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A Curse Marked Fate

24: Spark

Shinichi knew that Haibara was right when she said that it would be both better and easier to deal with the Choice Foundation soon before they sank their claws into too many people and grew too powerful, but he had to admit too that even he was stumped as to where they could even begin. Should they try to investigate the cases in the news that Haibara had pointed out to them? But how could they get themselves involved in those cases without raising red flags for their adversaries? And what exactly would they need to find anyway?

With more and more worried questions beginning to chase each other around and around in his head whenever he closed his eyes, Shinichi felt like a hamster on a wheel, running at top speed but never getting anywhere.

And there were other issues on his mind too. Ones much closer to home.

Ran was acting strangely. He had caught her watching him with a pensive frown whenever she thought he wasn't looking. He had caught her watching Kaito with very nearly the same expression. She had also developed a tendency to ask him a slew of detailed questions every time he returned from going somewhere with Kaito. If she had been anyone else, he would have called those questioning sessions interrogations, but it was Ran. She had always mothered him, and he supposed that her urge to do so had just been kicked into overdrive by his sudden regression back into childhood. Still, there was a look in her eyes when she asked those questions that Shinichi had never seen before and couldn't identify. Like she was trying to understand something or make up her mind about something. Only whatever it was, it always seemed to leave her looking a little sad.

He didn't get it, and that was just as strange as everything else. Ran was not a very complicated person, and Shinichi had never had trouble reading her before.

"Is it possible she doesn't like how much time you're spending with me?" Kaito wondered when he brought the topic up. Kaito had come to pick him up in the morning, bringing breakfast. They would be going to Clover Institute later that day for the project presentations that Kaito had told him about before. Ran hadn't been there, having left for her karate training camp two days ago.

"If that were the case, she would have said something by now," Shinichi replied, accepting a helmet from Kaito and putting it on. "Besides, why should that bother her?"

Kaito swung his leg over his Sky Cycle then helped Shinichi up behind him. "Well, she is rather protective of you. Maybe she's worried I'll lose you somewhere. Or she might not trust my driving skills. Really, there's any number of reasons she might be worried."

Shinichi frowned, giving the suggestion some serious thought. "But she told me that she thought you were trustworthy."

That got a laugh from Kaito. "Splendid. I don't hear that very often, believe it or not. Aoko always thinks I'm up to no good, and that blond prick she's started dating is even worse. He was ranting at me all last Wednesday about legal actions and whatnot. It was pretty ridiculous."

"Wasn't that right after you enchanted all his shoes to run away from him so he had to spend all of Tuesday night chasing them down?"

"It was, but he got all his shoes back in the end—and all in good condition too, so it's not like he lost anything."

"Except a whole night of sleep," Shinichi said dryly. Feeling the Sky Cycle's engine humming to life beneath them, he quickly wrapped his arms around Kaito's waist, pressing the side of his face against the magician's warm, strong back. He closed his eyes almost without thinking, pressing his nose against the fabric of Kaito's jacket and inhaling a scent like wood smoke and fresh cut cloves. This was someone who would never let him fall. The thought flittered across his mind like a silver wind twisting through a clear night sky.

With a whir and a hum, the Sky Cycle peeled away from the curb and started down the road away from the Mouri Detective Agency. It all but flew with a grace that made it feel more like it was flying than rolling across the ground, which, of course, was the point.

The journey to Clover Institute was a somewhat lengthy if enjoyable one. They stopped by a little coffee shop on the way that turned out to have some of the best coffee Shinichi had ever tasted and cheesecakes in flavors ranging from guava to pumpkin. Kaito ended up purchasing two boxed cheesecake assortments.

"I'm not going to eat them all," he said, laughing at the expression on Shinichi's face. "We'll share them with everyone at the Institute."

Then they were off again.

They reached Clover Institute just as the grand old clock tower in the nearby Ekoda Park struck ten. The presentations, Kaito explained, wouldn't begin until two that afternoon, so they had plenty of time to explore and have lunch before they would have to make their way to the main lecture hall.

"We should plan to arrive early if we want good seats."

"What did you want to do until then?" Shinichi asked as Kaito eased his Sky Cycle into a parking space and turned off the engine.

"Well, first we should get these cheesecakes to the lounge refrigerators. We always have a sort of potluck in the lounge after the presentations are over. Then, if you're interested, I thought I'd show you some of the things I've been working on."

Shinichi brightened. "I'd like that."

Kaito beamed. "Great. We can find somewhere to have lunch after that. Then we could walk around a bit, check out the shops near here or visit the park, depending on how much time we have, and return for the presentations."

