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Prologue: Forced Relapse

...

The forest rustled peacefully as the night breeze weaved through the trees; along the streamside sat a young man, enjoying the tranquility. Truthfully, he was trying to absorb it into himself.

Jiro took deep, steadying breaths—not that he truly needed the oxygen, but it had a therapeutic effect nonetheless. He had felt crushed under such a heavy weight, and though he had come through it with the help of a young hero with psychic abilities, Jiro still felt weak; as though his very core trembled.

It had been excruciating, suffering under the guilt of succumbing to his recently implanted submission circuit—after all, the cost had been immense. Though their time together had not been long, Jiro truly loved his brothers…

The trembling grew stronger—Jiro tried to divert his thoughts elsewhere; something calming. He closed his eyes and began to daydream of his deepest desire: Notes of a song he had yet to finish streamed through his mind, and Jiro dreamed of performing this new melody for…

A sudden clench wound itself into Jiro's chest, a minor relapse of guilt at the audacity of dreaming of Mitsuko.

'Mitsuko…'

The song faded from his mind abruptly—where had the lovely woman gone to? She said she would be waiting, yet…Jiro felt a frown cross his lips. He knew Mitsuko would not break the promise she had created, so that could only mean…

Something within Jiro shuddered—he grew anxious at his surmounting thoughts: Had Mitsuko and her family met with danger?

'No, wait…I may be getting ahead of myself. Maybe Mitsuko took her father somewhere else for his health…'

"Or maybe she forgot you."

Jiro froze. That voice was not his own. He looked around apprehensively, though he found himself completely alone in the grassy clearing.

When a few moments had passed in silence, Jiro allowed his thoughts to wander again. The tune he was eager to play began to return to his mind as he planned the rest of the notes. Jiro wondered what Mitsuko would think. Would Masaru like a song that flowed? Mentally, Jiro added in shorter, more playful notes that would appeal to the boy's youthful energy.

A smile bloomed on Jiro's face; this new song was almost complete. He could almost hear Masaru's laughter—with a surge of hope, his mind's eye brought forth the image of Mitsuko's warm smile and his yearning began to increase tenfold. The scenario developed even further, and Jiro's smile grew into a grin as he imagined Masaru teasing his elder sister. Jiro chuckled; Ichiro would have liked Masaru…

Another painful clench; his mind went dark and silent. A cold, creeping mist began to seep in, casting a blue sheen within the mire of his thoughts. Jiro felt his pulse, artificial thought it was, racing. Struggling, Jiro tried to call forth the words of the young mutant that had saved him earlier.

"Are you just a puppet, controlled by man and destiny? And what will control you next? Don't let anyone control you—Jiro, snap out it!'

'Protect the people you love! And trust in your own heart!" A sliver of warmth seemed to ignite within Jiro, and he felt buoyed by the encouragement from Inazuman; it was strange, meeting as unwitting enemies--yet when Jiro came to his senses, something within him seemed to recognize the familiar burden they both shared. Despite the mutant's young age, he had a mature sense of empathy and compassion, leading to a quickly earned trust with Jiro.

'Trust in my own heart...yes…yes, I can because I—'

"Your own heart? Don't be foolish! A machine has no heart!"

The warmth vanished as quickly as it came.

The blue surroundings began to blur and fade…and red began to bleed over. Fear seized Jiro; he still could not see the owner of the voice that mocked him so spitefully. The air began to hum sinisterly, as though a thousand screams harmonized into one tortured howl. No matter how he tried to cover his ears, the screaming grew louder—and the malicious laughter, louder still.

"You did well to overcome and separate me from the emperor…but that will not save you!"

"Who are you? Where are you hiding? Come out!" Jiro called into the darkness. The laughter echoed around him, fading into a sneer.

"Where am I? I am in you, Kikaider. A machine that does not follow orders does not deserve peace—I may not be able to return you to my master's control, but I can erase your fragile sense of stability."

Jiro looked around wildly, panicking. He looked down to find his body transformed within his mind—the blue was slowly being overtaken by red as the ocean of his guilt began to swell and seep into the right side of his body.

Worse still, as the water pushed toward him, it left broken pieces in its wake; Jiro recognized the fragments that used to be his brothers immediately. His knees buckled beneath him, and Jiro saw two pairs of glowing scarlet eyes peering at him from cracked, mutilated faces...

"You're too much, little brother—trying so hard to be human only to find that it means tainting yourself. You should have listened, Jiro—quit forcing yourself to be what you aren't and just be a machine!" Jiro gasped, utterly horrified at the sight and the words of his eldest sibling.

"Ichiro…brother—!" Though the sockets were shattered, Jiro felt as though Ichiro's eyes were burning through him. He flinched when another voice spoke up.

"Though I am the youngest, I was built to protect you, Jiro—and for all your emotional investment, you led us to our demise. The greatest irony is that you would find your sought-after peace if you would just submit to your design." Though the voice was cold and analytical, there was thinly veiled resentment Rei's statement. Jiro felt an excruciating wrenching throughout his mind and heart.

"Stop…please, stop,' Jiro begged weakly, 'I didn't want either of you to die! I wanted us to be a family! All of us!"

A disembodied hand broke the surface of the pool and pointed at Jiro accusingly.

"We are machines. There is no such thing as 'family' for us. No family; no emotions; no pain,"

Jiro shut his eyes, willing himself to remain calm—but hands gripped his arms and his throat. Jiro opened his eyes to find the dismembered limbs strangling him as the remains of his brothers were suddenly much closer; their eyes seared through him like smoldering coals.

"No peace."

Jiro screamed.

"NO! NO! This isn't real! You are my brothers! I cared for you, and you cared for me too! You cared about Rieko and Akira—Bijinder too! I know it—this is an illusion! I won't give in—"

"Jiro…"

Jiro stopped hyperventilating. The voice was different—a voice he longed to hear, yet currently found himself dreading. Unable to resist, he turned and nearly choked.

"Mi…Mitsuko…!"

She was beautiful, even within the illusionary darkness that cast a blood-red luster over her soft, pale skin. Her face, though, was contorted in horrified disgust and hatred. Something within Jiro crumbled, but he could not look away.

"Jiro, you—you've become a monster…your own family!" Mitsuko recoiled, frightened. Jiro flinched as though he had been run through.

"No! Mitsuko—I…I'm not—"

"If you can murder your own brothers, what's to become of Masaru and my father? What else will you do to me?" she cried, backing away. Jiro bit back a sob, shaking his head.

"Never, Mitsuko…I would never—"he moaned piteously, stopping at the icy glare he received from the woman he fell in love with.

"If this is all you amount to, I will never let you find us," she hissed. Jiro cringed, hot tears trailing down his face.

"Aww, poor Jiro—looks like your girlfriend is dumping you," Ichiro crowed from behind. A flash of rage ignited within Jiro, and he whipped his head back at his brother, whose eyes glowed eerily.

"What's with that look? You think you have any right to be mad at me? Look around, brother—of the three of us, you're the only one standing…or kneeling, as it were. Face it, Jiro—you think you can keep the love of a human girl after what you've done? You think you can protect her?" Ichiro mocked condescendingly.

"Can you protect her from yourself, Jiro?" Rei queried frigidly.

Jiro clenched his jaw, trying to subdue his mounting fury—but his body would not comply. Instead, he felt himself being pulled up as though he were attached to invisible strings. Without any conscious decision, he turned back to Mitsuko who braced herself fearfully. Jiro wanted to calm her, take her within his arms and promise her his life before her safety—

Before he realized it, he lunged at her, pinning her body beneath his as his hands wrapped around her throat. Mitsuko choked and tried to shriek, but his hands kept squeezing.

Jiro began to hyperventilate in abject terror; no matter how he tried, he could not will his hands to stop. Tears streaked from Mitsuko's wide, horrified eyes; her fingers clawed futilely at his and saliva trailed from her mouth as he pressed harder still—

Then he felt the vertebrae of her neck snap and disintegrate in his hands. Her eyes rolled back into her head and she stopped struggling, arms falling to the ground beneath her.

Jiro could not stop screaming, and it echoed around him, threatening to split his head apart until the disembodied voice from before broke into his nightmare once again.

"No, Kikaider, you will not die—you will not attain even that peace. You will stay here, trapped within your sins until your body and your mind rot away. No one will save you; no one will come for you. Your only hope is to forget—that is my last gift to you!"

Jiro finally felt control of his body returning to him—and he fled from the scene, trying to outrun the sight of Mitsuko's unfocused, glassy eyes as she lay broken beneath him.

He ran and ran until the red of the mire faded into nothingness—the ground gave way and Jiro fell, floating in the empty space.

...

_______________________________________________________________________________________

The mocking laughter had long since been replaced with overwhelming quiet. Numbly, Jiro tried to feel for something solid, but nothing appeared. He did not know where he was.

In fact, Jiro could not remember how he had arrived, or why—but he knew he did not want to go back.

For now, Jiro made his home in the silence.

