the other told her to go to Clay's. Heart and head were competing in a no holds barred duel and only she could have put an end to it. Shuichi had left her free to decide what to do, because it was right. But what was the right thing to do?
She took that wonderful frame in her hands again and thought about both days in which they were taken. They had both been happy days in their own way and the feelings she had had remained the same. It was strange to think that in the time span between one photo and another there had been a criminal organization, murders, pain, the resentment she had felt for him when he left her in the lurch and another woman who had kept them apart until now. She slid slowly to the ground, her legs were no longer holding her. She clutched those photographs tightly to her chest and let herself go to a silent but desperate cry.

Chapter Text

She parked the car in the first place she found available, by now many people had arrived and the line of people who still had to enter showed it. She looked at her reflection in the rearview mirror: despite having redone her makeup and wearing glasses, she could see that her eyes were swollen, red and shiny, typical of a person who had cried a lot. She had been shedding tears slumped on the floor for a long time, she couldn't even define how long, then she had gathered the last remaining strength and got up, she cleaned her face from the tears which had ruined her already done make up and she did it again, ready to go to the club with Clay. She had to see him to understand if he could really be the man who would save her from her relentless desire to chase after Shuichi or if her destiny was to remain tied to her ex for the rest of her days.
She took a deep breath and exhaled through her mouth, trying to relax. She got out of the car and locked it, raising her eyes to the sky: she hoped to see some meteor before entering, but in that area made up of clubs and surrounded by buildings it was impossible to see the sky clearly because of the light pollution. So she gave up on her wish and got ready to enter the club, obviously skipping the line thanks to the pass that Clay had given her.
Inside there were many more people than she expected, she struggled to advance to the counter where she could have a wider view of the club and thus identify where Clay was. While she was looking for him by craning her neck, she felt her hips grab from behind and a pair of muscular arms drew her to them. For a moment she winced, ready to launch one of the blows she had learned during her training to become an FBI agent, but when she recognized the voice speaking close to her ear, she relaxed.

- You finally arrived. I thought you stood me up-

She turned to Clay, but he didn't let her go for a second, holding her even closer to him. She placed her hands on his chest and looked him in the eye. He smiled as always, happy to have her there with him. She would have liked to fully reciprocate that emotion, but instead of getting lost in that beautiful face, her mind whimsically returned the flashbacks of the photos that Shuichi had brought her almost two hours earlier.

- Sorry, I worked until late- she lied.
- The important thing is that you are here- he whispered, bringing his lips to hers and kissing her.

At first it was just a brush of lips, but when she felt Clay's tongue press to deepen the kiss, she pulled back slightly. She didn't feel like kissing him like that, not right now.
He stared at her, frowning and looking at her inquiringly.

- Is everything ok? You have a strange face...- he pointed out.

That was too bad. She had come to that club to be with him and understand how she felt about him, but she was acting as if she had already made up her mind. She wasn't even trying, her willpower was zero. It was as if her mind had separated from her body: physically she was there with Clay, but with the thought she was somewhere else. She had to try hard to come to her senses and find an answer to all her questions. She had to do it for herself but also out of respect for that boy in front of her, who couldn't wait to give her what she wanted.

- I'm just a little tired, today was a bad day at work- she lied, forcing herself to smile.
- I understand...then we have to do something for your bad mood- he hugged her tighter - How about coming with me in the backstage to meet The Perisher in person? Could this help you?- he smiled at her, waiting for her answer.
- Are you serious? Can I really do it?- she asked amazed.
- Of course, come on let's go!-

He took her hand and pushed his way through the waiting crowd with their eyes turned to the stage. His hand was warm, except for a few metal rings he wore that made those spots cooler. For a moment she thought that Shuichi's hand was also warm, but his grip was stronger and more determined than Clay's. She tried to dismiss that thought, just in time to see the band sitting in the closet adjacent to the stage getting ready to enter the scene.

- How are you guys? Everything ok?- Clay asked them, with a confidence worthy of envy.
- We can't wait to get on stage- replied Ola Klüft, singer and guitarist of the band, giving him a high five.

It was amazing how that guy was able to interact with everyone as if they were old friends, including rock stars she would never even dream of saying "hi guys" to. Perhaps because in her world so distant from theirs, she saw them only as unattainable idols, while Clay who worked closely with them saw them for what they really were: normal ordinary people who had chosen to use their talent to make other people dream.

- Won't you introduce us to your beautiful friend? - asked Martin, the keyboard player, looking at her and giving her a smile that embarrassed her.

Until that moment she had remained at the door, afraid whether to enter the closet or not, but Clay invited her to enter, taking her hand and leading her up to a few steps from the four musicians.

- This is Jodie, she’s a fan of yours and she came here to see you-
- Hello- she could only say, waving her hand, shrugging her head and smiling.

At that moment she really felt like she was a groupie as Shuichi had defined her, a stupid groupie who could not even formulate a meaningful sentence. What the heck, those people ate and went to the bathroom just like her, what reason did she have to be embarrassed about?

- I love your songs, the lyrics are so deep. It’s not easy to know how to write something that reaches people’s heart- she told them, trying to make up for the bad greeting from before.
- Excellent choice Clay, the girl has good taste- said the drummer - If you have a twin sister tell her to come to me- he joked, turning to her and making everyone laugh.
- Okay, then I would say you can start your show. Now I'm going to introduce you, you get ready- Clay told them, pointing his index fingers at him as a sign of encouragement - Are you coming with me?- he then asked her.
- Yes- she nodded - Good luck!- She then turned to the band.
- We won’t disappoint you Jodie- Ola winked at her.

She walked out of the closet with Clay, who again took her hand. They walked up to a few meters from the stage, stopping in a place where there was an excellent view without the risk of having people in front of them.

- Do you want to come on stage with me to introduce them?- he asked her.
- Oh, no, better if I don’t- she shook her hands.
- Are you ashamed? Are you still trying to escape the "circle of the famous"?- he quoted the joke that she herself had made the night they met.
- Well, it's not advisable for an FBI agent to be too conspicuous. We must keep a low profile to avoid being recognized when we act as infiltrators or assume other identities to investigate without arousing suspicion- she explained - I'll wait for you here, you go as well-
- I'm going to save the world and come back!- he ran onto the stage, leaving her there to giggle at that joke.

She was starting to relax and maybe things were taking a turn for the better. Clay made her feel good, gave her a lot of attention and dragged her into that world of his that she wouldn't even have imagined touching. Still, part of her thought of Shuichi who was sitting in the Forest Park at that moment waiting for her. Who knows if the comets would really have been seen...
She looked up at the windows of the club, too high to see the outside but perfect for seeing the sky: all she saw was the darkness of the night and the artificial lights of the city that filtered through the glass.
Clay's voice amplified by the microphone brought her back to reality.

- How are you guys, are you ready? -
- Yeeeeeaaaaah- answered the crowd, accompanying that exclamation with some whistles.
- Then give your warm welcome to The Perisher! -

She too joined the collective applause, while Clay joined her smiling. Without having time to notice, he stood behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist, holding her close. She reciprocated that gesture by placing her hands on his and intertwining their fingers as the band took to the stage and began to play that song that was her favorite of their repertoire.

- We can't see where you are but we dedicate this to you, Jodie- said the singer, and then he played the first chords on the guitar.

She smiled happily as Clay hugged her more and more. It all seemed perfect, a dream you never wake up from, but the words of that song she loved so much disintegrated that happiness.

“I talk to you as to a friend
I hope that's what you've
Come to be
It feels as though we've
Made amends
Like we found a way
Eventually”

She remembered why she had begun to love that song only years after hearing it: because she had really understood the lyrics only when she herself had experienced that feeling on her skin. And now, after that discussion they had had in Japan months ago, in which their feelings had surfaced, she could understand those words even more. Since Shuichi had returned from his mission and after breaking up with Akemi, there had been only one friendship between them that she had accepted it for what it was in order not to see him leaving her life. She repeated to herself that it was okay even so, that having him close to work every day was enough for her. But one day she realized that she could no longer keep her feelings inside and had served them on a plate, ready for him to devour them. But he hadn’t done it, on the contrary he had confessed his faults and his mistakes and had chosen to live with them and be unhappy, because he believed he didn’t deserve anything more. In the end, however, they had found their balance, their friendship had worked well until a few hours ago, when he showed up at her house questioning everything.

“It was you who picked
The pieces up
When I was a broken soul
And then glued me
Back together
Returned to me what
Others stole”

Shuichi had given her back the joy of life, despite his personality. Since her father had died and her life had been a long hiding from the woman who was searching her to kill her, Shuichi had been the most beautiful thing that could happen to her. He had picked up her broken heart and fixed it. She would never have imagined, however, that that heart which he had rebuilt with such mastery, he would have then destroyed it again with his own hands. It had hurt her, hurt as hell. He had given her everything and then took it away from her without even asking her if she agreed. He had decided for both of them and she hadn't had the strength to resist. She had spent years being jealous of the woman who had taken him away from her and she had continued to be jealous of her even when she died, despite being ashamed of it. She was jealous of the special place Akemi had won in his heart, where she felt she no longer had a space.

“I don't want to hurt you
I don't want to make you sway
Like I know I've done before
I will not do it anymore”

She was convinced that she could no longer have him and for this reason she had decided to give Clay a chance and move on with her life. And when things seemed to go the right way, he came back to her door telling her what she had been waiting to hear all her life. She only realized in that moment, listening to the chorus of that song, how wrong she had been by treating him like that and letting him go away from watching comets alone. He didn't go there to hurt her, he didn't want to hurt her anymore. He was just trying to make up for the mistakes he had made, but she had chased him away for fear that those feelings she had locked away would release stronger than before. Shuichi was like a storm for her, it was enough for him to say a few right words or touch her to make her sway and wave like a flag fluttering in the wind.

“I've always been a dreamer
I've had my head among
The clouds
Now that I'm coming down
Won't you be my solid ground?”

She was born a woman and like all women she liked to fantasize and imagine many things too, including a crazy and overwhelming love. She had had it in the end, but she had realized that loves of that kind weren’t as they were represented in movies, they were a complex union between desire and pain, a bond that couldn’t be separated. There is no love that doesn’t carry pain, Shuichi had taught her this too. The dream that Clay had given her that evening was falling apart and she was the fairytale princess falling from the tallest tower in the castle. She had clung to the hand of her savior prince to the end, but in the end she hadn't squeezed it hard enough. Her only hope of salvation was that waiting for her under the tower there was that lonely king who had protected her so many times that she had lost count of. Who knows if he still wanted to do it, after the way she treated him...

“I look at you and see a friend
I hope that's what you want to be
Are we back now where
It all began?
Have you finally forgiven me?”

She had tried to hate him when he left her for Akemi, she had tried with all of herself, but the love she felt for him was stronger than her desire to erase him from her life. After all, she couldn't have done it, she would have found him in front of her every day at work. They say time heals the wounds and eventually even her resentment had subsided, perhaps aided by the years they had lived apart in two different states. When he returned to America after his cover was blown, she accepted the idea of being only his friend and hoped that he too wanted to be the same for her, at least that. She had forgiven him in the end, but she had never forgotten. And now they were back there, where they had started six years ago: he had asked her to go out and had shown himself interested in her not as a mere friend.

“I don't want to hurt you
I don't want to make you sway
Like I know I've done before
I will not do it anymore”

Without realizing it, she squeezed Clay's hand hard enough to make him think it was a deliberate gesture to show him her feelings, when in reality those feeling were for someone else. She had been selfish, Shuichi was right in that. She couldn't lie to herself anymore and she couldn't lie to Clay. She had known the pain of being hurt by someone she loved and for that very reason she couldn't give Clay the same pain. She had to be honest with him and with herself.
As soon as the band finished that song, she took advantage of the applause of the audience to dissolve that hug and turn to him, looking him seriously in the eye.

