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The Ties That Bind Us

Chapter Text

It was an incident-in-progress like any other with Lupin’s group: A tip-off, a gathering of teams, and then a date with destiny with the world watching.

This particular late-night, a collection of cops surrounded an old home with itchy trigger fingers with their illustrious commander Zenigata at the fore, planning and waiting and maneuvering until a hell of  a lot of action came all at once.

The only thing was, this time, it ended not with Zenigata’s guys chasing people each which way, nor with helicopters and spotlights and long firefights. It did not end with disappointed television crews and newspaper reporters ready to write blood and fire that pissed off his boss.

No, tonight the smoke bombs in the old castle cleared with a very strange ending:

A bunch of naked babies in little puddles of adults’ clothing.

Zenigata knew what he was staring at.  He knew it…but he couldn’t make himself believe it.

The old castle was your typical masterpiece of gothic theater tucked into the mountains, tricked out by a mad scientist whose lab they’d found in the basement.  Up here there had clearly been a fight, because glass was everywhere, tables were overturned, and nearly everything on the walls was broken.  There were gunshot holes in several doors and most of the walls, not to mention the furniture.  There were even hot guns on the ground, one still smoking.

And yet.

As heavy footfalls raced around the building, rattling dirt off the floorboards both above and beside him, Zenigata stared at what he was seeing.

There were several piles of clothes, like the owner had been evaporated straight upward, leaving them behind. A black pile, with a man’s hat on top.  A red dress, with some fallen-over heels nearby.  A rumple of hakama.  A splash of red streaked across the ornate rug from a familiar men’s blaser that left Zenigata’s stomach feeling particularly far away from where it was supposed to be.  And…a grey men’s suit with glasses sitting on top, that he didn’t recognize at all.

Just as he was asking himself who that would be, one of the pairs of thundering footsteps came up behind him, stopping with the familiar bass line of two feet snapping together and a salute going to a forehead. “Inspector Zenigata, sir! The all clear has been sounded!”

Zenigata knew who it was by the voice. He blinked a few times, then managed to turn slightly toward him.  

“…Sir?” the man asked, when he did nothing but that.

Zenigata still had his gun by his side, so the outline of him in the dim light, head bowed and weapon at the ready while he held deathly still, would have been properly unnerving. “Lieutenant Yoshi, come here.”

Yoshida Yusuke was, while 100% Japanese, built like an American football player. He had a thick neck and a square build and was, well…thick pretty much everywhere you looked. But he was also one of the gentlest men Zenigata had ever known. He was a family man and his unit’s subcommander and they went just about everywhere together when Zenigata needed a full team.  He had been there in Cagliostro, always helping things along when Zenigata was stuck dealing with bureaucracy—keeping people together, moving conversations forward, making meals—and Zenigata’s subconscious pulled him over, needed him to provide that service once more.

And when that man drew up beside his commander warily, he suddenly gasped.  He instantly moved forward, but Zenigata held out an arm to stay him.

“What do you see here?”

They exchanged a look, one pointed and one borderline offended, until slowly, awareness dawned on his partner.  “…We have a problem,” Yoshi muttered decisively, as his eyes turned back downward.

Zenigata nodded and lowered his arm.  “We sure as hell do.”

They exchanged another look, and then Yoshi went to the door, quietly closing it. He leaned back against it, holstering his gun.  “What do you want to do?” he asked, chin lifting until his concerned eyes met Zenigata’s.

“Well,” Zenigata said after a moment, head turning like an automaton back to the disaster of kids in front of him, “If it’s anything like when you take them home from the hospital, I guess we start with diapers and car seats.”

 


 

The thing I would remember most about that night was the juxtaposition between the warm, heavy, metal of my service pistol being exchanged for the hot, wiggly body of an infant, squirming into my crossed arms.

They were two very different kinds of warmth. One, the imposing heat of your own body, making something hotter and hotter until it was part of your skin.  That immutable, weighty responsibility of holding a deadly weapon, while at the same time knowing it was your shield against anyone that wanted to take that life, that heat of yours, from you.

While on the other hand, the heat of a baby was delicate. It came and went, at first feeling cool to the touch. They were dense little footballs, but so exceedingly fragile that one wrong move could end everything—their life till then; whatever they might become; the relationships, aspirations, and legacies of everyone connected to that baby.  And they were trusting you not to do it.

There was something mystical that happened the first time you held your own child; it was like suddenly being patched into some vast part of the universe you had never known existed before. Before it, kids were a thing; they were an other. But at that moment, they became you. They became something you were responsible for.  You could imagine everything in the future—sprained knees, weddings, grandkids, birthdays, everything—and you could sense, all in a moment or two, the walls of ego collapsing to reveal how to guide them through it.  It was love, it was devotion, it was responsibility and meaning all at once. It was a wonderful feeling, and it was the feeling of your red threads of fate twining together.

And that was what I suddenly remembered, as I picked up the first one of the five little footballs that night.

Bending down on one knee, I reached into the red jacket, shuffling it around and smelling the cologne on it until I uncovered the little body in it fully. Lupin—I assumed it was Lupin, anyway—was laying on his side, huddled up against the cold night air.  He err-ed a little, big eyes blinking slowly as I pulled him up.  They were very blue; they must have been lighter when he was younger?

Setting back into seza, I quickly settled him into the crook of my arm and rubbed his head with a thumb, my finger seeming way too big in comparison for any living thing to be able to survive. But the fuzzy crop of light brown hair I encountered there was, naturally, baby-fine, and about an inch long. It was a good head of hair, as they said, though apparently that’d been lighter once too.

But as I looked down at the little…thing…the gentle awe from my memory fell away and the cascade of emotions involved with Lupin came in instead: frustration, rage, indignance. This was not someone I was supposed to like.  This was not someone I was supposed to be kind to.

This was someone I was supposed to despise and crack into pieces and gloat about winning against.

But this…wasn’t a victory.  This was…

I tilted my head back at the ceiling, watching the beams shake as muffled shouts and loud jackboots crisscrossed the floor above.

I didn’t know what this was.  A disaster, maybe?

What in the world did you get yourself into this time…? I wondered, looking around the room with a sigh, like some sort of sign would exist there for me.

“Hey, this one’s a girl!” Yoshi announced, holding the one whom I assumed to be Fujiko up.  She was completely bald and hanging there like a helpless, wrinkly gremlin, or maybe a pug puppy.  She started gumming his nearest finger with an aggressive hrmnggggg.

“Well…don’t just stare at the lady,” I muttered dryly. “She’s indecent.”

“Oh…sorry…” Yoshi mumbled at her and then quickly proceeded to tuck her into, of all things, the misbegotten bra, making more or less a coconut carrier out of it.  I supposed it’d be warmer than the silk dress but…sheesh.  The things you’d think of when you still had a wife.

“Is there…anywhere to put them?” Yoshi followed up with.

“Oh.  Um…” We both quickly made a visual sweep of the room, but most of it was covered in glass. 

But he had a point—there were five of them, but we only had two arms each and someone had to open the door. So did I get someone else in on this, or…?

“Ah, here…” Yoshi muttered, taking the infant with him over to Jigen’s hat.  It was sitting on the floor right-side-up, and when he bent down to pick it up—pulling it away like the lid of a room service dish at a hotel—he revealed another baby.

And this one, immediately, peed on him.

The stream was utterly perfect. Just golden yellow, in a beautiful mathematical arc, that hit him square in the chest and then ran all the way down his front, where it pooled in the heavy folds of his trousers’ crotch fabric.

It happened so suddenly that he didn’t even have time to flinch. He just waited until it was done, until the fountain stream went down like a tap being turned off. The sound as it hit the tight fabric of his uniform was incredibly sharp, like some god had wanted us to hear nothing but it. Finally, at the end, Yoshi just sighed, his free fist clenching and eyes squeezing shut.

I snorted. “Wow…good aim even back then, huh, Jigen?” 

The baby, for his part, just grunted—and farted—to punctuate his statement.

“Why you gotta be like that?” Yoshi mourned after a second, already reaching for him too.

But then it happened: the little girl in his hands had had enough and went off like a proximity bomb. She started to squeal, with a decibel that shouldn’t have been possible. She proceeded to flail around like the world was on fire and nearly flipped out of his hands.

“Oh! No!” Yoshi gasped, his ship suddenly tossing in the waves. “No no no—!”

“Don’t fumble the football man, that’s important evidence you got there.”

“Hey, I got the dud!  Yours is the quiet one!”

He rocked her back and forth a bit and then just set her in the hat, holding his hands up like he’d been burned and like maybe that’d help something. But of course, that which was presumably Jigen didn’t like this, and immediately started crying too.

“Oh my God, no! What’s—?”

“Don’t put them together,” I muttered, taking off my own hat.  “Here. She can have mine.”

Lupin huffed at me at this, like he was disappointed, but I just eyed him with my best unamused stare. “Don’t you dare pee on me or it’s prunes for a week.”

Lupin huffed again, more deeply this time, like I was just so pedantic and a spoil sport too.  He closed his eyes and went back to trying to sleep.  If Fujiko was a gremlin, he was a full-on gnome; his body wasn’t the right size for his head and his bones looked weirdly delicate.

I shook my head and moved over to Goemon, moving around his sword as I did so.  These were young enough infants—they really looked like newborns, not more than a week old at most, though thankfully not gooey—that they weren’t mobile on their own.  Wiggle, sure, but nothing more than a few spasms and twitchy head turns.  They weren’t even the kind of turtle that could roll itself over when upended.

Goemon, naturally, was hiding somewhere in the massive pile of traditional fabric and it took some finding to extricate him.  He was, however, kicking around, so that helped.  Figured that he’d be active already.

“Huh, robust little one, are yah?” I asked, finally producing a large head of thick, black hair and then, underneath it, a very surly looking baby.  “If looks could kill…sheesh.”

Goemon blew a spit bubble at me, then froze up when all it did was accomplish getting his chin full of dribble. The expression that crossed his face looked not unlike a cat that wanted to hide its ungraceful landing.

I sighed. “C’mon…it’s into the long arm of the law for you, don’t fight it.”

Goemon, good Japanese baby that he was, was utterly silent otherwise and submitted to capture.  But when I put him and Lupin side by side against my knees, I noticed something.

“Goemon” looked like what you would assume a normal baby looked like—wrinkly, sure, but a little pudgy; emotive and squirming; alert, hefty—healthy.  He had a personality for sure.  As did the other two.  But Lupin…

He was noticeably smaller, maybe two-thirds the size.  His head fit in my palm, whereas the others didn’t, and his limbs were far too thin compared to the rest of the body.  Plus, his skin was a slightly weird color and too thin, almost translucent.  He was quite light-weight, too, and...

As my lieutenant finished getting the Terror Twins settled into their own felt hat-beds and crossed the top of my vision for the last pile of clothes where there was sure to be another errant little football, I felt my brow quirking down, down and down, until the realization finally hit me:

I had a preemie on my hands.

The other ones were fine, the right size and healthy enough to be energetic, but this one…it was doing nothing but trying to curl up and sleep. And…

With dread, I watched the tiny, puffy baby’s chest gasp, then be still for a couple seconds, then gasp again.  The chest was dipping weirdly and I could see the heartbeat moving it up and down slightly, working hard.

He was having trouble even breathing.

“I … I need to get out of here,” I muttered, getting to my feet so fast I was momentarily dizzy.

“Inspector?”

Goemon was left safely on the rug. I pointed at him, then the others.

