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On the Other Side of the World

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                The whole reason Eiji was sent to Antarctica in the first place was to collect data for the Kougami Foundation's research into creating new Core Medals. He agreed because if they could recreate the process behind creating them in the first place, they'd inevitably stumble onto the secret to repairing Ankh's Medal and reviving him. In theory, this was a good first step, and he would be compiling vital data on all sorts of marine life and especially birds that could give them the answers they needed.

                In practice, however, Eiji got the overall sense that he was just being shuffled away somewhere to avoid bothering the real scientists. Instead of going out and taking samples and recording information for the Medals, he was mostly just lifting boxes and moving things around inside and out, and doing various housekeeping jobs around the base. He didn't complain, though. He knew he was just an extra body in the government's Antarctic base, a liability insisted upon by the president of a large company that had donated generous sums of money to further their research. The researchers would be happier if he weren't there, but for now, they could tolerate him so long as he didn't touch anything important.

                It wasn't all bad, he told himself. Since almost nobody took him seriously, it gave him plenty of opportunities to set up video chats with Hina, who was in France on apprenticeship. She didn't know the language well and couldn't speak to anyone, so she definitely needed the cheering up.

                This time, he was outside, in the middle of a clear night, but ice crystals rained down on him. For maximum effect, he had transformed as TaJaDor, and the light construct of his tail feathers glittered through the ice, scattering tiny rainbows all around.

                "It's called diamond dust," he explained.

                "I can see why," she admitted, grinning. "But are you sure you should be using a combo for that? What happens if you pass out?"

                He shook his head. "I'll be okay if I'm not fighting. Besides, it's not like I'd need to do much more than sleep it off, right?"

                "Okay," she sighed, "but be careful not to stay transformed too long."

                "I won't," he promised before looking up at the sky. "It's beautiful down here. I wish you were here to see it."

                "It's a little cold for me, I think," she said with a laugh. "And I don't have fire powers to keep me warm."

                He laughed in response. "I guess."

                The lights from the base and from his feathers were making it harder to see the stars than if it were completely dark, but it wasn't enough that he didn't pick up a shadow against the starlight. Hina noticed the sudden change in his body language and asked, "What's wrong?"

                "Something's flying around up there—a bird, I think," he answered, focusing TaJaDor's keen eyes on the shadow. He could definitely pick up the large wingspan of a petrel or a skua, but he wasn't sure if they were supposed to be this far inland at this time of year.

                All at once, he realized it was heading to the nearby emperor penguin rookery, and before he had time to think about it, he spread his wings and took off.

                He caught up to the bird quickly, but it seemed to have taken him for a predator and spat a noxious oil at him. Eiji stopped in midair, trying to keep out of range, but the oil had disrupted a penguin father, causing him to drop his chick. It proved just the moment the petrel needed, and it dove, scooping up the helpless chick.

                "Stop!" Eiji cried, even though deep down, he knew the bird couldn't listen to him. But desperation was bubbling inside him, and he could only scream, "Put him down!"

                And then the petrel stopped and seemed to make eye contact with him. And it dropped the chick.

                Whatever confusion Eiji had turned to terror as he watched the chick fall, so he hurriedly manifested his tail feathers, trying to gently break the chick's fall until he could catch it. The chick was alive, but shivering, making distressed trills until Eiji held it close to his chest, warming it up again.

                The petrel flew off, apparently forgetting all about them. Below, the penguin colony was huddling together, and he could no longer tell which one had been the father.

                "Eiji?" He'd forgotten all about Hina. "What happened? All I saw was a blur."

                Very suddenly, the consequences of his actions hit him. There had been only one rule he'd had to follow—don't touch anything. If there was any law in Antarctica, that was it: Leave no trace of your impact on this land.

                He might well have had the greatest impact of all, and he was still hovering and glowing several feet over the colony.

                He ended the call, his breath in shallow gasps as he looked down at the little grey fluffball in his arms—a little grey fluffball that was alive and one of the most unique creatures on the planet. Just what had he done?

 

~~~

 

                The next few hours were a blur. Eiji vaguely remembered the researchers coming to search for him when they hadn't heard from him, only to find him hovering above the rookery, too terrified to come down.

                They hadn't been able to shout at him then, but when they finally convinced him to follow them out of the breeding grounds, they'd screamed, especially when they saw what he had in his arms. There were calls back to Japan, arguments between the base staff and the Kougami Foundation, debates whether or not to get his parents involved as well...and the penguin chick was trilling miserably in the middle of it all, starving until someone finally found a can of fish in their supplies and blended it together with some nutrients into a puree, using a syringe to drop it into the penguin's mouth. That settled him down, and he fell asleep in Eiji's arms, full and warm.

                If only Eiji himself could feel so safe and comforted, as he stood in Director Sasaki's office. He'd long ago lost track of the time, and he could feel the chick starting to stir awake again as Sasaki finished up his phone call with the government. He hadn't broken his transformation—he was too mortified to even think of it, which was well enough, considering his body heat was keeping the chick comfortable.

                "I hope you appreciate the full consequences of what you've done," Sasaki said gravely. Eiji didn't trust his voice; he only hung his head as the Director continued, "When the Kougami Foundation sent you, we only agreed to keep you so long as you kept out of the way and didn't violate any of the treaties. Now, you've done just that, and we have to figure out what to do with you."

                Eiji couldn't bring himself to look at Sasaki. It wasn't as if he hadn't considered the full weight of his mistakes; rather, the criticism only kept that weight on top of him.

                "The next ship isn't due to arrive at the coast until the end of summer," Sasaki explained. "However, the Russians have an airstrip. I've contacted them to see if they are willing to take you in until Japan can send a plane for you."

                Eiji still didn't try to speak, instead glancing down at the chick as it woke and began chirping for more food.

                "As it stands, we have this to consider," Sasaki added. "We're putting together an incubator for him, but we will need more food and supplies for him—unless we can get non-breeding penguins to adopt him, or locate his parents, which I highly doubt."

                Now, Eiji flinched, letting out the first words he'd said since the incident: "I'm sorry."

                "That doesn't even begin to cover it," Sasaki warned. "Your actions put this entire mission at risk, and if it were up to me, I'd ship you right back to Japan where you can't cause any further damage." Eiji didn't lift his head, squeezing his eyes tightly shut behind his mask. "However, given that's not an option at this moment, I'm forced to do whatever I can. You'll be allowed to help care for the penguin, given he's your responsibility in the first place; but your movements throughout the base will be heavily monitored. Don't even think about stepping foot outside, until we send you elsewhere. Then whatever station takes you will figure out what to do from there. Is that understood?"

                He nodded gently. "Yes, sir."

                "Good," Sasaki replied. "Head to the lab—Dr. Takeda will take charge of the penguin from there." Eiji nodded again, as Sasaki waved a dismissive hand. "And do...whatever it is you do to change back. There's no reason for you to remain wearing that."

                Hesitantly, Eiji reached down to the belt and deactivated it, trying to be careful not to jostle the penguin. All at once, the power rushed out of him, and very suddenly, his visual field seemed to narrow. A dark tunnel overtook his vision, and he faintly felt himself falling as Sasaki began to shout at him again...

 

 