- Clay listen...I'd like to talk to you, can we go somewhere a little less noisy?-
- But now? The Perisher are playing, you came on purpose to see them- he was amazed.
- I know, but it's important- she insisted.
- Okay- he agreed - But I can't be away for long, I still have to check that everything is ok-

He took her hand and led her into the closet where they had been with the band before. With every step she felt her nervousness grow, she didn't want to hurt him but she knew she had to do it for his sake. She had always been the victim and Shuichi the executioner, but now by a strange twist of fate she had become the executioner and Clay was her victim.

- So, what were you supposed to tell me so important that you couldn't wait for the end of the concert? Isn't it that you invented an excuse to be alone with me? - he joked, wrapping his arms around her waist again and trying to kiss her.
- Wait Clay- she stopped him, placing his hands on his chest and making a slight pressure to push him away.
- What's wrong with you? You've been weird all evening-
- I...I can't see you anymore- she finally said, closing her eyes and lowering her head.
- What? But why?- he asked, spreading his arms and looking at her bewildered - It seemed to me that things were going well-
- It seemed to me too and believe me, it breaks my heart having to tell you this but I think it's the best thing-
- If I have done something wrong please tell me-
- No, you didn't do anything. Actually, you're really awesome and only a fool would let a guy like you slip away-
- No, please don't use the excuse "it's not you, it's me". It's the same one Abby used when she dumped me-

She sensed a change in his tone of voice, which had grown louder and harder. She had sunk the knife into his flesh and he was rightly rebelling. The thought of having to twist it in the wound just inflicted made her feel sick.

- I mean it, believe me. You are perfect, you are the guy every woman would like to be with. But I'm such an idiot that I can't forget a man who is your exact opposite- she put her hand to her forehead, shaking her head.
- Wow...I don't know what to say- he replied, visibly disappointed by that confession - Now I understand why you never let yourself go completely-
- I'm really sorry Clay, I wanted so much to fall in love with you but for some reason unknown to me I continue to feel connected to that person. I didn't want to make fun of you or hurt you, that's why I preferred to talk to you before it was too late-

A few seconds of silence followed, in which Clay nodded at her words but unable to look her in the face. She didn't know if he was angry with her, disappointed, hurt or all three, but he certainly wasn't happy with that revelation.

- I know right now you’ll probably hate me and never want to hear about me again, but I wish we could be friends one day. I'm sorry I didn't meet you in high school- she smiled at him, but with sad eyes.
- I'm sorry too- he said simply.
- Now I better go, you have to go back to the band-
- Yup-

She looked down feeling guilty for having turned off his enthusiasm. Only now she could understand how Shuichi had felt that day. She had always thought that she was the only injured party, but being on the other side was no better. It was like a war where in the end no one would win.
She walked over to Clay, took his hand and brought it close to her mouth, giving him a little kiss on the knuckles.

- I wish you to find a woman who loves you and appreciates you for the beautiful person you are- a tear escaped her.

Before starting to cry again, she turned her back and walked away from him. She took a few steps but stopped again when she heard him say her name.

- Jodie? -
- Yes- she turned to look at him one last time.
- Good luck for your unrequited love. If the guy you love doesn't notice you then he's a real idiot-
- Thank you- she smiled at him, while another tear ran down her cheek.

She crossed the room full of people almost running, she was in a hurry to get out of that club as soon as possible. As she reached her car, she looked at the time on her cell phone: it was forty minutes until midnight, the time when the “comet rain” was expected to be more visible. Maybe if there hadn't been traffic she would have made it to Forest Park in time to talk to Shuichi and watch those comets she'd wanted to see all evening.
She got into the car and started the engine, and then set off at the maximum speed allowed by the car's engine not yet warmed up enough. It was time to face her fears.

Chapter Text

He checked the time on his cell phone for the umpteenth time since he arrived at Forest Park. He had decided to go there anyway, because he hoped that Jodie would join him even if their conversation at her house didn’t end in the best way. In his mind he had imagined the happiness of Jodie in receiving that gift and knowing that he wished he had a second chance with her, but he hadn’t reckoned with the wound he had inflicted on her six years ago. At that moment he realized that every time Jodie smiled at him, she started to bleed inside. She bleed and smiled to hide it. When he broke up with her he had taken it for granted that she was strong enough to cry over it one night and then get back on her feet, for him who had made coldness his trademark it was difficult to fully understand love; then in the years to come he had realized how good she was as an actress. She had taken the stage and played the role of the ex-girlfriend who had agreed to be just a friend and colleague, at peace with herself while playing that part. The comedy that the spectators saw from the outside, however, was a tragedy for her.
As soon as he got there he had taken a walk in the park to ease the tension and because in any case it was too early to see the “comet rain” expected at midnight. He had now smoked several cigarettes, losing count of them. He had stopped to watch some boys playing basketball in the park, but the game wasn’t so exciting as to be able to distract him from his thoughts. In the end, after wandering around the park for a good hour, he went to sit in one of the long wooden benches in front of the white bandshell where they often gave live concerts during summer. He had noticed with regret that there were more people than he had expected in the park, but on the other hand it was understandable: in New York there weren’t many places where they could see the sky without alterations due to light pollution, even there it was still visible and present. To enjoy the view of a clear sky it was necessary to drive at least three or four hours by car out of town. If they didn't have to work the next day, they might have done it as well.
He had looked around to see if she was among the people already seated, but he hadn't seen her figure. In the end he had chosen a bench where there was no one else: he couldn’t avoid the other people sitting around but at least he could carve out a space for him and for Jodie, as long as she would have showed up.He wanted a moment of intimacy just for them.
By now three hours had passed since she had set foot in the park, there were only five minutes before the stroke of midnight and not even the shadow of her. So she had made her choice and decided not to come, preferring a concert in an anonymous club to those meteors she had said she wanted to see instead. She had preferred Clay to him. He couldn't blame her, after all it was what he deserved for never having shown her anything more than affection for a loved one; however he wondered how she had come to that choice after crying desperately in front of him while looking at their photos. Perhaps she had fallen into her role as an actress so much that she could no longer get out of it or perhaps, simply, the fear of being hurt again was stronger than the love she felt for him. She had activated a self-defense mechanism to prevent him from penetrating even deeper into her soul than he had already done. Clay was the easiest and least painful way. He had tried to fight, but he had lost that battle even before starting it. He had listened to Shiho, but perhaps he should have simply stood firm on his positions.
It was two minutes to midnight. He looked up at the sky and saw the first meteor of the evening falling and dispersing who knows where. He wondered what he was still doing sitting there, hoping until the last moment to see Jodie arriving. Dreams don’t come true by just looking at the sky and praying silently, he knew this well.
He started to get up when he heard someone running behind him, getting closer and closer. The sound of heels beating fast on the stone pavement that formed a runner halfway between the two rows of benches rang in the air. The footsteps slowed and stopped beside him. He turned his head to his right and saw her, leaning slightly forward and breathing hard from the run. They stared at each other for moments that felt like years and finally he moved to the left to make room for her. Without saying anything, Jodie sat next to him trying to recover the breath necessary to face a dialogue.

- You have come in the end- he said, still incredulous to see her there next to him.
- Sorry for the delay but there was traffic- she replied, when her breathing was back to normal.
- Well, there must be a lot of traffic if it took you three hours to get here-
- I went to the concert- she admitted - I listened to a song and then I left-
- Was the band so bad?- he mocked her.
- No, on the contrary. I made the right choice to go there-

He couldn’t understand the meaning of those words, he didn’t know whether to interpret them positively or negatively as regards their situation. Was it a good thing to go there because it brought her there or because she made her relationship with Clay official and just came to tell him?
His doubts and their conversation were interrupted by the murmur of the people around them: it had struck midnight and the meteors had begun their show. He looked up at the sky but out of the corner of his eye he saw her taking off her glasses, placing them on her lap and looking up too. He wasn't used to seeing her like this, without those lenses so precious to her. He curbed his curiosity to know what she had really come to do there and let her enjoy that sight she had desired so much.

 

……………………….

 

She felt her heart beating fast in her chest, but she didn't know if it was still the effect of the rush she had made just before or the thrill of being there with Shuichi looking at the stars like two teenagers in love. She had gone beyond the speed limits in order to get there on time, she didn't want him to go away and think there was no more hope between them. The flame was still there, under the ashes, but before reviving it she had to make things clear.
The meteors that fell one after the other marking the night sky reminded her of tears running down the face. It was as if sky was crying, just as she had done a few hours earlier. A sad thought, but at the same time the show was fascinating.
The climax lasted for about ten minutes, then slowly the intensity with which the meteors fell diminished and there returned to be some isolated glimmer here and there. Many people who were sitting there got up and left soon after, now the best part was over. She too had to finish the conversation she had started earlier with Shuichi.
She moved her gaze from the sky towards him and realized he was staring at her. She blushed when her eyes met his piercing green ones.

- Why was it good to have gone to that concert?- he asked suddenly, leaving her confused.

He had probably waited impatiently all those minutes just to let her see the comet rain, but now he wanted to pick up the conversation exactly where they left off.

- Because I understood so many things. I think they were things I already knew but listening to the words of that song made me see them from another point of view. I'm glad I went there- she explained.
- If you were so happy why didn't you stay there?-
- Have you ever been physically in one place but with your head somewhere else?- she answered to his question with another question - I went to the club to be with Clay but since I set foot in there I haven’t done anything else than thinking "this isn’t the place where you should be". My mind was here in this park, but I wanted to deny it until the end - she looked down.
- In a nutshell you were trying to escape from me- he smiled, closing his eyes.
- I was trying to take back that part of me you took away when you left me six years ago, but I realized I can't do it. The more I struggle to get it back, the more I realize how much that part wants to remain yours. It’s contradictory but it’s what I feel. No matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to love a man more than I love you, even if my heart were to shatter a hundred times and never mend anymore-
- I don't want to hurt you Jodie, I never wanted it-

She felt his warm hand resting on her neck, his thumb stroking her cheek. She bent her head to the side where he had put his hand to better enjoy those long-desired caresses, and then brought it back to an upright position soon after. She couldn’t and shouldn’t let go like this, now it was time to talk and clarify everything that had remained pending for years.

- I know Shu, but you did- her eyes shone.
- Don't think it was easy for me-
- I never thought that- she shook her head - But I deserved a proper explanation, don't you think?-
- I have neither had the way nor the time-
- You know it's not true-
- Why do you say this?-
- You have been in the Organization for three years since the day you left me, then you returned to America and stayed there for another two years in which we resumed working closely together as in the past. In two years you haven't had time to give me an explanation or to ask me how I felt about it?- she put a hand on her chest, to point out herself - Then we flew to Japan and we stayed there for a year: also in this case you never got to talk to me and clarify what was left unresolved? You always knew how I felt about you, but you preferred to pretend you didn't see it and I accepted it because I thought it was your way of telling me that you didn't want to deceive me. I agreed to become the I agreed to become the laughingstock of the FBI, pretending not to know what our colleagues were saying...- she paused for a moment, swallowing to loosen the lump that was forming in her throat.
- What are you referring to? - he asked her, not understanding.
- Even if we tried to be discreet at work, someone understood that there was a relationship between us. When word got out that you had started dating another woman to join the Organization, I passed through the corridors and felt everyone's gaze on me. I had become the seduced and abandoned poor girl- she smiled, but there was bitterness in her eyes - Everyone knows what I feel for you, I've never been able to hide it well. Sometime after you returned to America, I was locked in the bathroom one day and overheard Rachel and Tara talking about me. “Sometimes I feel sorry for her, she runs after him but he doesn't even pay attention to her”. "Maybe he's still thinking about the girl he pretended to be dating." They said this. I remained locked in that bathroom for half an hour crying, then I went out and asked James to go home because I wasn't feeling well. That day I realized how pathetic I was in the eyes of others and maybe even mine. Yet I couldn't get away from you even for a second-

She stopped again, unable to hold back her tears anymore. Her vision had clouded over at the memory of those difficult days for her. Days that no one would have ever cancel.

