Ran didn't have any reason to object to her father's decision. He always brought her along on business trips, and a weekend in Kanazawa sounded like a fun vacation. Nor did their houseguest convey to her any misgivings, for that matter. When Conan heard the details about the Mystery Convention, he was so excited at the prospect that he practically bounced. For such a small boy, he had an extraordinarily single-minded devotion to detective work.
The convention would bring together novelists, actors and actresses, as well as detectives like her father. It would no doubt be the highlight of Conan's year, so watching him shouldn't be any trouble. Plus, Ran mused as they trailed her father into the hotel, there was always the possibility that the highly publicized gathering would appeal to yet another mystery geek by the name of...
She automatically whipped around toward the voice, while beside her Conan made a strangled noise. The two teenagers smiling in their direction were easy enough to pick out of the crowd of convention goers. "Hattori-kun, Kazuha-chan," she greeted the pair. Taking her companion's hand, she headed for them, leaving her father to handle checking in. "You've seen Shinichi?" she asked, unable to control the flutter in her chest at the thought.
She had spent the duration of the cross-country trip attempting to ignore the whisper of hope that insinuated itself into her plans for the weekend. She had no interest in the activities at the convention itself, but if it served to draw out Shinichi, she refused to pass up the opportunity. It had been so long since she had last seen him, and this was exactly the kind of event at which Shinichi might decide to show himself after his extended absence.
"Ah! Sorry, sorry." Heiji waved his hand to brush away the question. "I saw you come in and thought Kudou might be with you." His gaze shifted downward to Conan. "But you brought him. Will you be in the same room?"
"You..." the boy began, taking a step toward the teen.
"If you want to know our room number so you can visit, Otousan's checking in right now." She smiled down at Conan. "Just be sure the two of you don't keep us awake all night with your detective games. I know how carried away you get."
"At least you have a room to be kept awake in." Kazuha crossed her arms and pointedly turned away from her companion. "*Someone* neglected to mention he was attending until it was too late for me to make a reservation."
"You didn't have to come along."
"Hah! You probably would have gotten lost on your own, like the last time I let you lead the way."
"That wasn't my fault. And besides..."
"Why don't you share?" Conan interrupted, brimming with youthful innocence.
"Idiot!" the Osaka detective shouted at him, crouching down to bring himself eye-to-eye with the boy, a flush of either embarrassment or rage darkening his tanned skin. Kazuha blushed as well, though she attempted to appear unconcerned.
Conan let go of Ran's hand and clung tightly to her leg. "Heiji-niichan is scary."
She sighed. Sometimes he could seem so grown up, but sometimes... "Hattori-kun, don't frighten him, he doesn't know any better."
"Oh, he doesn't, does he?"
"Anyway, that gives me an idea. Why don't we switch places?"
"What?" Heiji straightened, his suspicious glare replaced by puzzlement.
"You and me, switch rooms. That way you boys can enjoy the convention and have as much fun as you like, while Kazuha-chan and I can stay together and do boring girl things. How does that sound?"
"I think it's a great plan." Heiji dug his room key out of his jeans pocket and tossed it to her, then scooped Conan up and held him with one arm as he hefted his duffel with the other. "Don't worry, I'll look out for him."
"I'll go on in," she said to the other girl, who was still shimmying out of her skirt. Taking her hand towel, she made her way through the sliding glass door to the bath and selected one of the plastic stools aligned beneath the showerheads along one wall. She was grateful to wash away the stickiness resulting from being exposed for any length of time to the summer heat.
It was relatively early in the evening, so the bath was nearly empty. The only other occupant was an older woman who began preparing to leave as Kazuha entered. The girl took a seat next to Ran, sighing with appreciation when the stream of water hit her. "This is much better than the night alone I expected when I came this morning. Thanks for helping me out."
"No problem," she answered without hesitation as she rinsed the shampoo from her hair. "I doubt I would have been able to pry Conan-kun away from the convention long enough to do other things, and I wouldn't have wanted to put a damper on his fun anyway. I'm really glad it worked out like this."