~~~

 

                He learned later that Director Sasaki hadn't been yelling at him; rather, yelling for him as he lost consciousness, while at the same time calling for a medic. Not that Eiji could recall it much anyway—the exhaustion that overpowered him was worse than it had ever been, and he'd been told his blood pressure had taken a serious dive. He'd been lucky it wasn't more serious and that he hadn't been hurt, much less that he hadn't hurt the penguin. Still, he spent the better part of the next day asleep, only waking when he heard his phone ring.

                As much as he wanted to just ignore it and go back to sleep, he knew he would worry Hina if he let it go any longer. So he tried to ignore the ache in his arm as he reached up for his phone and brought it down to answer.

                Hina stared at him in obvious concern, but he somehow found the energy to smile as he admitted, "You don't have to say it. I overdid it, staying in a combo that long."

                "What happened?" she asked. "The last thing I saw, you were flying after something and shouting. Then you hung up."

                Her question was too direct, and he didn't have the energy left to lie. Sighing, he admitted, "I messed up."

                "How?" she asked.

                "There was a bird—a petrel, I think. I must have led it over with all that light. I led it right to the penguin colony."

                "Is everyone okay?" she checked.

                "They're all alive," he said. "But it picked up a chick. Then I got it to drop it, and now..."

                Hina stared at him, barely understanding his explanation. And truth be told, he didn't understand it much either. There was no reason for the petrel to drop its prey—it was as if Eiji's will had overcome its own.

                The implications were scary, and he forced himself not to think about it, instead explaining, "The penguin chick's staying here for now. He's in the lab."

                "Are you both okay?" she asked.

                He nodded. "He's not hurt, but I..."

                "But you fainted," she guessed.

                He nodded again. "Director Sasaki told me to change back. As soon as I did, I fell. I don't remember much, but the next thing I knew, the base doctor was looking me over in the infirmary. I'm supposed to be on bed rest for a couple of days."

                "That's probably a good thing," she admitted. "You don't look good." He shook his head. "How are you, otherwise? Nobody was mad, were they?" He closed his eyes, nodding once more. "But why? They know it was an accident, right?"

                "I made a huge mistake. I wasn't supposed to go near the rookery—even if the petrel was going after them, I should have just let it happen. Now, if anything else happens to the penguins there, if they abandon their chicks, or if more predators come...it's my fault."

                There was an expression of pure compassion on her face as she insisted, "Eiji, I know you. There's no way you would have let anything happen to an innocent creature if you had the means to stop it."

                "I should have stayed away," he whispered. "Or stayed inside—they won't let me out anymore. I'm under house arrest."

                "Because you saved a penguin?" she asked in disbelief.

                He could feel tears coming to his eyes, and he wiped them into his blankets. "They're going to send me home."

                She went silent for a minute, letting him try to collect himself again. When he had, she said, "I thought you said everything was okay there."

                He gave her a half-smile. "It's nothing that bad, just...I can't seem to connect with anyone. Everyone just wants me to stay out of the way, and as long as I do that, they're not bothered and mostly ignore me. But the second I do something that gets me noticed..."

                "They're using this to send you home?" she guessed. He shrugged. "Maybe you shouldn't be there, if it's so bad."

                "It's not..." he protested.

                "You're miserable," she insisted. When he didn't argue, she admitted, "You know, I really wish Ankh was here. He usually got through to you better."

                Eiji shook his head, his smile sad and nostalgic. "He'd have yelled at me the whole time for dragging him to a cold and barren desert."

                Hina couldn't help but laugh. "He would."

                "And maybe he'd have kept me from getting into this mess in the first place," he sighed, shifting under the blankets as he fought another wave of emotion. He missed Ankh all the time, and Hina was the only person he could really talk to about him. Being on opposite ends of the earth made it harder.

                "Are you okay?" she asked again.

                "Just tired," he admitted, and it wasn't entirely a lie.

                "Do you want me to call back later, then?" she asked.

                "Sorry," he said, smiling a bit. "I'll call you when I'm more awake, okay?"

                "Okay," she agreed.

                "If I can get into the lab, I promise I'll take some pictures of the penguin for you."
                "That would be nice," she admitted. "But feel better."

                "Thanks." He nodded and hung up, but he didn't bother to reach up again to put the phone away. Instead, he reached in his pocket and removed Ankh's broken Medal. He felt tears stinging his eyes, but he buried his face into his pillow and fell back to sleep, still holding tight to his connections to the two people he missed the most in the world.