- I had no idea of all this, I've always seen you get along well with Rachel and Tara- he stared at her with an evident melancholy in his eyes.
- I pretended I never heard them say those things, after all I had to work together with them just like with you-
- I'm sorry Jodie, for this and for not having looked for a confrontation with you. I thought that there was no need, that it was now a thing of the past and that going to retrieve old skeletons from the closet wouldn’t have been good for anyone. We got along well and there were no problems between us, so I told myself it was better not to bring up old wounds. I made a mistake- he admitted.
- I also committed one by continuing to keep everything inside me and repeating to myself that in the end it was okay. I canceled myself, I got into the part I was playing so much that I forgot who I was and what I really wanted-

There followed minutes of silence in which none of them spoke, it was difficult to reopen a Pandora's box and look at everything that came out of it without being somehow impressed. No matter how bad it hurt, they just had to do it.

- Why did you come to my house tonight? Why did you bring me those photos and tell me those things?- she asked him.
- Because I think them-
- Do you really think them Shu? Because I instead believe that if Clay hadn't come into my life you would have continued to be just the friend and colleague and regret that girl you loved with all of yourself - another tear escaped her - I'm afraid yours was just a selfish desire to keep me tied to you for the sake of being the first-
- Do you really think this? -

At that moment she saw disappointment in his eyes, her consideration had obviously hurt him.

- I don't know what to think Shu- she shook her head - I only know that I had found a guy who would have given me the world if I had asked him, one who would have made me smile every day. Yet it was enough for you to snap your fingers to get me back to you and you knew it would have ended up like this when you showed up at my house and asked me to go out. You planned everything down to the smallest detail, but have you wondered how I would feel having to question everything? You haven't given me any explanation even now, just as you didn't give it to me years ago. What made you change your mind, what triggered in you that aroused the desire to ask me to go out and start over?-
- I can't deny that Clay played an important part in all of this, but I didn't do it for the reasons you think. You know, initially I was willing to let you go if I would have seen that he made you happy, I would never deprive you of your serenity, but then I realized that I couldn’t let you go without even making an attempt. It has been a while since I wanted to ask you out, but I was waiting for the right moment. At least that's what I told myself, but maybe the truth is that I was afraid to ask you. Well, how do you go to the woman you left six years ago to be with someone else and tell her that you would like another chance? If I had known that doing it would have made you feel like this I would never have opened my mouth, I would have left you in peace with Clay-
- That's exactly the point Shu: you don't fight for me. If it were work or something else you would climb a mountain to reach your goal, but when it comes to me you just need one obstacle and you immediately pull back. You’ve never fought for me while I’ve always fought for you. Even that day, when I told you that I was willing to stay with you even if you were dating another woman because you were doing it just for show, I was fighting for us. But you preferred to quit for fear of betraying yourself without even making an attempt. If you really didn't leave me because you already fell in love with Akemi, you might have tried it. You always took me for granted, you knew I was there for you and I would be there for, whatever you did to me: that's why you never lifted a finger for me. When I heard that you were coming back from Japan because the mission had failed, my heart was breaking. I thought for days about what I should tell you, how I should behave and I hoped we could start over, but the coldness with which you treated me, the same with which you treated all the others who were nothing to you but just colleagues, it hurt me. It was there that I stopped fighting and I settled for what I could have. It hurt me to let you go Shuichi. It still hurts me even now...-

She covered her mouth with one hand in an attempt to suppress the crying that was now shaking her body, while with the other hand she squeezed tightly those glasses that had once belonged to her father, as if by doing so she could make contact with him and receive his comfort. She was surprised when she felt Shuichi's strong arms wrap around her shoulders and draw her to him in a silent embrace that at that moment was worth more than all the words that have been silenced for years. She found herself with her face pressed into the hollow of his neck, smelling of that male cologne that he always used and even a little bit of tobacco. His right hand moved up and down her back, stroking her in an attempt to calm her crying as she felt his chin resting on her head. Unable to escape from that grip, she encircled his waist and returned that embrace. They remained like this for several minutes, until her crying subsided and gave way to a sense of peace. She liked to think that Shuichi's gesture was really guided by her father, who came to help her.

 

………………………..

 

This wasn’t how he had imagined that evening, he hadn’t foreseen having to face again topics that he had always preferred to close in a drawer and pretend that they died there, in the dust. However, he was aware that sooner or later he would have had to reopen that drawer, the past and the mistakes he had made had to come out and he would have to fix them. That was the last remaining "unsolved case" of his past and now, perhaps, he had put an end to it. He felt guilty in front of that woman crying in his arms, he had no idea what she had been through because of him. He knew he had hurt her, but not to that point. Jodie had had to face the looks and words spoken behind of their colleagues and had to do it alone, while he was dating another woman who pretended not to really love to convince himself. She was right, he had never fought enough for her, because selfishly he had always considered her a fixed point: he knew that she was there, that he would always have someone to return to even when he felt his loneliness devour him. He had told her he wasn't the kind of man able to love two women at the same time, but he had realized how hasty and contradictory he had been in saying it, because in the end he had loved them both. His feelings for Jodie had fallen asleep but never quite faded away. It had also been difficult for him to give up on her, but he had preferred to give her the impression that this wasn’t the case, because if he showed signs of abating he wouldn’t be able to sacrifice her for his purpose.
He hugged her for as long as necessary, inebriated by her perfume: he had always complained that she put too much of it, but actually he liked when his nostrils were tickled by that floral fragrance. He would never have sacrificed her again, for any reason in the world.
He released her from that embrace only when he felt her lifting her head and pulling back. The makeup had dripped under her eyes and down her cheeks and stained the white shirt he was wearing as well.

- Sorry Shu, I got mascara on your shirt- she said, running a finger over the black mascara stain - If you bring it to me tomorrow at work I'll wash it and then I'll give it back to you-
- Don't worry, I had other clothes to wash so I'll add it to the pile- he smiled at her - Rather, better if you fix your face-

He saw her quickly pull a mirror out of her handbag and look at her reflection, grimacing and shaking her head.

- How wonderful you look tonight Jodie- she said ironically, taking a small pack of wet wipes from her bag and taking one out, passing it over her face to erase the black traces.
- I would invite you to take a walk in the park but I think it's late-
- Yeah, better postpone- she put the mirror back in the bag and looked for a basket where to throw the used towel.

When she spotted it she got up of the bench and reached it, not before putting on her glasses again. He too followed her, willing to stay with her a little longer.

- Do you want me to drive you home? -
- No, I came with my car-
- So can I invite you for a drink on the way to your house? We stop at the nearest bar-
- Tonight I don't want to touch alcohol, otherwise I could end up drinking too much- she smiled - I didn't drink anything even at the club, I think I'll go home and make myself a chamomile or herbal tea, then I'll go to sleep-
- It will mean that I’ll reserve the invitation for another evening, as long as you want-

He had to admit that in all those words and tears it was still not clear to him what she had decided to do, whether to give him a second chance or whether to quit with him as she had done with Clay. Better to be alone than with a man you don't love, but even better to be alone than with a man who has broken your heart a thousand times.
He had asked her a question between the lines, but instead of answering, Jodie had kept walking beside him towards the parking lot, keeping her eyes down. She was visibly thoughtful and not in a very good mood, certainly this hadn’t been the best night of her life.

- Then? Do you agree to go out with me? - he asked her again, eager for an answer.
- Listen Shu- she looked up and stared at him - Right now I'm confused and I don't know what is best to do. I do not know whether to listen to the heart that tells me to accept your invitation without making too many fuss or whether to agree with my head that says that you were a real idiot and you don’t deserve a second chance. Plus I just broke the heart of a great guy who will probably never talk to me again in his life, so I feel really awful- she sighed.
- Welcome to the club- he replied, alluding to the moment when he had to leave her and break her heart.
- Yeah, now I can better understand how you must have felt. It's never easy to leave someone you care about, even if you do it for a good purpose. For a long time I thought you didn't care but now I understand that it wasn’t as I thought-

George Bernard Shaw once wrote “There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart's desire. The other is to gain it.” fulfilling a wish always had a cost and Jodie had paid hers that night. She, who had lived with a broken heart for years, had to break someone else's heart to get what she wanted in return. Yet now that she had it in front of her she realized how much it had cost her and she wondered if it was right.

- You've been waiting for me for six years, I think I can wait now. Think about it and then when you have an answer you’ll let me know- he smiled at her.

It was right to give her some space to think, after all it was what she herself had done with him.
He saw her smiling back with slightly flushed cheeks. He could see it in her eyes how much she wanted to accept that invitation, but he didn't want to force her to make that decision. By now they had reached the parking lot and his car was not far away, he could see its glowing red among the few others left.

- Where did you park? - he asked.
- There, next to that white Mercedes- she pointed to a spot about three rows farther than his.
- I'll take you to the car- he offered himself.
- Come on Shu, there is no need. I don't think I'm taking any risks, by now it's just us and a few others left- she smiled, putting her hair behind her ear, a gesture she made when she was embarrassed.
- Okay, but at least before you go tell me one thing, I’m curious-
- About what? - she asked.
- You said that the words of the song you heard at the concert brought you here tonight. Would you let me listen to it?

He saw her making a stunned expression, slightly poking her face forward and staring at him as if she wanted confirmation that he was serious. In fact, it must have been the last question she expected, considering that he had never been interested in music that much.
He opened the car door and sat on the driver's side but leaving one leg out, leaning his torso towards the passenger side and opening the glove compartment, pulling out a pair of earphones. He closed the car and walked over handing them to her: it was his way of saying he wasn't kidding.
Jodie shook her head a little, as if she wanted to wake up from that state of tranche, then took her cell phone out of her bag and connected the earphones, wearing one and handing the other to him. She searched for the song online and once she found it she pressed the play button. He listened to the lyrics carefully and had no need to ask her for an explanation about it: it was more than clear why those words had made her think of him, of them. He watched her listening to that song with her eyes closed, very close to him since they were sharing the same pair of earphones. He encircled her shoulders with both arms and drew her to him, squeezing her gently. At first he felt her flinching, taken aback, then she relaxed and rested her hands and head on his chest. For the first time in a long, long time, he rediscovered the pleasure of feeling at peace and perhaps even happy, despite the fact that in his life he hadn't often experienced that feeling called happiness and wasn't sure what it really tasted like. He just knew that Jodie made him feel good and wanted to keep holding her even when the song came to an end.
She recovered from that state of relaxation and took off the headset, looking him in the eye. He could read conflicting feelings in hers: desire, fear, pain, happiness, doubt, love. She needed certainty, she needed to know that she could trust him to give him a second chance. He got his mouth close to her ear and whispered what she probably wanted to hear.

- I don't want to be just a friend to you. I want to be your touchstone, the person you can trust the most and who will always be there for you at all times. I don't want to hurt you anymore Jodie, it's a promise-

As soon as he finished that sentence, Jodie threw her arms around his neck and squeezed him tightly, putting her fingers through his hair behind his neck.

- Shu...- she could only say, in the throes of emotion and tears, but this time they came down for a good reason.

He held her in turn, inhaling the sweet scent emanating from her hair. They remained like this for a while, until the voices of other people who had arrived at the parking lot to retrieve their cars interrupted that intimate moment. They parted reluctantly, looking each other in the eye once again. Jodie gave him a beautiful smile.

- Better to go, it's late- he told her.
- Yeah, tomorrow we'll sleep on the desk- she shrugged.
- Thank you for coming here tonight-
- Thanks for inviting me. The “comet rain” was beautiful- she smiled.
- Goodnight Jodie-
- Goodnight Shu-

They said goodbye, without the need for other words. By now they had said too much, they had put an end to everything that was left open between them and had moved on.
He watched her as she reached her car and entered it: in the end she hadn't answered his question and wanted to take some time, but that last hug gave him the confidence that very soon she would have accepted his invitation to go out. He was just waiting for that and then he could call Shiho and tell her his plan had worked.
Even if he was not a superstitious type or one who believed too much in rumors of that type, perhaps that meteor shower had really brought him luck, fulfilling his wish. He felt that night he would have finally slept soundly after a long time.

Chapter Text

When she woke up the next morning she found the picture frame Shuichi had given her on the sheet next to her.
The night before, after returning home, she had prepared to go to bed and as soon as she entered the room, her eye immediately fell on the photo frame she had left on the bedside table before going to Clay's club. She lay in bed looking at those photos and eventually fell asleep holding it close. Even if the fears and doubts hadn’t vanished into thin air, she was still happy to have finally taken a step forward with Shuichi.
Like every morning, when she arrived at the office she found him already sitting at his desk. When their eyes met, they both smiled.