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Author's note: So…after looking through the weird formatting did to my old fics, I started going through them again and I…uh. I kinda decided to tweak the story a bit. So that part where I said I was ignoring the Inazuman vs. Kikaida OVA? Not quite the case anymore. It won't change the story drastically, per say, but hopefully it will help things seem a little more complete.

I'm aware of how dark and fairly brutal this story is and I promise you, I did not leave it at that. This is just a set up to show just how much Jiro was really suffering from the effects of the Submission circuit he was implanted with in the Kikaider 01 OVA.

Please enjoy the rest of the story, and if there are any comments or questions I have failed to answer—feel free to say so.

Chapter Text

Out of the Blue

All I really wanted was some coffee. Was it really too much to ask?

I'm Hanpei Hattori, world's greatest detective. Oh, and there's my assistant, Etsuko—she's not too bad either.

Well...truth be told, she's often sharper than I am, but let's skip ahead.

She was only supposed to go out shopping for a bit of food and some coffee. We finally had a bit of money thanks to our last satisfied client. I vaguely wondered how they were doing at the moment—it's been a couple of weeks since I last checked up on them.

Anyhow, I ask for coffee while Etsuko goes out shopping. What does she bring back?

A girl.

Now most guys won't object to that, but I'm a respectable fellow; I have my integrity! Still, she was a nice picture to look at, if a little odd.

Plum colored hair. How does that happen in Japan? It's gotta be a dye job.

Hm...plums sound good right about now...oh, right!

Aside from that, it was long, but it was hard to tell at first because it seemed to be twisted into one lock that wrapped around her head with the tail of it tucked at the back.

Now I don't claim to know anything about fashion really, but I have never seen that look on a girl any age before.

This kid is young—probably not even out of high school yet.

I must have been caught staring too long because something hit me in the head and Etsuko was looking at me like I got caught with my hand in the cookie jar.

Geez...better not tick her off or she'll never let me hear the end of it.

"Boss, this girl claims to be a relative of the Komyouji family," Etsuko explained with a smile; behind the glasses, her eyes told me she was wary.

Another Komyouji, huh? This is starting to sound fishy...

"Yeah, about that...any idea where I can find them?" Plum head asked sheepishly.

Now usually I'm a good judge of character. She seemed innocent enough, but as I've figured out with the name 'Komyouji' and the events that surrounded that name, things rarely are what they seem.

I decided that I had to play this safely. I'd tell her some of what I know, but not too much. I didn't want to lie either. I told her that they'd been seeking solitude for a while, but I'd do my best to find them and get back to her.

I don't particularly like being suspicious of kids, but it's my job to be a little suspicious of everyone.

"Hey kid, got any place to stay for tonight?" I asked. Something told me this girl had been out on the road for a while. She didn't come in with a parent or anything and Etsuko hadn't mentioned a guardian of any sort—just busied herself with putting away groceries, but I could tell she was mentally recording everything.

The girl shook her head and Etsuko had finally said something from the kitchen.

"Boss, it wouldn't be a good idea to ask her to stay here since we barely have enough room for ourselves in this dump."

Nuts. Etsuko was right; I'm still sleeping on the couch to this day. Our guest jumped up and asked us not to worry, that she'd find some place. I sighed, trying to think about what place would rent out to a minor without—

Wait a minute...Wait a minute!

"What about that orphanage? Didn't the old monk start one up after that catastrophe a few months back? It's near the edges of the city, but I'm sure the old man would have a bed for her there!"

Etsuko came out from the kitchen, beaming at me proudly and exclaimed that it was a wonderful idea. Hah, I live for those looks—let's her know I've still got my wits about me. I scribbled down the address and handed it to Plum head.

It had just occurred to me then that I needed to learn her full name so I didn't accidentally call her 'Plum head' out loud.

"Komyouji—Araiume Komyouji. Preferably just Arai."

Arai-ume? Hehe, whichever parent named her sure had a sense of humor. She took the slip of paper and shoved it into a pocket and turned to exit our office. But she popped back in a moment later with a package.

"Someone gave this to me about a week ago when I was passing through another town, but I don't really have a taste for it. It's yours! Bye!" And she was off again.

She had shoved a bag of coffee into my hands.

...Ok, she can't be that bad. I'll find the other Komyouji family for her.

Etsuko pried the bag from my hands and began to make us some cups. She'd have to explain to me how she found Arai in the first place. I also readied myself for a headache...something told me that the Komyouji family was in for another crisis…

And I'm not sure Mitsuko recovered fully from the last one.
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Mieko's head jerked up when she heard the sound of a motor coming her way; she leapt from her perch in the large tree she had been sitting in.

"Akira; Rieko- the rest of you-go inside for a little bit, it's almost dinner time," she urged. She hoped that promise of a meal would curb any protests from them. Children were a lot spunkier than she originally had thought.

Akira had jumped a little when she had landed and started asking for everyone to go inside. Knowing what Mieko really was, he was still a little jumpy around her.

But he was getting better gradually; especially with Rieko's help.

Speaking of which, the young girl tugged at his sleeve with a warm smile.

"Come on, let's go get washed up!" Rieko exclaimed excitedly. He nodded slightly and glanced at Mieko again. She was watching the gate with intense interest...

'She wants to keep me safe...' It was a small epiphany, but Akira felt warmth settle in his heart.

Mieko felt a pair of eyes on her and turned to the small boy. She was about to march Akira inside with the others, but paused when he suddenly favored her with a brief smile before going inside; Rieko lagging slightly behind him. The woman was surprised...that was the first time she had ever seen him smile at her.

'Little humans really are cute...' she thought, deciding she would try to bring herself to verbally express her gratitude to the monk later on for giving her a chance to live again. After being as close to death as an automaton can get, she had been extremely moved, but had no idea how to express that feeling.

"Feelings...I don't really have those, isn't that right...?" Mieko smiled wistfully, remembering her solemn companion from what seemed to be a lifetime ago.

'I know you said my system was merely interfering with my surroundings...but what of these children? Humans don't have systems, do they?' she mused, thinking back to that earlier conversation. Casting her eyes to the window, she saw the children enjoying their meal as rambunctiously as usual.

'No...' Mieko concluded,'-they have hearts.'

...

"Hmm...is this the right place?" a voice from behind shook Mieko out of her reverie; she was surprised at herself for becoming so lost in thought she forgot the reason she had been so pensive in the first place. Immediately, Mieko wheeled around to see a young girl. Seeing no weapons, her guard relaxed a little. This child did not appear to be threatening, so Mieko took a few steps toward her. As she came closer, she made note of a motorcycle behind the girl with a sidecar that seemed...seemed...

Mieko stopped. This was no coincidence. There were only two people Mieko had known of with vehicles like those. Although the paint job was different and there were some differences in the shape of the sidecar, the similarities were too obvious.

"Who are you?" She called out.

"Komyouji Araiume. Arai, if you prefer—I know I do," the strange girl answered back.

'Komyouji...?' Mieko's eyes flashed at the name; she had heard it before, but where..?

"What business do you have here?"

"I was told to come here to ask the monk if I could stay for the night."

"Stay for the—this is an orphanage, not a hotel! I can't trust a stranger to stay the night with the children—"Mieko began to open her mouth again, but was interrupted by a kindly old voice from behind.

"Komyouji, eh? Come in, come in—dinner has just been served! If you're fast enough, you might manage to get a serving before the kids start throwing it about." The girl laughed and began to steer her motorcycle inside the gate.

Flustered, Mieko spun on her heel to stare at the monk incredulously.

"Fuuten-?" she demanded, wanting to know why he'd put the children at risk for an absolute stranger. The lady android was met with an unwavering smile.

"This is an orphanage; we don't refuse to take in children. And I do believe that young lady is still a minor," he said explained rationally. Somehow, Mieko couldn't shake the feeling that the monk was letting the girl stay for more reasons than just pure charity ...something about that name...

'Komyouji...that name...?' she pondered again briefly as the three of them headed inside to the wasteland that was formerly known as the kitchen.

...
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"Mm—hah! Thanks for the meal!" Arai exclaimed with fervor after swigging down her drink. She then rose to clear her dishes and rinse them off.

Sitting back down at the table with the monk and the suspicious woman, she stretched and murmured her thanks when she was done. The old man chuckled while Mieko "hmph"-ed impatiently, crossing her legs and settling back in her chair. The children had gone to bed already, but Mieko did not want to take her eye off of the newcomer. Arai didn't seem to hear the indignant sound and turned to the monk.

"Ah, sorry for the intrusion, but Mr. Hattori said I should stay here while he looks for my family."

The monk smiled and nodded.

"So you are related to Den Komyouji...?" he said, thoughtfully. The girl nodded, tucking a flyaway strand behind her ear.

"He's my ...uncle...I need to find him to tell him something...important ..." the happier tone began to fade a little. The change in the girl's demeanor made the old monk's eyebrow rise curiously.

"Uncle? You mean your father is—," the childish grin returned, and she nodded emphatically.

"Yep, the great Ryo Komyouji!"