“Take them. I need to find an ambulance, right now. Tell them…” That hand ran up through my hair shakily, only to get thrown back down at my side. “I don’t know what to tell them, just…don’t let DHS take them.  Find me at the hospital.”

Another baby held protectively in his crossed arms, Yoshi nodded, looking like he was being left in the lifeboat alone with several colorful islands surrounding him.

“Roger…?”

I barely heard him as I ripped the door open.

Chapter Text

The Nicu unit was a curious place full of juxtapositions. There were no windows and the lights were dim, apparently because premature infants had trouble with sunlight—their eyes and skin couldn’t handle it—but it was also full of colorful name plates and construction-paper decorations on the walls. And, I had realized with a shiver, there was an irony here: the infants were being cared for by people who had survived into adulthood.  Which was an odd thing to think at first, because it was factually obvious, but for the first time in my life, I realized that that was something I’d been taking for granted—that newborns survived into adulthood well enough to become productive members of society.

Before tonight, my impression of a woman with a baby in her arms was just that: That’s what babies and mothers look like, they are attached to each other, but seeing the nurses, male and female both, walk around with these ones was different. This was humans who had survived childhood looking after ones that might not.  It was like I could see them giving bits of life, bits of future, to these children.  I could see it flashing before my eyes all night long: a birthday to this one. A graduation to that one.  Enough days to get their first puppy, for that one in the corner.

It was a strange feeling, but it was like I was watching angels work, in the warm glow of the heat lamps above each baby.

I had noticed some other things too, though. There was a definite “moment” in the gestation process after which babies looked like babies, and I found those easier to lay my eyes on—though it was still difficult. Infants were supposed to be something you were happy to see, that swelled you with joy and pride and excitement to interact with. Chemicals or not, the base human instinct to a baby was to pick it up and hold it and give it love.  To see one that was too delicate to touch, and on top of it was having such a hard time of things that it constantly looked like it was in pain, was just torturous—even if it wasn’t my baby, and its pain had nothing to do with me. 

Just looking at these little things was making my empathy rachet up to a degree I hadn’t felt in years, possibly ever.  Maybe innate human goodness really did exist, and it came in the form of watching over helpless creatures.

But there were other juxtapositions in the Nicu, too.  It was intensely quiet, nearly devoid of human noise despite being full of them, but the sound of machines was ever-present.  There was an Orwellian-like array of ‘beds,’ too, each just a plastic tub on a wheeled cart tricked-out with the best science could offer. They looked like a crazy doctor’s tiny torture chamber at first glance, when really it was a terrarium with a little person inside of it. 

The number of lines and machines to keep one preemie alive was really something, and the best science had still couldn’t save them all, not by a long shot.  It forced a person to acknowledge how complex and amazing a woman’s body had to be…while also illustrating how many things could malfunction in the process.

In the end, I had decided that the Nicu wasn’t an easy place to be.  Depending on what stage the infants were at, they were either covered in tubes or a combination of blankets and tubes. And to see so many humans lined up in rows was unsettling in the first place, but seeing so many babies with no caregiver around was even weirder. There was a room just off this one where the nurses were stationed, and in an hour or so they’d come around to do feedings and take readings, like a small army. But in the meantime, it was nap time, and everyone around me was asleep.  I was the only adult in here. Even the other parents were asleep at this time of night…or maybe they weren’t allowed in.

Still, as I sat in front of my particular terrarium of interest, with the little name card that said the Japanese equivalent of “Baby Doe (M)” on it, it made me acutely aware of how lucky my ex-wife and I were to not have ended up here with Toshiko.

We had been lucky, but this one…

He was still that strange mottled-red color, but now he had lost most of his hair for the sake of various medical devices and sticky nodes.  A little white-cotton cap was places over his head, covering his eyes, and the rest of him was wrapped in a star-print bit of cloth to keep him bound in place and feeling safe and snug. He was on his back so that he could breathe better, a tube going down his nose to help force oxygen-rich air into his underdeveloped lungs.  The tiny hands were curled up at his sides in a way that didn’t really look comfortable, but it was probably the best they could do since they had to keep his chest open to inspection. He even had fingernails, though, I found myself realizing. Tiny, translucent fingernails, but perfectly formed…

I really wanted to give my finger to that hand, for it to cup and curl around.  To let that baby know someone was thinking of it, and hoping for it to survive.  To offer it a point of contact through which I could give it all the courage and willpower and good luck that I could.

It made me think of Toshiko, and the first time I held her.  And the months after, when she’d fall asleep holding some part of me.

I really missed her. 

I sighed and glanced around the dimly-lit room. I’d done her and her mother wrong by putting work first, even though that’s what I’d been taught was the right thing to do.  I’d been upset at the time that they couldn’t see that: work, and the things it provided, came first.  It was love, to provide for your family, and it was me who was sacrificing my time with them to help them live at all.

But no, I realized as I watched these newborns struggle for life, it was the other way around.

I sighed inwardly.  It didn’t matter now; they were long gone from my life and that was the way it had to be. They deserved to move on from someone who couldn’t support them properly, and find someone who could.  I didn’t deserve any more chances with them.

Even if I could still remember holding my daughter in my arms, and dreaming all those dreams of the future for her.

I shook my head out and returned my empty gaze to the baby hatching unit in front of me, rubbing the feeling out of my arms. How long had it been since I’d thought about that…?

As I stared at nothing but memories via a side-view of the struggling baby I’d found, the sound of the door opening quietly went off on the other side of the room.  I didn’t bother looking up, as most of the time the people that door admitted had nothing to do with me.  But soon, the rhythmic sound of machines was interrupted by the crinkle of heavy Kevlar fabric settling into the chair beside me.

Time went by, and while I knew he was watching me, I never offered him anything back but accepting silence. I knew he would talk if he needed to, and eventually, Yoshi leaned back a bit and said, “Tech’s come a long way in just a few years.”

I blinked for a second, but slowly, the memories came back to me. That’s right…

“Your youngest daughter. How old is she now?” I asked softly.

He smiled proudly in the red-orange light of the lamps. “Five.”

A weight that’d been on my shoulders lifted just a little bit, and I sucked in the breath that came after, deep into my lungs. “And she made it through just fine?”

“Sure did. They took good care of her and she’s top of her class now.”  He smiled fondly at a point in space, a sparkle in his eye, then shrugged.  “For what that’s worth in pre-Kindergarten.”

I offered a chuckle in response. I remembered how proud I’d been of Toshiko learning to write her name at a young age, as penmanship was something I found very important, and I couldn’t wait to teach it to her. “That’s good.”

“Yeah…” Yoshi looked around, at all the tiny plastic beds with their heat lamps and tubes. “Lots of little lives just starting off their journeys here, huh…”

That…was one way of looking at it.  I lifted my head a bit and followed his gaze, considering it all.

These were real people, not just that ethereal category of “baby.” They were human beings, who would one day grow from newborns to toddlers, then to children and teens, and eventually onto adults and “the elderly,” if they were lucky. Maybe even into “Mother” and “Father” and “Grandparent.” Some were already “Sister,” “Brother,” “Aunt,” and “Uncle.” 

And yet, some of them would die here, become that hallowed relative that “was” that no one ever really knew or talked about for sake of waking their ghost. Others would lead a full life until they got hit by cars. Some would get cancer before they even got a chance at anything other than childhood, or another medical issue would take them out later in life. But some.  A lucky few…would make it through all the stages of the population pyramid.

And some of those, just maybe, my guys and the other cops of Japan would help save from another kind of statistic tree, by keeping crime down and hope up.

So maybe human goodness really did exist, and it could make a difference in people’s lives. Maybe some of these infants—these people—around me, would become the ones that looked back and had so many people to think of in the past-tense.  And wouldn’t that be nice…?

“Sooo…” Yoshi hedged after a while when I didn’t say anything more, motioning at the incubator in front of us. “What’s going on?  With all…this?”

Forced to come out of my reverie, I took a deep breath and rubbed at my forehead. “I really don’t know, but there’s only two options I suppose.”

“Lupin’s crew left us a bunch of babies for some reason…”

“…Or that is Lupin and his crew, and his target has some nasty tech, too.”

Yoshi’s lips pursed, and his eyes flicked over to me tellingly. “And…which do you think it is?”

I glared back at him, unamused. “You know which one I think it is.”

Yoshi took a deep breath and sighed, but any personal thoughts he had about that he kept to himself. “Boss isn’t gonna like that,” he muttered after a bit of rubbing at his own head, though he was the kind of guy that went for his temples.

“Course not,” I agreed.  “But what else is new?”

“Wellll…”

Slowly, our eyes both fell on the little baby in the plastic bassinet in front of us, looking more like a cyborg than anything.

“Other than that,” I gruffed.

He grunted back, dropping his leg and folding his arms instead.  Still, no matter how he felt, he kept his voice hushed, intent on following the rules of the room. “The press isn’t gonna believe you, so you can’t tell ‘um that.”

“Why would I tell them? The press won’t know anything about it.”

“I…wouldn’t be so sure of that.”

I frowned at him, and Yoshi reached under his seat to produce a newspaper.

“Is it morning already?” I asked dryly, taking it from him when it was offered.

“’Fraid so,” he muttered.

“Well, let’s see it then.” I flipped it around, and on the front page—

“Fuck.”

—Was a glorious photograph of Yoshi, coming down the steps of the house surrounded by other cops, with four newborn babies in two hats, one in each arm. The picture was everything a Pulitzer would want: action, determination, human distress, good layout, great lighting.  I just groaned and leaned my head on the back of the chair.

“You always were the popular one,” I muttered, handing the paper back to him in the form of a whap across the abs.

He took it with a sheepish chuckle and stored it away. “You’re on page five, a magnificent blur as usual.”

“Joy.”

“Regardless, this is the kinda stuff that’ll be a local legend around here for the next fifty years.  They’re gonna want you on the podium talking about it by the noon news, and you haven’t slept any, have you?”

“I’ve slept enough,” I rebuked, though admittedly that was only a couple hours while they’d kept me out of here.

“I’ll get you a coffee.”

“Tea would be better, honestly.”

“Tea it is, Inspector, just the way you like it.” He got to his feet, but I stopped him with a tired grunt:

“’Ey, Yoshi?”

He drew up short, turning down to me. “Yeah?”

“Why do I feel like hell right now?”

He looked at me honestly for a second, then turned his top half to consider the incubator, and the wrinkly little baby with the tiny socks and covered eyes sleeping inside it.

“Life and death struggles are always hard,” he said simply. “Even if they come in tiny packages.”


 

The press conference went about as well as those things ever went: an official (me) stood up at the podium and answered a few straightforward questions with stern dignity and solidarity, and then quickly scurried away as soon as the questions got too leading, the department’s press person stepping up to take their place.  This was a smaller town, so the journalists, while fewer in number and not as biting, were less good about not wasting time, so it took longer than it should have and I felt more rankled than usual by the end of things.  There were one or two who really knew what they were doing, so I was glad for that, but overall, I left with an angry itch in my chest.

My boss, naturally, wanted to talk to me beforehand, and that had gone about as well as expected too:

“So you didn’t catch Lupin but you caught a bunch of babies. That’s a new one even for you, Zenigata.”

I gave him a tired nod over the phone. “Yuuup.”

“Well, do your investigative work on the scene, leave the kids in the system and come home.”

“But sir…”

“But what? They’re the property of that town now. Come home, and the locals will figure out who they belong to, if anyone.”

“Sir,” I protested as tiredly and dryly as I could, which was how I always did it, “why do you think there was a house with a mad scientist and five newborn babies in it in the first place?”