 

~~~

 

                After about forty-eight hours of strict bed rest, Eiji hesitantly went into the lab to check on the penguin. He felt everyone's eyes on him as soon as he walked in, but for the most part, they started to ignore him and went back to work. It was a terrible feeling, like suddenly being lost on the ice, but he made his way over to the researcher nearest the chick and asked, "Is it okay if I help feed him?"

                The researcher filled up a syringe of pureed fish and showed him how to coax the chick to put his head straight back so Eiji could release the food into his mouth. The whole time, Eiji was gently rubbing at the chick's neck, to the point the researcher warned, "Stop. You're making it harder for him to swallow."

                "Oh," he answered, immediately stopping. "Sorry."

                The researcher took over, and Eiji watched the way he held the penguin's head to entice him to eat. Finally, he asked, "Can I try again?" but the researcher set the syringe aside.

                "He's had enough for right now. Too much won't be good for him."

                "Oh," Eiji answered again. "Yeah, that...that makes sense."

                "You can weigh him, though," he said. "The notes are next to the scale."

                "Okay," he replied, trying not to feel disappointed at being given a job so simple he couldn't possibly screw it up.

                The penguin had started to fall asleep after eating, and he wasn't happy that Eiji had woken him up. He bit at Eiji's fingers a couple of times, drawing blood once, but Eiji managed to get him on the scale, taking a minute to change his gloves. The last thing he needed to explain was how he managed to get hurt doing something this easy.

                The penguin was crying out a series of distressed chirps, and Eiji hurried to write down the information before taking him out of the scale and holding him close, gently stroking him. The trills slowed down until he finally fell back to sleep, at which point Eiji put him back in his incubator and turned around...

                ...To find himself face-to-face with Kougami on virtually every computer monitor in the room.

                Eiji would have time later to be embarrassed about screaming in shock, but as it happened, the few researchers there filed out of the lab, resigned to not get anything else done as long as Kougami had control of their computers. Given that this base was owned by the Japanese government and not the Foundation, it was a little worrying he had this much access, not to mention how well everyone took it.

                "Hino Eiji, long time no see!" he greeted. "How go things on the other side of the world?"

                Eiji didn't trust himself to answer; if he did, he was sure it would only end in an even more embarrassing squeak. He managed to nod, but Kougami seemed to take it as answer enough.

                "Very good," he replied. "I've heard some of the reports coming from you—violating Antarctic treaty, illegally interfering with the local wildlife."

                Now, time for the shame to set in. Eiji nodded again, mumbling, "Yes, sir. I'm sorry."

                "Ha!" Kougami replied. "There's no harm in protecting a near-threatened species. Besides that, you're pursuing what you want!"

                That wasn't the response Eiji expected, although in retrospect, he shouldn't have been nearly so surprised. But he was so caught up in his mistakes that he could only stammer, "Wait. I thought..."

                "You thought I would call you back to Japan and try to cover up the mistake?" Kougami guessed. "Understandable, given your history. But I believe you should have the opportunity to make up for it—make no mistake, you did break the law." Here, Eiji held his head low, his face burning. "But, considering that no one and nothing was harmed, and the only result was the survival of a penguin chick that otherwise would have died, then the government has decided it's something that can be forgiven. Provided, of course, that there are no more incidents involving you."

                Eiji sat in the nearest chair, overwhelmed by disbelief. Apparently, it wasn't the response Kougami had expected, since he asked, "Is there something wrong?"

                "No," Eiji insisted. "I..."

                "There is, of course, the possibility that you wanted to come back," Kougami pointed out. When Eiji looked at him in shock, he replied, "Your reports may be informative, but they lack the typical detail you usually put into them. Furthermore, I've heard concerns that you're having a hard time fitting in. Your friends have been worried about you."

                Eiji lowered his head; he didn't have the heart to deny it.

                "Antarctica is a cold and isolated place," Kougami sympathized. "It's difficult, especially, if you yourself feel cold and isolated. But Hino, you have always been fortunate enough to win over people and gain their friendship quickly. When you haven't, you've at least felt the freedom to argue with them, and in the process, gained much closer bonds, as you did with Ankh.

                "But the world is not always going to be so easy," he continued. "In your travels and in your research, you will find many such challenges as these. Not everyone will want to be your friend. In these instances, you must ask yourself—whatever you want out of this, is it enough to outweigh what you're going through?"

                Eiji didn't answer. When Kougami realized that he wouldn't, he signed off, leaving Eiji in the lab, alone with his thoughts, and the peeps of a baby penguin that had been rudely woken up again ten minutes ago and needed some comforting. Almost automatically, Eiji turned back to the incubator and took him out, stroking him until he calmed down.

                But just which one of them needed the comfort more, he wasn't sure.

 

~~~

 

                Loneliness wasn't an emotion Eiji was used to, but the longer he was there, the more he had to confront it.

                The penguin chick was on the counter in front of him, ready for his next feeding. Eiji tried not to play with him as he filled up the syringe and coaxed his beak open, slowly letting the puree drop into his mouth. It was messy work, and despite his best efforts, the chick had puree all over his face. As soon as he realized Eiji was done, he started trilling at him for more.

                "Hey, that's all I'm allowed to give you for right now," Eiji said, taking a cloth so he could wipe the chick's face. "If you weren't such a messy eater, maybe you wouldn't end up so hungry."

                Once the penguin was clean, Eiji wrapped the cloth around him and held him close, letting his body heat help warm him up and soothe him to sleep. As the chick started to settle down, Eiji reached into his pocket for his phone, knowing Hina would call soon.

                It wasn't the only thing he pulled out; his fingers had brushed against one of the halves of Ankh's broken Medal, and he felt obligated to hold onto it. The penguin, seeming to think it was more food, peeped a few times, trying to get his attention.

                "It's not food," Eiji laughed. "That's Ankh. He's a bird too, kind of like you."

                The Medal halves were close enough that the chick pecked at them.

                "Careful!" Eiji warned, curling his fingers around them again. "That's really important—I need it, if I'm going to bring him back."

                The chick, of course, didn't understand. But he did like when Eiji stroked underneath his beak and up and down his belly. He let out several trills that sounded like laughs, and Eiji smiled.

                "Ankh would know a lot better how to take care of you, I think," he admitted.  "I can only guess. And even then, if he were here..."

                While he didn't think Ankh would have just let the penguin chick die, he would have argued with Eiji and told him to keep out of it. He'd have done something to try to avoid the whole situation, even if Eiji was being his usual, stubborn self and getting involved where he shouldn't.

                Even so, if Ankh were here, there'd be no reason for Eiji to be there in the first place. And maybe that meant the penguin chick wouldn't be there now either.

                He brought his finger up to the chick's head and gently stroked it with his fingernail as he tried to cope with the dull ache inside him. It was something he'd been feeling more lately, whenever he thought about Ankh. It was caught up in all of his conflicted feelings about being there—the feeling that he wasn't doing much either here or in the long run.

                The notification came up for his and Hina's video chat, and it was a welcome break from his gloominess.

                "And that's Hina," he said. "I promised her I'd let her see you."

                He answered the call and gently waved the chick's flipper "hello" at her. She giggled back and answered, "You look better than the last time I talked to you."

                "Yeah," Eiji half-lied, trying to keep her from worrying. "I figured out how to keep him warm and comfortable right after eating. It took a little while, though."

                "What about you?" she asked. "I heard that Mr. Kougami talked to you."

                "It wasn't that bad," he insisted, trying to sound convincing. "He just wanted to check up on me, since he heard how everyone was worried. But I'm fine."

                As always, Hina didn't look completely convinced; she knew him too well to accept him at face value. So she asked, "Did he say you'd be coming home?"

                Eiji took a breath and shook his head. "No, I can stay here. But he gave me some stuff to think about, that's all."

                "Like what?" she pressed.

                He glanced down at the Medal in his hand, admitting, "Just...whether or not I'm doing this to try to prove I'm willing to take whatever comes to bring Ankh back, or if I'm just being stubborn when it's really not going to make a difference anyway."

                The thought distracted him enough that he didn't notice the penguin reaching down toward his hand until he felt a hard bite.

                "Ow!" he cried, yanking his hand free, looking in disbelief at the cut left behind.

                "What happened?" Hina asked.

                "He bit me—second time now," he answered, as the chick started peeping loudly again. "All right, I'm going to have to make a note of feeding him a little more—I don't know if he's having a growth spurt or something, but what I just gave him definitely isn't enough."

                "He's a demanding little prince," she joked as Eiji filled up another syringe with the pureed fish.

                "Well, he is an emperor, technically," he answered, releasing the food a little at a time. "An emperor penguin."

                "Maybe that's an idea for a name," she suggested. "An emperor."

                "I don't know if he looks like an Akihito,  or a Showa," he said, frowning. "Maybe Taisho, though."