- Did you sleep well?- he asked her, as soon as she sat down at her desk.
- Yes, although I wouldn’t have disdained a few more hours of sleep-

Shuichi got up from his chair and moved closer to her desk, sat on it pulling up one leg and leaving the other firmly on the ground, then handed her some papers saying that it was other important information he had found on the case they were following. She began to read them, even though his presence so few inches away embarrassed her after the hugs they had given each other the night before. She didn't even have time to finish the first ten lines, as he gently took her hand to let her know that he didn't want her to read them right now. She turned to him with red cheeks and looked into his eyes: in response Shuichi continued to stare at her and hold her hand. There was no one around, which is why he was daring so much despite being in the workplace.

- Shu ...- she only managed to say.
- Have you thought about it?-
- About what?-
- My invitation to go out-

She hadn't thought about it to tell the truth, she had just slept and that was it. However, she didn’t need to waste sleepless nights asking herself the question: even if a part of her wanted to tell him to go to hell, her heart told her that she absolutely had to accept the invitation she had wished for six years.

-I’ve been craving an ice cream for a while, tonight after dinner I wanted to go get one. I know that you’re not fond of ice cream but if you want we can go together- she looked away embarrassed.

He thought about it for a while, as if he was mulling over or planning something, then he answered her.

- Do you mind if we go on the weekend? I would like to take you to a particular ice cream parlor and then do something else, but since we might be late I don't want to do it on the days when we have to work the next morning. But if you want tonight we can do something else-
- For ice cream on the weekend it's okay but tonight I don't want to be late again, I need to sleep- she complained.
- We can go to dinner and then I'll take you home immediately- he proposed.
- What if we have dinner directly at home?-
- It's ok for me. At your place or mine?-
- We can do it at my place but I don't have much at home, so let's get a takeaway-
- No, we don't need to. I’ll do some shopping on the way to your house and cook something-
- You got a taste for it, I see-
- You save and at least you know what you eat-
- I don’t know if I can trust you- she joked.
- Don't worry, if I wanted to kill you I would invite you to a park in Queens at night to see a meteor shower. Poisoning food is too trivial- he played along, getting up from his desk and going back to his seat.
- So, what will you prepare for me?- she asked enthusiastically.
- I'll decide later-
- A surprise dinner- she clapped her hands - Let’s hope for the best-

Their conversation was interrupted by Camel who walked into the office and greeted them. They immediately went to work and both she and Shuichi tried to behave as always, so as not to make the colleague suspicious. For the moment it was better to leave it out of the work environment, given the previous.
She and Camel read the new information on the case, which was becoming interesting: it all started with a murder that took place a month earlier, the victim was a wealthy man from the Upper East Side. A mysterious symbol had been found drawn on the scene of the crime and it could have been the key to everything: a caduceus around which, instead of the usual snakes, two cerberus heads with elongated necks were wrapped. The third head was located on top of the stick, between the two wings. They had tried to interpret its meaning, but without other clues it could mean everything and nothing at the same time. However, in the latest documents they had just read, correlated by photos, they found out a man on whose forearm was tattooed the same symbol. His name was Viktor Krayevsky and he had been identified as a member of a Russian mafia clan.

- Nasty business- said Camel after he finished reading.
- Yeah, we just needed the Russian mafia- she sighed.
- Maybe we should involve Yuriy, he is of Russian origin and his relatives still live there - suggested Camel.
- Sounds like a good idea, what do you think Shu? -
- I would try to ask Tara first- he said impassively.
- Tara?- she asked puzzled.
- Well, she too has Russian origins but I think she has only her surname left of Russian. Unlike Yuriy, she no longer has contact with her homeland, by now her family has been naturalized American for several generations - explained Camel.
- I see that you are quite informed André...- she gave him an annoyed look, certainly not because she was jealous as much as because Tara wasn't really one of her best friends.
- Actually Yuriy told me these things himself - the colleague scratched the back of his neck embarrassed.
- In any case, if Tara has no contact with Russia it’s useless to ask her-
- I would give it a try anyway - Shuichi insisted.

He seemed strangely confident despite what Camel had just said, he had that little smile on his face he gave whenever he was up to something or that he already knew for certain that his deductions would have proven to be correct. However, he couldn’t understand why, since Tara seemed to be the last person able to help them find information on the case.

- I'm going to call her then- said Camel, leaving the office.

Once they were alone, she took the opportunity to clear up her doubt.

- Why do you want to ask her? According to what Yuriy says, she can't help us-
- Maybe she didn't say everything to Yuriy, I don't like to trust the words of third parties too much, I prefer to check for myself-

His answer didn’t convince her, she felt that there was more to it but she knew well that it was useless to insist: if he didn’t want to talk about it he wouldn’t have done it even under threat.
Camel returned shortly after with Tara, who greeted everyone as she entered. Her appearance actually resembled that of a woman of Russian descent: red hair, green eyes, small freckles on her nose and cheeks that she tried to cover with a light layer of foundation and tall stature.

- Camel told me you called me to ask questions about the case you’re following. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can be of much help, by now my whole family has Americanized and I don't know anything about what life is like in Russia- she admitted.
- Are you really sure you can't help us? - asked her Shuichi, who seemed not to be convinced by her words.

He approached and handed her Viktor's, staring at her the entire time. There was something strange in his gaze, he almost seemed to want to question her as if she herself were Viktor or had something to do with him. He clearly wanted to put her back against the wall, but she couldn't understand why. How could Tara be involved in that Russian mafia case? She was an FBI agent ... unless she infiltrated like Shuichi had done with the Organization in Japan. The thought of reliving the same story made her restless.

- Who’s that?- Tara asked looking at the photo.
- The murderer of our rich businessman, but that's not the point. Look at the tattoo on his forearm - he held out another photo with the enlarged drawing - Does it mean anything to you?-
- It's beautiful but it's also pretty macabre-
- Just this?-
- I do not know. What should it remind me of? -
- Well, it’s a very particular drawing, the combination of two symbols actually: a cerberus and a caduceus, two things that have nothing to do with each other. Why get them tattooed together? Is there any particular Russian belief behind this unlikely union? Any coded message?-
- I don't know- she shook her head - I know that the Russian mafia exists and that often those who belong to it have several tattoos. I know that members of the same clan get the same symbol of their clan tattooed, so I guess it's the same for this guy, but it's hard to interpret the meanings. They could mean anything, you should first understand a little more about the clan-
- Is that all?- Shuichi insisted, not satisfied.
- I'm sorry, I told you I can't help you- she returned the photos.
- It’s a pity, because considering how much you enjoy gossiping about the personal matters of your colleagues in the bathroom, I hoped you were equally informed about the issues of your home country, especially if they may be important to your work. Never mind, we'll ask someone else- he turned to Camel, as if nothing had happened - Go get Yuriy, you were right that he could be more useful-

He turned his back to Tara and went back to his desk next to her, who for all the time had stared at him with her mouth open like a fool, astonished by that poisonous shot. She realized only in that moment that Shuichi had organized all that little theater not to get information on the case, he knew perfectly well that he wouldn’t have got them and that Camel was right from the beginning, but to make Tara pay for it after what she had told him the night before. Now it was finally clear to her why he had insisted so much on mentioning her name.
Tara at first stood there, humiliated, embarrassed and nervous, then when she had recovered she hurriedly left their office without saying anything. He instinctively looked at Camel, who instead of going to call Yuriy had remained like her staring at the scene without believing her eyes. The colleague then turned his gaze to Shuichi, who had sat down and was looking at the photos as if nothing had happened, with a satisfied air: he had achieved his goal.
He realized they were staring at him and looked at them both, first her and then Camel.

- I wasn't kidding, go get Yuriy- he repeated to his colleague, but without malice in his tone.
- Y-yes, now! - he replied still incredulous, hurrying out.

Left alone again, she turned to him and looked at him to get an answer.

- What is it? - he asked, as if he hadn't done anything.
- Tell me what's wrong with you! You practically dug a pit, you convinced Tara to enter it and then you started burying her alive! - he summed up the incident with a metaphor.
- And what worries you? - he grinned, satisfied with his actions.
- Well, frankly, yes. I would like to avoid other gossip or attract the dislikes of colleagues, not to mention that if she goes to complain to the superiors about the way you treat her, you can be sure that they will give you an earful! James will be furious! -
- Does James know that Tara is gossiping in the bathrooms with her friend Rachel instead of doing her job? We're not at the marketplace here, our job is to protect the lives of American citizens- he looked at her seriously.
- Shu don’t lie, you didn’t do it either out of patriotism or out of a sense of duty or love for your work. Yours was just a little personal "revenge": you wanted to make them pay for what they said about me six years ago. I know that last night you felt responsible for what happened in the past, but I didn't want you to take it to heart. Seriously Shu, that’s ancient history now. Apologize to Tara and let's not talk about it anymore, ok?- she placed a hand on his leg.
- I'm sorry but I won't apologize for telling the truth. And you too shouldn't stand still and suffer injustice without fighting. You know how to be much stronger than a poor thing crying locked in a bathroom for the bad words of two gossips- he put his hand on hers and stared straight into her eyes.

Those words and that gesture made her blush, she wanted to get closer to him but she knew that in the workplace they couldn’t openly show intimate attitudes.
As soon as Camel returned with Yuriy, their hands reluctantly part. They greeted the Russian colleague and Shuichi immediately showed him the photos, without the turns of phrase he had used with Tara. From Yuriy's expression they guessed that it was nothing good.

- Do you know something?- Shuichi asked him, noticing the concern on his face.
- Yes and it's not something good-
- How bad is it?-
- Much. We are talking about a very feared Russian clan despite not being one of the most infamous. They are making a name for themselves very quickly, but they certainly don’t have an excellent reputation-
- What does the tattoo mean?-
- The tattoos of the Russian clans are always very emblematic, they have deep meanings but difficult to decipher, even if they all have one thing in common: they never express anything positive. In this specific case, two things come to mind: cerberus was a hellish dog of mythology and was said to have precisely three heads, while the caduceus is the symbol of Mercury, who in Roman mythology was the messenger of the gods. If you put the two together, they could be interpreted as a message of death-
- Interesting, I think you're right. It is said that if a person looks a hell dog in the eye three times, then he will die. Perhaps the number three, linked to the cerberus heads, could also have a meaning-
- We can't rule it out-
- Are you ready to help us with this case? -
- Sure, it's my job after all-
- Then welcome aboard-

They shook hands to establish that collaboration: it was thus that Yuriy officially joined their small team for that case. From then on they would have an extra person in the office besides Camel to hide any intimate attitudes from.

 

Later at home she took a shower and looked for something simple but nice to put on. They had to have dinner at home, so she didn't have to wear her best dress, but she still wanted to be decent. Eventually she chose a blouse with short, puffed sleeves and a miniskirt tight on the hips. She also put a few drops of perfume on her neck and wrists.
She set the table with the plates and glasses that she usually reserved for special occasions and lit a couple of scented candles in the room where they would have dinner, making the atmosphere more intimate and sensual. Immediately after doing it, she wondered if it wasn't too much and blow them out, but in the end the environment seemed too formal and so she lit them again, in the hope that they wouldn’t give the wrong impression. She was very nervous even if it was just a dinner, she certainly didn't want to throw herself into his arms as if nothing had happened. If he really wanted to be with her again then he had to earn it: she had to resist the urge to hold him all the time and kiss him. She blushed at her own thoughts.
While she checked again that everything was in order, the intercom rang: Shuichi had arrived. She ran to open the door and waited for him to come up and knock on the door, while she straightened her hair and adjusted her skirt at her hips. At the first stroke she opened immediately.

- Hi Shu - she greeted him with a smile.

She noticed that he was holding a couple of fairly full shopping bags in his hand, perhaps he had bought even more than he should. He looked at her from head to toe, sliding his gaze over her body.