“I dunno, presumably he stole them. Shouldn’t be hard to match ‘um up with missing persons, people tend to report things like missing babies, and less frequently, missing pregnant wives. Unless they wanted them to go missing, in which case…” he paused, thinking about it, then said, “Still not your problem. You deal with stolen property not stolen people and that’s that, you hear me? We’ll send the case along to human trafficking, capiche?”

“…Yessir.”

“Now, about what you’re gonna say at this thing.  Repeat after me. But translate it, obviously…”

“…Yessir.”

After that, I collapsed in a chair outside the Nicu’s door next to a couple other parents in the same state and must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I remembered was a hand jostling me awake.  It was Yoshi, I found through blurry eyes, and he was whispering at me.

“Hey. The social worker’s here.”

I didn’t feel like I had the mental wherewithal to navigate this.  “You do it,” I grumbled, swatting at him in a tired haze and trying to go back to sleep.

“The local chief’s here too. It’s your turn to be on the stage, man.  And Officer Yamashita’s already made them tea. Like ten minutes ago…”

“Well shit,” I muttered, the noise popping out of me a bit like a car backfire.  Eventually, I stumbled to my feet, and as Yoshi pulled me along away from the Nicu’s door, I decided on a plan of action that I couldn’t screw up even drunk: Listen to everything they have to say with a stern and intimidating face, thank them for their time, and then say I’ll get back to them tomorrow.

It was bureaucracy at its finest, which meant it was utterly foolproof.

 

“Well, the thing is…we don’t have the space for them,” the social worker finished, at which point my eyes widened.  I’d thought I was going to come in here having to stall for time to keep them from being taken away, but...

It was the exact opposite.

“This is a small town, and we don’t have any temporary spaces available with someone qualified to take babies, let alone five...”  He looked embarrassed, shrugging helplessly.

“And while I’m sure everyone on our police force would love to drop everything they’re doing and find their parents,” the female police chief added in all seriousness, “we’re just too small of department. No one’s reported anyone missing that matches the description of these children, we’ve already checked, so it would no doubt go outside of our jurisdiction and we just don’t have the resources for that. It’d have to be something a state or federal task force takes care of.”

I stared at them, the gears not quite turning in my brain, while beside me, Yoshi crossed his arms and hummed.

“So what are you…saying?” I sputtered, wishing I’d had some of that tea, too.

The two town officials glanced at each other, then the social worker said, “They’re yours from here on out. We can call the nearest large town, but—”

“—We figured you might want more control over the situation than that, to keep them from being scattered, since they are, well, material evidence, and something relevant might present itself in the next few weeks upon their persons,” the police chief finished. “Maybe until some spots open up around here, you and your guys could take them back to Tokyo? Because I can tell you right now they sure as hell didn’t come from here.”

I stared at her, then at the social worker, then at Yoshi. Then I did this again.

“Might present itself in the next few weeks”…

Oh, I get it…

She doesn’t want the Nicu one to die on their turf, and have it be their problem. Or the cost of the DNA tests, to get it into the database.

Eventually, I stared at them all one more time, then stood up straight and nodded.

“Sure.”

“Wait, what?” Yoshi blurted. Even the two officials looked a little surprised—and then more than a little relieved. Normally, I might have been offended by all this, but given the circumstances, this was exactly what I needed. Because—

I know exactly who they are, and I know they don’t have parents who are going to come looking for them, so…

“Just bring me the paperwork. I’m going to be here for a while, since we’ve got one in the Nicu.”

“Roger that,” said the Police Chief, a smile on her face.  “I’m sure they’ll do just fine in your capable hands. More than our poor budget ever could.”

They both left soon after that, everyone having exchanged relevant emails and numbers and bows.  When we were done, I was left staring at two business cards and Yoshi was left staring at me, his eyebrow raised.

“But what if they…aren’t who you think they are?” he asked quietly.

“Then we get Surinami over in Missing Persons on it and that’s that,” I stated firmly, shoving the cards in my wallet.

“…You can’t take care of five babies, Inspector,” he added just as quietly, but a little more gently.  “Let alone afford anything later in their lives.”

“We’ll get there when we get there,” I noted decisively, digging out my phone from my other pocket. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to call Marti about something.”

Yoshi sighed, but it was more of a longsuffering thing than anything.

“Fine, you can take one or two of them,” I offered airily as I went out the door.

“What? Me?” he yelped. “Why me?”

“You’ve always wanted a boy, right? Why not take the mad scientist?  I’m sure your girls will love ‘im.”

There was a very quiet, “Oh my god, what am I gonna tell Ritsuko,” as I went down the hall. I couldn’t confirm or deny if it was Yoshi’s voice, though. Until—

“ONE!” came the very loud shout down the white corridor toward me.  “You hear me, Inspector?! One!  But that’s it, she’ll kill me otherwise! There’s a budget to think about!”

There was a shoosh from a passing nurse that could have bowled over a large dog, and Yoshi took a moment to apologize to her before hiss-pering at my back, “One!

I wouldn’t be admitting to anyone that I smiled just a little as I typed Marti’s number into the phone.

Yoshi, you’re a dream lieutenant, don’t ever change.

Chapter Text

A sunny late-afternoon on a quiet street in suburban Tokyo.  Birds chirping, spring flowers blooming. In the golden-hour sunlight, the familiar gate of my family’s Edo-period home swings open, revealing a carefully manicured rock garden even a monastery would be proud of.  Moving along the grey stepping stones to the front steps, I pass under the weeping cherry tree in full pink bloom, taking in the scents. The front door of the home is open to let in the breeze, and the good-luck wind chime hanging from the veranda clinks gently.

Underneath it, a white woman sits, knitting a tiny sweater.  She has a sweet smile down at her work and a relaxed air about her. Her crop of dark, curly red hair that the old housekeeper hates but I adore sits about her face and shines copper where the light hits it. Her feet are in stylish geta-esque sandals, but she wears simple western clothing for lounging around the house.

My heart swells at seeing her, and my shoulders instantly relax as her name crosses my mind.

My sweet Marti…

“Heeey!” I hail with burly zest. “Tadaima!”

“Hello there! O…okai…okaerinasai!”

Proud of her, I beam and proclaim, “I have a gift for you, my darling!”

“Oh?!” she smiles back delightedly.

I set down the brown paper grocery sack and dig inside of it.  A moment later, I produce a pudgy baby and hold it up to her, matching smiles on its face and mine as sakura petals fall gently between us.

“A baby!”

Marti’s face, however, is a little different, as the knitting needles fall out of her hands:

“WHAT?!”

I jerked awake with a snort, the sound of Marti’s screech in my ears. What I found in front of me as my eyes cleared was not my family’s ancestral home, but instead a cinderblock wall painted cream with plexiglass windows in the top half.  It was the middle of the night, judging by the darkness outside and the intensity of the fluorescent lights. I was sitting in one of the now-familiar (and utterly ubiquitous) hospital waiting chairs, my legs splayed out in front of me and my hands clasped on my abdomen.  My hat was askew on my head, previously being used to shade me from the light, and sleepily I shoved it back into place.

But as I shifted, I noticed something:

A weight on my shoulder, and a feathery-soft something against my cheek.

Turning carefully, I found a recognizable set of women’s pants, and a very recognizable color of red curls against my cheek.

Oh, she made it in…

With a sleep-heavy hand, I petted Marti’s hair before I could think better of it, reassured by the feel of the silky auburn curls going through my thick, calloused fingers.

At that, the middle-aged woman stirred, and after a few moments gave a tired hum.  Snuggled up against my side in the next chair over, her arm around mine, she lifted her head momentarily to greet me with a sloppy smile.  “’Eeey,” she leered, half charming and half sleepy, before putting her head back on my shoulder and taking a deep, drowsy breath.

As she settled back in, I set my hand over hers, where it lay relaxed over the doubled-up armrests.

How nice it was, to have her warmth beside me to wake up to, no matter where we were…

“Never thought I’d be sitting here with you,” she whispered suddenly into my coat.

I didn’t understand what she meant at first, but as I looked around, something in her tone matched up with the colorful paper decorations on the walls and turned the gears.

Oh, I realized, and that sweet warmth swelling in my chest spread a little more.

Yeah, it would have been nice, I thought with a bittersweet smile, seeing the very tops of the wheeled baby bassinets that held the regular newborns through the hallway picture window.

I checked my watch, but it was too late in the day to do anything. So I simply closed my eyes once more and rested my head against hers, making a stable shape.

Too bad it’s not possible anymore.

 

The morning came and much too early the nurses started making the rounds for feedings. But both Marti and I had had well enough of sleeping in chairs, so as I waited for Yoshi to find me this morning to announce the remainder of the crew packing up and leaving town, I wandered into the parents’ area to grab a coffee. I found several fathers there, milling around anxiously, and after a few reassuring nods to each other, I headed off to find Marti and deliver her cup of joe.  I wouldn’t be anywhere near the Italian black she was used to, but it’d keep her awake at least, after riding up here on a number of economy train seats yesterday.

But when I returned, I found her hallway seat empty.  Looking through the windows, I discovered the familiar burst of red hair in the Nicu room (which was adjacent to the normal infants’ observation room and connected by an internal door).  There were a couple of nurses flitting between the two rooms in their scrubs, picking up babies and feeding them.  Marti was in the middle of it all, attentively gazing over one incubator in particular.

It didn’t take long to figure out which one it was. I’d memorized the row and aisle number long ago.

“So this is the little troublemaker,” Marti said as I came over.  She didn’t seem to have any of the same uneasiness that I did in here.

Instead, she took her coffee in one hand with a short nod of thanks and then sidled up next to me. Her arm brushed mine, and soon, her free hand sought out mine. We stood watching over the tiny newborn like that, mugs in one hand and fingers entwined in the other.  In particular, she hooked two fingers around mine and swished her hips a little, like a schoolgirl might. It was the sort of thing she did when she was idling but wanting reassurance too.

“He’s so little,” she offered quietly, a fond smile on her face somehow.  “Poor thing.” 

“They said he looks about thirty-four weeks,” I replied, taking the moment to slug down some coffee—only to pause right before it got to my lips, and realize how grateful I should be that I was able to do something so normal at all. The baby below me couldn’t even swallow properly yet; its food was all intravenous.

I shook my head out with a short huff and sipped my drink. For her part, Marti’s hand left mine to touch at the incubator, a fingertip stroking down the hard plastic like a raindrop on a roof.

“Ah,” she noted.

Thirty-eight weeks was considered full-term, so 10% early wasn’t insurmountable, but obviously, it wasn’t great either, when what you wanted was the finished product. And indeed, he didn’t look quite right, but he didn’t look totally alien, either.  His body was a weird shape that didn’t match the size of his head, the limbs were frighteningly thin, and his skin was a strange texture and color.  His eyelids bulged in a puffy way that seemed a bit fish- or frog-like, and when he did happen to wiggle around, it wasn’t with playful awe and serendipitous wonder you saw on babies in magazines and TV, but instead suspiciously and withdrawn, like being touched physically hurt him and he wanted nothing to do with the waking world. He just wanted to be warm and left alone, which was frustrating when all I wanted to do was hold him and make him feel better.

Internally, I was told, everything was a little underdeveloped, but especially the lungs. Still, he had a very high chance of surviving thanks to modern medicine.  Any earlier than this and the odds would go down substantially per week, they’d said, but as it was, preemies this age were fairly common as the phenomenon went, and any hospital worth its accreditation knew how to take care of them.