Fuuten paused and wondered if it would be rude to laugh. Oh yes...he remembered Ryo very well...younger brother to Den, and Fuuten's only drop-out. Headstrong and impatient, Ryo quit learning the monk's teachings in robotics about halfway through.

"You mean that oaf of a student actually managed to charm some woman into bearing his child?" He teased gently, testing the waters with the girl. She laughed merrily, blushing as she did so.

Mieko's annoyed expression began to soften as she grew curious. She had never really known what a family was like...well, perhaps up until now.

The old man sensed her sudden attentiveness.

"Mieko, you should be interested: Your original design was based off of Dr. Den Komyouji's concepts." Mieko's eyes widened—That's where she had heard that name before!

It was Arai's turn to look surprised.

"Miss Mieko is a robot...?"

"An android," he corrected. She stared at Mieko, who was studying her likewise. Both of them slowly reached out a hand towards the other until their fingers made contact.

"Amazing...I can barely tell. I thought she was rather pretty for a human!" she laughed. Mieko finally allowed herself to smirk, her characteristic vanity somewhat mollified. Fuuten smiled, now that the atmosphere was a bit less tense than before.

"So what have you traveled all this way to tell Dr. Komyouji?"

The 'happy' in the air immediately died. Fuuten almost shivered at the sudden silence, like a flame being snuffed out by a flurry of snowflakes.

"I take it you are not here just for a friendly visit?"

She shook her head slowly, causing the plum-red tuft to sway gently behind her.

"Hm...come with me, child,' Fuuten beckoned, pausing to turn to the lady android, 'Mieko, would you please check to see if the children are all asleep? There are usually at least two that are probably pillow fighting each other at this moment."

Mieko hesitated before heading down the hallway.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"...I see," Fuuten said grimly. They were behind the orphanage now; they approached a large, garage-type structure steadily.

The monk sighed...it seemed that no matter what, the Komyouji family was going to be plagued by DARK and its remnants yet still.

"I'm sorry to hear about your father--He was a good man; Impatient, but determined...I was never able to forget him, even if I had tried," he smiled softly at her, getting a weak smile in return.

They entered the garage together, and Fuuten flipped on a light switch. Arai immediately noticed a sheet covering something on the tabletop and stepped toward it curiously.

"Child, I know where my student is...and I believe it is time I pay him a visit. I shall take you with me to see him tomorrow, if you have no objections," Fuuten said, a hint of weariness in his voice.

If she had heard what he said, she made no sign of it: her hand was reaching cautiously out towards the sheet. A bit of a smile formed on the old man's face. In an instant, he was on the other side of the table, startling her slightly as she drew her hand back.

"Y-yes, that's fine! Thank you for the help," she said quickly, seemingly worried about being reprimanded for her nosiness.

"You're quite welcome, but I wonder if I may ask a small favor in return: You see, I intend to re-introduce Dr. Komyouji to a couple of his earlier creations. But to do so, I need someone to assist me in transporting them..."--he lifted the sheet.

There was no gasp of surprise as the monk expected. Arai noticed that the body was mostly intact, but the face still appeared to be broken. She delicately fingered the edges of the broken clear casing that made up most of what was once the head of Kikaider 01...

"Ah, you see, I repaired them for the most part, but since I took up the responsibility of the orphanage, my time and resources have almost been depleted...also...I'm afraid I would have drawn too much attention had anyone else seen me with the remains of androids. The people have not fully recovered from the incident, which resulted in the devastation of the city as well as the founding of this orphanage..." he explained, shaking his head sadly at Ichiro's shattered eye units.

"'Them'? There is another?" Arai asked, glancing around the room for signs of the other android. Fuuten chuckled.

"Yes, there is one other. I managed to repair most of him first, but I lack the equipment to re-awaken these two. Rei is being monitored by Mieko." Arai took this information in and gave the old monk a quizzical look, but said nothing. Fuuten was glad; he wasn't sure he could explain it either.

"So I'll wrap this one--what did you call him?"

"Ichiro, my dear."

"-…Ichiro...Ok, so I'll wrap him up with this sheet and use my sidecar to transport him tomorrow. I'm not sure I can fit another one on my bike though, but I can-"

"No, that's quite alright, Miss Mieko will bring the other one along. I will call in a few extra volunteers tomorrow so that the orphanage won't be left unattended. In the meantime, we should retire for some well-earned rest."

And with that, the old monk escorted the girl towards the door. She cast a backward glance at Ichiro's still body just as Fuuten turned the lights off.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Mitsuko stretched as she yawned, making her way towards the kitchen. The room felt a bit drafty, so she tightened the robe around her body and began searching around for ingredients to make a breakfast for Masaru and her father.

It would be a nice, celebratory treat for the family as it was the one-month anniversary of their return home from her father's overseas rehabilitation trip.

She hesitated slightly before putting a dollop of pancake batter into the skillet. Although it seemed the family was back to normal and everything was recuperating nicely, (including the city after the catastrophic incident that occurred a few months before), there was still something...missing.

Mitsuko sighed. As much as she wanted to suppress the feeling, she still felt...empty. She snorted derisively at herself for having such a selfish thought.

'I have my family back, my father is no longer a workaholic, and Masaru is growing up to be a mature young man...I should be ecstatic.'

Still, no matter how much she repeated that to herself, the empty feeling did not disappear—in fact, it grew a bit with every passing day.

And she knew exactly why. Tears stung at the corners of her eyes, as they often had before in the past since...since he...

The smell of breakfast had awakened her brother, who was groggily making his way down the steps, still in his pajamas.

"Morning, 'nee-cha—an," he mumbled, failing to stifle a yawn halfway through. Mitsuko forced back the sadness and managed a smile for her little sibling.

"Go wash your face so you don't fall asleep into your breakfast," she coaxed gently with a warm smile. Luckily he was too sleepy to argue, and stumbled towards the restroom down the hallway. A shuffling was heard entering the kitchen as well, and Mitsuko turned to greet her father, who was fully dressed and smiling at his daughter. She set a plate down in front of him and kissed his temple.

"Good Morning, Father," Mitsuko said softly. Den was about to return the greeting when sounds of an approaching motor grew louder and louder, until finally stopping just outside their front door.

Mitsuko gasped, hardly daring to get her hopes up...but after a second, she raced towards the door while her father began to get up from his chair. Just as he reached the kitchen door, he heard his daughter's blood curdling scream and panicked. Apparently Masaru did the same, for he came running out of the restroom, shirtless and yelling for his sister.

"Mitsuko!" Den yelled, trying to make sense of what was going on. He looked out at whoever was intruding, and it resulted in him doing a double take. There were two young women on his front lawn, one bearing his old teacher and a red and blue body with a transparent strip down the center...the other was still straddling the seat of a motorcycle, removing her helmet to reveal a coil of hair that was an odd shade somewhere between...red and purple...? Purple-ish brown?

Den Komyouji never imagined he'd wake up to something like this in his entire life. Masaru gaped at the visitors, not knowing what to make of it all. However, Mitsuko had not noticed anything other than the bundle in the sidecar as the wind blew back the white fabric to reveal a broken, painfully similar face.

Perhaps had she been thinking clearly and noticed the difference in pattern, she may not have fainted.

Chapter Text



Mitsuko looked around cautiously, afraid to see what would be on the other side of the darkness…yet as the mist swirled around her, it caused a gradual chill, as if Death itself were lightly caressing her in a soothing fashion—but it only caused her to panic more abruptly.

The young woman climbed to her feet and began to make sense of her surroundings.

The place was submerged in shadow—yet, there was a tint of blue that seemingly emanated from a nonexistent moon. Drawing in ragged breath and shuddering as she exhaled, Mitsuko took a trembling step forward into the gloom.

"…Broken…"

"What?"

She hissed her sudden query, so startled by the faint sound that it was the only way to keep herself from shrieking like a fool.

Her question was met with silence as an answer. She shook her head and gathered her arms around her shivering frame, in a vain attempt to rub some heat back into her freezing, misted body. As she walked on, she heard something snap like a twig and whirled around in the direction she thought it had come from.

Her eyes closely scrutinized the direction in which the sound emanated and she briefly caught sight of a slightly taller figure, walking away from her and disappearing behind a tree. She took a step forward, getting ready to force her body into a furious run when—

"…I've murdered!"

"…This evil heart…"

"Let me stop…"

"…Afraid I'll-!"

"...No longer the same…"

The figure suddenly multiplied into many, each one turning away from her; some running, others hiding their already indiscernible faces. Each phantom seemed to be suffering the most extreme pain…

"…it's better if I just fade away…"

"Mitsuko…I'm sorry…"

"Stop me!"

Mitsuko covered her ears; the voice was so painfully familiar to her, yet the phrases being uttered clutched at her heart with agonizing strength.

"Stop it. Please…STOP!"

Her own pleas began to resonate louder and were soon drowned out by the voice that echoed her last word, repeating it over and over with desperation.

Mitsuko knew her sanity would slip away if this were to continue and opened her mouth to scream, in hopes it would drown out the other voice's words and then—

"…Help me…"

Something grasped her arms firmly, desperately…yet with a certain amount of restraint as though worried about harming her. Mitsuko opened her eyes.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

She blinked once, then twice in an attempt to allow her pupils to adjust to the light. Mitsuko moaned as she tried to get up and fetch some aspirin.