                "Well, there's also Western emperors," she added. "Like Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte."

                Something about the last name caught his interest, and he repeated, "Bonaparte?"

                "It's kind of cute," she admitted.

                Eiji looked at the penguin. The newly dubbed Bonaparte was much calmer after his second feeding, settling into the warmth of Eiji's body.

                "I think he likes it," he admitted as Hina smiled.

 

~~~

 

                It was nearing the end of winter, but the nights still felt unbearably long. Early sunsets sapped Eiji's energy, especially with the confinement, so when he wasn't taking care of Bonaparte, he was often trying not to fall asleep in his room.

                He tried to go over the Core Medal research, but his mind felt too cloudy to absorb any of the information. It was time for some coffee.

                The mess hall was empty. It was never really closed, and Eiji could always find about two or three people other than himself there at any given time, but this time, there was no one. It was strange and unsettling, putting him off finding an evening snack and instead sending him to search for the other researchers.

                They weren't in any of the usual places, but he found the director and another researcher in the lab with Bonaparte. Sasaki turned toward him, and he froze in place, feeling like he'd made yet another mistake somehow.

                "Did you need something?" Sasaki asked.

                "I..." he hesitated, realizing how much of an idiot he sounded, "I didn't know where everyone went, and..."

                "They're watching the aurora," the other researcher answered plainly.

                "The aurora?" he repeated, numb.

                "It's not as commonly seen as the lights in the northern hemisphere," Sasaki explained, "so the others took the opportunity to take pictures."

                "Oh," he replied, that lost feeling settling in again. It wasn't so much that he was stuck inside that was the problem; it was more that he was stuck inside while almost everyone else got to go out and experience something amazing.

                Still, it was part of his punishment, so he sat down at the scale to record Bonaparte's weight after his latest feeding. Sasaki was emptying the last of the syringe into Bonaparte's mouth, and as soon as he swallowed the last bit, he threw his head back, chirping and flapping.

                "Your notes said that you fed him an extra half serving the other day," Sasaki noticed.

                Eiji nodded hesitantly. "I followed everything exactly, but he kept biting me and begging for more."

                "Penguin chicks do bite each other, you know," Sasaki pointed out, and Eiji's face burned bright red. "But we'll consider upping the dosage. He'll need more as he grows, and soon we should be able to start him on small pieces of fish."

                He nodded again as Sasaki handed over Bonaparte. He restrained himself from tickling or petting the chick and simply weighed him and wrote down the notes while beside him, the other researcher was relieved with another, fresh from the cold. He barely heard their conversation—Bonaparte had left a mess all over the scale this time, and he was busy cleaning it up and hurrying him back to his incubator.

                "Hino?"

                He almost jumped, looking over at Sasaki, startled. For a moment, he wondered what mistake he'd made this time, but the director's expression wasn't the critical look he'd gotten to know.

                "Hino," he repeated, "I was asking if you wanted to go out and see the aurora."

                This was the last thing he'd expected, and all he could think to say was, "But the confinement..."

                "I will be out there, along with most of the staff," Sasaki promised. "You'll be out there for a short time, under constant supervision."

                It wasn't a privilege—it was a warning. But it meant seeing something other than the inside of the base. And when he tried to tell himself it was fair, he thought that maybe Hina would like some pictures. So he nodded and followed Sasaki out.

                It was bitterly cold, even through his parka, but the moment he saw the green sky, Eiji forgot all about any discomfort. He hurried to take out his phone, recording video of the shifting colors reaching up past the air. A wild thought suddenly hit him—what would Ankh think, if he could see this?—and he found himself having to wipe his cold-burned eyes.

                When he looked down, he saw a black beak pointing up at him, almost quizzically. The beak belonged to a fully grown emperor penguin, freshly returned from the ocean with her flock, who had somehow managed to surround the base.

                "Hino, back inside," Sasaki warned.

                But Eiji didn't trust himself to move anymore. It was probably for the best; once the penguin decided he was nothing more than a very strange roadblock, she waddled around him. He'd just let himself breathe a sigh of relief when he felt someone pulling him back, away from the flock.

                "Hino," Sasaki called again, this time less urgently. "Get the chick—we'll see if the colony takes him back."

                Eiji nodded mutely, running back inside. There were two researchers in the lab now, and they looked up at him expectantly when he came, panting out, "The Director wants Bonaparte."

                "What?" one of them asked, the other giving him a puzzled look.

                It took Eiji a second to collect himself and catch his breath, realizing that nothing he said made any sense because nobody knew he and Hina had named the penguin chick after the French emperor.

                "The penguin," he tried again. "Director Sasaki wants him out there—the mothers are back from the sea."

                That they understood, and one of them reached into the incubator and took Bonaparte out. Eiji started to reach for him, but she warned, "You'll have to be careful with him out there. If he's exposed to the cold for too long, he'll die."

                Eiji pulled back, hesitant as he took out the OOO Driver.

                "What if..." he started. "I mean, I know this kept him warm the last time."

                "It'll work for now," she replied. "But keep in mind—don't do anything unless the Director tells you to."

                Nodding, he transformed, and she handed him a chirping Bonaparte. After a couple of seconds, he began to quiet down, settling into TaJaDor's warmth. Eiji tried to fight back a sudden burst of sadness as he whispered, "It's going to be okay. We're finding your mom."

                He walked more slowly on his way back out, finding the rest of the team taking pictures a short distance away from the penguins. He attracted stares immediately, but as soon as he saw Sasaki's critical eyes, he insisted, "They told me it was okay, as long I was only doing this to keep him warm."

                Sasaki nodded, if reluctantly. "Walk a little closer, and get low."

                It was a little awkward doing that—the penguins were almost stall enough to reach his chest. Finally, Eiji had to settle for kneeling, holding Bonaparte close to him as he shuffled close to the group, silently praying that they'd see him as nothing more than an odd, red bird.

                Finally, one of the females came up to him. He froze again, with Bonaparte chirping hungrily between them. The adult waited for a bit, examining him while Eiji held his breath, mentally willing her to see him as just another penguin father, with a baby missing his mother.

                She was taking interest in Bonaparte and everything was going just right. So, of course, that was the moment it went wrong; Bonaparte suddenly became terrified and dove from Eiji's hands into his lap, causing him to lurch forward awkwardly as the chick made a safe hiding place for himself between TaJaDor's legs. Eiji could hear the sighs of frustration from the other researchers as he struggled not to bump into the other penguin, gently trying to get Bonaparte out of a very uncomfortable area.

                "Come on," he whispered. "There's nothing to be worried about. They're just like..."

                He stopped short when he suddenly felt a few of the penguins pressing up against him.

                "Hino, get out of there," Sasaki warned.

                "I can't," Eiji warned as the birds closed in around him.

                He was cut off from any escape, more and more penguins forming a huddle with him in the middle. He tried to remain perfectly still, even as he felt Bonaparte squirming underneath him, trying to get out. It was getting warmer, warm enough that he had to deactivate his belt and try to lift up Bonaparte to get some air, but the penguins only moved in closer to fill in the gap left by his smaller mass. He could barely see over the huddle, and the other researchers seemed hopelessly far away. The penguins were just tall enough that he was sinking into the growing, pressing mass of bodies. Bonaparte was trilling wildly while Eiji struggled to keep their heads up. Seeing that he was drowning in penguins, someone held out their tripod over the huddle. Desperately trying to push his way past the crowd, Eiji reached for the tripod and grabbed on tightly as the researchers pulled. After an agonizing few minutes, he reached the edge of the huddle, where he was finally able to crawl free and collapse onto the ice. He was exhausted and overheated, ready to pass out. But Bonaparte was too, and he had to prioritize him.

                "Somebody take him," he pleaded as he handed over Bonaparte, then started frantically trying to remove his parka, over the others' objections.

                Sasaki made his way over, now carrying Bonaparte, covered carefully in a scarf. Eiji looked up at him, ready to apologize when he realized the director said, "Incredible." He didn't even see Eiji; his eyes were on the huddle. "To be welcomed into the huddle like that—how?"

                Unsure if he was supposed to answer, Eiji just said, "I don't know. I guess they thought I was warm?"

                He hoped, anyway. At the back of his mind was the strange, terrifying memory of the petrel. And hadn't he just been hoping that the penguin mothers would just see him as one of their own?

                It was enough for Sasaki, who looked to two others and instructed, "Help him inside." As they hefted Eiji to his feet, Sasaki told him, "I'd like to try that again with some equipment and a tether, but I'll have to get permission. Until then, it'll be the usual."

                Eiji nodded reluctantly, and let them help him stumble inside. He wasn't sure if this was going to be a good change or not—more importantly, he wasn't sure if maybe it would be better for everyone if he left Antarctica after all, before he did anything else to scare himself.

 