“You worked with infants?” I asked Marti, in turn surprised at her lack of it.  She’d worked in a women’s prison’s medical ward; I supposed she might have come across them here and there, but…

She shook her head, a wistful smile on her face as her eyes glazed over at a fixed point in space.  “Nah. My daughter was early.”

“…Oh.” My face reddened. “S-sorry…”

But rather than letting me run away into my coffee mug, she just recaptured my hand in a tighter grip and squeezed it.

After a moment, I relaxed and squeezed her hand back; her shoulders seemed to fall a bit. We stayed like that for a time, until she suddenly perked up like a flower and said, “Hey. You think we can touch ‘im?”

I made a note of curiosity in the back of my throat, but before it could become words, she was flagging down a nurse and asking. To her credit, the Japanese was mostly accurate and entirely comprehensible even without the hand signals.

And just like that, our coffees set aside, we were being instructed on how to use the rubber gloves attached to the machine and what to do and not to do.  Marti was nodding along like she understood it all, which I knew she didn’t, but I had to acknowledge how good she was at faking it, somehow knowing exactly when to bow and nod and say thanks—even if it wasn’t always the right “thanks.” 

She probably figured she knew the whole business already, and admittedly, she probably did, but that’d been a long time ago, at least twenty years. Technology had no doubt improved and protocols changed, but I figured I could translate later when we weren’t taking up the nurse’s time, and well, Marti probably expected me to curb her enthusiasm should she be doing something incorrectly anyway. She knew I watched over things like that.

It was a complicated dance we did, steps all precisely interlocked, but one that was particularly easy for us somehow. Our puzzle pieces just fit together like that, I supposed.

And as I watched her check her nails, then slip her hands into the gloves and coo, I couldn’t help but wonder at that fact.

The fact that here I was, nearly fifty years old, standing in Japan next to my foreign partner of a slightly younger age, huddled around a baby in an incubator.

I snorted at myself, but couldn’t help but look down with a smile anyway.

At a baby…that wasn’t ours, and probably Lupin?

Well, that burst the happy bubble a bit.  A major bit.

I wonder if he’s still in there, judging all this?  Being mortified by what I’ve seen during a vulnerable moment, or just lapping up the attention from a pretty woman?

I tipped my head, watching as Marti’s hands maneuvered around the thin tubes in the case and delicately tucked around the baby’s head and body, curving to it like they were meant for each other.

No, that doesn’t make any sense.  The whole situation doesn’t make any sense, but scientifically it at least seems possible to create some kind of time-bomb rewind in a specific space or cohesion of cells; the guy was supposedly a genius of both biology and physics, which is what made him particularly dangerous and underfunded besides.  But how in the world could a baby brain remember an adult personality and all its memories?

There wouldn’t be enough space and processing power to do that, right? Whatever rewound the cells would rewind the neurons too.

Except…

Hadn’t I read somewhere that the brain actually had more neurons at the beginning of life, that then got pruned later?  Or no…was that just for neural connections, and that’s what caused synesthesia? 

Ah, hell… Why did Lupin’s heists always make me read up on all the latest literature of every scientific field?  Like I didn’t have enough actual work to do….

“There you go,” Marti was whispering in an encouraging tone over the infant. Inside his clear plastic carrying case, he was twitching a little, responding to her ministrations—or maybe just the warmth, I wasn’t sure.  But either way, he seemed to be relaxing a little, breathing a little easier…even if he did seem annoyed at being woken up.  He was a grumpy little baby.

Perhaps seeing that confusion on my face, Marti explained quietly, “Babies need to be held to develop a bond with their mothers, and other people in general. It lasts them their whole life, so it’s essential.  Being cold and alone scares them, because ‘cold and alone’ means abandonment. It means the imminent danger of predation.”  She flashed me a smile that was different than any of the others I’d ever seen on her, in a way I couldn’t quite place. It was both more matronly and more innocent than the others, somehow…

“Preemies especially,” she went on, gently touching the baby’s cheek so that it would turn to her finger reflexively. “They’re used to the warm bath that is the amniotic sac and the sound of the heartbeat too; they’re programmed to still be in there, so when they’re left in an incubator, they suddenly don’t have the inside of their metaphorical egg, or the warm arms of their mom, or the sound of her voice and heart. It makes them feel very anxious and unsettled, so you have to hold them as much as you can, even like this, if you want them to grow up well.”

The gentle sparkle in her eyes as she watched the child she cared for… It was motherly, I decided. And it was very attractive, in a strange way.  A tenderness that I both wanted to sweep up and cuddle and yet stand around and loudly protect in equal measure. It was a tangled, dichotomous bunch of instincts pinging around in me, looking at the woman I loved and this little baby in proximity to each other.

“Zeni?” she asked after I said nothing, smirking a bit at me.

“Uh…um.” I took a breath and gazed at an unused incubator nearby in the phalanx of them. “The sound of their voice?” I hedged, brain trying to catch up.

“Yeah,” she replied around a chuckle. “Newborns can recognize their mother’s voice, even from across a room or under glass like this.  It’s kinda cool.” Finally, her sunny smile fell, and her brows quirked down too. “This poor little guy’s not gonna get that… He’s gonna wonder where she is.”

“What…happens if they can’t ever find their mother?” I asked, feeling far more nervous than I thought I would.

She shrugged, but cupped the little form a bit tighter, I noticed. “It’s different for each child but generally it makes them anxious and it’s harder for them to attach to other people, because they’re always waiting for someone else.”

She tilted her head in thought, and I took the time to admire her over like that—familiar curves lit with a motherly air, and then the whole package of her and the baby. It was just as I was processing all the fuzzy feelings that came with, her eyes flicked over to me and her trademark mischievous smile quirked up. I was forced to realize, with some horror, that she then did the exact same up-down to me as I had done to her just now, but she achieved it with a much sharper glint in her eyes.

Women really were scary sometimes, I found myself thinking as exactly one eyebrow of hers quirked up over her smirk.

I matched that gesture, but with a question mark over my head.

Marti bit down a full-on smile about something she’d found and chuckled to herself. “Your turn,” she announced with a sly tone, slipping out of the gloves.

In the plastic terrarium, the baby curled up on itself and made a sad noise my ears wanted to identify as disappointment.  He couldn’t even see us, but he knew we were there, didn’t he?  Did he finally want us here with him?

Hesitantly, I came over and worked my way into the gloves. It was a weird feeling, totally alien to the idea of touching a loved one, let alone a baby. But if they said it helped, it must have.  Maybe warm-enough rubber could feel like skin, with the right grooves in it?

“Well, here I go, I guess,” I muttered down at the little thing, hoping I wouldn’t hurt him. He was incredibly delicate; I could easily damage his skin or break a bone or bruise him.  And nemesis or not, I certainly didn’t want that.

The infant was barely bigger than my hands, when he was curled up.  I didn’t tend to think of myself as being that big until moments like this—when I put my hand against Marti’s face to stroke her cheek, or saw us side by side in a mirror.  The pinnacle of such experiences, I supposed, suddenly remembering Toshiko, was cupping a baby’s head in your palm.

An entire person, more or less fitting in your hands... It made you feel like a giant.  One that had to be gentle.

But that was what I could indeed be, precisely because he needed me to be: A father that protected his family.

…Not that I was anyone’s father though, of course. Not anymore.

It was funny, though—I’d picked the little guy up in that house and hadn’t worried too much about it at the time; my training with Toshiko had come in then. But this…I was just a fish out of water and right back into “oh god I hope I don’t break it.”

You in there, mortal nemesis? I wondered as I touched his cheek too. …Or not?

His head turned a little toward my finger—which was ridiculously large against his face—but not a lot.  The rooting reflex was there, but only weakly yet.  Sometimes full-on newborns didn’t even have it, so if he could just get some strength, he’d probably be all right, right…?

“Hard to believe Lupin would just leave a bunch of children abandoned alone, though,” Marti said, crossing her arms and cocking a hip to one side. “D’you think he just ran into them in the house and left them for you all to round up?  One this little, you’d think he’d surrender just to make sure it wouldn’t get caught up in the crossfire.  Or maybe take it with if he was gonna just bail anyway? I remember he did that once, right…?”

I sucked in a rather tellingly large breath, but luckily for me, she kept going, early morning twinges of her “Italian mother fury” noticeably growing bit by bit:

“And you didn’t find their parents? Or any sign of them?”

It wasn’t like I could actually tell Marti any of those things, considering the department rules, but Yoshi and I hadn’t submitted our reports yet and there wasn’t going to be anything in them about the particular piles of clothing we had found these kids in, either. She’d have no way of discovering the exact circumstances on her own, so as I looked around, checking to see who was listening, it wasn’t an entirely unexpected response from me.

Nor was the open-mouthed gape I gave a few times in her direction as I thought my words over. “Well, um…”

And yet, my flub was saved, because Marti went on with her thoughts without me:

“I heard the townsfolk don’t want them around,” she went on at a hush, eyes narrowing. “They think that house is bad luck and the kids are…what’s the word? Yokai?  Little low-level demon spawn?”

I decided to clench my mouth shut for the time being on the elephant in the room and nodded several times.  “Yup.  That’s…yup.”

It was exactly as she described it: The home where the heist had occurred was on the outskirts of a tiny village on a spooky peak, and we weren’t even in the hospital there; we were in the next large town nearby. And yet even then, there were only one or two nurses who were willing to work with the misfits I’d found, and only hesitantly. 

Even after the headline in the paper with Yoshi’s heroic picture (or perhaps because of it), the general townie consensus was that they wanted nothing to do with a bunch of mystery children. The local government response two days ago had no doubt been part of that, I hated to admit.

But given who I suspected these infants were, they were rather justified in their misgivings. After all, children found in the middle of the woods generally didn’t turn out well in Japanese folktales, even after they grew up…

“Stupid, ignorant, backward thinking,” Marti muttered around her coffee, having picked it up again, if just to have something to do.  “They’d leave a child in the woods because of where they thought it came from.  Where I come from, field-babies are the babies of gods, and you take care of them because they’ll take down the legendary snake bothering the village or something.”

I shrugged. If this really was Lupin…would he turn out any different if he were raised by somebody else?  Or would he just go back to robbing banks because, well, he’d grown up with a cop and knew all about how to get away with it?  Would the moral compass of the people around him make any difference at all? If we were talking about legendary snakes and cast-off yokai, the answer was probably not.

Idly, I pulled my hand away from the baby’s shoulder and curled my hands in front of him instead while I thought about what to do next.  He was indeed calmer now, and looked to be going back to sleep. Slowly, I reached out a finger, pressing it gently up against his hand.

Instead of taking it, he balled his hands into tiny fists, trying to get away from the intrusion.

“Ah…you want your mother, huh,” I whispered.  “And to go back into the…am…amni…the lady blood bath. Well, can’t blame you, really,” I thought, pulling my hands out of the gloves and stepping back to let him sleep.

But when I turned to Marti, she was standing in the aisle looking at me strangely, almost conflicted over her coffee mug. In my pockets, my hands were feeling oddly warm, and I couldn’t help but think back to the thoughts of angels earlier. The locals may have thought of demons, but no doubt Marti would ascribe this feeling to some kind of Virgin-Mary style blessing.

And I had to say, I liked her interpretation better. But—

“So,” she began, face grim as she looked from the incubator to me, “What now?”

I shrugged helplessly.  What, indeed…

It could be a really nasty prank, for sure. But in the event that it wasn’t…

No one would ever believe the truth, but if Lupin and his whole gang disappeared out of the blue one day, the criminal world would assume they were in a ditch; conspiracy theorists would assume they were living on a remote island under new identities; and law enforcement around the world would keep an eye on the files but generally breathe a sigh of relief once they were moved from active to cold, and then go hunt down someone else with their tax dollars and precious time.