Luckily, a glass of water and the pills were handed to her. She took them and swallowed the pills without a word, exhaling with relief as she finished her gulp of water.

"Thank you…"

"You're welcome," an unfamiliar voice responded softly. Mitsuko's eyes snapped upwards to find a smiling face framed by sloppy, windblown bangs. Mitsuko's eyes flickered between the stranger's hair and her attire, unsure of which was more unusual: the vividly odd color of the hair as well as the style in which it was being kept, or the thinly strapped harness-like contraption that secured the vibrantly red and sleeveless top that she wore, which happened to be adorned with a bauble of some sort…

"Who are--?"

"Mitsuko!" Masaru exclaimed as he re-entered the room with a wet cloth in his hands, interrupting his elder sister. The girl moved aside as he ran hurriedly to Mitsuko, and embraced her as tightly as his young muscles would allow. Mitsuko, still startled from the last few minutes, hesitated before returning and settling into the hug her brother was giving her—until she felt something wet on her back.

"Ah, Masaru-kun, let me take that, hm?" The visitor interjected, politely disguising her mirth. Masaru broke the hug slightly before realizing his folly and apologizing furiously to his sister. Mitsuko found herself laughing softly and reassuring her younger sibling.

She was brought back to attention when she realized she wasn't alone in her laughter.

The younger girl took the drenched cloth from the boy's hands and ruffled his hair fondly before squeezing out the excess water in the kitchen sink.

"Thanks, um...Miss Arai…" the boy muttered as she re-entered the den. He knew he was forgiven, but was embarrassed at his carelessness.

"Oi, what's with this 'Miss' stuff? Too formal for family! Arai will do!" she said brazenly, clapping a half-gloved hand over the boy's shoulder.

Mitsuko gasped and stared at the now-named individual.

"F-family? But how…?"

Arai grinned, scratching the side of her head.

"Mm…why don't we join the others so I don't have to explain more than once?" she said with a jovial chuckle. Masaru smiled happily and took his sister by the hand, and his cousin by the other, leading them into the living room where Den, Fuuten and Mieko awaited them.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"Boss, don't you think it's strange that this girl showed up out of nowhere looking for Dr. Komyouji? Did Mitsuko ever mention having other relatives before?" Etsuko said to her employer as they drove on towards their destination.

Hanpei gave his assistant an incredulous look.

"Look, Etsuko; you're the one that brought her in," he reminded her as he made a turn. She blushed lightly, as she knew he was correct. It didn't sound kindhearted of her to be mistrusting of a person she brought into their office.

"Well, I know that, sir; but she looked so lost and exhausted…"

Hanpei mentally smiled. Etsuko was as sharp as a razor blade, but she still had softer feelings of compassion, though she usually masked them with sarcastic wit.

"Look, Etsuko: I found proof of her birth and who her father is…was…that's enough proof to entitle her to finding her remaining relatives in my book." Etsuko smiled slyly at him.

"I think you just like her because she gave us free coffee." He laughed quietly at this remark, knowing that Etsuko was only teasing in good nature.

"Oh boss, you're hopeless when it comes to your morals…and your caffeine addiction," she added as an afterthought, giggling. He grinned in reply.

"That's why you're my assistant, remember?-" and with that, he slowed into a halt as they arrived at the gate of the orphanage.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"How can you be my brother's child? You bear no resemblance to him whatsoever!" The question had an incredulous tone to it as Den eyed the hair color of the young girl before him. She grinned nervously.

"Well, I had a mother too, you know…but I did get father's eyes," she laughed, winking one impish brown eye at him. Fuuten joined in the jesting.

"I think it's a fortunate blessing that she resembles her mother, for it would be a tragedy had she grown to resemble her father, don't you think?" he chuckled softly as Den continued to stare, completely bewildered.

The old scientist then noticed a red jewel that sat neatly atop the diagonal strap of the suspender-like contraption over her front. He gasped softly with recognition as it was the sister gem that had been passed on to his own daughter from his deceased mother…had Arai not been wearing a shirt that matched the jewel's tone so closely, he might have spotted it right away. In any case, the jewel made for some compelling evidence of her relation; his mother had been as protective of her gems as she had been of her children.

He was at a loss for words—although he was certainly stunned to find he had family elsewhere, at the same time he couldn't help but feel a bit disgusted with himself. He had not only neglected his children, but also forgotten his own brother. Additionally, his shame was laid plain before his mentor as well as his remaining family.

"I…I'm sorry…I had no idea that—" he stammered, not sure how to enunciate his mortification. Glancing over, he found there was a gentle expression on his newly found niece's face.

"It's alright. My father would not hold a grudge, especially when there are more important things to worry about." It was a soft reply at first, but ended in a much braver tone—'much like her father', Den bitterly mused to himself.

"It's not 'alright' at all—he was the only family I had left after our parents passed away so long ago." Den could sense that Arai was about to protest further, but stopped her.

"--but as you said, there was something bigger to worry about? Please explain that."

There was a brief pause before Arai leaned back in her chair with a heavy sigh.

"About 2 years ago, when my father was…," there was a hesitation before she continued.

"…When he was killed…I discovered a group called DARK to be responsible—"

"But that's impossible! Their headquarters were destroyed in the explosion!" Mitsuko yelled aloud, incensed with frustrated worry. There was a moment of surprise in which everyone just stared at Mitsuko, not expecting such an outburst.

But they didn't understand what she had lost that day to a selfless sacrifice…

"…Mitsuko…did you honestly think that DARK only consisted of Gil and his followers? DARK is called a society for a reason—even if Gil happened to be the leader, there were definitely people waiting to assume his position when he was taken out. I'm not exactly sure how large they really are, but I do know that Gil was only a fraction-albeit a sizable fraction- of that underground society. They are a group consisting of extremely rich or resourceful individuals with their own subordinates, united by one goal: global domination. Rather stereotypical, really, but there it is."

"But why my brother? What threat was he to them!" Den asked, feeling the bile rise in his throat from the all too familiar injustice.

Arai looked her poor uncle in the eye and pulled out a folded piece of paper from her back pocket. She spread the old article out on the table for everyone to see. The Komyouji family leaned in for closer inspection, while the monk and Mieko waited patiently.

"…I still don't understand…" Masaru mumbled after a few moments. Arai smiled at him.

"You see those motorcycles?"

"Yeah…" Masaru said, scrutinizing the photos on closer look. It was a blurry photo of something red and blue—something the Komyouji family instantly recognized as Jiro.

"My father and I made those motorcycles," she finished, beaming proudly.

"What? I thought father—," Mitsuko faltered as Den put his head in his hands and moaned.

"I lost my only brother because he made a few motorcycles for me?" It was more of a statement, said with calm fury. Arai shook her head, causing a few strands of hair to fall out from behind her ears.

"Don't be so silly. It was mostly because they went to the android you built—the android that resisted DARK and helped bring about Gil's downfall. DARK doesn't particularly care who gets killed or for what reason; if they are met with any form of resistance, even if not directly involved, it is a threat and therefore must be eradicated." The response ended frostily; her eyes became hard and narrow.

Mieko closed her eyes, bitterly remembering how she had been connected with that foul name in the past once; though it was called 'SHADOW' at the time, it was really just Gil starting his own group when he failed at DARK headquarters. Mieko suddenly did not feel fit to be in the same room with the humans and began to rise. However, the old monk smiled, restraining her.

Mitsuko looked down at the carpet, crestfallen at this revelation. Masaru, however, looked a bit angry—angry that he had not the power to crush the society that seemed to ruin everything for him and his family.

Fuuten decided it was time to break the dejected atmosphere with more pertinent information.

"Now that we have the beginning of the story told, I believe it's time you were enlightened about the events that transpired while you were out recuperating, Den. Mieko will be filling in for the parts I was not present for."

Mieko could feel all eyes turning upon her and suddenly felt self-conscious—a completely new feeling for her.

The old monk settled himself down comfortably in his seat, taking a deep breath.

"I suppose I should start with when Kikaider met with Kikaider 01…"

Mitsuko's eyes widened and she listened hungrily as the monk began the tale.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"I can't believe the monk took off with the kid to the Komyouji house! How did he know?" Hanpei said, opening the car door to crawl inside. Etsuko quickened her pace towards the vehicle.

"Boss, would you mind waiting for me?" she pleaded, slightly annoyed when her heel slipped. Hanpei paused before sitting down in his seat.

"Oh right! Sorry, Etsuko. Lemme get the door for ya." Hanpei then scurried over to her side, opening the door and allowing her to take her seat before gently shutting it closed. He hoped this display of gentlemanly behavior would spare him an irritable partner for the ride.

He had been so flustered that he didn't even notice the small creature that had hopped into the driver's rear when he went to Etsuko's side.