"So, what do you suppose the boys are doing right now?"
"Hmm. That's a good question."
"I'll bet Heiji is taking the mystery role-play by storm. And the murderer is..." She paused dramatically and pointed at her companion. "...You!"
Ran giggled and pushed the accusing finger aside. "Ah, but you have no proof! You need Conan-kun assisting. He'll show how the murderer used a clever trick." She turned off her shower. "Here, let me get your back for you."
"That sounds great." She obligingly held her hair out of the way.
Ran worked up a good lather. "It's more fun taking a bath together, don't you agree?"
"Definitely. You're good at this."
"I've practiced on Conan-kun. But he squirms a lot more than you do."
Kazuha wriggled her shoulders. "Like this?"
"Keep that up, and I'll be forced to tickle..."
Finally the last of the suds had been sluiced away. Binding their hair up in their towels, the two eased themselves into the hot bath. Ran closed her eyes and allowed her thoughts to wander. She had been serious when she said she preferred company. It wasn't that she was afraid of being alone--at least, not in the same way that thunder or ghosts could frighten her. She knew she was resourceful enough to take care of herself. Rather, life's events, great or small, seemed almost hollow without someone else there to share them.
"Have you…" The water swirled as she shifted position. "I mean, has--has Kudou ever...kissed you?"
Ran spun about so quickly that a lock of hair tumbled down to dangle by her ear. "What?!"
"Before he left, did he kiss you?"
Kazuha's cheeks looked as red as her own felt--and not from the effects of the bath. "Of course not!" she declared emphatically. "We're just friends. Why would he do a thing like that?"
"You wanted him to, didn't you? At least a little."
"I..." She gazed at the reflected light dappling the water's surface. To be honest, the scenario had occurred to her with surprising frequency, especially now that she missed him so much. "Yes. It's kinda funny, though. To hear my father rant on the subject, I almost believe that all Shinichi ever thinks about is taking advantage of me, but sometimes I'm afraid he isn't even interested enough to try."
"Yeah. That's the problem, isn't it? Figuring out what's going through his head."
"What about you? After all, I'm not the only one with a mystery geek for a boyfriend. *Potential* boyfriend," she corrected, catching the flash of protest in the other's eyes. "Has Hattori-kun ever...?"
"Nope." She leaned back and contemplated the ceiling. "We're just pals, you know? We hang out together. He treats me like one of the guys."
"What if you told him how you feel about him?"
"Oh, I couldn't do that. Things would get...weird. This way I can be with him--go places, joke around, catch movies, that kind of stuff. If he started seeing me as a girl and not merely as a friend, it would change everything."
"It could be better."
"It could also be worse. I can't risk that. I can't lose him." Kazuha let out a deep breath and sank down until the ripples danced around her chin.
"If only there were a way to be sure..." Because the two of them were both girls, each could empathize with the other's situation far more easily than they could puzzle out what the boys were thinking. They could be open with each other to a degree that would be terrifying otherwise. Though their friendship hadn't exactly come effortlessly, since they had begun with a huge misunderstanding, their relationship was far less complicated than dealing with the unpredictability of the opposite sex.
"Kazuha-chan, if you were certain he wouldn't be able to resist your feminine charms, would you confess?"
The Osaka girl frowned skeptically. "That depends. Do you really think I have feminine charms?"
"What are you talking about? You're beautiful."
"You're saying that to boost my confidence."
"Yes, I am, but only because it's the truth. Close your eyes."
The words had slipped out before Ran's brain caught up with where her train of thought was leading, yet she found she didn't want to take them back. "Never mind that, just do it."
"All right..." Mystified, Kazuha lowered her lids and waited.
Heart pounding so hard she could nearly imagine it causing waves in the bath, Ran leaned close and brought her lips against the other girl's in an unpolished but unmistakable kiss.
Kazuha remained frozen for a long moment, then jerked backward and stared. "What was *that* for?!" She brought her fingers to her lips. "That--that was--"
"You want to believe in yourself, right? It's hard to believe in your ability to do something you've never tried." The idea had struck her all at once, and it was simply so practical a solution it swept her away. "The best method to build that kind of self-confidence is to practice."