~~~

 

                They tried again a couple of weeks later, when Bonaparte was older and strong enough to waddle out on the ice himself for a little bit. Eiji couldn't help but hover over him a bit, especially as he got closer to the other penguins.

                "It's okay, they're not going to hurt you," Eiji said as Bonaparte started to shy away from them and retreat to his ankles. "I won't let them, okay?"

                "You're babying him," his escort warned. "The whole point of rehabilitation is to reintroduce him to the wild. He has to get used to his own kind."

                "Oh," he answered hesitantly. He knelt down to try to nudge Bonaparte back over, but he wouldn't budge, diving in underneath Eiji again.

                "Just start the experiment," she sighed.

                Eiji nodded hesitantly and stood up, holding Bonaparte in his arms as he transformed, so he would keep the flames off of him. It did manage to melt a layer of snow beneath him, and he could hear a disapproving "tsk" behind him as steam rose from the puddle.

                "Sorry," he offered before stepping out of the puddle and back onto the ice.  After he was far enough away that none of the penguins would fall into the re-freezing water, he knelt down, holding Bonaparte, and waited.

                Nothing happened.

                Once or twice, a penguin came over to investigate the strange heat, then squawked and waddled away, Bonaparte trilling after them. It was nothing like the first night. Bonaparte seemed to be just as frustrated with the lack of results, hopping out of Eiji's lap and waddling around to investigate the other chicks. Eiji resisted the urge to get up and follow him, watching instead for him as he approached another chick. He'd been tagged back at the station, but somehow, Eiji didn't need to look for it to pick him out of the crowd. He just knew.

                The other chick was only curious about the strange black-and-red bird sitting in the middle of the snow, and maybe waddled too far from its parents for comfort. It chirped at Bonaparte, who chirped back and bit it on the neck. Eiji started to jump up in shock, just as the second penguin bit Bonaparte back. Bonaparte didn't seem to expect that, and seeing Eiji starting to move for him again, he waddled back over, tucking himself under Eiji's body while the other chick's parent squawked at him, as if to say he needed to keep his kid under control.

                "Sorry," he said on reflex before digging Bonaparte out from underneath him. The penguin chick shivered, clearly more upset than hurt as Eiji frowned and insisted, "Hey, you're the one who started it. I can't protect you if you're going to be doing things like that, okay?"

                "He can't understand you, you know," the researcher said.

                Eiji ducked his head, nodding. "I know."

                Still, as he patted Bonaparte, warming him up again, he couldn't help but wonder.

 

~~~

 

                Eiji was lying down in bed, looking over one of the red Medals. Across the room, Ankh was lying in his nest, eating an ice pop.

                "So you're a bird?" Eiji asked.

                It was something he'd never asked—a conversation they'd never had. But it felt as real as anything.

                Ankh snorted, almost offended. "Not a bird—the king of birds."

                Eiji looked over at him in surprise. "The King of Birds? There's such a thing?"

                Ankh clicked his tongue. "Of course—what did you think? All of the Greeed were something before we were Greeed."

                It didn't make any sense, and Eiji asked, "So, when you're complete..."

                Then Ankh looked at him sharply, replying, "I'll never be complete."

                Eiji was suddenly aware of his heart pounding, and he woke up, sweating. Around him, everyone else was still asleep, so he kicked off his blankets and sat up quietly, trying to catch his breath.

                He knew it had to be a dream—Ankh had never mentioned anything about a King of Birds or anything about existing before the tenth Medals were removed, but all the same, Eiji felt this vague sense of responsibility inherited from the first OOO—the guilt his predecessor should have felt for bringing such tortured creatures into the world.

                For a countless time, Eiji curled his fingers around the broken Medal and tried to broadcast his emotions over to Ankh, as if to will him into being. As always, it didn't work.

                It was still too early to try to text Hina, but he knew he wasn't going to have any luck going back to sleep. He supposed he should stay in bed regardless, but he figured if he only went to the mess hall, nobody would say anything—especially if he managed to get back into bed before everyone else woke up.

                He was always careful to use as few supplies as he could, to lessen the burden of his presence on everyone else. A glass of water was all he needed before he turned around and headed back. But just as he placed his hand on the door, he hesitated for a moment and reached for Ankh's Medal again.

                "The King of Birds, huh?" he whispered, fingering the edges of the halves with a half-smile. "So what does that make me?"

                Ankh would have said something sarcastic, likely to remind Eiji that he was stupid, but just useful enough at gathering Medals that he could enjoy the luxury of Ankh's good graces—graces that were steadily running out, the more Eiji ran his mouth.

                There was only silence, and Eiji settled into his room once more.

 

 

~~~

 

                Sometimes, Eiji thought it was funny how he always felt more alone than he actually was. There were always people around the station—they just didn't talk to him, unless it was to tell him he was doing something wrong.