- But do we have to go out?- he finally asked her.
- No, we said to stay at home. Why?-
- You are dressed quite well for someone who intends to spend the evening at home-

Here, first mistake of the evening. Yet she didn't seem to have exaggerated, not to mention that instead of coming out with that comment he could have also told her that she was pretty and that those clothes fit her well.

- I put the first thing I found in the wardrobe, is that a problem?- she replied angrily.
- No, on the contrary, it's a nice way to be welcomed-

He pronounced those words as he made his eye fall first on the neckline of her blouse, from which he could see the curves of her prosperous breasts and then on her legs, which had nothing to envy to anyone. This embarrassed her but at the same time it also pleased her: the fact that Shuichi looked at her like this made her feel desired.

- Come in- she invited him as soon as she recovered from the moment of awkwardness.

As they headed to the kitchen they passed through the dining room, where he paused to look at the table she had carefully set and the intimate setting she had recreated with candles. She bit her lower lip, wondering what he was thinking. Eventually she couldn't help herself, given the level of nervousness she had reached.

- If the candles bother you, I can blow them out-
- No problem, I like them to be honest- he smiled and started walking towards the kitchen.

She breathed a sigh of relief and repeated to herself that she had to calm down. She followed him into the kitchen and watched him as he placed the shopping bag on the kitchen counter and began to extract its contents: potatoes, apparently good quality beef, onions, carrots, green beans and a jar of soy sauce. There were also two bottles, one of red wine and one of Scotch.

- The wine is for dinner, the Scotch for after dinner- he specified.
- You come and get drunk at my house? - she joked.
- Actually the idea was to get you drunk- he played along.

She watched him look around, probably looking for tools to start cooking. She walked over to him and showed him where the pans and the rest of the utensils were. It had been a long time since he last visited her for an intimate dinner, it was very likely that he didn’t remember the position of the various objects, not to mention that most of the time they went out for dinner.

- What are you preparing?-
- Nikujaga-
- And what is it?-
- A beef stew with potatoes, savory with other vegetables and soy sauce-
- Can I help you? I feel guilty for inviting you to dinner and then letting you cook-
- Actually, I offered to cook, so there's no problem-
- Yes but I can't stand still and watch, let me do something-
- Okay, if you insist- he smiled - Peel the potatoes and cut each into six pieces, then dip them for ten minutes in a bowl with water to make them lose the starch-
- How professional we are- she teased him, but carrying out his orders to the letter.

While she peeled and sliced, Shuichi stood by her side to cut the meat into small pieces. She was happy with that simple moment spent with him, it gave her the impression that they were one of those married couples in the movies who cooked together after work. He seemed relaxed and happy, she also noticed that he tried to be close to her as much as possible.
When it came time to cut the onion, he tried to convince her to cut it, but she promptly refused. She pulled one of those slicers with interchangeable grids and handed it to him, so neither of them would have had to cry because of the pungent smell given off with each cut.
Once everything was prepared, they put it to boil over low heat in a saucepan, adding the soy sauce. The scent that emanated from the kitchen was truly inviting.

- It looks good- she smiled happily, peeking into the pot.
- Did you have doubts?-
- Sorry Shu but I still find it incredible that you have learned to be a perfect housewife- she raised an eyebrow.

He smiled and took a spoon, dipped it into the pot and extracted some of the contents, blew on it to cool it and then, holding a hand just under the spoon, extended it towards her.

- Taste it-

Taken by surprise and fearful she slowly approached and just as slowly opened her mouth, embarrassed by his piercing eyes staring at her. The taste of that stew made her eyes widen.

- But it's great!- she exclaimed.
- Are you sure? Isn't it too salty? Undercooked vegetables?-
- The salt is in place and the vegetables can cook for another five minutes then it is ready-

As he continued stirring the stew, she opened the bottle of wine and then went into the dining room and poured it into their respective glasses.
When the stew was finally ready, Shuichi joined her and served it on the table, putting it on plates to cool down a bit. They sat facing each other and began to have dinner, chatting quietly.

- If you like, we can go back to Forest Park- he walked out suddenly, catching her by surprise - Last night we had been only at the bandshell, but before I arrived I took a walk around the park and it's not bad. Would you like to see it?-

She blushed with a smile: she still had to get used to those invitations to go out that sounded of not exactly friendly dates between two colleagues. She still couldn't believe she was having a candlelit dinner with him flirting with her (in his own way). She had wanted it for years and now her wish had come true. She wondered if that was the reality or if she wasn't just having a long dream that would be followed by a rude awakening. She was afraid, but she also had a great desire to live those moments with the man she loved with all of herself.

- I'd love to- she nodded.
- Shall we go there on Sunday? I think it’s better to see it during the day rather than in the evening-
- I agree, Sunday is perfect-

They finished the dinner among intense looks, smiles, her embarrassment and some chatter. She wondered what they would have done now, if they would have watched a movie hugged on the sofa or if they would have just kept chatting while keeping their distance. She knew what she wanted, but it wasn't entirely clear to her what Shuichi wanted. He had come forward, but perhaps he didn’t want to rush things too much and even she, thinking about it, shouldn’t have given herself to him easily: it was right that Shuichi deserved what she had to offer him.

- Thanks for the dinner, it was really good- she got up from the table and started to gather the plates.
- I'm glad you liked it- he got up too to give her a hand.
- No, leave it, I'll do it. You cooked, clearing the table and doing the dishwasher seems to me the least-
- So you mind if I go out on the balcony to smoke? -
- No, but it's not good for you- she scolded him.

She went into the kitchen with plates and glasses and brought the remaining wine there as well. She put everything they had dirtied in the dishwasher and started it. On the kitchen counter there was that bottle of Scotch that Shuichi had brought for after dinner. She took it and turned it over in her hands, wondering if it was really worth drinking: when she picked up a drink, she lost her lucidity and Shuichi's proximity made her lose her lucidity more than alcohol. She didn’t want to fail in the good intention of not giving herself to him too much, but if she had refused, perhaps Shuichi would have been upset, after all he had brought that bottle specifically for the evening. Eventually she gave up, sighed, and searched in the cupboard for the liquor glasses. Once found, she filled them with ice cubes that she always kept in the freezer, uncorked the bottle and filled them with that amber liquid, and then brought them to the low table that was in front of the sofa in the living room. She glanced at the balcony door and saw that Shuichi was still outside smoking, so she went back to the kitchen to retrieve the bottle and brought that to the table as well. Finally she sat down on the sofa and waited, trying to dispel the nervousness that was increasing minute by minute.
Shuichi returned shortly after, sitting on the sofa next to her. He sat quite close, which he usually didn't do, and stretched out an arm extending it along the edge of the sofa, but more than a relaxing gesture it seemed like a way to hug her and have her closer to him. She realized that he was staring at her and unable to bear that gaze that sent her into confusion, she hastened to take a glass from the table and handed it to him. Taking it, Shuichi brushed her hand with his fingertips. She didn't know if he had done it on purpose or if it was accidental, but that gesture had caused shivers down her spine. She felt stupid, like a high school girl on her first date. She was about to turn twenty-nine and couldn't control herself in front of a man. She grabbed her glass and took a sip, hoping that the alcohol would help her relax a bit. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed that Shuichi sipped his Scotch without taking his eyes off her and this prompted her to take another sip: perhaps not even chugging the entire bottle by herself would have been enough to cancel that hurricane of emotions she felt in her chest. Embarrassment, love, happiness, fear and desire.

- Why the Scotch?- she asked, finding the courage to look him in the eye.
- Why? Don't you like it?- he replied, dazed by that question.
- No, I just haven't seen you drink Scotch in a while. You used to take Bourbon or something else-
- I see- he smiled - I just thought it was time to resume with the Scotch-
- Why did you stop drinking it?-

There followed a few moments of silence in which Shuichi stared at the glass he held in his hand, swirling the liquor and the ice inside. From the expression on his face she realized she had touched a sore spot and cursed her curiosity, looking down and biting her lower lip. She couldn’t explain why, since she had no certainty, but the thought of Akemi returned insistently in her head, as if she were also sitting on that sofa with them. Instinctively, she squeezed the glass she was holding tightly in both hands.
It was enough that Shuichi stroked her nape with his fingertips, making them pass through her short hair, to relax again.

- I'm sorry, I didn’t want to intrude on your personal matters- she apologized, looking into his eyes.
- Do you remember that policeman who was a friend of Amuro Tooru, our so called Bourbon? The one who had infiltrated the Organization when I was also part of it?-
- Yes, you told us about this story. Amuro blamed you for his death. But what does it matter?-
- Do you remember what his codename was?-

She thought about it for a moment and in the end her eyes widened when she finally remembered.

- Scotch...- she whispered.
- Exactly-
- Shuichi you...- she couldn't finish the sentence, not knowing what words to use.
- I felt responsible for his death in some way, so I stopped drinking that liquor that bore the same name to avoid being devoured by remorse-

She felt like an idiot when he revealed her that intimate confession: she had made an entire movie in her head and had put his deceased ex-girlfriend in the middle, when in reality she had nothing to do with it. She would never have even remotely imagined that among the inner torments of Shuichi there was room for other dead besides Akemi. At that moment she understood how big the burden he had had to carry around was, how high was the price he had paid for infiltrating the Organization.
A part of her, however, was happy that he had opened up like that, telling her something that had been in his heart for some time. He had trusted her and this was the best gift he could give her. Pushed by that strong emotion, she removed a hand from the glass she was still holding and brought it to Shuichi's face, stroking his cheek.

- It wasn't your fault, Shu. Now stop tormenting yourself, you have no reason- she said softly, staring into his eyes.
- That's what I'm going to do- he intensified the caresses he was still doing behind the back of her neck, gently pushing her a little closer to him - Tonight that’s going to change-

He clinked his glass against hers, as if he wanted to make a small toast in honor of the turning point he had finally wanted to make in his life. She was also part of his change, in fact, perhaps it was the most important part. Shuichi had said goodbye to his ghosts and now he just wanted to start living peacefully again: it was her duty to do everything possible to give him what he no longer had for some time.
He took his eyes off her only to put his glass on the coffee table; then he took hers from her hands and put that down as well. She followed each movement with an attentive gaze, wondering why he was doing it, even if she could sense it on her own given the atmosphere that was being created. She had promised herself not to let herself go too much, not on the first date at least, but her good intentions were shattering at the speed of light.
Shuichi gently ran the fingers of his hand on her thigh left uncovered by the short skirt and with the arm that until then had remained resting on the edge of the sofa he encircled her shoulders, drawing her to him. She felt herself burning inside as the desire to be loved by him grew. She placed her hands on his chest and hid her face in the hollow of his neck, unable to hold his gaze. If she had stared at him she would have lost that shred of clarity that still remained. Shuichi stroked her head for a while, but then it no longer satisfied him and he gently took her chin between his thumb and forefinger, forcing her to raise her head and look into his eyes. She couldn’t describe how beautiful those eyes were, so green and intense that they dug into her soul. He gently took off her glasses, folding them carefully and placing them on the coffee table. He knew how much she cared and therefore treated them with special regard: this made her love him even more. He looked back at her and she did the same, her eyes bright with desire. She felt his hand caress her cheek as he brought his face close to hers. She began to breathe deeply and faster, as her heartbeat quickened: it was now clear what his intentions were, in stark contrast to what she had been repeating herself since she had let him in. If she kissed him on the first night, it would be like erasing everything that had been and in a way she didn't want it to be. What the heck, he had left her in the lurch, now he had to gain a kiss from her too! But as she repeated this to herself in her head, the rest of her body just wanted their lips to come together (and probably not just those). Love is irrational and this is its worst part. Shuichi's forehead rested against hers and she felt his warm breath on her mouth. If she wanted to stop him, she had to do it immediately. But when his skilled fingers touched her neck behind and under her ear, she couldn’t help but let go of a sigh, panting and bringing her lips even closer to his, a matter of millimeters and they would have touched. Obviously he still remembered the points on her body that aroused her most pleasure. She realized she couldn't resist, she was just a prey in his hands.
They were about to kiss when the ringing of a cell phone interrupted that moment. They moved away and she looked around for her phone, remembering only after that she had left it in the bedroom to charge. Besides, that wasn't her ringtone, so it had to be Shuichi's. She saw him taking his smartphone out of his trouser pocket and when he read the name on the display he couldn't help but grin.