"Let's not worry about how he knew, let's go find the Komyouji's ourselves. It's been a while since we've seen them," she said, an elfin smile on her face. Though she was worred, Etsuko could just feel that something exciting was going to come soon, and she wanted to be ready for it.

Hanpei grinned and started the car without delay, and the three of them set off for the Komyouji residence…

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Mitsuko had trouble breathing as Mieko finished with her side of the story. She had held her breath so long that she had paled, earning expressions of confusion mixed with concern.

"Are you feeling ill?" Mieko queried, removing her jacket and placing it around Mitsuko's shoulders. Mitsuko breathed a few more times before answering—she looked like she was close to hyperventilating.

"No…I'm fine…just…" Mitsuko found herself unable to finish—not without breaking down. Breaking down in front of her family was the last thing she wanted to do, so she quickly excused herself and went upstairs to take a hot bath.

Masaru wasn't fooled though; he knew his sister was in pain. It wasn't as if he could blame her; Jiro was suffering.

"So this submission circuit…it has corrupted Jiro into an evil being?" Den asked, carefully. That simple question caused Masaru to jump up abruptly.

"NO! Jiro is NOT evil! He's not! He can't be!" The angry tears welled up in Masaru's eyes, but he forced them back. He was older now, and did not wish to cry every time he was upset. Den looked at his son achingly--how could he tell his son differently if it was so?

Luckily, his teacher answered for him.

"No, he is not evil, my boy. He just possesses a dark heart alongside a good one—just like any human," he said gently, hoping to calm the enraged youngster. Den was surprised.

"How is that so?" he asked curiously. Fuuten beamed slyly at him.

"It is due to your invention of the Gemini circuit. Because it was so well developed before he was implanted with the submission circuit, he was able to fight it. Thus he now struggles like normal humans do between doing good and evil—but he faces this struggle alone, which is dangerous for anyone."

Dr. Komyouji was again speechless—he thought he had cursed Jiro with the Gemini circuit, despite Jiro's grateful words. He suddenly felt…lighter…but there was still a weight bearing on his shoulders.

"Sensei…what am I to do if DARK is hunting my family and myself once more? How can I protect them?"

Fuuten's smile widened into a grin.

"I'm glad you asked me, my pupil. You see, there was in fact a reason I had these two young ladies help me bring you the remains of Kikaider 01 and Kikaider 00. I want you to aid me in reviving them along with installing a Gemini circuit in each."

There was a moment of astounded silence. There seemed to be quite a few of them this day. Den swallowed before speaking, for his throat had gone dry.

"Sensei…I cannot do that! I cannot put any more of my creations through the hell of fighting for me—if I do, how am I any better than Gil? Not only that, how can we hope that they could take on a society that is bigger than we imagined?"

"Actually, since Mr. Fuuten was able to add to the story and Gil is now completely defeated, that leaves 3 more leaders of DARK that have since united into one mass movement to start dominating this country first. After they succeed in taking control of Japan, they will probably move on to taking the rest of the eastern hemisphere and work their way West," Arai chimed, holding her chin in a thoughtful expression.

All the men gave her curious stares while Mieko quirked an eyebrow.

Arai blinked at the sudden attention and began to fidget.

"Just how do you know all of this?" Den questioned her almost suspiciously. She smirked at her uncle and chuckled.

"I've been out on the streets for a while. You start to hear things eventually, if you know whom and where to listen…" she winked at Masaru as she said this, feeling that this was a common ground on which she and the boy stood. Masaru grinned back at her, confirming her presumption. Mieko felt herself smirking at the brazen bravado.

Arai looked to find Den still giving her a curious stare. She coughed and looked away sheepishly.

"…Although admittedly, a lot of that information is from my own intuition." The old monk began to chuckle, disposing of the slightly discomforting tension.

Dr. Komyouji still felt reluctant…there was something that refused to release the burden on his mind and heart. Fuuten noticed it immediately, but said nothing.

"…Even if I brought them back to life right now…would they be angry with me?" He muttered, more to himself than anyone else. Unfortunately, Mieko picked up every word with her acute hearing and snapped at him.

"Are you going to deny them a second chance at life just because of your fears?" Her face was set in a defiant, angry glare. Den was taken aback at the sudden hostility, since the female android had spoken so softly up to that point.

"No, that's not it…not completely, in any case. Would it really be wise to revive them with Gemini circuits installed into their systems?"

Fuuten frowned in consideration, stroking his chin thoughtfully.

"The Gemini circuit would offer them both a chance of resistance should the remaining forces of DARK attempt to use the submission circuit against them. Provided that the program has enough time to develop, as Jiro's did."

Masaru was practically bouncing on his heels with excitement.

"Come on, Dad! If we wake them up, they might be able to help us find Jiro!"

"Your young son has a point, Den. Their databases and memory banks appear to have made it out of the explosion in perfect condition, surprisingly I might add," the old hermit commented matter-of-factly, quite impressed with the durability and perhaps the sheer luck that Ichiro and Rei made it out in relatively good condition.

Den looked down on his young child who smiled gleefully at the thought; to his own disbelief, he found a part of himself sharing his son's excitement…

He turned to his niece who stared back at him with curiosity.

'Might as well make this a unanimous vote…' Den mused with a reluctant smile.

"Arai…what do you think?"

She blinked, visibly flustered.

"I get a say in this…?"

Den smiled at her and nodded while Masaru was practically beside himself with eagerness, even before hearing an answer. Arai turned her head to the direction of the room in which she and Mieko had placed the android bodies. She could see Ichiro's broken face staring blankly at her from his position on the floor.

"…Well…I think…since they basically were robbed of their opportunities at life…why not give them a second chance? We may not be able to do it with humans, but if it can be done, why shouldn't we grant them that?"

Mieko said nothing, but thought she saw something deeper in the girl's eyes for a moment. Den accepted Arai's rational sentiment with a thoughtful nod before turning to the old monk.

"…Very well. I believe I still have an operational lab underground. Sensei, will you help me?"

"Of course, Den. I would not have it any other way," the old man grinned, stepping towards the girls.

"Ladies, would you mind carrying the patients to the lab?" Mieko smiled brightly and turned to head into the room to retrieve Rei's body, but paused when she felt a small hand on the hem of her skirt.

"Here you go," Masaru said shyly, handing Mieko's jacket back to her. She smiled warmly and patted his head, making the young boy blush.

"Thank you, Masaru-kun…"

He reddened further at the affectionate addition to his name.

"Ah…sure!" he mumbled.

"OHOHO! 'SARU-KUN! SO VERY CUTE!" Instantly, the boy was constricted in a tight hug and felt his hair being ruffled violently as he struggled to breathe. When he finally managed to escape his cousin's death grip, she stood up and laughed.

"Say, Masaru, why don't you help me with something?" Masaru looked up happily, elated to finally be of use.

"Okay!" With that, Arai hauled Ichiro's body onto her back and headed out the door, but then stopped and laid Ichiro down on his back, inspecting his middle. Masaru moved in closer to see what she was doing.

She took out a small screwdriver from a kit in her own motorcycle. She opened up the contraption that was Ichiro's belt buckle and closely examined the circuitry inside.

"It seems to be in good shape…let's see if it still works," she muttered to herself, closing and securing the buckle again. She then pressed a few buttons on the ornamental piece and looked around, waiting for something to come.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, a roaring motor exploded from the bushes and stopped a few feet from them. Masaru thought the display was extremely admirable, but Arai seemed to be in a horrified trance.

"Wha…wha--WHAT DID THEY DO TO THE BIKE?!"

She was instantly at the vehicle's side, lamenting over the numerous scratches, and an ugly gash in one side of the paneling in particular on the sidecar. Arai was muttering little comments and whimpered a little with each fault she could find on it.

"Um…maybe we should get Ichiro into the lab first and then I can help you fix up the motorcycle," Masaru suggested meekly, patting Arai's shoulder in a comforting manner. Distracted, she looked back at him in an unfocused manner, but soon realized what was going on and where she was.

"A-ah…yes. Yes, that's what we'll do…"

Chapter Text

...

Akira held his breath and exhaled only when conversation took place in the front seats of the car. He was surprised with himself for doing something so reckless while on his own.

Still, the temptation was just too much; he and Rieko had eavesdropped on the old monk's conversation with the visitor that came the day before. It turned out that she was a Komyouji looking for her relatives.

Akira recognized the name instantly, having read it so many times--his Pinocchio book had the words 'Property of Komyouji Masaru' written in black, bold marker on the inside cover.

'Rieko...she was never was able to finish reading this book to me, so I finished it myself. I always wondered who Masaru Komyouji was. Since this is his book and I've finished it, I should return it', the boy concluded; his little stunt was justified enough.

'Besides…it's not as if I'm ever taken out of the orphanage, away from the other kids…this is my only chance!' –And with that, he hugged the book a little closer to his frame, taking another deep breath as the driver sneezed.

"Boss, you're not getting a cold are you? That's the fourth time today!" The passenger in the front seat exclaimed, her voice laced with concern.