It really wouldn’t change anything for anyone except the people in my department, the safe makers in the world, and…little Lupin here.

Who was both philosophically and legally speaking now totally innocent of any previous crimes. He had a clean slate—they all did—and…it was actually a perfect opportunity to make sure they never committed another crime again.

It was actually a wonderful opportunity to put them onto the straight and narrow, all the way from the beginning.  But how?

As I stayed silent, Marti came near.

“Zeni,” she whispered, “on the phone, you said something about these guys needing foster homes…”

Slowly, I turned a pleading look up at her. To her credit, the breath that sucked into her lungs wasn’t too angry.

“So should I assume…you want to…”

But just as she was about to say the final words, there came a scream.

High-pitched and female, it came from the next room over.

“A fire?”

“An attacker?”

I immediately pulled my hands away from the baby, and I rushed after Marti over to the connecting door, coffee forgotten.

But reaching for the doorknob revealed a coded lock that wouldn’t open.  “Dammit…!” she cursed. “What’s going on in there?!”

We both looked through the glass, which itself was reinforced. It was the room with the normal infants—and until we could find someone to take them, the tiny versions of what I assumed to be Jigen, Fujiko, Goemon, and the other one.

And that was exactly where I saw something very strange indeed:

Smoke. 

Coming out of one of the baby beds.  And then—another.  And then, a very strange sound, not unlike the sound of a crab claw breaking a vacuum bubble underwater.

Poff!

Poff! Poff! Poff!

To this sound, all the nurses were running out of the room.

Out of it. And the smoke was white, not black—which meant it wasn’t a fire.  It was water vapor, or possibly a chemical.

POFF!!

A last noise went off, much closer this time.  Marti and I instantly turned—and I knew without having to look which incubator was going to be the culprit.

Darting back to mini-Lupin’s bedside, I found his incubator totally full of white vapor.  I couldn’t see through it at all.

“Hey! Somebody! Help! I need a nurse over here!” I shouted, and when Marti came over, I motioned her outside. “Get to the other room and figure out what’s going on.  It’s gotta be some side effect of the—”

But by then the staff nurse had rushed over, and I simply finished my statement with a wordless growl and Marti headed off without needing to be told any more, ready to rescue through the front door. The nurses had been running without taking other infants with them, which meant something had scared them, rather than there being some sudden hazard in there they had to get the kids away from.

“What in the world is going on in here?” the nurse exclaimed. “Please step back!”

Wondering the same thing, I did as told, and within seconds she’d turned off all the machines, including the oxygen tube. With practiced hands, she ripped open the plastic lid of the contraption and waved away the gas.

And underneath—

Was a baby looking up at us with big blue eyes, who was, most definitely, not the same baby I’d been comforting a moment ago.

Well it was, genetically speaking, but it wasn’t a baby at the same time.

The nurse noticed this immediately as well.  She frowned, then did a double take at the name card.

“What? This…this isn’t…? Who is—?”

But just as she was about to scoop up the little baby, I put a hand on her wrist to stay her.

She gave me a furious look, but I stared her down and, with all the theatrical fear and warning I could muster, whispered,

Yokai.”

The look on her face could have belonged to a terrified cat. She ballooned to about twice her normal size, and then a second or two later, her hands sprung back like a jack-in-the-box.

Without a word, she scurried away to the nurses’ station, where I could hear the unit’s overseer already dealing with several frightened, crying workers from the other room.  And then, she added her voice to the fray, panicked and sobbing.

I looked between the two rooms and then let out a long breath, scrubbing a hand through my hair. The baby below me, who was on his back and gazing up at me curiously, finally looked like a normal baby, but just that and no more.

Around us, many of the babies had woken up and started crying from the commotion. But after a moment, Lupin yawned and then started falling asleep again. 

“You little troublemaker,” I muttered, drawing the breathing tube away from his nose and picking him up.  The IV line had fallen out in the chaos, and his little eye hat and socks had ripped apart too. The diaper had sprung open, so I put it back together, though it just barely, sort-of fit with the velcro. “You and your crew just have no respect for anything, do you. Nurses...sleeping hours…growing-up procedures…”

I sighed as I held him against my shoulder, with no choice but to watch the chaos unfold. Workers confused and furious in one room; a crop of babies sounding alarms; and Marti, in the other room, visible through the glass, inspecting the other four cases as best she could.

Still, as I waited for the nurses to return, Lupin’s little hands curled into my clothing, and I couldn’t help but feel some of that bonding instinct Marti was talking about. 

I hoped he was feeling some of it, too, because it looked like he was going to grow up a little faster than I’d expected, and he’d need all the kindness he could get. They all would...

Chapter Text

The mountain mansion looked dramatically different in the daytime. There was an old home in the complex, specifically an old treasure shed under which the man’s workshop had a secret entrance, but there was a modern component as well. One by one, I was walking through the rooms with Officer Suzuki, a young but bright member of my forensics team who was aiming to be an administrator someday.

The area was still cordoned off but all of the evidence had been taken already. Usually, unless Lupin hit a museum, we weren’t allowed to do more than a cursory forensic analysis afterward, given the delicate political nature of his heists. But here, the team was able to go full bore and had enjoyed the chance.

Part of me was instinctively rankled with the indignity and audacity of him hitting somewhere in Japan.  But another part of me was proud that if he was going to screw up somewhere, it would be in my home country. And maybe a little bit glad, for the situational control it offered me.

If, of course, what I thought had happened had really happened, and he wasn’t just in a hotel room somewhere snickering at us.

My going theory about the children was nigh on unbelievable, but so was everything else with Lupin. Lost treasures, forgotten theorems, religious and political conspiracies, impossible inventions and the occasional divine object or supernatural intervention…not to mention just the mechanics of the heists themselves. I’d seen a lot of shit chasing this man around the world. Things that would probably make me rich if I ever bothered to sit down and write a book about it.

Something for retirement I suppose, I muttered to myself, as my feet carefully crunched over glass.  Should we all be so lucky as to get there in one piece…

Suzuki and I were currently in the basement lab.  There were multiple labs in the place, as the scientist had turned almost every room into one experiment zone or another.  A particularly concerning one was the greenhouse on the top floor, which was being considered as a biohazard it was so overgrown with species no one could quite identify.

The bedrooms, where I’d found the clothes and the children, were on the middle floors, seeped in light at the moment. Suzuki and I were completing a walkaround of the house, her reading off the cataloged evidence from an iPad for me as I put pieces together in my mind.  We’d started from the top and worked our way down.

Aside from the signs of intense combat that Lupin’s crew had likely caused, the house’s common areas at least attempted to look normal. The basement, however, was something otherworldly.

It was half machines and half plants. Cables of all thicknesses hung down from the ceiling, crisscrossed the floor, or went between tables at hip level; foliage of exotic plants of every color glowed under lamps of an equal rainbow of hues.  There were fabrication tables in another room nearby, heavy machinery designed for making other machinery, and not a plant was in sight. The room we were currently standing in, however, had banks of computer monitors and expensive microscopes of all different types mixed in with its plants, metal tables, petri dishes, and fridges.  And, in one very curious instance in the middle of the room: an acrylic table-style habitat full of frogs.

“Specialist Suzuki,” I said, coming to a stop in front of that table.  “What do you see?”

“I see…” She looked around studiously in the sallow light of the home-brew lighting setup, humming slowly.  “Someone whose brain mixed disciplines together to glorious but disastrous result.”

A chuckle popped out of me at that despite it all. It was certainly true, but not exactly what I was going for.

“You know, I think you might be a better profiler than a tech. Are you sure I can’t convince you out of it?”

She was silent for a second, trying very seriously to figure out the right thing to say to my joke. “Thank you, Inspector sir. I am under your tutelage, so whatever you pick for my career I will gladly follow.”

As I stared at the table, side-by-side with her, I sucked in a breath and nodded. In front of us, the tiny native frogs croaked an evening song because of the light’s temperature in the windowless room. “It’s important to have your own dreams, Suzuki. But I appreciate that you would consider my expertise that highly.”

“That’s why we work for you, sir. Your team delights in your abilities and learning from them.”

I knew this would go around forever if I let it—she was new to the team, and of far lower rank than me, and a woman in what was still a man’s discipline, so she hadn’t yet fully accepted the relatively relaxed interpersonal culture I lead on my team compared to most Japanese squadrons—so I decided to direct her instead toward the task at hand.

“Tell me the things you see here. In the room.”

“May I ask what the end goal is?”

I glanced at her, the stoic equivalent of an eyebrow raised.  But she wasn’t trying to be obtuse or game the system; she was just the type who needed to know the shape of the box, otherwise she’d inevitably pick a point way outside of it. Her brain just didn’t work the same way most people’s did; in a world of starting points A-E, she would always start at F and then wonder why people couldn’t understand her.

She was, I suspected, like Lupin that way, but I didn’t know for sure, having rarely had this sort of exercise to conduct with him.  She’d asked for my help with it, though, and so here we were.  I needed another set of eyes on this case in the first place, but I also needed, procedurally speaking, to be accompanied whenever checking out a place with potential evidence (a safeguard against someone getting the idea to plant some), and she’d been available and willing this morning, while the rest of the team was either back in Tokyo already or dealing with other tasks at the command post.

She looked around, trying again.  “Plants.”

Suzuki was going as basic as possible; good. I smiled a bit and coaxed, “Plants in what condition?”

“They’re…” at that, a light seemed to dawn on her, and her posture relaxed as she took in new information from her eyes. “They’re well-cared for.  There isn’t a single dead one.”

“Exactly.” In fact, they were so far into the thriving category that the place was overgrown, every last inch of it.  “What else do you see?”

“A lot of them. More than one person can reasonably take care of.”

“Right. So there’s gotta be hydraulic systems, right?”

“Yes. There’s evidence of that.” She pointed at hoses linking the hydroponic setups buried beneath the various plants’ massive foliage. They went all around the room, though they were rather hard to see given the jungle-like nature of the place.

“Did he engineer them himself?” I continued. “Looking at the rest of the machinery here, it’s fair to say he can fabricate mechanical devices; so was he also fabricating vertically integrated lifecycle systems?”

“What do you mean?” she asked, watching a frog as it jumped from a log into the water with a quiet splish.

“These plants aren’t normal. They don’t look like anything we’ve ever seen before—they’ve been hybridized or genetically manipulated somehow.  And yet he’s able to keep them all alive. Did he perhaps have a special formula for that?”

She hummed as she thought this over. I went on, “A person like this…with a mind like this, as you mentioned…the machines and systems are just a means to an end. What we’re seeing is the environment built for something, not the final product. What was the actual goal?” I nodded down at the frogs.  “Plants are one thing, and they’re all over the house, but then suddenly here are animals, closest to the perp’s desk. What is the point of the frogs? And what can we infer from their proximity to his most trafficked spot?”

I’d asked it as a legitimate question seeking an answer, and sure enough, her encyclopedic knowledge came through:

“Frogs…” she began, slowly mulling it over, “Are often used as an indicator of ecological health because they are very sensitive to their environment. Pollutants really screw with the development, in a very visible and traceable way.”