He lifted the two large, cardboard boxes of assorted cheesecakes and led Shinichi into the magnificent Institute building.

"Oh, hey Kaito," the woman seated at the lobby's front desk greeted them as they came in. Then she spotted Shinichi and her eyebrows shot up. "Oh! I didn't know you had a little brother. He's adorable," she cooed, making Shinichi blush bright red.

Laughing heartily at his friend's embarrassment, Kaito nudged him forward. "Sorry to disappoint you Aya, but Conan here isn't my brother. I met him at that expo we had a few weeks ago. He was there with his guardian, that detective Mouri Kogoro, and he said he'd like to learn more about the Institute. So I invited him to come see our presentations."

"Wait, Mouri Kogoro?" the girl gasped, leaning forward over her desk with an all new flare of eager interest. "That's the detective with the nullification Curse Mark, right? You actually met him? What's he like? Is it true that no magic works on him? I heard magic doesn't work around him either. Is that true?"

Kaito grinned at her obvious enthusiasm. "It's true that you can't use magic on him, and magic sometimes doesn't work around him, but it's not quite that straight forward. Some things don't stop working, they just start working in different ways."

"That's fascinating," Aya breathed, and she most definitely meant every word. "Ah, you're so lucky you got to meet him! How far does his nullification effect reach? Do you know?"

"No, I'm sorry I don't know. Really, Aya, I only had dinner with the man. It's Dad who really got to talk with him about his Curse. You should bring your questions to him."

Aya heaved an exaggerated sigh and sat back in her seat. "I suppose. I think he was planning to talk about what he learned about magic nullification in his presentation today, so I can be patient. It's just, you know, this is one type of magic we know so little about, and there are so few cases that can be really studied!"

The girl continued to ramble about the need to gather more data as Kaito tugged Shinichi past her and down the hall into a spacious room strewn with tables and plush chairs that had to be the lounge. There was a granite counter running along one wall beside two large refrigerators. The counter itself boasted two big sinks and even an electric stovetop.

There were already several boxes and bags piled all along the counters. And, when Kaito opened the refrigerator door, it was to find that he had to shift several things around before he was able to squeeze his cheesecake boxes inside.

"Whew!" he exclaimed, slamming the fridge door slightly harder than was strictly necessary. "Now that that's done, let's go to my office."

"You have your own office?" Shinichi blurted out. He hadn't expected that. Kaito was, after all, still just a high school student. Clover Institute was a center for research that was often integrated into the masters and doctoral programs in Tokyo's universities and colleges.

"I do. I've been tinkering with my own spells since I was nine, and I'm here a lot anyway. Besides, Dad owns the building, and he says he'd rather I make my mistakes here where we have damage control magic built into every wall than back home where I might blow off the roof one day."

"That's…sensible of him, I guess."

"Yep. It's a good thing too. My first project blew a hole through my office wall. If I'd been at home, the whole house would probably have come down."

"That's…uh, fortunate…?" Shinichi hazarded. "What exactly did you want to show me?"

Kaito snickered. "Nothing that volatile. Promise."

Kaito's office turned out to be a small room on the top floor of the building that made up for its lack of space by having a spectacular view. Shinichi didn't notice that view for quite some time however as he was transfixed by the mess of books, models, raw materials, odd little gadgets and contraptions that all but filled the room. It was a moment before he realized that there was a method to the madness, it just looked like pure chaos because there was just so much of, well, everything.

"You do experimental magic in here?" he asked incredulously. Even children who had yet to begin their magical studies knew that magic required precision and concentration. In the case of experimental magic, every part of the environment had to be controlled because you never knew what might contaminate or destabilize the already uncertain forces being molded. Trying anything of the sort in the mist of this mayhem? Well, it was no wonder he'd blown out a wall or two.

Kaito guffawed. "No, no, though I won't say I didn't make that mistake once. Dad made me repair the windows myself. I just do the research and planning in here. And, if there are physical components that need to be put together first, I can work on those in here too since it would mostly be handicrafts and simple spells like the ones your friends probably got tested on in their last exam. For the really big magic, I work in here."

He picked his way across the cluttered floor with an ease and speed that spoke of great familiarity and opened a door that Shinichi had not hitherto seen. Beyond it was a second room. It was small like the first and perfectly square, with polished, wood floors and large windows in two walls. A corner room then.

Lying on the floor in the middle of the room was what appeared to be a pair of hula-hoops, one silver, one blue.

"This is what I wanted to show you," Kaito said, shutting the door so that the two of them were now alone with the pair of hula-hoops. Shinichi hoped Kaito wasn't going to ask him to try and twirl those things. He'd never understood the mechanics behind hula-hooping, and he had no desire to embarrass himself in front of his new—old?—friend.