"Nah, I'm fine, just probably got a little fuzz in my nose from the pillow fight that the kids were having. No big deal," Hanpei chuckled, as they pulled into the driveway of their destination, still completely unaware of the extra passenger hiding under the backseat…
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Mitsuko stepped gingerly out of the bath in resignation, sighing as it had not calmed her down much. She wrapped a towel around her body and rubbed the moisture off of the mirror to get a look at herself. Bitterly, she jerked her gaze elsewhere.

Her eyes were still red.

'Jiro…what must you be going through right now…? Why couldn't you have just returned to us directly afterward?'

A droplet descended down her face and she silently cursed at it--she couldn't pretend the droplet came from her wet hair.

Mitsuko then glanced towards the window to see a beige Volkswagen Beetle approaching her home and decided to hurry into her room to dress.

She had to make herself presentable for company…and sad tears did not make for a welcoming image.

'Stop crying now or you'll never stop,' she demanded of herself mentally, taking a step toward her bedroom.

Unfortunately, Mitsuko's eyes refused to take orders and she shut the door behind her…
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

As Den and Fuuten descended into the laboratory, Arai came back out and ran around to the back of the house to start immediate repairs on Ichiro's damaged vehicle (although it came out looking better than Ichiro had initially).

Masaru and Arai made a speedy team as they found out while working on the ingenious machine. After finding scrap panels in the garage and painting new panels for the damaged ones, they replaced them onto the bike's frame. Finally, they moved on to sharpening the removable blades on the back.

"Make sure not to cut yourself on that thing," warned the girl as she handed Masaru an unusual contraption. It appeared to be a small clamp with a soft, malleable interior.

"What is this thing?" he queried, fitting it over the blades as Arai did. She flashed a proud grin at him.

"My dad's last invention—made with my help of course. Press into the grip gently and slide the thing carefully up the blade."

Masaru did as he was told and was amazed to find that the dings and chips in the blade were instantly no more. He gaped at the small tool in his hand.

"It doesn't look like much, but it's a blade sharpener. By pressing the grips, it activates lasers that sharpen the blade with precision to the width of a mere cell, so be extra careful with the edge. I can't have relatives losing fingers when I've just met them!" Arai instructed, grinning broadly.

Masaru gulped and gripped the back of the blade firmly; placing it in the socket it belonged to. Nervous as he was, he was grateful that someone was willing to let him try something slightly dangerous as opposed to protecting him from every little thing. He eyed the little invention excitedly and handed it back to her.

"That's amazing—it sure is a lot easier than a wet stone!" he smiled. She beamed appreciatively.

"I like you, kid. You recognize value when you see it." Masaru flushed, grinning. He looked up at her to find her staring at the second level of the house where Mitsuko's silhouette could be spotted through her light shades.

"Why was she so upset I wonder?" Arai murmured to herself, confused. Masaru sighed.

"You caught on too, huh? Sis has been sad for a long time ever since Jiro left. She thinks that no one else can tell, but I can. At first she wasn't as sad because she kept telling me that she knew he'd come back because he promised. It's just that…after a while, she started to look like she didn't believe it anymore. One day I saw her crying while she was looking out at the garden…but don't tell anyone I told you!" he finished with furtive glance at the girl, asking her to promise secrecy.

Arai quirked her eyebrow, as if she was having trouble figuring out why the departure of an android would cause such depression. When she came back to her senses, she found Masaru gripping her hand worriedly.

"Hm? Oh, don't worry, I won't spill your secret," she smiled, linking her pinky to his and swearing upon it. Masaru opened his mouth to say something more, but heard a car door slam shut on the other side of the house.

"Come on, let's see who is here!" Masaru leapt to his feet, as he scrambled around to the other side of the house. Arai cast one more glance at her elder cousin's window before trotting off behind Masaru.

"Where is everyone? Etsuko, are you sure the Komyouji family returned from overseas yet?"

"Of course I am! Why don't you ever trust my information?"

"HANPEN! ETSUKO!"

The squabbling pair turned to find Masaru running at them as fast as his legs would carry him. Etsuko knelt down to catch him in a hug. Hanpei waved and adjusted the lapel of his coat with a friendly grin.

"Hey, Masaru! How's it goin'? Where is everyone?" Masaru broke from Etsuko's hug and looked up at the man.

"Dad is in the underground lab. Mitsuko is upstairs in her room. Guess what? Did you know that I have a—"

"Oi! Detectives! Good to see you!" yelled Arai, as she caught up to the little group. Masaru blinked as he looked back at her.

"Hanpen, do you know my cousin?" he asked curiously. Hanpei laughed nervously.

"It's a long story…' he told Masaru; then to the young lady,'—nice to see you again, but how'd you get here?"

"Haha, apparently the old man knew exactly who my uncle was and was kind enough to bring me here, though not without purpose of his own…not that I minded," she grinned, tucking back a loose strand into the coil around her head.

"Huh? What's going on here? Where's the monk? Masaru, why's your old man in his lab?"

Masaru fidgeted nervously. Those were quite a few questions. Luckily, Etsuko came up with a better idea.

"Boss, why don't we just go find Dr. Komyouji and ask him ourselves?"

"…That'll work," Hanpei bowed his head sheepishly. The rest of the little group began to giggle when Arai noticed something moving in the detective's car.

"Eh? What is that? Mr. Hattori, you didn't bring a pet with you or anything did you?"

"What? A pet? What are you--?"

"Boss! Look in the back seat!" Etsuko said in alarm. The four of them advanced on the car slowly until they were at the doors. Cautiously, Hanpei stepped forward and flung the door open.

...

"AHHH!"

"AHHH!" he replied, jumping back into Etsuko as she steadied him, partially hiding behind him. Arai sprung forward quickly and Masaru followed.

"Who's in there?" he yelled warningly. A little boy timidly stepped out.

"I-I'm sorry! I j-just wanted to f-find Masaru Komyouji!"

Masaru was surprised; he wasn't familiar with the small child.

"Eh? Do I know you?" Masaru asked curiously, tilting his head.

"Akira-kun?"

Mieko had returned from the lab to find the little group huddled around a visiting car. Akira jumped when he heard his name addressed and paled (if possible) when he realized whom had called him.

"Akira-kun, what are you doing here? You should be back at the orphanage eating lunch right now!" Mieko scolded without any real sense of anger.

"I'm sorry…really sorry…I just wanted to return this book to Masaru Komyouji!" he said, sliding the book out from under his jacket and presented it to the slightly elder boy. Masaru recognized it instantly.

"Hey! I remember this from a long time ago; I left it here when we took dad overseas to get better! I'm kinda old for it now, but thanks a lot!" Masaru took the book, thanking Akira politely…but one question still remained unanswered.

"…Sorry, but do I know you? How'd you get this book?" Akira shuffled awkwardly, not quite sure how to explain himself. Fortunately, Mieko came to his rescue.

"Masaru-kun, do you remember my telling of the little boy that Jiro, Ichiro and Rei were protecting? This would be him: Akira; Akira, this is Dr. Komyouji's son, Masaru," she introduced the two young boys to each other.

"Ah, you—you're Akira? Wow, nice to meet you!" Masaru said, extending a hand for a friendly greeting. Akira hesitatingly took it and they shook lightly.

"Yeah, it is good to meet you too. Thank you for allowing me to read the book… I liked it," Akira finished with a small smile. Masaru perked up as an idea occurred to him.

"Hey…why don't you keep it then? As a present from me?"

Akira gaped at Masaru, wringing his hands in a fluster.

"I can't do that, it's your book!" Masaru laughed good-naturedly and placed a hand over Akira's shoulder.

"Don't worry, it was my favorite story when I was younger and now I remember it by heart. Why don't you come over and play sometime? It'll be fun!"

Akira looked up at Mieko shyly.

"…Would it be ok, Mieko-neechan?" he asked quietly, hopefully. Mieko paused at the friendly honorific the small boy had given her, feeling a surge of warmth spill from her in the form of a smile. He really had changed in such a short time; the human interaction was doing wonders for him.

"Sure, so long as you don't make a nuisance of yourself," she teased lightly, causing Masaru to grin. Akira fiddled with the hem of his jacket, smiling timidly.

"Huh? Something wrong, Akira?"

The little boy looked up and bit his lip a little.

"Is it ok if I…bring a friend sometimes?" he whispered. Masaru laughed again.

"Of course! The more, the merrier!"

A second later, Masaru's stomach decided that it needed tribute and let everyone know about it via an audible growl; he blushed furiously. Etsuko laughed gaily, gathering the two boys closer together.

"I think that means it's lunchtime, and it's a good thing because I feel like cooking. How about it?" she winked at the boys who smiled at her appreciatively—Masaru even more so; he was downright hyper at the thought of Etsuko's cooking.

"Race you!" he yelled, speeding off towards the house. Akira looked at him before catching on, and sprinted off after his new friend.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Fuuten adjusted the overhead light to better view Ichiro's insides. He had repaired the circuitry and the huge gaping hole in his chest cavity already, but they had decided it would be a good idea to check it over a second time before trying to awaken him.

'I doubt Ichiro would have the patience to lie still if we had to rectify a mistake after he is operational,' the old monk chuckled to himself, remembering Ichiro's brash personality.