- What timing- he commented.
- Who is it?- she asked, curious to know who had saved her but at the same time disturbed her.
- Your friend-

She frowned, trying to make sense of that answer. Who was her friend and why did she call Shuichi instead of calling her directly if she was her friend? She remained doubtful until he answered the phone, turning on the speakerphone.

- I was worried, today you still hadn't called me- he began, leaving her even more perplexed.
- Don't get smart with me, you disappeared since last night!-

She immediately recognized the voice on the other side: it was Shiho.

- I've been busy- he justified himself.
- So, how did it go with Jodie?-

He turned to look at her, while she blushed and died of embarrassment: she had no idea that Shiho was aware of what had happened the night before or better than what Shuichi's intentions were. It amazed her that they talked so openly, Shuichi usually didn't even talk to her or others he had known for much longer than Shiho. On the other hand, that girl had a special place in his heart, as well as being in effect part of his family.

- Do you want to ask her directly? She's here beside me right now-

Her mouth dropped open and stared at him as if he had proposed something indecent. How did it occur to him to be so direct?! But mostly why he was having fun embarrassing her?!
She shook her head and her hands too, to let him know she didn't want to expose herself.

- Are you with her? So everything went well? Put her on the phone, I want to hear it from her!-

Shuichi ignored her hints of dissent and handed her the phone. She sighed, giving him an annoyed glare.

- Hello sweetie- she greeted her, trying to look the same as always - How are you?-
- Jodie!- she answered enthusiastically - I tried to call you several times before but you didn't answer...-
- Sorry, I left my cell phone in the bedroom to recharge the battery and I forgot it there. I probably didn't hear the ringtone-
- Wait a moment- she interrupted her - Are you at home? -
- Yes, why?-
- With Shuichi?-
- Well...yes-
- Did he talk to you last night? Did he finally tell you what he feels?- she looked like a river in flood.
- Do you mind if we talk about it privately later? It's a little embarrassing...-
- Well, can one of you tell me if you got together or not?-
- We can tell you that you interrupted us with your phone call, couldn't you wait?-

That sentence sounded like a rebuke but without malice in tone. Instead, she wanted to bury herself and never emerge again. How had it occurred to him to answer in that ambiguous way?!

- Shu, what are you saying?!-
- Why, isn't it true?- he said nonchalantly.
- No, but if you say so, she'll think we were doing who knows what!- she blushed.
- Are you already at that point?- she asked, with a hint of irony in her voice - First it takes years and then in twenty-four hours you get to the point. Sorry if I bothered you, then you’ll tell me the details, Jodie-

Before they could argue, Shiho had already dropped the call. If the atmosphere was already embarrassing before, after that phone call it had reached an unbeatable level.
Shuichi smiled mockingly and put the cell phone back in his pocket, turning to look at her. She didn’t know how to react, at that moment she just wanted to sink underground in shame.

- I guess now she will spread the word in the family- he finally said, amused by that situation as opposed to her.

She widened her eyes at that statement: she hadn't even thought about Tsutomu, Mary and all the rest of the Akai family. She prayed with all her heart that Shiho wouldn't tell them about that conversation, she didn't want half of Japan to be aware of her sex life, which by the way was non-existent at that time.

- Do you mind if I go out on the balcony? - she asked Shuichi, who continued to look at her.
- Why do you want to go out? he asked surprised.
- I'm going to throw myself down and if by chance I have to survive I'll take the elevator and go back up- she gave a very forced smile that fully highlighted her embarrassment.

Shuichi let out a laugh, something he almost never did and therefore it was to be considered as beautiful as rare. She loved to see him laugh and knowing that she was the one who made him have fun filled her with joy, making her forget for a moment the shame she had felt until recently.

- There's nothing to laugh about, she got a completely wrong idea!- she scolded him but being careful not to spoil his fun.
- Don't worry, then you’ll have the opportunity to chat with her and explain to her if you want-

As he said those words he moved closer to her, eliminating the distance that had been created and encircling her waist with both arms to draw her to him. Now she found herself pressed against his muscular chest, highlighted by the t-shirt he was wearing.

- We had a speech pending or am I wrong? - he asked, with his lips a few inches from hers.

She felt the desire grow in her again and her willpower abandoned her more and more. She knew that if she wouldn’t have stopped him right now she wouldn't have been able to do it again.
She ran her hands from his chest to his neck, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and starting to play with the nape hair coming out of the beanie, while she was lost in his eyes.

- Shu...I don't...- she tried to speak.
- Don't you feel ready?- he asked, his voice low and deep, as he stroked her cheek with his thumb.
- No, that's not it...-
- Look, I don't want to do what you think-
- You don’t want to kiss me?- she asked amazed.
- Of course I want to, but I don't want to push myself beyond that. One step at a time, right?-
- Oh- she only managed to say, and then looked down.
- Is that okay with you?- he asked, lifting her face gently.
- Of course, I just let myself be too influenced by the conversation with Shiho- she admitted - I agree on taking it easy. I actually didn't even want to kiss you tonight-
- Why?-
- Well, because I thought that giving in on a first date brought me no honor, not to mention that after the way you have behaved with me in the last few years if you want something you’ll have to earn it hard- she tapped him on the chest several times with the index.
- Interesting. So what should I do to deserve your kiss?- he seemed amused by that kind of challenge.
- Keep staring at me like that and caressing me and you won't have to do anything- she shook her head, hiding it in the hollow of his neck for the shame of not having a shred of self-control in front of him.

She heard him chuckle silently, without making a sound. It was obvious that he was having fun, he knew he would get what he wanted and without the slightest effort.

- If you want I can go away, I don't want to push you to do something you don't want - he said becoming serious.
- No! - she exclaimed, looking him straight in the eye -Please stay...-

Those words were enough to make Shuichi completely cancel any distance left between them by capturing her lips in a delicate kiss, as if he wanted to ask her permission one last time. In response she opened her mouth, inviting him to deepen that kiss she had waited for too long. After a few seconds their tongues found themselves intertwined with each other in a dance without music but full of rhythm. She slowly explored Shuichi's mouth, her taste buds tickled by the mix of alcohol and tobacco. She felt a whirlwind of emotions in her stomach, her heart beating strongly: that kiss had nothing to do with Clay's, she hadn't felt even a quarter of the emotions she was feeling at that moment while he concretely showed his interest towards her.
She could have kissed him until dawn without ever getting tired of his lips or their taste, but Shuichi interrupted the kiss, perhaps to get some fresh air or perhaps to respect the promise to take it easy. He moved his face away from hers a little to be able to look at her better.

- So, I deserved it?- he asked, referring to that kiss and the speech addressed just before.
- Not at all, but I'm very nice and I gave it to you anyway-
- Well, after all I cooked for you-
- If you put it that way, then all right, you deserved it-

They smiled and kissed again, caressing each other but without exaggerating too much. Shuichi was being very respectful, but she had known for some time that he was a serious and elegant type.

- Where did you put the photo frame I gave you yesterday? I looked around a bit before but I didn't see it- he asked her, when they interrupted the kiss.
- On the bedside table in the bedroom. Last night when I returned I looked at the photos and then I fell asleep, so in the end I left it there-
- I see, it means that I will see how you placed it in due time-

She looked down smiling, aware that he had just made an allusion to the moment when they would have been so intimate to the point of needing a bed. The idea of making love with him after such a long time frightened and thrilled her at the same time; however it was still too early to think about it.
They remained embraced for a while longer, talking and kissing, until Shuichi noticed the late hour. Reluctantly they got up from the sofa and she walked him to the door.

- Would you like to take home some of the leftover food and the bottle of Scotch? -
- No, you can finish the nikujaga tomorrow, I have other leftovers at home. And keep the Scotch for next time- he smiled.
- I don't know if it will be there again next time, I could drink it all by myself-
- It means that I’ll bring another bottle- he wrapped his arms around her waist and drew her to him.
- Thanks for the dinner, it was delicious- she blew on his lips.

They exchanged one last, long kiss and said goodnight, then Shuichi walked out the door and headed home. As soon as she was alone, she began to smile and jump around the room like she was crazy, unable to contain the happiness she was feeling. It seemed to her that she had just lived a beautiful dream, the man she loved had held her in his arms and kissed her. She wanted to shout her joy to the whole world, but she also knew she had to keep her feet on the ground: she wasn't sure yet about Shuichi's feelings. Could his feelings for her already be defined as love or had he not yet reached that point? Should she consider herself his girlfriend or just the girl he was dating? She hadn't had the courage to ask him, after all that was just the first date and up until twenty-four hours before she had accused him of the past. They had to rebuild their relationship in small steps, after all they were no longer the same persons as six years ago and therefore their relationship wasn’t something that could be recovered from where it left off, but something that had to be rebuilt from scratch on a new basis, more solid.
She cleaned the coffee table in the living room, putting the glasses in the sink and putting the Scotch in the kitchen cabinet where she kept a few more bottles of wine for special occasions; then she got ready for the night and went to bed. Before falling asleep she picked up the phone and called Shiho.

- Hello Jodie?- answered the voice on the other end.
- Hi, sorry if I didn’t answer your calls but as I told you when you called Shu I had the phone charging in the bedroom and I didn’t hear-
- Don't worry, if I had known you were with him I wouldn’t have bothered you-
- You didn't bother at all-
- Shuichi said I interrupted you-
- We weren't doing anything of what you’re thinking, we didn't get to that point!- she specified.
- Of course not, it took him a lifetime to ask you to go out let alone sleep with you-
- But who teaches you certain things?!- she was scandalized.
- Look, I am eighteen, almost nineteen and I am a scientist, I know where babies come from-
- Well in any case it's not just Shuichi, I want to take it easy too. In short, if he wants to sleep in my bed he must earn it!-
- I absolutely agree-

She couldn't see the expression on her face but she imagined that she was making one of those evil looks she always did when she wanted to make someone pay for their mistakes.
She then told her about what had happened the night before, what they had said and what had happened a few hours earlier. Shiho silently listened to her until the end.

- So it's all cleared up? Are you officially a couple?-
- We haven’t defined the nature of our relationship yet, for now we are dating and then we’ll see how it ends-
- Are you happy?-
- Of course, why shouldn’t I be?-
- If you’re happy I’m happy too, but that inconclusive one should officially ask you to be his girlfriend-
- It doesn't necessarily mean he won't, after all, tonight's was just the first date-
- Yes but given his times if we leave it to him he will ask you on the five hundredth appointment-

She burst out laughing at that joke, which in the end also hid a truth.

- You know, I have to thank you- she admitted - If it wasn't for you I think Shuichi wouldn't be convinced to move on-
- I was cheering for you from the start, I just did my duty as a fan-

She had to laugh again, that girl could be really funny when she wanted.

- Now I have to say goodbye, it's very late and I work tomorrow-
- Okay, keep me updated on developments. I’ll continue to work behind the scenes for you, I want that in the next phone call you could define yourself his girlfriend without any doubts-
- Okay, I trust you- she played along.

They said goodbye and she finally closed her eyes, falling asleep lulled by the feelings she had felt that night, still warm in her chest.

 

……………………….

 

Lying in bed with his arms crossed behind his head, he stared at the ceiling and thought back to the evening just passed. He no longer even remembered the last time he felt like this, serene and at peace with himself. The shirt he was wearing was still soaked in Jodie's scent, so he had decided to use it for sleep. He remembered their kisses, her lips so soft, her legs long and toned. He had forgotten how beautiful it was to have a woman for himself, to hold her and touch her. Her blue eyes staring at him, eager for attention but at the same time afraid of the idea of being able to suffer again. He had never wanted to hurt her, yet he had been forced to and he knew that Jodie would have worn the scars forever. He noticed it several times during the evening, how she tried to hold back despite the desire to let herself go completely to him. He had to do his best not to hurt her again, to regain the trust he had made her lose. All those who had fought against the Organization had lost something, but in the end they had also redeemed themselves by getting something else to start over: Jodie was his happy ending, his new starting point together with his reunited family.
He turned his head towards the bedside table and looked at the two photos that portrayed them together, enclosed in a book photo frame with an elegant decorated silver frame: he had bought an identical one for him too when he had taken the one for Jodie, so that they could have both the same memory, however the story between them could have ended. But he hadn't told her, he wanted it to be a surprise. He would have shown it to her in due time the day she would have entered his bedroom, just like he would have done with her.
As he watched the smile of the woman he would have defined soon as his woman, he mentally thanked the auburn-haired girl who had been his guide in those months: without her he probably would have never convinced himself to leave the past behind and give himself a second chance. He had promised to protect her and be close to her and he kept his word, but at the end of the story she had saved him too. He liked to think that Shiho was Akemi's latest gift for him, her way of saying "keep living and be happy".
Gladdened by those thoughts, he closed his eyes and fell asleep.