I nodded, considering it.  This was a place that, at first glance, seemed like a disordered mind had made it, given the post-it notes and items half buried under massive leaves. But that was more a function of the day-to-day requirements of operating under a mound of genius in a confined space, rather than a reflection of the person’s capacity to complete a project.  There was no evidence that each plant itself was a project; no logs and notes about individual plant experiments, no successive generations all next to each other. They could have been burned before we arrived, but I felt like we were missing something.  Some piece of the puzzle.

It felt like this person had either gotten done with their plant research and moved to the next stage, or the plants were just to be the foundation for something else, the hobby on the way to the big thing that was occupying this intensely dedicated mind.

“Frogs also have a short life cycle, with distinct stages,” she finished, and as soon as she said that, it was like a train had struck me.

A short lifecycle, with distinct stages—perfect for testing a way to turn cells back in time.

Which, in more scientific terms, made it perfect for reversing cells back to stem states

I looked around the room again, suddenly seeing it anew.  “These plants,” I muttered to Suzuki.  “Are they medicinal, by any chance?”

“I don’t know,” she stated, troubled. “As you mentioned, nobody seemed to be able to identify them. They were all slightly different from recognizable plants.”

So were they isolated back into prototypical states, and then grew back…wrong?

That did not, by any stretch of the imagination, bode well for the babies back in the Nicu an hour away in town.

 


 

“So…” Marti began, standing outside the hospital’s front door with a newborn in her arms, “What exactly is the plan here?”

Suzuki and the other few souls on my team still in the area were an hour away finishing the last steps at the mansion, and would be back in Tokyo by nightfall; everyone else had gone back to the office already.  And so now, here I was on a bench outside the hospital, having a cafeteria sandwich lunch on a crisp, Fall Friday morning, with Yoshi, Marti, five infants, and a single squad car left between us to get home with.

They kids were all in little baby baskets on the sunny concrete patio. The European baby bundling kits were a bit like the human equivalent of a shoebox for a cat. It was just the right size for an infant, sized until about the time they grew enough to turn themselves over, at which point you’d upgrade to a slightly bigger one. They were made to prevent SIDS, among other things, and were a decent cradle that kept them safe and snug and supported but still let them wiggle a bit. Each kid had a colorful felt blanket of a different color wrapped around them: red for Lupin, black for Jigen, grey for Goemon, pink for Fujiko, and white for the fifth one.  (I’d picked the colors to help keep them straight, until I could learn to tell them apart a little better.)

And that fifth one was the curious one. The scientist Lupin had hit was presumably, and reportedly, Japanese, though no one knew for sure.  But this baby was a little blondie. Not quite of the cornsilk kind, but definitely of a hue that honey came in. And he’d had an ID in his clothes that indicated a French national Caucasian.  The name wasn’t any I knew, and preliminary reports from the team had come back as a fake.  There was nobody named Michele Bluebelle in the entire world.  So who the heck was this guy?

Some accomplice of Lupin’s presumably, though maybe someone who’d gotten caught in the crossfire? But there was also the possibility it was some friend or minion of the scientist’s.  There was really no way to know at this point, given what we had to work with.

It looked like I might get a chance to find out, though. It’d been about a week since the crime itself and a day since the children had pulled their stunt of mysteriously and spontaneously…well, growing up.  Shifting moments in time, perhaps you could call it.  It made sense that it was only a matter of time until it happened again.

No one had reported the frogs or plants doing any such thing, but that didn’t matter; it was happening to this group.  The obvious conclusion was that Lupin and his crew—or whomever these children were—would grow up, and sooner rather than later.  The best outcome at the moment was that this age-regressed state was temporary, and perhaps highly temporary. The other outcome, though, was that they’d go through all the stages, past where they’d originally been when they’d gotten zapped, and die just as quickly too.

And if that were the case, I wasn’t sure how I’d handle watching that.  I wasn’t sure how Lupin would handle that.

Especially if, along the way, they ended up with deformities and cancers, like the plants.

So as I looked up from the baby peacefully sleeping in the basket between my legs, to Marti, all I could meet her with was concerned silence.

Yoshi, standing beside her with his arms crossed and a thoughtful frown on his face as he ate an apple wholesale, looked around at all the children—who had more or less been thrown out of the hospital on complaints of supernatural phenomenon—and then at her and me in turn.

“We gonna tell the boss about this, now?” he prompted, tone grim, when I said nothing.

In the basket, baby Jigen twitched a bit as he gnawed on his blanket’s edge.  I sighed and picked up his pacifier (also black, but sparkly), and set it back in his mouth. He gave me a look like he knew what I was up to, and wanted to go back to chewing on felt just to piss me off, but eventually he accepted it with a sigh. An actual sigh, aggrieved and delicate and huffed out through his tiny little nose.

“I think we have to,” I muttered down at those dark eyes, a hollow sound.

 


 

Later that day, the three—well, eight—of us made it back to Tokyo, but before any of us could go home, I had to have a meeting with my boss to okay it.  As Marti and Yoshi were in the car feeding the babies with formula, I trudged up the stairs of the Interpol branch and into my boss’s office, where a very uncomfortable report began.

And when it concluded, my boss stared at me in silence for a very long time.  Eventually, he started blinking rapidly, and then shook his head out. I could almost see everything I’d said falling out of his ears in different fonts and colors and case.

“…Magical children,” he stated. My boss, a French man in his sixties, decided the next step was to stare at me with bureaucratic incredulity of the highest caliber from across his desk.  “That sounds like what you just said to me.  Is that what you just said to me, Zenigata?”

“No, sir,” I replied as steadfastly as I could, standing at attention and staring politely above his head.  The last vestiges of evening sunlight was streaming in through the wooden blinds, leaving the gaudy carpet pattern awash with a wane but fire-colored zebra stripe. “Adults who have been caught up in a scientific experiment that went wrong, who appear to be having some curious side effects.”

“That sounds like fucking magic to me, Zenigata,” he insisted, voice getting ever more strangled and harried. “Do you need time off? Is this your way of telling me you need time off?”

“No, sir.” I took a deep breath and flexed my fingers in the folds of my coat, trying not to let my eyes actually roll as I stared at the crown molding resolutely. “It was witnessed by multiple people and I would prefer the spooks not get them.”  My gaze flicked down to him, finally. “Because we both know they would, if I put it in my report.”

He watched me back carefully, and finally, finally he took me seriously.  He glanced away silently, his mouth resting behind folded hands.  It was not the look of someone who was looking for a refutation, but rather, a solution.  He knew what I’d said was true, and would happen sooner rather than later if the ball got rolling.

“So what do you propose,” he articulated carefully after a while.

I let out a sigh of relief I didn’t know I’d been holding onto, my shoulders drooping. “Lieutenant Yoshi and I would like to look after them in our own homes until such a time as the situation can be fully assessed and deemed free of potential dangers and complications to their persons.  After all, these are material witnesses in an ongoing case and the nature of their condition might not be appropriate for a traditional foster situation, even for those specializing in child witnesses.”

It was then, unfortunately, that my boss’s look flickered slightly. His brow quirked down, and ever so slowly, his head tipped back.

“Who do you think these people are, then?” he asked shrewdly.  “If you genuinely believe them to be viable witnesses that are going to talk to us someday soon.”

I went back to staring at the ceiling as I thought my answer over. I had a good poker face, but it wasn’t perfect after the all-day ride I’d had, what with five children in baskets spread between three adults, and Yoshi and I driving very carefully to compensate for the lack of child car seats.

Normally, I’d try to get around telling him by saying something clinical like I suspect them to be involved somehow but it has yet to be determined in which capacity, but if they did, in fact, grow up spontaneously over the next few months, he was going to figure out who they were, and I’d look like a total fool once he figured that out.

“…It’s Lupin,” I said finally, to which my boss’s eyes flew open. “And his crew.  Plus someone else yet to be identified.”

As he beheld me unblinkingly, my boss’s head turned one way, then the other, not unlike an owl furiously staring down an object of interest.  And then:

“Is this a joke?” A manic smile tugged at one side of his face, and he started to chuckle hysterically. “This is a prank, right?  Where are the cameras?” The director looked around the room, his voice growing ever more uneasy as he did so. “Seriously, tell me. This is nuts.” He turned back to me, a wild look in his eyes.  “You, Zenigata, are nuts.”

“I wish I was, sir.”

We exchanged a stare, and it did not feel good to be the calm one. In fact, eventually, my eyebrows tipped up sympathetically, and I think that was when my boss cracked entirely. He frowned deeply in concern, and slowly, looked around the room again with a dark laugh. “I need a drink…”

He did, in fact, reach into his lowest desk drawer and produce the Friday Afternoon Scotch. I stood there as he did it, realizing with some despair that I wouldn’t get any once he took a swig straight from the bottle. After he slugged that back, he leaned back in his chair and cradled the bottle to his chest in one hand, and rested his other elbow on the desk, like it was the only safe memory of France he had to hold onto.

Setting his chin heavily on his knuckles, he just sat there thinking for a long time, the very picture of institutional troubles, and I left him to it, standing in silence on the red carpet like a good subordinate who’d brought his boss unfathomable problems once more.

“If you’re right,” he said eventually, once the power of the sunlight coming through the slats had waned noticeably, “What do you want to do about it?”

He’d been staring at the wall conflictedly the whole time, clearly trying to reconcile his understanding of science. His eyes flicked over to me worriedly, looking like they needed support.

“Well we can’t tell anyone, obviously. The spooks’ll show up and we’ll never see them again.”

He nodded, then took another drink.  “You didn’t put anything about this in your report, I assume.”

“No sir. I simply mentioned finding the children in an upstairs room, no extenuating circumstances or details.”

“And nothing about what’s happened since?”

“None. Though I will follow your final direction on both, of course.”

This did not elicit much of a reaction; in fact, he bit his lip and brooded further in silence, running an overwhelmed hand over his stubble.

“So you want to…take care of them?” he finally said.

“On the company dime, if we can.”

He sighed. My boss hung his head, and then slugged another shot back. The bottle glittered in the last light of sunset, leaking into the room.

“They’re witnesses with a ‘complication,’” I explained, using the industry jargon. “Agents really need to be taking care of them, given what evidence might bubble up out of them at any point, but none of us are making enough to pay for it out of pocket since there are so many of them.  There’s forms for that sort of thing, right?”

“There are…if you can justify it,” he muttered dryly, warily.  “In exceptional circumstances.” 

“I think we can make an argument for the last part. Consider it a kind of surveillance,” I went on, having thought about it on the way down here.  “Think about it, sir. There’s two opportunities here: either, they grow up and go back to thievery, in which case we get lots of dirt about them in the meantime and a ticket straight to jail once they’re recognizable, or—they grow up and don’t go back to crime, in which case my influence may rid the world of their scourge for good.”

Your influence,” he repeated, eyeing me.

I stilled, but not before my mouth fell open slightly. Shit.

“You live with that Italian now, right? The redhead? …Marsha? Maria?”

“Marti.”

“So that’s how you’re gonna do it…” he sighed. “You can’t just leave a bunch of kids at home with your girlfriend and act like that’ll go over well. Even if she is Italian and says she likes big families, hers isn’t here and you don’t have any.  Take it from me, that won’t work for very long, especially with these…complications.”  He winced at the word, though I wasn’t sure if it was about his own past or the situation at hand. “And if it’s Lupin’s crew…they’re going to be holding her hostage by the time they’re eight.”

“Probably six,” I admitted with a sigh.  “But don’t underestimate her, she’s as crafty as they are.”

“That is not necessarily reassuring. What if they corrupt you, and you stop being able to do your job?”

I snorted and shook my head. “Hardly.”

“Zenigata.” His tone shifted, to one with more finality. “I worry about you sometimes, you know.”