"Sensei…?" Den asked, looking up from his inspection of Rei's head circuitry.

"Hm? Oh, it's nothing, I was just remembering how 01 behaved when he was awake and running the first time."

"Oh, I see,' Den murmured slightly, closing and sealing the head unit shut. As an afterthought, he added, 'a lot like Jiro, was he?" Den almost jumped when he heard his old teacher laughing loudly.

"Quite the contrary, friend. Ichiro almost was—is his exact opposite! Where Jiro is gentle and compassionate, Ichiro is loud, rash and a bit…less refined, if I may say so." Den found himself laughing along with his teacher at his far-fetched presumption.

"Oh my…I suppose we should stand back when he awakens; he may strike us if he turns out to be an irritable sleeper." Both old men shook with laughter at the idea, although Fuuten mused that the jest might not be far from the truth. They would have to wait and see.

As their laughter abated, Den pursed his lips pensively as he considered his next thought.

"I don't mean to speak ill of my family, but I can barely see how the girl could be my brother's daughter and would still refuse to believe it if she had not been wearing one of my mother's prized brooches…and her eyes. Brown eyes may be common, but those eyes distinctly remind of Ryo: that same sneaky gleam…perhaps if not for her dyed hair, I might have been able to spot more similarities," Den mused quietly, chuckling.

"Kids these days with fashion. I'm quite relieved my Mitsuko didn't get mixed up with those silly fads." Fuuten grinned at his old student's assumptions.

"That particular shade is not the work of hair dye if her roots are any indication,' the old holy man said as Den goggled at him, 'although I will admit the color is unusual, I seem to recall there being some sort of media idol some time ago whose appearance looked roughly akin to your niece's."

"Sensei, this was my brother we are speaking of—let's be realistic," Den joked, feeling happier than he had in a while. Fuuten's eyes twinkled with mirth.

"Perhaps it was a mutation then, but at least she's hard to miss, aside from the rambunctious and eccentric behavior. She's quite bright and resourceful."

Den nodded in agreement while Fuuten smirked thoughtfully.

'A little too bright it would seem, for a child these days…' he contemplated to himself. Before he could think any more on it however, there was a knock at the entrance of the lab and then the sound of the door opening.

'Speak of the devil…'

Fuuten stifled a grin as Arai came jumping into the room none too delicately with a plate in each hand.

"You two missed lunch, it's only sensible to stop and have dinner."

"Ah? Arai-chan, you needn't have bothered, but thank you," Den accepted the plate with a warm smile, and salivating tongue.

"Credit for this meal does not go to me," she grinned as the lights made her brooch twinkle.

"Oh?" Den started as he chewed the rice. At that moment, an impressive pair of legs climbed carefully down the ladder, followed by another set with pants and the hem of a trench coat.

"Detective Hattori! Miss Etsuko! Welcome! I wasn't aware that you arrived!" Den greeted them warmly, despite only meeting them once before his family had departed for his rehabilitation trip—he had heard all that the detectives had done while he was held captive from his children, and felt deeply indebted to them for their kindness.

Etsuko and Hanpei grinned appreciatively at the welcome while handing the elder men beverages to go with their dinners. Fuuten thanked Etsuko graciously while Hanpei shook hands with the doctor.

"We arrived at around lunchtime and lost track of time getting re-acquainted with your son. He's growing up so fast…" Etsuko sighed nostalgically.

"Just Masaru? Was Mitsuko not there to greet you?" Den asked worriedly. Arai's smile disappeared as her own face took on a look of concern and slight confusion.

"We haven't seen her since this morning when she went up for a bath. I don't think she's feeling well…but I'll check up on her when I go back to the house to clean up."

"Thank you…really, I worry about her sometimes…always looking after Masaru and I; she's hardly had enough time to herself."

The air hung with an awkward sadness before Hanpei coughed a little.

"So, Doc…how is this re-awakening plan coming along? Masaru gave me bits and pieces while your niece fit the story together for me." Den smiled somewhat proudly as he turned back to Ichiro and Rei's currently immobile bodies.

"It seems that my teacher has done most of the work already, all we need now is enough collected electricity to jolt their systems into power mode. Unfortunately we can only do them one at a time as we only have one chamber to work with. I thought we should start with Rei first. Where is Miss Mieko? I thought she might want to be present for this…" Den trailed off, looking around the room for the missing party.

Etsuko giggled while Hanpei tried to pass off his laughter as a cough.

"We had a bit of a stowaway in our car, so Mieko went to return him to the orphanage." This bit of news caused Fuuten to quirk an inquisitive eyebrow at the two detectives.

"Oh? Who was it?"

"A little boy named Akira. He wanted to return Masaru's book to him, but Masaru let him keep it as a gift. I can tell those two are going to be such good friends!" Etsuko answered cheerfully. Fuuten was surprised—and he was not the only one.

"Sensei, isn't Akira…?"

"Yes, Den; Akira is Professor Gil's son…but it's so odd to hear that the boy did something like this. Was he alone or was there a little girl with him?"

Hanpei didn't bother to hide his amusement this time.

"Bit of a ladies' man already? No, he came by himself…wait—he's Gil's kid? That's news to me!"

Fuuten chortled and clapped Hanpei on the shoulder.

"Do not worry, my friend. I shall explain it to you later…or perhaps if we can awaken one of these young men tonight, he can explain it to you."

Arai said nothing, but her eyes sparked with excitement for a moment. A firefly drifted in through the entrance to the lab, which had been left open carelessly. She walked over to the stairs to shut it, but hesitated when she saw how dark it had become.

"Ah…I'm going to go back to the house to check on Mitsuko and Masaru for a bit."

She then sprung out of the hole and closed it carefully behind her before racing off for the house, contemplating her two cousins.

'I know Masaru is still polishing the bike, so I'll go check in on Mitsuko. Of all the people I've seen today, she is the one I saw the least of…I need to get to know her better...'

Arai entered through the back after casting a glance at Masaru…who had fallen asleep in the sidecar. She grinned and ran upstairs to find Mitsuko, thinking perhaps she might have also fallen asleep by now.

She couldn't have been farther from the truth.

As she neared the top of the stairs, she heard ragged breathing being muffled which worried her slightly. A moment later, she heard glass break and sounds of several blunt objects being thrown. That was enough to send the adrenaline flooding through the young girl's veins.

"Mitsuko!" Arai yelled as she burst through the bedroom door. It appeared that Mitsuko hadn't even finished dressing from the morning's bath; her short chocolate-brown hair was in disarray, while her face, red with strain of crying, fought to restrain her sobs. In short, she looked a mess as she slumped to her knees in her undergarments.

Awkwardly, Arai tried to make sense of the situation. What had caused such a breakdown? Hesitating, she grabbed Mitsuko's sheet from the bed and wrapped it around her shoulders and kept her hands there while Mitsuko continued to stifle her tremors.

'…How long has she been holding this in…?' Arai wondered to herself, gazing firmly into Mitsuko's reddened eyes.

"Mitsuko…what is it? What's tormenting you this badly?"

The question was asked very, very gently. It was almost inaudible, but Mitsuko could hear the concern and looked at the girl for a moment before throwing her arms around her, despite feeling ashamed. She was ashamed of herself for revealing her pain to someone she had known less than a day and hiding it from her family for over a year.

But she didn't care. If she didn't let it out now, she would cave in on herself.

"I think…I should explain first…about Jiro," Mitsuko said, drawing in ragged breath to steady herself. Arai focused all of her attention to Mitsuko's story and said nothing until it was finished.

About twenty minutes later, the weeping quieted down as the explanation ended. They stayed that way in silence for a few moments more when—

"Mitsuko…"

"…Yes?"

"Mitsuko, pack a few sets of clothing and I'll meet you at the side of the house with my motorcycle. Don't ask questions right now…just hurry."

Mitsuko looked surprised, but complied as Arai exited the bedroom.

No one was able to see it, but there was something different…some feeling that had been stranger to Arai for quite some time…

She checked on Masaru once more and walked over to her vehicle. There was a small keypad just beneath the base of the handlebars. She punched in a code and a compartment on the side of the pad opened to reveal two cell phones. Removing one, she placed it in Masaru's hands carefully, so as not to wake him.

'No sense in letting him panic, worrying where his sister is…' she thought to herself with an puckish smile.

As promised, Mitsuko came to the designated rendezvous point with a small bag of her necessities. The cool air crept up on her like eerie fingers again as she stood in the moonlight, drawing her coat closed. Arai opened the curved trunk space in the sidecar and fitted the package neatly into a corner. Then without a word, Mitsuko took her seat in the sidecar while Arai started the ignition.

They were long gone before the power had fluctuated in the Komyouji household for a few moments.

Bubbles began to rapidly rise to the top of the tank inside the concealed laboratory.

'…Water? What the hell…?'

He couldn't see just yet, but he wondered if he could move his arms a little. After practicing making fists, he tried to place them in front of his face, but discovered some resistance. A curved panel prevented him from moving much further.