Kaito snapped his fingers, summoning both hoops up off the floor and into his hands. Then he grinned, holding them out one to either side as he declared, "These are the culmination of loads of work and research. I call them teleportation rings."

Shinichi looked quizzically from one hoop to the other. "What do they teleport?"

"Theoretically, people."

Shinichi blinked. "Theoretically?"

"Well~, there are a few kinks in the spell work that I still need to fix before I'd risk letting anything alive walk through them, but they do work. Watch."

The Sky Mage set the silver hoop down flat on the floor by the door then placed the blue hoop down on the other side of the room. Then he produced a ball of red clay from nowhere with a flick of his wrist.

"I recommend staying away from the rings," he said, moving to stand over the silver hoop. "Actually, go stand in that corner there."

Shinichi did as he was told. Kaito waited until he was sure that the younger boy was in position then made a complicated gesture in the air above the silver hoop. The space inside it immediately began to glow. The light shimmered, making it look as though the hoop encircled a shallow pool of water beneath which the ground wavered and danced. A similar phenomenon was occurring in the blue hoop. Apparently satisfied that his devices were ready, Kaito dropped the ball of red clay.

It fell straight down into the center of the silver ring. Just as it should have been going splat on the workroom floor, it vanished. Shinichi's head swiveled quickly towards the blue ring. Sure enough, the ball of red clay had appeared there—although appeared turned out to be too tame a word. The ball of clay catapulted out of the heart of the blue hoop, soared straight up like a cork from a shaken bottle, and hit the ceiling with a loud, squishy thump. And there it stuck, plastered across two feet of the ceiling.

Shinichi stared in horrified amazement at the clay spread out across that stretch of the ceiling then turned slowly to look at Kaito, who was studying the results of his work with a critical eye.

"Would that happen to a human going through the hoop?" Shinichi asked.

Kaito coughed lightly into his hand. "Er, well, no. It would be worse. More mass, you see. If that had been a person, we'd probably be cleaning bits of him off everything before the police came to cart us off for manslaughter."

"I thought Sky Mages could move things using conjuring spells relatively easily," Shinichi said, trying to remember everything he had read about the subject. He had looked it up after Kaito had given him that rose back when they'd been kids. "I read that you just had to have an object marked with the right spell and know where it currently is."

Kaito grinned approvingly. "I see you've done your homework. You're basically right, and yes, I did base these on the principles of conjuring."

"But I've never heard of a conjured baseball braining someone on arrival."

"Nor have I," Kaito replied, "But, with the usual conjuring spells, the mage is, shall we say, very hands on throughout the process. These rings are a tool that are supposed to replace the spell. It's more difficult because, well… I guess it's a little like the difference between picking something up with your hand and picking something up with a mechanical grappling tool. The first is easy and natural, and you have full control over everything. The latter is rather less easy, and it's just not possible for you to ever be as in tune with the machine as you are with your own fingers. And then there's the mass issue. Conjuring spells can only move objects up to a certain mass and distance. Even the most powerful known conjuring spells can't move a grown human. I also want these to be useable by people like you. That adds another layer of complexity. But I'm getting there," he added as an after thought. "It's just a matter of time."

Well, Shinichi mused, looking up again at the clay plastered to the ceiling, if anyone could do it, it would be Kaito. "You may want to be careful though. I can see your teleportation rings being unfortunately popular with thieves."

The magician looked from one hoop to the other then laughed. "You have a point. Actually, that might solve a lot of my problems," he continued, tone growing thoughtful. "If I redesign them to be fixed inside travel stations like airports, I may be able to fix some of the problems I've been having…"

He trailed off, indigo gaze focused on some point in the distance that only he could see as he turned the idea over in his head. Then, with an abruptness that made Shinichi jump, he pivoted on one heel and charged back into the other room. When he didn't immediately return, Shinichi made his way to the open door and peered through it to find Kaito at his office desk, scribbling madly away in an open notebook. The sight made Shinichi smile. Kaito's passion for the arcane arts had been clear even when he'd been little, and it had only grown with the years. It was a comfort, in a way, to see that some childhood dreams really could withstand the test of time.

Scrawling a last note, Kaito dropped his pen and spun around in his seat to grin at Shinichi. "I have a few more projects for you to look at. We'll grab some lunch after that. Sound good?"

When Shinichi nodded, Kaito hopped up and levitated a large chest out from the midst of a series of boxes of varying sizes. He directed the chest into the adjoining room. The mage and the detective followed suit, and the workroom door shut behind them.