                This was one of the few times he was actually by himself, however—him and Bonaparte, allowed to play in one of the halls. And it was time to check in with Hina.

                "See how big he is now?" Eiji asked. "I can barely pick him up anymore."

                "I can't believe they let you take him out of the lab," she said as she watched Bonaparte waddle across the floor.

                "He needs to exercise, but the weather's too bad to take him outside," he explained. "The wind's really bad out there."

                "So are you going out when the wind stops?" she asked.

                "Probably," he admitted. "They need me to do some readings."

                Her expression through the screen was concerned. "Eiji, it sounds like they're only using you."

                He shook his head. "It's okay. As long as I'm able to help."

                "That's not what I mean," she insisted. "They don't seem to be thinking of you as a person, just a..."

                "A tool to be used," he recited, nodding slowly. "That's what Ankh used to call me."

                It became uncomfortably quiet suddenly, a quiet only punctuated by the soft padding of Bonaparte's feet against the floor.

                "I didn't mean..." Hina tried.

                "I know," Eiji answered, a soft, sad smile on his face. "I just keep thinking about him, you know? Like, sometimes, I feel like he's still here with me. I'll turn around, feeling like he's right behind me, but...no one."

                "Because you miss him," she explained. "I do too."

                "Do you ever..." he started for a moment before losing his nerve. Did she dream about Ankh? Or was it just that Eiji was losing his mind with loneliness?

                "Do I what?" she asked, but he was busy watching Bonaparte toddle up to him. "Eiji, did something happen? Are you okay?"

                He quickly smiled, even as he picked up Bonaparte and placed him in his lap. "No, it's nothing. Don't worry."

                "Of course I'm going to worry," she insisted. "With everything that's been going on with you, how can I not?"

                He tried to avoid looking at the screen, absently stroking Bonaparte. The gesture calmed him too, enough that he quietly admitted, "I had a dream about him last night."

                "You did?" she asked, and he nodded. "Are you okay?"

                "Yeah," he answered. "It's just, it...it didn't really make a lot of sense. Even for a dream."

                "What was it about?"

                He shrugged, tickling Bonaparte along his neck. "I don't know. It was like...like we'd talked about something, even though I know we didn't. Something about a King of Birds."

                "The King of Birds?" she repeated. "What's that?"

                "I don't know," he admitted, glancing down to look at the fidgeting Bonaparte. Again, it looked just like he was laughing—even though Eiji knew he was ascribing human traits to animals that didn't naturally have them, he couldn't help but think it.

                Like had happened with Ankh. And eventually, Ankh himself believed them, wanted them, made them his.

                "Hina?" he asked quietly. "Can I ask you something personal?"

                "Like what?"

                It took a moment to try to find the words, to get them out without choking, but he finally said, "When Ankh was dying...did he say anything to you? About what he was like before he became a Greeed?"

                Hina was silent for a moment, and Eiji had the sudden feeling like he should take it all back and apologize. But when she finally did speak, she admitted, "We honestly didn't talk about all that much.  I don't think he wanted to. He just wanted...validation, I guess."

                "Validation?" he repeated.

                She nodded. "He asked if I thought he was dying. It's how he knew he was alive. Because of us."

                She was crying now, and he knew he'd gone too far this time. "I'm sorry."

                "No," she insisted, shaking her head. "I'm glad I finally got to talk with you about it. He wouldn't let me, before."

                Because Ankh had wanted to protect him—to keep him from knowing anything that might make him hesitate, even once, in that last battle. Eiji shouldn't have needed anyone's protection—he was the one who had to protect everyone else.

                Just like it shouldn't have been Hina who asked, "Are you okay?"

                Just as before, he smiled and insisted, "Yeah.  Guess I just got nostalgic. I'm fine, really."

                She wasn't any more convinced than she was before. "Eiji...maybe you should come home. I don't think being there is any good for you—at least if you were in Japan, or even here, you'd have someone around."

                "I know," he insisted, ticking Bonaparte again. "But right now, Bonaparte needs me."

                He made the mistake of looking directly at the screen again. Though she didn't say it, her eyes asked, "Are you sure you're not the one who needs him?"

                Instead, she said, "I have to go. Just...promise me you'll think about it, okay?"

                "I will," he promised, and for once, his promise wasn't a lie. It was one of the things he couldn't stop himself from thinking about.

 

~~~

 

                It was decided that Bonaparte needed to start joining the other chicks in a crèche so he would eventually learn to go off on his own. It was an important socializing skill, but Eiji had the feeling the entire thing was meant to get him to cut the cord. Supposedly to minimize any trouble, someone from the lab took Bonaparte out, outfitted with the radio tracker, and the research staff switched out repeatedly. Eiji was stuck with various menial jobs around the base, as always, closely monitored.

                He didn't get out there until it was time to take him back, and he quietly bristled when his escort for the day warned, "You're going to have to let go of him sometime," when he picked up Bonaparte, as if he didn't realize that already.

                His time with Bonaparte was kept minimal—settling him down, bringing him back in, feeding him, and that was it. It was as bad as it had been when he first started, but now, it was almost two months in.

                He didn't want to talk to Hina right now, not when he was this upset. He didn't want to try napping either, in case he had another strange dream about Ankh. He really didn't want to do anything.

                Of course, leave it to Kougami to pick just that moment to set up a video call.

                "Hino!" he boomed.

                "Mr. Kougami," he replied, smiling politely. "What did you need?"

                "Not what I need, but what I want," Kougami corrected. "It's been sometime since our last conversation—have things improved?"

                "Somewhat," Eiji admitted. "I'm helping out more, so that's good."

                "So I've heard," he said. "The last few reports were very interesting—so the penguin colony recognizes you as one of their own?"

                "Sort of," Eiji clarified. "I mean, they huddled around me before. But I haven't been able to get it to happen since."

                Kougami nodded. "Yes, Director Sasaki asked if we knew more about OOO's combos and their connection to the animals from their Medals."

                This piqued Eiji's curiosity finally, and he asked, "Did you?"

                "Unfortunately, the research is inconclusive," Kougami explained. "While our research has brought in a trove of new discoveries, it hasn't given us all the answers. The only one who'd know the answer to that particular question is..."

                "Ankh," Eiji answered, feeling cold. The dream was coming back to the forefront of his mind again, and he asked, "You haven't come across anything about a King of Birds, have you? In anything we've brought back?"

                Kougami stared at him seriously, enough so that Eiji started to wonder if maybe he'd have been better off staying quiet.

                "Sorry," Eiji finally mumbled. "It's not important."

                "Where did you hear of such a thing?" Kougami asked.

                That wasn't quite what he expected to hear, and he stammered, "I...well, I dreamed about it." Then, realizing how moronic it sounded, he turned pink and insisted, "I know, it's dumb, but at the time, I thought it might have been something related to Ankh. I mean, it sounds like it, right?"

                Kougami didn't answer, and Eiji couldn't feel any more embarrassed.

                "Just...forget it. It's just my imagination, right? Sorry to bother you."

                To his surprise, however, Kougami looked just off to the side, asking, "That's twice now, Satonaka. What does that bring us up to?"

                As Eiji blinked in confusion, he could hear Satonaka's voice read off, "In the two calls the past few weeks, three instances. In written reports, eight in three papers, most of them in the aftermath of rescuing the penguin chick, Bonaparte."

                "So, eleven now," Kougami mused, glancing toward the ceiling.

                "Eleven...what, exactly?" Eiji asked cautiously.

                "Hino, I don't think you realize just how often you apologize," he explained, leaning toward the screen. "I noticed it sometime ago, and only recently, did I ask Satonaka to record every time you do."

                "I...I do?" he asked, surprised.

                Kougami nodded. "Don't apologize for pursuing your desires! You should proudly encourage them!"

                "Oh," Eiji replied, now managing to feel even more embarrassed. "Sorry."

                "Twelve now, sir," Satonaka chimed in.

                "You see?" Kougami pointed out. "Even now, you're holding yourself back."

                "I guess I never noticed," he admitted. "But do you know anything about what I'm talking about? The King of Birds?"

                "Nope!" he roared, grinning. "But, if you really think this is important to your research, then I can look into it."

                "Really?" Eiji asked.

                "Is that what you want?" Kougami asked, watching him carefully.

                Eiji nodded. "If it's not too much trouble."

                "Very well," he replied. "I'll do it, under one condition."

                "Of course," Eiji answered. "Anything."

                He wasn't sure why Kougami gave him such a serious look. Even after he insisted, "You do what you want, not what others want you to. If these desires don't align, don't sacrifice yours for someone else's."

                Eiji nodded, confused; even from Kougami, this was a strange request. "I promise. Of course."

                Kougami looked skeptical, but he slowly nodded back. "Very well. I'll instruct the research teams in Germany to search for that particular phrase in any of the literature they've discovered, or anything similar that may be related to Ankh."

                "Thank you."

                "Remember our deal, however," he warned. "I don't want any more reports of you behaving as you did when we first met."

                Now, Eiji stared back in shock, but before he could try to defend himself, Kougami hung up. It was just him and a broken Medal, all alone, in the middle of a hall.

                "I'm..." he started, clutching Ankh's Medal for comfort. "I'm not that bad again, am I?"

                As always, there were no answers. There was nothing around him to give him one, and, he feared, nothing inside him as well.

 