I straightened my back instinctively, even if my jaw was a bit tighter than it should have been. “I know, sir.”

“You get all these crazy schemes in your head chasing this crazy guy. And I know you’re good at it, but sometimes I worry.  I wouldn’t worry if you took home five fish. I would worry if you suddenly adopted five cats. And yet this is people.  People. Are you sure you don’t just want a wedding and a vacation?  Because that I can reasonably give you…”

“Yoshi’s taking one of them, but I understand what you’re getting at, sir.”

“Oh hell, you roped Yoshida into this? That poor man… Does anyone else know?”

“Just him and Marti. And before you get mad about that, she was standing there when it happened.”

“Why was she there at all?” he squawked, completely rejecting my request. “She doesn’t have authorization to work for you. She never will, not in this country, I keep telling you that…”

“Beeeecause, I wanted her help in taking them home, since they were going to my house anyway,” I admitted.  “Thought it would be a better sell if she saw them first, and well, she was more than willing to make the journey up there so I figured she’d be a good advisor free of charge in the meantime, since the locals didn’t want to bother...”

“You didn’t invoice that, did you?” he mourned.

“Not at all. She used her own money, as was specified clearly from the start of the conversation.”

“Well that’s good at least,” he sighed.  “It still gets you on thin ice though…as if the rest of this didn’t. But look.”

“Yessir.”

He came forward and, setting the alcohol aside, braced both elbows on the desk and pointed at me with both hands cupped together like a spearhead.

“This is what we’re gonna do. You’re gonna give me weekly reports about what you observe, what you learn, and what your concerns are coming and going from those developments you discover. Tomorrow by noon, you will have a brief on my desk about why this is necessary and relevant, in language I can use to get you all funding. You are not to speak a word about who you suspect these children to be to anyone, and in the meantime, I will try to keep the press off it. But make no mistake, they will probably come around because lord knows the world ain’t got enough sob stories to consider and there’s only so much we can do to deny their requests before they sense something’s up and come at us harder.” Here, he took a deep breath, his hands parting to admit his forehead into them.  “You got that?”

“Yessir,” I stated firmly, managing to keep my voice neutral. A tiny smile of triumph twitched at one side of my face, though luckily, he wasn’t paying attention.

“Furthermore. If they keep doing this…timey-wimey thing,” he went on, lifting his head and waving his hand with a crinkle of his nose, “you bring them into me if and when they become aware of who they are. I want to read Lupin the fucking riot act about all the taxpayer dollars he’s wasted over the years, if nothing else.”

I snorted, but when my boss shot me a glare, I nodded quickly.  “Sure, yes, absolutely sir.”

He nodded too, gears turning, but then rapped on his desk to conclude the meeting.  “Hell, maybe if you bring them into the office once in a while, they’ll learn cops aren’t all bad and switch sides.  Though—wait, what am I saying, that’d be awful, they’d be horrible cops. They’d all be corrupt and pull stunts like you do besides.”

“Well, Fujiko might be a good spy, at any rate.”

“That’s true…”

“Jigen would be great on narcotics and Goemon would be one hell of a solider.”

“That’s probably true too…” Suddenly, my boss eyed me and his airy tone turned into a wary one. “And Lupin?”

“Ah…hrm.  Tech maybe?”

“God help us.” The director glanced away toward his blinds with a scoff. “He’d be like fucking Snowden, except smart enough not to get caught.”

“Would that be so bad, really?” The way he’d gone about it hadn’t been great, but I particularly liked whistleblowers, as a species.

However, my boss immediately eyed me with a black look that said, Are you a fucking moron, and I was forced to bow my head apologetically for even bringing up that potential governmental aneurism. 

Still, the silence that followed was somber, rather than tense. The sun had now set, and the fiery hues had switched over to the wane, silvery color of LED street lights. “In any event, I hope you also realize that if they don’t pull their little trick anymore, you can’t keep them.”  His blue eyes trained on me, with a particular edge to them. “If parents never come to find them, and they just grow like normal, you’ll have to put them into the system.  You and Marti cannot physically take care of four or five children and to try would be to do a disservice to them.”

I sucked in a deep breath, wishing for all the world that I didn’t agree with him deep down.

“Are you clear about your orders? Brief: noon tomorrow; weekly updates; don’t tell anybody; fear the press; keep coming to work; don’t expect too much from Marti, and for God’s sake man, listen to her when she says she’s had enough.”

“Roger, sir.”

He nodded, then plucked up the bottle once more.  “Sorry I drank out of this, would give you some, but…” He rolled his eyes, shaking his head at himself. “The feeling just took me away for a moment, and I think I might need the whole bottle, after this.”

“Sorry, sir.”

He shook his head and waved me out. “I suggest you get your own for this weekend. You’re gonna need it. Dismissed.”

Chapter Text

Just like that, I was walking out of the station to a waiting car, where a certain lieutenant was going to drive me, Marti, and Yoshi home with our new charges.

“So glad to have you back, sir!” chimed Oscar from the driver’s seat as I put on my seatbelt.

“Glad to be back, Lieutenant Oscar.”

Oscar was, in theory, a junior-rank French detective in his mid-twenties, androgynously handsome and fashionable to boot. However, he had a bad habit of pissing off his bosses in one way or another, each instance of which was completely different from the last and rather incoherent when put all together. He was currently in hot water once again since graduating the academy and had been transferred over to my unit to learn to fix that—or just flounder forever in career obscurity until he got himself fired for good.

The other departments loved foisting their lost causes off on me because I wouldn’t complain too hard about it so long as they weren’t actually corrupt, and also because international art repatriation was generally considered to be the least sexy policework of all time (and chasing Lupin was pretty thankless at the end of the day, too). It was considered a division that attracted intellectuals—and a place to put introverted people you were punishing due to the long hours, high failure rate, and travel time. 

And though Oscar was high maintenance at times, he worked hard, so I welcomed him into my misfit group all the same. While Yoshi was my right-hand man and closest confidant, at Captain rank, he had a role akin to a vice-commander with his own direct reports; Oscar, on the other hand, was my deputy, kind of like my understudy, the lowest-rank officer on the tree and having no direct reports. He was supposed to be kept close so that I could keep an eye on him and mold him, and in the land of militaristic hierarchies, sometimes that meant him doing trivial things like this with the expectations of a good attitude attached.

“Quintuplets, how exciting, Ms. Martelli!  And from two fathers! Fascinating!”

…Even if he was being a ham about it.  One of these days, I was hoping a drunken holiday party would find his anxiety and Suzuki’s quirks mixing together in a bedroom, but alas, it hadn’t happened yet. She had taken one look at him and claimed he was “detestable,” and that had been that.

Har har, Young Oscar,” Marti quipped from the front passenger seat.  “You just wish you were one of them, cuddled up against me like this.”

“I do not!” he squeaked, and the redness that instantly rose up his neck made me glance aside in dry amusement. My gaze happened to land on Yoshi, and he elbowed me silently, razzing.

“I may be ‘the popular one,’” Yoshi whispered to me in Japanese so that Marti couldn’t hear, “but you’ve got the one everyone wants.”  He winked, then leaned back and yawned, pulling the baby basket in his lap closer to himself.

“Nah,” I whispered back, looking at Tiny Lupin in his basket in my own lap. He was looking much healthier; and grown even bigger, Goemon and Jigen were similarly ensconced on the floor between Yoshi and me. Marti, in the front seat, was holding Fujiko in her arms, rocking her slightly as she fed her from a bottle. The hospital staff had given Fujiko a little pink ribbon over her bald head, and it caught the street lights as we drove. “You have the wife everyone agrees is ‘perfect,’” I whispered back.

His wife was right around his age—they’d been college sweethearts—and was the paragon of Japanese wifely virtue, handling any situation with grace and humility that adhered in an almost textbook way to societally acceptable principles.  Marti, on the other hand, was just about the opposite of that in every way, especially now that she was in Japan. Even Oscar, who was white as could be and cross-dressed with the visual kei crowd on the weekends, fit into some (admittedly very niche) segments of Japanese society better than Marti could ever hope to.

“Ah, true, but you have never liked those kinds of women, have you?” Yoshi replied, gazing down at the baby in his lap with a fond smile, tickling its stomach when the boy looked up at him.  “When I first met you, I never would have pegged you as a guy who’d like foreigners, but now that I know you better, I can’t see anything else working. I’m happy for you, really.” He gave me a wicked side look. “Even if your kids are gonna have terrible diets from Italian bento.”

I laughed, the first time I’d done that since this whole debacle started.  The others in the car keyed into this, but in the end, they said nothing, and my eyes only turned down to the little wiggler in my lap, who was looking at the lights coming through the car windows with great interest. 

Kids…yeah. With my pretty foreign lady who’s not afraid to kick some ass and be different, just like me.

Even if the time with these kids didn’t last as long as it was supposed to, it was a time I was going to cherish. That promise at least, I could keep to myself.

“Well, I suppose I have to brief you all about what’s going to happen over the next few months. Speak your concerns and complaints now, or forever hold your peace… Well, at least until they go ‘poff’ again, I suppose.”

“‘Poff’…?” Oscar asked.

“Nothing, lieutenant. Keep driving and hear nothing. You are not to repeat a word of this to anyone, even anyone on the team, got it?”

“O…okay…”

“What’s the word?”

“R-roger sir…”

“Again.”

“Roger sir!”

“There we go.”

Yoshi chuckled, and even Marti looked off slyly.  “You’ll get it eventually,” she encouraged quietly from the front seat, and he mumbled back a bitter, “Yes ma’am, thank you ma’am,” as his grip tightened around the steering wheel and his face burned.

Oh well; some humility before his elders was good for him.

Meanwhile, Yoshi laid his head back on the seat, tired eyes closed.  Marti continued holding Little Fujiko.  For their part, the babies didn’t seem to care, well fed and tucked warmly into their blankets on the way to their new homes.  Only Lupin stayed awake, gazing up intently at the things around him as if making up for lost time.

And for my part, I just looked down into his fascinated eyes, wondering what exactly in that mind of his had turned him into the generation’s greatest thief (and a particularly incorrigible ladies’ man, always desperate for female attention).

“Was your mother not there for you enough, huh?” I whispered down at him in Japanese, sending my index finger into the basket for him to find. Babies had a way of jerking around that I was pretty sure was because they weren’t used to purposeful muscle control in air-based gravity, and they constantly looked fascinated by their own cause-and-effect.  And this time as well, he stared at my hand with big eyes and then suddenly jerked in a completely nonsensical way, but eventually, I set my fingertip by his entire hand.  I nudged his tiny fingers open, and reflexively, he took hold of my single digit.

The grip was pretty strong.  Definitely a little boa constrictor at work, there.  This was a baby monkey that wouldn’t fall off its mother’s back, if the mother would only show up.

Well, you’ll just have to make due with Dad #2, huh.

I smiled down at him, and though he didn’t know how to smile back yet, his eyes flashed a little, and he made a strange but peppy gurgle.  From what I could glean, that meant he was happy.

“Well, we’ll make sure Marti takes real good care of you, as will I,” I promised. Lupin yawned, looking a bit startled at the act, but in the end, he didn’t let go of my finger. Even as his feet kicked out, and his other hand flailed around…even as he started to fall asleep, he held on.