"It's not like sports or music or--or karate. It's love. You can't just practice to get better at it."
"If you bought an outfit for Hattori-kun to see you wearing, you'd try it on first, wouldn't you? If you cooked him a meal, wouldn't you taste it first?"
"Yes, but..." She still appeared doubtful. "That's not quite the same."
"Why not? They're all things you do to show how you feel about him." She struggled to put her impressions into words. "Haven't you ever said something important over and over to yourself, so that when you told him it would come out sounding perfect? Or tried making a present several times to get it right before making one for him? You want him to have the best you can give."
"I do want him to enjoy it...I mean, I've always wondered what would happen if he kissed me. What if I did it so badly that he stopped liking me?" Her voice trembled at the enormity of what that implied. "Yet dreaming alone, that's one thing. This... To be...with another person..."
"I'm not just any person, am I?" Ran asked softly, taking her hand. "I'm your friend. I care about you. Plus, I'm a girl." She rose partway and indicated her figure. "We don't have any secrets from each other, do we? It would be almost like practicing on your own, except..."
"Like having someone wash your back, you mean?" The other's tone strengthened as they steered toward more familiar territory. "To get those...hard-to-reach places?"
"Exactly." She settled into the water again and smiled happily. She was a devoted matchmaker at heart, not to mention a die-hard romantic, and if she could help the Osaka couple attain the relationship they deserved, it would thrill her no end. Besides... She relived the brief kiss, picturing a certain high school detective and his long-overdue homecoming. Having a live companion definitely beat making do with an unresponsive mirror or pillow.
"Then you won't mind if I..." Kazuha surged forward, pinning her against the wall of the bath. "...Wash *your* back?"
Ran's breath caught at the sudden confrontation. Perhaps staying in the water so long had made her lightheaded, but she'd swear the other's intensity wasn't feigned, and being the object of such a serious regard affected her more than she had expected. Before she could force a reply past her paralysis, voices from the outer chamber interrupted the moment.
Kazuha retreated, glancing over her shoulder at the door. "Or maybe that'll have to wait," she conceded. She waded toward the steps leading out of the bath and unwrapped her towel. "I'm ready to return to our room, how about you?"
"Um, yeah. Me too," she answered hastily, fervently hoping their situation had been sufficiently veiled by the steam filling the room.
Ran wasn't usually self-conscious about her body around other women. However, as she had at their first meeting, she could feel the Osaka girl's eyes appraising her while they dressed. She knew it was a silly response, but the attention gave her a sizzling jolt of excitement, and she couldn't help adding a bit of flourish to her movements. She was proud of her appearance. She kept her muscles well toned through exercise and karate, and she had an exhibitionist streak evidenced by the short skirts and swimwear she bought.
If Shinichi was too dense to notice, that was his loss.
She finished tying the belt over her yukata and took a seat at one of the dressing tables to fix her hair. Just when she lifted her brush for the first stroke, Kazuha slipped it out of her hand.
"Let me..." Gathering the length of hair into a temporary ponytail with her left hand, she gradually worked up from the tip, eliminating any tangles with the deftness of familiarity. There was nothing overtly seductive about her actions, nothing to cause a casual observer to remark upon. However, the slight tickle of fingertips at the nape of the neck and whisper of breath as she leaned close to concentrate added to the sensual, rhythmic strokes, making Ran's skin tingle with anticipation.
Looking up, she met the other's eyes in the dressing table mirror. The glint of possessiveness took Ran by surprise. It was visible for only an instant before Kazuha broke the connection to reach for the blow dryer attached to the wall. The ensuing noise made discreet conversation impossible, even if Ran could have figured out how to pose her questions so that they sounded innocuous. After formulating and discarding several options, what spilled out when the motor shut off was simply, "Ready?"
The Osaka girl nodded. "I'm ready if you are."