Chapter Text

It was now an hour since she finished taking a shower and went to her room to choose the dress to wear. She kept wondering what the right outfit was but nothing seemed perfect for the occasion: this was their first real "public" outing, since in the previous days they had mostly had lunch out alone during the break and she she had gone to Shuichi's house the day before after work. She wanted to be beautiful for him, she wanted everyone who saw them together to envy him for having such a woman by his side. She knew they were just going for ice cream on a Saturday night like any other, but she didn't care.
After countless trials, she chose a light white dress with thin straps, tight at the waist and softer at the hips, with a wide neckline that highlighted her prosperous décolleté. By now summer had officially arrived, so there was no risk of feeling cold. She wore a very fine necklace with a heart-shaped pendant, which Shuichi had given her years ago, and a pair of simple light point earrings; on her feet she opted for a pair of silver-colored high-heeled sandals. Only for the make-up she chose something not too flashy, she had never liked wearing too much makeup: a thin line of black pencil and a little mascara. She decided not to put the lipstick on as she used to, since they surely have kissed and she didn't want Shuichi to look like a clown after doing so. She finished it all off by sprinkling her favorite perfume, just in time before the intercom rang.

 

……………….

 

He rang the intercom and waited for Jodie's voice to come out of the speaker, then when he heard the click of the door opening he went in and took the elevator to the fourth floor. He felt good about finally going out "outdoors" with Jodie, despite the fear that they might have met some of their colleagues. Not that he was ashamed, but for the moment he preferred not to give rise to rumors and gossip in the workplace, especially after learning from Jodie herself of the long and sharp tongues of some of them.
When he reached the door of Jodie's apartment, he rang the bell and waited a few seconds. He heard the clatter of heels approaching and then the door opened, revealing Jodie in all that was her beauty. The long legs left uncovered by the short white dress and made even more slender by the heels, the florid breasts that could be seen from the neckline, those blue eyes made even more intense by that thin veil of black makeup that surrounded them. She knew how to draw attention to herself, there was no doubt, yet he preferred her in simpler clothes, which reflected her true being. She was surely beautiful dressed like that, but it seemed to him that she was come out of a fashion magazine and above all too “undressed”. He had to admit that he didn’t like seeing the lustful looks that other men gave her, he had never liked it even at the time.
He finally looked into her eyes and realized how radiant she was.

- Hi Shu- she greeted him smiling.
- I didn’t know that we were going to get ice cream at a mundane party in the Upper East Side - he commented on her clothing, without caring too much about the manner.

He realized only after that what for him was a joke said without malice for her instead it turned out more like a criticism. On the other hand, she hadn't worn that dress to attract the attention of other men, but to please him.

- Thanks Shuichi, you are dressed very well too!- she immediately changed her tone, visibly altered - Is it possible that you can't make a tiny compliment for once? Do you know how long it took me to find the right dress?! I did it for you!-
- I know, but you don't need clothes to get my attention. If you dress in a certain way you will also attract the attention of the wrong people, you should be careful-
- I don't feel like I'm naked!-
- No, but it shows enough to trigger malicious ideas-
- Okay- she raised her hands and pursed her lips - I'm going to put on a nice sweatshirt with a hood and long pants, are you happy now?-

She turned away from him and took the first steps towards her bedroom, stamping her feet on the ground and causing a loud noise with her heels that surely would not have pleased the tenants downstairs. Instinctively he ran after her and grabbed her by the arm, stopping her.

- What do you want?! - she turned abruptly, looking at him grimly.

Instead of answering her question, he put his other arm around her waist and pulled her to him, without giving her time to react. Now their bodies were pressed against each other and he could feel the softness of her breasts pressed against his chest. He let go of her wrist and brought his hand behind her head, gently pushing her forward until her face was close to his, placing his lips on her forehead and giving her a chaste kiss, trying to calm her anger. He had exaggerated with words, sometimes it is better to keep your thoughts to yourself. He felt her relaxing in his arms, even though she didn't seem to want to lift her head to look him in the eye. He raised it for her, bringing his lips to hers but without kissing her.

- I was just worrying about you- he said in a low voice.
- I can take care of myself Shu- she replied, but no more with the anger than before.
- I know, but I’m worried anyway-
- You are there to protect me-

He smiled at those words and nodded, capturing her lips in a sweet, almost chaste kiss that lasted a few seconds.

- You don't need to change your clothes- he said.
- But you don't like me dressed like that- she lowered her gaze again.
- I never said that. It’s obvious that I like you, anyone who would see you in this dress would like you. But I don't want you to think I like you just because of the way you dress. It’s evident to the whole world that you’re a beautiful woman, you’re beautiful whatever you wear Jodie, but I’m interested in the beauty you have here- he placed his index finger on her heart.

Jodie lifted her face again and stared at him with her eyes wide open and her mouth half-closed , incredulous at that rush of romance that in fact wasn’t like him. It wasn’t easy for him to be so delicate, he was more the type who said to one’s face what he thought as he had done just before, but he had realized that with her he couldn’t do it on every occasion. He had to strive to be better, because Jodie deserved it.
He felt her body even more pressed against his chest as she stretched her torso and encircled his neck with her arms, pressing her lips against his. This time they deepened the kiss, making their tongues intertwine.

- Shall we go?- he asked her when they were separated.

Jodie nodded and smiled, suddenly blushing.

- What's up?-
- You look very handsome tonight- she said in a low voice, as if she was afraid of his negative reaction.
- Why, am I usually ugly?- he grinned.
- No! - she shook her head, afraid of being misunderstood - It's just that you look very good dressed like this-

He watched her thin finger run along the part of his chest left exposed by the shirt he had left unbuttoned more than usual, both because of the summer heat and because he too wanted to be watched by her.
He gave her another kiss on the forehead and then they left her apartment, headed for his Mustang waiting for them parked outside.

 

During the first two minutes of the trip they chatted and from time to time he placed his hand on Jodie's thigh, without exaggerating. She didn't seem upset at all by that physical contact, on the contrary she reciprocated by placing her hand on his or stroking his hair behind his neck.
While they were stopped at a traffic light, he turned to look at her and his eye fell on the necklace she was wearing, which he hadn't paid much attention to before. He recognized it immediately: it was the one he had given her years ago when they were together. He reached out and took the heart-shaped pendant between his thumb and forefinger, smiling.

- I didn't think you still had it, I haven't seen you wearing it since-
- I haven't worn it anymore after we broke up, but I kept it. I could have never thrown it away- she admitted.
- I'm glad you decided to wear it this evening- he smiled at her.

They soon found themselves on the Brooklyn Bridge and Jodie asked where they were headed.

- At the Ice Cream Factory- he replied.
- We’re going to Brooklyn just to get an ice cream?- she was surprised - There were at least four ice cream shops within five kilometers of my apartment-
- Yeah, but from your neighborhood you can't enjoy the view of Manhattan illuminated by night lights-

Once they arrived at their destination, they parked the car and walked towards the Ice Cream Factory. They walked side by side, already enjoying the sight of some glimpses of the city teeming with lights. He kept his hands in his pockets, but secretly looked at Jodie's tightly wrapped around the small shoulder bag she had carried with her. While the latter was talking to him, he took his left hand out of his pocket and took Jodie's right hand, intertwining his fingers with hers. She looked at him at first in amazement and then giving him one of her wonderful smiles, making him understand how happy she was with that gesture.
They walked hand in hand until they reached the queue that had formed in front of the entrance door of the ice cream shop. They had about ten people in front of them, understandable since it was summer and many people went out in the evening to indulge in the pleasure of something as fresh as a good ice cream. They waited patiently for their turn, not even for too long, continuing to hold hands.
When they were finally close enough to read the tastes marked on the sign, Jodie began to scan the list.

- What do you get Shu?- she turned to him.
- I think I'll pass, you know I don't particularly like sweets-
- Come on, not even ice cream?- she made her lower lip stick out, assuming that air which made her look like a puppy just scolded, that she did every time she wanted to soften those who looked at her.
- We came here because you wanted to- he smiled.
- Yes, but I thought you wanted to come too...there is also coffee among the tastes- she tried again, blinking.

Damn, the girl was good. He could have stood firm on his beliefs, but he was too amused by her childish attitude to do her a disservice, so he gave in.

- Okay, if you insist - he replied without showing too much enthusiasm.
- Hurray!- she exclaimed, resting her head against her shoulder.

When it was their turn, they entered and headed for the counter, where Jodie looked excitedly over the containers full of ice cream, while the uniformed ice cream woman watched her with a smile. At times she really seemed like a little girl who was excited for a trifle, perhaps because during that childhood that Vermouth had stolen from her she hadn’t been able to do all those normal things that children do at that age.

- A cup with coffee and one with vanilla chocolate chunk- she ordered for both.

The ice cream maker prepared the two cups and then shows them the cashier where to pay, which was a few meters ahead before the exit.

- Can you hold them for a moment Shu? - she held out the cups - Otherwise I can't get my wallet out of her purse-
- Don't worry, my treat-
- But you don't have to do it Shu...-
- I know, I do it because I feel like it, not because I feel obligated-

He paid the bills for both of them and took his ice cream from Jodie's hands, walking out with her from the Ice Cream Factory. Outside there was a square wooden flooring, like those of the piers, surrounded by an iron balustrade overlooking the sea. Surrounded by a red fence there were benches and wooden tables where customers could sit down to enjoy the ice cream they had just taken.

- Do you want to sit?- he asked, indicating an empty table with a nod.
- No, I prefer to stand and look at the skyline. There is a breathtaking view-

They approached the balustrade and leaned against it, starting to eat their ice creams while the noise of the water and the rumor of people played in the background.

- How is yours? - she asked him.
- A normal coffee ice cream. Not too sweet at least. Your?-
- It's delicious, I was wrong to take only one scoop-
- Look, if you get fat you won't be able to move anymore and they'll kick you out of the FBI- he provoked her.

In response Jodie pouted and glared at him, taking a large spoonful of ice cream and putting it in her mouth, making him smile.
In front of them stood tall skyscrapers with countless lighted windows, like little eyes that silently observed the nightlife of the "city that never sleeps", reflecting on the water of the pier. To make everything more impressive, however, it was certainly the grandeur of the Brooklyin bridge, which they had crossed shortly before by car and which they could now admire in all its length. In the distance it was possible to see the Statue of Liberty. He hadn't chosen that ice cream shop by chance, he knew very well that the point was strategic to create the right atmosphere for a night date. Brooklyn Heights was a historic neighborhood that offered not only glimpses of the past revisited in a modern way, but also a noteworthy panorama. It was there that New York was born years before and from those years there were still old buildings and old warehouses that over the years had been transformed into apartments, shops and restaurants. The Ice Cream Factory itself was once a boat warehouse.

- No doubt that New York is really beautiful- Jodie said, admiring every single light in ecstasy.
- Yeah- he answered simply.
- You know, during our stay in Japan I fell in love with the place and I would love to go back soon, but I must admit that I have missed all of this. New York is my home-
- I understand you, I too would like to go back to London one day-
- For a moment I thought that James's spirit had possessed you, you don't know how many times I heard him say that sentence!- she looked at him a little scandalized and a little disgusted at the idea of a romantic date with the spirit of her stepfather and boss.

He let out a laugh, amused by that image just described by his partner.