~~~

 

                Weeks went by with no results. Not that Eiji expected anything right away, but he was hoping for something—maybe the phrase or something like it appearing in some of the texts they already had added to their database, something like that.

                Nothing. It was more than likely just a false lead, a pointless wish dredged up by his dreaming mind to try to fool him into thinking that maybe there was still some life in that broken Medal and still some use for OOO.

                He'd had another dream, one hardly worth thinking about. Ankh had been staring off toward the river at sunset. He never looked at Eiji as he asked, "What are you good for?" Then that was it, and Eiji woke up.

                Try as he might, he couldn't explain why it felt like a knife had just twisted in his heart.

                No, there were other problems to worry about, like the sudden flurry of commotion around the base one day. He wasn't sure what was wrong until Sasaki came in and warned, "Put on your coat and come with me."

                "O-okay," he answered hesitantly, bundling up.

                They didn't have to go far for him to learn what the problem was—just outside the base was a fuzzy,  molting young penguin with a tracker still around his ankle.

                "Bonaparte?" Eiji asked in surprise. "Why..." Then, looking at Sasaki, he asked, "They didn't reject him, did they?"

                "He's old enough now that that shouldn't be a problem," he explained. "More likely, he's following you. By now, the other penguins' parents should be making their last journeys to the sea."

                "Their last trips?" Eiji repeated. "What does that mean?"

                "Eventually, the young penguins will make their own journey to the sea to feed on their own."

                "But Bonaparte came back here," he realized. "So that means..."

                Sasaki did him the favor of not saying it out loud. Bonaparte could not survive by constantly returning to the research station. If he didn't go to the sea, he would die.

                "Please," Eiji begged. "Let me try one last time."

                Sasaki didn't look pleased, but he didn't stop Eiji from transforming into TaJaDor again and kneeling in front of Bonaparte. Trying to keep the idea of the King of Birds in his mind, he whispered, "Bonaparte, you can't do this. You have to go toward the ocean or you're going to die."

                Bonaparte let out a hungry squawk—so much more grown up than his babyish chirps and trills. Feeling his heart break, Eiji insisted, "Please."

                "Hino," Sasaki sighed, "there's no point in keeping this up. He doesn't see you as a bird—a parent, perhaps, maybe from some imprinting. But it isn't going to magically make him understand you. What happened with the other penguins that night was a lucky accident."

                "It's not," Eiji insisted, shaking his head. "I know it isn't."

                After all, the petrel had listened to him and obeyed his command, however inadvertent. Maybe the problem was desire—if he could just project it as he had that night, willing Bonaparte to head to the sea...

                And suddenly, another King came to mind—the original OOO. His desire had overtaken all others' and could very well have taken over the world. Was that what Eiji could do too?

                Was this how he'd started, then? Had the King suddenly realized he could control the beasts of the forests and decided to move onto all the rest of creation? Had he actually started with good intentions and lost sight of everything?

                Eiji froze in horror at the realization and let the transformation break. For a moment, all he could do was watch the mist from his breath form a cloud between him and Bonaparte. He couldn't hear Sasaki calling his name again as he started to fall into the ice.

                He could only see Bonaparte finally turn and walk away, and he felt like he'd done something unforgivable.

 

~~~

 

                He woke in what passed for the middle of the night, in the infirmary. The first thing he saw was his bag across the room, helpfully packed with his research and supplies, so he'd be ready to ship off to the Russian base in the morning.

                They couldn't have been clearer if they'd said it to his face: there was no need for him. Not anymore, not ever. After all, who needed OOO at the bottom of the world anyway? His dream was right—he didn't have a point in being there, he was no good for anything.

                Maybe he was fooling himself about Ankh needing him to revive him too. If Ankh had been that happy to die...

                He took up his bag and glanced outside as the wind began to pick up. Somewhere out there, Bonaparte and the other penguins were making their way through. Guilt racked at him—the others might be fine, but he'd made the mistake of hand-rearing Bonaparte. How could be possibly survive the trek to the ocean?

                And again, he heard the dream in the back of his mind—"What are you good for?"

                And another, a portion he'd forgotten all about—"I'll never be complete."

                He'd been thinking wrong all this time. The King of Birds wasn't the important part—if there was one before, then there wasn't anymore. There had been Ankh, and Eiji wouldn't trade him for anything else, complete or not.

                But was Eiji himself complete?

                He looked down at the broken Medal. If Ankh were there, he'd try to talk him out of it. Tell him that he'd only get himself killed. Ask him if that would help anyone.

                Ankh wasn't there. Nobody could stop him now.

                Eiji transformed and set out into the cold for the last time.

 