 


 

When we finally got home, it was well after ten PM. And yet, as the car drove away, I found myself standing on the sidewalk next to Marti with a smile on my face. We were facing the old gate of my family home, the baby baskets stacked in our hands so that we each had two kids in one bed, and the beds doubled up like Tupperware.  Overhead, a nearly full moon was shining down, and the very top of the cherry tree, leaves turning color for the fall, whispered over the edge of the clay-roofed wall with the slight breeze. No one else was around, and the familiar scenery of the street left me with a gentle sense of my own presence.

As the spiritual tingle of self-awareness filtered through my mind and body, I glanced at the two infants I was carrying, tucked up together and fast asleep under a blanket.  The two boys, Lupin and Jigen, were conked out together, their foreheads peacefully resting against each other.

A warmth flowed into my chest when I looked at them, and as I followed that feeling deep down, a thought appeared in the back of my mind:

I want you to grow up well.

It was a silly thought to have, given who these people (presumably) were.  But maybe, just maybe, I’d get what I wanted for once in something regarding Lupin.

A ways distant, the sound of a key turning in a lock went off. By the time I searched it out, Marti was disappearing into the grounds, silvery body consumed by the shadow beneath the gate.

I didn’t go after her immediately, instead taking a few minutes to enjoy the feelings floating around inside of me.  No doubt they’d only last until the first time all four kids were crying at 2 AM, but until then, I was willing to accept the moonlight melody.

Soon enough though, I followed Marti in, taking the grey stepping stones one by careful one, my shadow sliding across the white gravel around me.  Star-shaped path lights lit the way where the moon could not, and by the time I got to the building proper, I found Marti sitting on the veranda, a glass of wine in her hand and two bottles beside her. The baby basket was on her other side, and she was sitting with her legs stretched long across the deck, the very picture of Japanese femininity in a lean.

The house lights were on inside, casing amber rays onto the porch. Beyond that, though, the moon was so bright that I could see everything in the yard, so much so that her face was perfectly visible and the old cherry tree even had shadows.

She watched me come to a stop beneath the tree. Children in-hand within their basket, I couldn’t help but feel like a man who’d come home with his illegitimate offspring.  Marti held my gaze for a long moment, then nodded her head for me to join her with a soft smirk.

I settled down next to her, softly setting Lupin-and-Jigen’s basket to the side, careful not to wake them. The two baskets sat on our outsides, while the two bottles sat between us. Up close, it was easy to tell that one was for wine and one was for saké. She offered me a saucer and a glass, one to each hand.

“Thanks,” I said, leaning in to give her a kiss as I plucked up the saké cup.  She nodded and exchanged the wine glass for the white saké bottle, and poured me some. Then, she picked up her own wine glass and watched me, the liquid and her hair both sparkling in the moonlight.

“Long day, huh,” she began with a sigh.

I agreed with a hum, glassy gaze moving from her to the front yard to the infants. I still couldn’t quite grasp that they were there.  It felt a little like I’d look back and it’d just be a box of papers. That maybe this was all a dream because I’d gotten fired and finally cracked, and that was how my brain was processing my box of case files.

“So how are we gonna do this?” Marti asked softly, taking a sip of her wine—while her free hand silently threaded through mine, where it supported my weight on the deck.

“Like any parents raise quadruplets?” I asked back, flexing my fingers to welcome hers.

“So…like a raging fire. Okay.” She laughed darkly, taking another swig to wash it down.

“Um…well?” I glanced at her, my boss’s words on the subject coming into my mind. “Actually,” I went on with a sigh, untangling our fingers so that I could rest my hand over hers wholesale, “I’m sorry.  I just sort of…it’s all I could think to do, honestly.”

She sighed, but in the end, she just swirled her wine and nodded to herself. “…So you really think this is Lupin and his crew, huh? And the other little guy is the mark?”

I’d told her about it after the kids had done their changing act; there hadn’t been a good way around it. She’d been understanding…after a fashion. It’d been her usual mix of disappointed in me for bringing work home, fascinated at the subject itself, and refusal to be left out as it unfolded.

“I do,” I agreed. “Except…the other guy probably isn’t the scientist. Don’t know who it is, but…it’s somebody for sure.”

“Well that’s true,” she snorted. “Certainly isn’t an alien.”

I pursed my lips. “Is that…okay?”

“What, letting Lupin’s crew not only into our house but live in it?” she shot back.  But then she shrugged.  “I guess.  Even as an adult, the worst he’d ever do to me is steal a painting, try to seduce me, and drink the entire contents of the wine cabinet, not necessarily in that order.  Though I’m not sure which one I’d be more offended by.”

I scoffed, similarly unsure of which to be more alarmed by—her apathy or her spot-on assessment.  

“How long…do you think it’ll last?” she went on, sounding like she was holding her breath.

“I don’t know, really. Based on…what we saw…I could do some math I suppose. It took Lupin about a week to spontaneously grow a month, judging from what the nurses said, and I assume the others are about the same. Presumably they weren’t all the same age before this happened, so I assume it might fluctuate a bit as to the actual ratio for each one, but…if he’s in his thirties, and at a ratio of one to four…”

I paused, thinking on it after a long day, and Marti answered for me, “7.5 years. If he’s thirty on the dot.”

“How…How’d you do that?” I gaped.

“Three divided by four, and move the decimal point once.”

“O-oh… I was trying to divide twelve by four and then multiple by…something.”

She smirked at me gently. “You are tired.”

I nodded, a haggard sigh escaping my lips.  The saké saucer in one hand, I rubbed my face with the other.

“Well, seven years ain’t that bad to get a thirty-year-old. But I don’t know that we could last that long, just the two of us. Maybe two of them, but not four. Especially not on your salary. And we’d have to…home school? them?” She tilted her head. “Or not? Why bother, maybe?”

Seven years… I sighed inwardly. “I didn’t think it’d be that much, Marti.”

“How much were you hoping for?”

“A few months at most.”

She chuckled, but it seemed to come easier than the previous ones. At the end of it, she suddenly leaned over and kissed my cheek. “You’re sweet.”

I blinked in surprise, the kiss and whisper of her hair warm against my cheek as the cool air slid by.

Marti’s gaze softened and turned over to her basket of babies. She tucked in the corners of the blanket, laying her hand over the two round stomachs. Fujiko was a tad bit bigger than Goemon, and had managed to flop all over him in her dreams, so Marti delicately corralled all her limbs back into a reasonable area. “You’re kind to your enemies.”

“Eh, they aren’t my enemies. They’re people who have strayed from the path of what’s right and good because somewhere along the line, society failed them. It’s my job as a cop to get them back on that upright path, until they’re using that massive store of energy of theirs to be productive citizens.” I turned to my own basket of children, Lupin and Jigen still unconscious against each other. Lupin was noticeably smaller and less pudgy than Jigen, and had managed to tuck himself up against Jigen in a way that looked rather cute—though Jigen was drooling on him pretty good.  “And these just happen to be people with more talent to waste than most.”

But maybe they won’t this time around, eh?

With a deep breath, I gave into the feeling growing in my chest and dug Little Lupin out of his basket. Jigen didn’t notice at all and Baby Lupin, for his part, only wiggled a bit in his sleep at the disturbance while I wrapped the extra blanket around him and plunked him into the crook of my arm. He was still so small…not even as long as my forearm.

I wiped off his slobber-covered forehead with a sleeve, and as soon as he was toasty warm again, he went back to a nearly comatose state.  His hair, which had been shaved off for the nodes at the hospital, had mostly regrown, but it was patchy. But not patchy in a way that was reflective of the nodes we had put on him…

At my side, Marti leaned in, tucking her chin around my bicep to get a good look. She smiled at him and ran a finger over his blanket, an instinctive gesture just to welcome the baby to the conversation if I’d ever seen one.  Women really were amazing. Hell, humans were.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to them, to be honest,” I admitted to her, with a tone more grim than I would have liked. “I can hope this is a benevolent molecular accident and they’ll revert to how they were supposed to be sooner or later without many hiccups. It didn’t seem to hurt them this last time. But…who’s to know for sure? We’re going to need to watch them carefully, to make sure they aren’t suffering, whatever happens.”

Marti hummed a somber note, and I went on, “I really hope…they stop aging at the age they are supposed to be.”

A breath sucked into her lungs as the she processed the thought. Marti sat up and looked back at the other ones, then rubbed a hand over her mouth.  “I guess we just have to wait and see, huh…?”

“Yeah.”

I suppose I could try to find the scientist, though.  If he really wasn’t among the de-aged victims, he had to have escaped somewhere and might know what to do. We’d turned that place upside-down, but that meant little in the mountains. Still, a mind like that wouldn’t stay quiet for long.  I could get my team on it, justify it to the boss…

I was still mulling over the next steps and to whom to dole them out when Marti said, “We need to baby-proof the house, you know. That was mostly what I wanted to talk to you about, to be honest.”

“Ah…” That was a relief. But…it’d be a lot of work and I didn’t much remember how to do it. “Ah. I suppose so.”

“With Toshiko…should I assume you were working most of the time and left Nami to raise her?”

I swallowed hard and nodded, a little embarrassed despite that being the utterly normal—and expected—thing to do in Japan. “Yeah…”

Marti took a deep breath, then sighed it out into her glass of wine, from which she took another slug. “All right. Do you want to be involved in the caretaking this time?”

This wasn’t, according to my boss, really as much of a question as it seemed, but luckily, the answer I honestly held was right where it needed to be. “Of course I do. I missed it the last time. I don’t want to make that mistake again.”

I gazed down at Lupin’s hair.  Even if it might not make much difference…

“That’s good,” Marti sighed, sounding relieved as she went back to her glass of wine. “Thank you for that.”

“Any time,” I admitted with a smile.  And then: “You hear that, eternal nemesis?” I cooed down at Baby Lupin, rocking his sleeping form slightly and touching at his nose. “I’m gonna take care of you, and you’re gonna owe me soooo much you have to go straight! Yes that’s right. Who’s gonna be a productive member of elite society? You are! Yes, you!”

For his part, Baby Lupin made a groaning noise like a puppy, scrunched his face up, and then tried to wiggle further into my arm.

“Ah-ha-ha, that’s right, cling to the strong arm of the law, you…”

Marti, for her part, just laughed and shook her head.

“It’ll do,” she muttered to herself, and when I grinned back at her sheepishly, she held her glass aloft like a baton at a charge. “All right. This is going to be fast and sudden and we need to get on top of it as much as possible. Do you mind if I take charge about how to go about that? Will you mind some orders?”

“Not at all, Sarge.” I tossed her a charismatic smirk, and she flipped her hair away from her face and put her shoulders back confidently.  “Sarge, eh?”

I shrugged, a defeated smile sent her way. The smile of courageous intent she sent back to me—and the night itself—was well enough of a reward.

“Heh. All right. Sounds good, Inspector.”

“I can handle the mission,” I agreed, “just give me the instructions.”

Marti’s smile turned down to the floorboards, looking touched. “Roger,” she muttered, drinking the last of her glass. “And hey?” she asked, flickering her gaze over at me as she set it down on the deck.

“Yeah?” I asked back, leaning in to wrap my free arm around her.

As Marti snuggled up against me, she wrapped one arm around my back and the other around Lupin. “I suppose it’d only take three years for them to turn fifteen,” she whispered over us both. “I think I can hold out that long, if you’re willing to…”

She glanced up at me, and as her hazel-green eyes caught the mix of gold and silver light, I smiled at the woman I loved more than the sun and moon both and set a kiss on her forehead, tasting a few star-like freckles along the way.

“Thank you, Anna. I owe you.”

“You’re welcome.” She smiled and leaned her head against my chest, tucking into the familiar folds of my leather overcoat. “But the only thing you owe me is equal housework and a massage when I need it.”