- It means that I’ll go to London with James-
- But do you still consider yourself British?- she asked - You haven't lived there for years, by now you are a full-fledged American citizen-
- It doesn’t change my origins- he spoke with a note of pride in his voice - If you moved to Japan and stayed there for ten years, for example, would you stop considering yourself American? You said it too, this is your home because it’s the place where you were born and raised. I spent my first fifteen years of life in London and I was sorry to have to flee as if I were a wanted criminal. I like living in America and I love New York too, but I'm still British-

Jodie listened to him, she looked at him as if captured by the way he described the love for his homeland. She had always been curious to know his origins, to know everything about him, but as an incurable man closed in on himself he had always told her the bare minimum, leaving her with more questions than answers. He promised himself to force himself to open that shell he had created and to satisfy Jodie's curiosity towards him. If he wanted her to be his woman, it was right to let her know about his past life and his secrets.

- Shu? -
- Mmh? -
- You know, I thought...- she lowered her gaze for a moment, as if she knew she was dealing with a delicate topic - Don't take me for a numb, I'm really sorry for everything your family has had to go through, but maybe there is at least a good thing in having to go away from London- she looked him in the eye, showing all the fear he had in saying those words.
- And what would that be?- he asked, but without any malice.
- If you hadn't left and you hadn't decided to come and live in America, we would never have met. I can't imagine what it would have been like not to have you in my life- she blushed.

It surprised him every time how that woman could contain so many facets within her. One moment she behaved like a little girl and the next she was capable of deep and mature thoughts and a sensitivity of mind like few people he had known. She was a warrior, one who knew how to be stronger than the blows that life gave her and who knew how to get up one way or another, but at the same time she was also a fragile creature, like any woman, it took little to break her. The sweetness she had shown at that moment was disarming even for someone like him, used to not let anything move him. Smiling, he took her in his arms and hugged her, inhaling her perfume.

- Are you sure it was good for you to meet me?- he asked her, thinking back to everything she had been through because of him.
- I'm sure- she answered without hesitation.
- So you haven't thought badly of me even once?- he provoked her.
- Let's say that most of the time I find you unbearable, but sometimes I like you- she joked, making a funny expression.

Without further words, he captured her lips and they let out a passionate kiss, mixing the aftertaste of coffee, vanilla and chocolate that was left in their mouths from the freshly eaten ice cream. He had always been a reserved type, but at that moment he didn't care if any of the other customers at the ice cream shop were staring at them: he just wanted to kiss that extraordinary woman he still thought he didn't deserve. He stroked her back left uncovered in the upper part of the back neckline of the dress, he felt her soft skin under his fingertips.

- Do you want to take a walk along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade?- he asked, his lips still very close to hers.
- Of course, somehow we have to digest of the ice cream we just ate- she smiled.

Hand in hand they walked away from the Ice Cream Factory, starting to skirt the East River along the Promenade. They found themselves immersed in a fairytale atmosphere with tree-lined avenues, street lamps arranged in a row that illuminated the path, flower beds and gardens. On one side they could admire the modern New York, made up of skyscrapers full of lights, the Bridge and the Statue; on the other, what was left of the New York of yesteryear, that is, ancient buildings built with red bricks. Jodie commented everything ecstatically, pointing out every single thing she saw. By now he had heard "Look Shu" so many times that he had lost track of it.

- Going around with you is like taking a dog for a walk- he told her at one point.
- What do you mean?- she glared at him.
- I mean that you are adorable, but you make a terrible noise-

She pouted and let go of his hand, crossing her arms across her chest and acting like she was annoyed.

- You, on the other hand, won't make any noise but you're not cute either! - she replied.

Her reaction amused him, she pretended to be angry but he knew she couldn't sulk at him for more than five minutes. He felt like he went back to six years ago, during their last dates, before everything changed. They were no longer the same, but somehow the chemistry that had always existed between them had remained unchanged over time.
After about halfway, he stopped in front of one of the benches along the way.

- Do you want to rest for a while?- he asked her.
- Why? There is still a long way to go-
- Yes, but can you do it? The shoes you’re wearing don’t have to be very comfortable for a walk of five hundred and fifty-seven meters- he looked at her heels.
- I'll tell you a secret- she approached him, grabbing the sides of the collar of his shirt and bringing him closer to him - My feet will beg for mercy very soon, but since I’m a woman I will smile elegantly until I get home-
- Do you really want to slaughter your feet?- he grinned.
- This and more in order to appear fantastic in the eyes of the man I have to impress - she winked.

They kissed each other and started walking again, holding their hands. A few meters later they passed a group of kids who must have been around eighteen to twenty years old, holding bottles of beer, who were talking loudly disturbing other people who, like them, were there to enjoy a quiet walk. They staggered, a sign that those beers were certainly not the first they drank. When they noticed Jodie they began to make a series of verses and whistles of appreciation, one of them even licked his lips to highlight the excitement she had caused him.

- Hello beauty, would you like to join us?- asked one of them, reaching out and showing her the bottle.
- Yes, come on, let's have fun all together! - said another.
- No, first I want to play alone between her thighs!- the third claimed, making the other two laugh.

When he felt that Jodie was pulling her hand to separate it from his, he realized that he had squeezed it too tightly and perhaps had hurt her involuntarily. He took it in his own and stroked her fingers with his thumbs, looking at her with regret: it was his silent way of telling her he was sorry. In the meantime, those three idiotic kids continued to make not very nice appreciations and allusions towards his partner, putting his patience and self-control to the test. He released her hand and took a few quick steps towards them, but he felt himself being grabbed from behind: Jodie was holding him back by shaking her head.

- Forget about it Shu, they're drunk and don't know what they're saying, let's go-
- Someone has to teach them a little education, that’s no way to talk to a woman-
- I know and I love you for this but please forget about it. Do you really want to fight with some drunk kids on our date? You’re better than that. Please Shu…- she pleaded.

He sighed deeply and nodded, putting his arm around her shoulders and pulling her to him. She too put her arm around his waist and rested her head on his shoulder. Remaining embraced like that they resumed their walk, leaving behind the cackles of those poor guys.

- Thanks Shu-
- For what?-
- For defending me and above all for not having punched them-
- Now do you understand what I meant when I told you that certain clothes can attract the attention of the wrong people? Just think if you had been alone, they certainly wouldn't have kept their distance. There are disreputable people around-
- But I have my own personal bodyguard, that's why I dress like this only in his presence-

They finished their walk without further unforeseen events and retraced their steps, now ready to go back to the car. It was now late at night and the darkness had made the city lights even brighter. He stopped at the point where the atmosphere seemed most suggestive, halfway between the flower beds and the view of Manhattan that was reflected on the moonlit water. The moment he had been waiting for all evening had come.

- Why did you stop?- Jodie asked him.
- Don't you think the view is perfect at this point?-
- To be honest I haven't found a single spot where the atmosphere wasn't beautiful, but it's actually really perfect here-

Satisfied with that answer, he put a hand into his right trouser pocket and pulled out a small white box with a black bow on it. Anyone who had seen it would have understood at first glance that it was a package from a jewelry store and in fact Jodie opened her eyes wide and opened her mouth in disbelief, staring first at him and then at the box trying to find words that didn’t come. He smiled proudly and satisfied that everything had gone as planned.

- Here, this is for you- he handed her the box.
- Shu...I...- she mumbled, fearfully taking the gift with her hands almost trembling.

He watched as she lifted the lid and revealed the contents: a bracelet with a thin chain and an eight-pointed star pendant, four of which were slightly longer than the others, made up of tiny cubic zirconia set next to each other. Jodie ran a finger over it, as if to caress it, looking at it in delight.

- It's wonderful Shu, you shouldn't have...- she looked at him with shining eyes, as if she were about to cry but with joy.
- I saw it when I went to get the photo frame and it reminded me of you. I didn't take it there and then, not knowing how it would end between us, but then given the circumstances I went back and bought it. I thought it was symbolic, because of the comet rain we watched together. Plus your surname has always reminded me of the stars. Maybe you too are a bit like Manhattan: you can shine even in the dark and anyone who looks at you cannot help but be fascinated-
- Shu...- she could only say, as a tear escaped her control.

Clutching the box tightly, she threw her arms around his neck and began to cry silently, with her face hidden in the hollow of his neck. He felt her large breasts pressed against his chest and it would have been much more pleasant if he hadn't had to deal with that crying. Certainly he hadn’t foreseen that reaction.

- Why are you crying now?-
- Sorry, it's just that I'm so happy...- she spoke through tears, choking the words in his neck.
- If you’re happy then smile, don't you think you have shed too many tears? So you make me feel guilty- he gently stroked her head.
- You're right- she nodded, raising her head and trying to erase the traces of tears left on her face with one hand.

He took the box from her other hand and pulled out the bracelet, lifting her wrist and fastening it. Jodie smiled at it, moving it to make the cubic zirconia shine in the artificial lights surrounding them. He was aware that a bracelet or a photo frame couldn’t erase the harm he had done to her, but seeing her so happy made him feel redeemed from his sins in some way.

- Thanks Shu, it's a wonderful gift and what you said about me is too- she gave him a wonderful smile.

They approached each other at the same time and exchanged another passionate kiss, but which lasted much longer than the others they gave each other during all that night. They remained embraced kissing each other, enveloped by the glitter of the city and the almost imperceptible scent of sleeping flowers, until they recovered the knowledge of time.
Walking embraced, they went back to the car and he drove her home.

Chapter Text

She slowly opened her eyes and tried to get them used to the daylight. When she succeeded, she noticed that the sun filtering from behind the curtains was now high in the sky, a sign that it was probably already late morning. On the other hand, she had gone to bed very late the night before and therefore there was nothing wrong with having recovered some sleep: it was also Sunday, she didn't have to work and she could enjoy the day.
She looked for the glasses on the bedside table, put them on and then took the phone to check the messages, obviously hoping to find some from Shuichi: her wish was granted. On the way home the night before they had agreed to return to Forest Park the next afternoon, Shuichi would pick her up after lunch. Probably he must have changed his mind, since in the message he had sent her about forty minutes ago he asked her if she would like to go out for lunch before going to the park. Smiling happily, she immediately replied to the message:

"Sorry if I answer you just now but I woke up a little while ago. How about we stop for sandwiches and then eat them at Forest Park? I haven't had a picnic for a while :)
XOXO"

His answer wasn’t long in coming:

"I think it's a good idea. I'll pick you up at 12:00"

She put the phone back on the bedside table and her eye fell on the box with the bracelet that Shuichi had given her. She took it and opened it, taking out the bracelet and turning it over in her hands as if it were the best of treasures. The star-shaped pendant sparkled in the daylight even more than it did last night with the artificial city lights. His words came back to her mind:

"Maybe you’re a bit like Manhattan too: you can shine even in the dark and anyone who looks at you can't help but be fascinated"

She smiled biting her lower lip and enjoying that moment of pure happiness: it was rare that Shuichi let himself go to such comments, so distant from his stoic and apparently insensitive person, devoid of any predisposition to romanticism. Perhaps, after all that he had been through, he too had managed to change and polish a little that rigid side of his character. After that gift and that evening spent together she felt more sure about the feelings that Shuichi had for her and his intentions, although still some doubts hadn’t completely disappeared. That "I love you" she had been waiting for since years hadn't arrived yet, as was the official request to be his girlfriend again. For a moment, when she saw him take out the box, she imagined in her head an engagement proposal with a ring like the ones you see in the movies, but then she managed to maintain enough clarity of mind to realize that it was too early to a request of that kind.
She picked up her cell phone again and took a photo of the bracelet, sending it to Shiho who viewed it after a few seconds. The young scientist didn’t reply to the message but preferred to call her.

- Hello?- she greeted her cheerfully.
- Did he give it to you?- she asked point blank, without even saying hello.
- Good morning to you too, uh?- she pointed out the thing.
- Sorry, hello Jodie-
- Very good!- she exclaimed satisfied in her mother tongue - So, do you like it?-
- It's very nice, but did Shuichi give it to you?- she asked again, looking for confirmation.
- Of course, who else should have given it to m