Kazuha cut off the rest of the speech by the straightforward method of smothering it with her own mouth. Caught unprepared, Ran mentally scrambled to catch up, closing her eyes and returning the kiss as best she could. It was worlds apart from her first, one-sided attempt. To feel the softness of the other's lips backed by a firm intent, to match touch for touch another's smallest movements, and then to taste...
What would it be like to taste Shinichi this way?
By the time the kiss ended, she knew she was blushing madly. Kazuha cupped her burning cheek and ran a thumb lightly along her lower lip. "Well? How's that for a beginner?"
Ran reminded herself that it was only practice. She had no reason to be embarrassed; this was safe territory. "I think Hattori-kun doesn't stand a chance."
At that, it was the Osaka girl's turn to flush bright red. She lowered her eyes and moved her hand to brace it against the wall behind Ran. "I thought at first there was something wrong if I imagined him doing...things...with me. That's why I asked you, earlier. If you have the same daydreams, then it can't be so strange, can it?"
"How do you picture it?" Her voice sank into a deeper register even as she lifted her gaze. "Does he turn to you late one night while walking you home after a movie? You see in his eyes the moment he makes the decision. He surrounds you, leaving no chance to escape." She raised her other arm, caging Ran against the wall.
"But I don't want to escape," she returned, caught up in the fantasy the other painted. She could envision him standing over her, clothes rumpled after a day of activity, the scent of popcorn clinging to them both from the theater. He leaned in to brush his lips against her throat, her cheek, and finally meeting her in a kiss that started slowly and intensified little by little until the heat of it amazed her.
He drew away, but only so he could kiss her elsewhere. As his mouth tracked a path to nip at her ear, he caressed her with his right hand, a feathery contact that left her burning with something far removed from embarrassment. She wrapped her arms around his neck and held him tightly. "Shinichi..."
He chuckled wryly. "Hey, Ran-chan. Don't be calling out Kudou's name in passion when you're supposed to be Heiji."
"Ah!" She buried her face against Kazuha's shoulder. "Sorry," came her muffled response.
"That's okay." A steady hand stroked her newly cleaned hair. "If I can make Heiji sound like *that*, I think I'll be ahead of the game, no matter what words tumble out."
"There's no 'if' about it. I'm sure you can. Still, I'll try to stick to your name from now on." She didn't want to move. It felt too good to have another person so close. She had always enjoyed touching, whether it was joining hands, a hug in a time of need, or even carrying Conan around. As long as she was in contact with someone, she couldn't be left alone. "Mmm. You're nice to hold."
"So what else do you like?" The other girl tucked a wayward lock of hair behind her ear. "You haven't told me your fantasy yet."
"Well..." She considered briefly. She had come up with a number of scenarios involving Shinichi's return, most of them beginning with creaming him for being such a pain. There was one, however, in which he took the romantic lead, forestalling any retribution before she could dish it out. "It may sound silly, but how about Sleeping Beauty?"
"Ooh, that's a good idea. But I'll bet we have to get you lying down for this one."
Reluctantly, Ran pulled away. It was only a couple of steps to the bed, yet it seemed a long, lonely path. "I've gone to Shinichi's house to give it a cleaning. It gets awfully dusty with no one there," she explained, detailing the scene. She sometimes pictured it taking place at her own house, but it was too embarrassing in such a familiar setting, as if her father might appear at any moment.
"By the time I finish, it's grown late, and a storm has come up. I decide to stay the night instead of battling the rain." She curled up on the bed, not quite daring to say aloud that she imagined it to be his, and closed her eyes. "I fall asleep, not realizing that Shinichi has solved his secret case at last. He comes home, tired yet triumphant." A blush crept up on her as he made his entry, unaware of her presence, stripping off layers of clothing drenched by the storm. Her "sleeping" self was peacefully oblivious, but as the narrator she couldn't help observing in detail.
She charged ahead to cover her distraction. "He walks into the room and sees me there. He's surprised at first, but inside he's pleased that I'm so near. He's in the mood to celebrate his success, so he wants to wake me to relay the news and to let me know that he's never going away like that again..." She allowed her story to trail off. It was clear what was supposed to follow.