~~~

 

                He knew it was a bad idea the moment he left, but it wasn't like bad ideas had ever discouraged him before.

                He'd been able to fly high enough to get a clear view of the sea—that in itself wasn't hard, since the Japanese base was on an island. But staying aloft in the bitterly cold winds and finding the penguins was more difficult.

                He finally had to land, knowing he had to conserve energy. Even through his warm armor, he could feel the wind cutting into him, making him more acutely aware how bad it must be for Bonaparte.

                It would be easier on everyone if he just summoned the chicks to him, reached for that power again, and...

                He changed out the Condor legs for another Medal before he could even finish that thought. No. That was a line he wasn't going to cross again.

                He trudged through the ice, using the form's enhanced vision to see through the storm until he began to see shadows huddling together for warmth. He ran closer, scanning the group of chicks for just one with an ankle tracker, trying to feel for the one he knew was his, but it was impossible to tell at that distance.

                His eyes were on the penguins, not on the ice below him. Carelessly, he stepped onto a thin patch and felt himself suddenly go through—exactly what a Weddell seal beneath him had been waiting for. It surfaced, pushing him directly against the ice hard enough that the driver was knocked out of its active mode. His breath caught as frigid waters soaked into his clothes and skin, his muscles locked up, and he began to sink.

                Was this really all he was? Nothing more than dead weight beneath the ice, flesh for the seals to pick apart, with no hope of saving anyone—not Bonaparte, not Ankh?

                The seal was smarter than he was. It had no desire to risk anything in a storm like this. It ducked back down, content to merely wait at the holes in the ice to breathe. Nor did it have any interest in the human it had inadvertently dragged under—Eiji was lucky. Had it been a leopard seal, it might not have had such reservations about such an easy meal.

                He forced his frozen arms and legs to move, swimming up toward the hole and squeezing past the seal to the solid ice. He emerged from the water, shivering violently and coughing as he tried to crawl toward safer ground. If he could just get to the penguins, he could transform into TaJaDor again and join their huddle—it would warm him up faster than anything. He could survive this.

                If this weren't all that he was. His arms gave out, and he collapsed face-first into the frost, the crèche still meters away from him. He could feel his body slowing down, his breath catching, everything turning to ice in the storm.

                And then a blaze of light and white fire, taking the form of a magnificent bird with a curling crest, large wings, and long tail feathers.

                As it craned its neck to look at him, Eiji realized that the light and flame were anything but white—red was radiating out from its heart to the edges of its feathers so subtly that he could barely perceive it. For the first time, he had the distinct impression that human senses were inadequate, that he was as colorblind as any Greeed had ever been.

                There was just enough red fire in the bird's eyes that Eiji thought he could see recognition in it. His mind felt fuzzy—was this the elusive King of Birds that he'd been dreaming about? Was this possibly...

                "Ankh?" he whispered, his frozen hope thawing.

                The firebird didn't answer. It spread out its wings, and Eiji felt himself slowly being enveloped in warmth, so bright he had to close his eyes...

                He woke up to the sound of squawking all around him and the sensation of soft, downy feathers falling onto him. He was once again at the center of a penguin huddle, this time rescued by the chicks. His hair and clothes were still damp, but it was warm enough within the crèche that he only felt the cold when he sat up.

                "Ankh?" he asked again in confusion, but there was no sign of the creature he'd seen—no indication it had ever existed.

                Just as always, it seemed.

                He looked through the faces in the crèche, trying to pick out Bonaparte on his own. He didn't have to—as soon as the fledgling saw his human parent, he pushed his way through the huddle and squawked for food.

                "Bonaparte," Eiji sighed in relief. "I'm so glad—I'm sorry, for everything."

                Bonaparte, however, wasn't interested in apologies, craning his neck up and down to tell him he was hungry.

                "Sorry," Eiji said again. "I don't have any food—not for any of us, honestly."

                After all, he hadn't brought anything with him other than his research and his phone—both of which were destroyed by the water. He understood how badly he'd doomed himself out there, and it was only thanks to luck...and maybe Ankh...that he'd survived.

                He had to be able to let go. If not of Ankh, then of Bonaparte. Of his guilt. He stood up, taking a moment to regain his balance before pushing his way outside of the huddle.

                "Don't worry," he promised. "I'm going to help all of you—we're going to make it to the sea."

                He spread his wings and took flight, keeping just slow enough that everyone could stay with him. He kept a close watch above and below them, trying to prevent anything from picking them off along the way—for his own peace of mind, if nothing else.

                He led them past the rocky, exposed land to the bay, where floes of ice were sailing off toward open sea.  He landed and let the penguins shuffle past him. Once again, Bonaparte came up to him, squawking for food.

                For the last time, Eiji knelt down next to him.

                "I'm sorry," he said. "I don't know if what I did for you was good or bad. All I know is, it's what felt right for me. And I think...that's all I can do."

                Bonaparte was starting to get the message and started turning away toward the other penguins, who were waddling closer to the water, apprehensive.

                "You've got to do it for yourself now," Eiji insisted.

                There could be other seals in the water. Or orcas, or any other number of predators. There was no guarantee it would be safe. They'd be alone.

                Bonaparte went over as the first penguin dove in. As soon as the others saw it was safe, they too made the plunge. Eiji watched penguin heads surface in the water for a moment before they began to swim away in search of food, and he knew that this time, he was right. He had no place imposing his desire on them, any more than the King had on the world, or maybe humanity itself on this fragile place. It had helped him learn something new about himself, but he had to leave everything as he found it—the only law there that mattered.

                He waited until they were out of sight, as the reality of his predicament set in. His hair and clothes were still damp, so if he became too exhausted to maintain TaJaDor, he would become hypothermic very quickly. He had no supplies, and everything in his backpack—whether useful or not—had been thoroughly soaked and ruined.

                The smartest thing to do was to head back to base, apologize again, and wait for them to send him away.

                The right thing, for him at least, was to start flying toward the coastline he figured led to the Russian station.

                He had no guarantee that he was going in the right direction. He didn't know if he would make it all the way to any base, let alone Russia. He didn't know if the weather would change, or if there would even be a plane to take him off the continent and back to humanity. But it was a chance worth taking, and he was tired of feeling like he was alone in a crowded room.

                He wouldn't be alone for long, right? The plane would be heading to South Africa, and he could spend a few days there to recover before figuring out his next move—whether back home or to visit Hina. Besides, he knew he couldn't die here—Ankh still needed him, and when had he ever left him to get himself killed?

                For the first time in months, Eiji trusted in himself and the promise of tomorrow. He opened his wings again and flew off.