After a thoughtful silence, her companion gently traced a line down from her temple. "You've waited so long. You haven't given up. I wish I could have been by your side during the times when you were afraid, or lonely, or sad...when you needed someone the most. But I'm here now." The voice quieted, became a mere whisper against the skin of her cheek. "No matter what happens, I'll be here for you always."
The anticipated kiss began, purposefully enticing her back from a world of dreams to solid reality. Illusion had its place, yet it could only provide a temporary solution. Right there, at that moment, firm hands and warm lips communicated to her an honest truth that made flights of fancy insignificant by comparison. She had someone who cared about her, who wanted to please her and share experiences with her and above all *be* with her.
"Wake up, Ran."
She opened her eyes and smiled at the intimacy of those simple words. "Do that again?" she said, her tone a combination of offer, request, and challenge. She pushed aside one edge of her yukata to bare her shoulder. "Here."
Kazuha needed no further urging. She tended to the indicated area with evident relish, glancing up with pride in her gaze when the sensations elicited continued encouragement. She ventured further on her own initiative, bringing welcome heat wherever she touched.
It took very little effort for Ran to pull the other girl entirely onto the bed with her, the better to return the proffered affection. She hooked her leg over Kazuha's thigh and slid her arms around the trim waist, reacquainting her hands with the back she had helped wash. The trail of kisses from her shoulder to neck felt so good, she didn't protest when it proceeded downward, her yukata opening to allow greater access.
The weight of the other on top of her combined with the fire spreading deep within forced her breath into shallow gasps. If she could, she would have stopped breathing entirely so that she could hang suspended in an unchanging moment of molten delight. As it was, the craving expressed itself as a longing whimper with each brief, sharp exhalation.
Her mind floating in the burning haze of her body's responses, she didn't notice immediately how far the other's explorations had gone. The feeling of Kazuha's tongue teasing her left nipple lured her awareness to the fingers coaxing new reactions from the sensitive skin of her breasts. "What--" she struggled to bring herself back to coherent speech. "What are you doing that for?"
Her friend looked up at the question, pausing in her actions but not drawing away. "I can stop if you don't like it."
"No, I mean..." She hadn't intended to imply that she found it unpleasant, merely confusing. "Why would you want to? I could understand if you were a boy, but you have them yourself. There's no--there's no mystery for you."
Kazuha chuckled, then leaned forward and gave her a playful kiss on the lips. "I have a mouth, too. Does that mean I can't have fun with someone else's?"
The elevated staccato of Ran's heartbeat insistently demanded more of the interrupted caresses, yet she was reluctant to ask for such a selfish reason. If she could uncover the source of Kazuha's enjoyment, she could better reciprocate the favor. "You're really having fun?"
"Of course!" The Osaka girl nuzzled the hollow at the base of her neck, breath tickling when she spoke. "Do you know how exciting it is to feel you shiver in response to contact with me? To hear the fever in your voice, knowing that I'm the one causing it?"
She had never thought about it that way. She had been so focused on her intense desire to receive attention to compensate for the loneliness of being taken for granted and left behind, it hadn't occurred to her that it could be equally as fulfilling to be the one giving attention after holding back for so long out of fear of rejection.
"To be honest," the other continued on a more hesitant note, "I'm kind of guilty. This was your idea, and yet I'm the one getting all the practice. It doesn't seem quite fair. I shouldn't be so self-centered."
"Kazuha-chan..." She giggled at the utter contradiction to her own sentiments of a few moments before and gave her friend a reassuring squeeze. "I'll tell you what. You do whatever you want, without feeling guilty." Her fingers danced lightly down Kazuha's spine. "We'll just have to practice more later to try anything that we miss. Deal?"
The proud look in her companion's eyes answered even before she spoke. "Deal!" She sealed the bargain with a kiss that set Ran's imagination ablaze with the hidden possibilities that "anything" might encompass.
It wasn't what the convention weekend had intended, but she had finally found the perfect mystery.