Ichiro frowned.

'Well…I only know one way to deal with obstacles!'

He braced his fist for a punch before hearing a gurgled "NOOO! WAIT!"

Ichiro's visual receptors finally began to focus slightly.

He didn't like what he saw.

Apparently he was stuck in a tube, looking out at two old geezers; a chick, and some guy with what looked to be a tumor on his face where a chin should be. He looked towards the side and found something that only increased his ire: The motionless body of his youngest brother.

"Rei…? REI!' he yelled in rage. Glaring furiously, he turned to the person that was in front of him through the glass barrier. 'Alright, old man, you have 10 seconds to let me out before I start breaking things."

"Oh my…it appears you weren't joking about him, Fuuten-sensei…"

"One!"

"Ah, yes, right away, just don't break the chamber! We need it for your brother!"

Ichiro felt the liquid drain from the chamber and then air, as it was blown onto his body from the interior vents. Once it opened, he stepped out, seemingly nonplussed at the fact that he recognized one of the men he had silently dubbed as a 'geezer' just a moment before.

"…Old Man Fuuten? What's going on? Where's Jiro and what happened to Rei?"

Fuuten frowned, somewhat confused.

"You mean you cannot remember?"

"If I could, do you think I'd be asking?" Ichiro snapped testily. Although he was glad to see a familiar face, he didn't like being in the dark. Or stupid questions. Matter of fact, there was just a whole lot of things he didn't like around him right now.

"I see…it appears that the Submission circuit blocked out your memories from that point onward. Very well, let me fill you in on what Bijinder told me."

"Bijinder made it—?" Fuuten nodded, but urged Ichiro to calm himself.

"To make a long story short, you were taken in by the Armageddon Lord, implanted with a submission circuit and then decimated by Jiro when you and Rei were ordered to destroy him by Professor Gil."

"HE DID WHAT?! WHERE IS HE?"

Etsuko gasped and backed into Hanpei, who was not looking any calmer than his assistant. Den blinked, continually amazed at how different Ichiro was compared to Jiro. Fuuten placed his hands on the android, trying to placate him once more.

"Calm yourself, Ichiro. Jiro was also implanted with the Submission circuit and he really had no other choice but to—"

Ichiro interjected with a random question.

"Is Akira safe?"

Fuuten nodded slightly, curious to see where this was going.

"And you'll be able to fix Rei?"

Again, he nodded. Ichiro then jumped up and ran toward the entrance. He found the door was closed and kicked through it, causing it to thud dully when it landed to the wayside.

"Ichiro! WAIT!" Fuuten called after him—but Ichiro would hear none of it. He pressed a button on his belt buckle and waited patiently when he heard the familiar purr of his motorcycle engine. He hopped on and turned towards the road just as Hanpei exited the lab, followed by the old monk.

"Wait a minute, will ya?" Hanpei yelled. Ichiro ignored him—he had more important things to deal with right now. However, he paused for the old monk that had essentially raised him.

"Ichiro, where are you going?"

Ichiro shot him a perturbed glare, but indulged him with an answer.

"I'm gonna find him…and then I'm gonna bash his head in!"

And Ichiro sped off…

…Completely unaware that he had a traveling companion who was stirring slightly in his passenger car.

 

Chapter Text

Mitsuko was in a daze; the worst part was that she could not tell if it was due to lack of sleep; her shaky emotional status, or the overwhelming events that led her to be where she was now: speeding along the road with the cousin she barely knew into the third or fourth city they passed through.

"Arai!" Mitsuko yelled over the traffic to get her driver's attention. Arai gave a peripheral glance at her from behind goggle lenses.

"Yeah?"

"Where are we going?" Mitsuko asked, gripping the seat tightly as they sped up and weaved through busy traffic. A gradual smile evolved into a full grin before her cousin decided to respond.

"I thought that was obvious—we're going to find your Jiro!"

Mitsuko felt her breath hitch in her throat, nearly choking.

"But why? Why would you do something like this for someone you barely know?" she said, yelling over the traffic. Apparently the question caught Arai off guard—although her eyes were shielded from Mitsuko's gaze by the sun's glare off the goggle lens, her face was clearly fighting to remain neutral as she considered the query.

"…Why not? It would make you happy, wouldn't it?" Arai seemed to be trying the words out carefully as they exited the highway and rolled up to a stop sign. Mitsuko was at a loss for words, so she busied herself by looking around at the city they had arrived in. She could smell the sea breeze faintly in the air…

Mitsuko's eyes widened with a pang of recognition...

'The city by the sea...Mother...'
____________________________________________________________________________________________

Mieko wrung her hands a little nervously as she stared at the large tank containing Kikaider 00, much like someone awaiting the results of a surgery.

"You needn't worry, my dear. Ichiro awoke and was operating just fine. I have no doubt in my mind that Rei will come out just as unscathed," Fuuten reassured, patting the young woman on the shoulder. She looked down at him with an inquisitive eyebrow.

"If Ichiro came out just fine, then where is he?"

Den coughed from the other side of the room. Fuuten's comforting expression faltered a little with embarrassment.

"Well…you know how impatient he is…he decided he wanted to go find Jiro and left without saying much of anything…anything appropriate anyway." Mieko took a moment to let this sink in. Closing her eyes, she briefly recalled all of her previous encounters with Ichiro.

'…Yes, running off without much warning sounds about right,' she mused silently before turning her eyes back to Rei. Dr. Komyouji was adjusting the settings on the machinery for the electrical output. Too much would make Rei explode; too little would not awaken him. For good measure, he scanned the android's stats for any abnormalities before giving green sign.

Fuuten nodded and Den flipped the switch causing the power to fluctuate once more.

Mieko held her breath and stepped forward cautiously.

A hand began to twitch…
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

'What is this…? I appear to be submerged. Checking visual link for operational status...'

His eyelids fluttered once; twice—then Rei tried to focus his vision past all the bubbles in the tank. His default frown deepened slightly, for he was still unable to see much beyond the glass. Rei looked down at his hand, inspecting it for damage. It was then he noticed another hand, more delicate looking on the other side…

The bubbles cleared and Rei was finally able to see someone on the other side.

She was smiling.

The liquid then drained and Rei could feel his body being air-dried. A moment later, the chamber opened and he was able to step out.

"Sir, get up, he's awake now!"

"Eh? Ah? Oh right, sorry. I'm up, I'm up!" Hanpei grumbled as Etsuko placed his fallen cap back on his head.

"Welcome, Rei," Fuuten smiled kindly. Den was delighted as well as apprehensive, having forgotten to ask about this android's personality beforehand.

However, Rei paid attention to nothing other than the familiar, joyful face that greeted him upon awakening.

"…Bijinder…?" He said finally. Her smile split into a full grin as she nodded. Rei then looked up and around at the others only to find he recognized no one other than the old monk.

"Is someone going to inform me of what has occurred? Where are Ichiro and Jiro?" he asked coolly, just barely a note above monotone.

"Before we answer that, how are you functioning? Can you sense any errors within yourself?"

Rei looked down at the elderly man whom he did not recognize with curiosity.

"I'm functioning normally…who are you?" he asked while changing into his human form. Since there did not appear to be a threat within the vicinity, he thought it would be more efficient to use his human face to form expressions that could speak for him. He started by raising an eyebrow at the little old man in front of him who continued to write down notes. Den paused to look up at the android.

"Oh, yes, pardon me! I am Den Komyouji."

"Komyouji…?"

Fuuten intervened with a seemingly cunning smile as he could tell the name meant something to Rei.

"Yes, Rei. This is the man who originally created you, Dr. Den Komyouji." Rei glanced at the old monk and nodded slightly.

"Say, eh, Doc? This one ain't gonna break the door down trying to get out like the last one, is he—oof!" grunted Hanpei as he got an elbow to the ribcage.

"Sir, please! If you're not going to be polite, at least don't put ideas into his head!" Etsuko chided her employer. Fuuten chuckled at the bickering couple.

"You need not worry. Rei is quite different from his eldest brother in that he likes to keep things reasonable and calm."

There was a sound of relieved sighs before Rei reiterated his request.

"I would appreciate information of my brothers' whereabouts," he said, rather succinctly. When Mieko led him by the arm to a seat, he curiously followed, awaiting her explanation.


______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Masaru knew this was bad.

He wasn't sure exactly how bad, but he knew it couldn't be very good. He had awakened to find the sky speeding overhead at a seemingly dangerous speed. He noticed the flapping of his polishing rag as well as a cell phone in his other hand, vaguely wondering where it came from.

Cautiously, he peeked up over the end of the sidecar of Doublemachine, Kikaider 01's motorcycle. Sure enough, they were blazing through traffic with a multitude of horns blaring.

"PISS OFF AND CLEAR THE ROAD, I HAVE SOMEWHERE TO BE!" yelled Masaru's chauffeur. The young boy briefly contemplated jumping, if not for fear of falling out and busting his head on the asphalt.

'What have I gotten myself into?!'
...
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Rei was normally quiet—but this was different. This time, he simply could not find the words to cover the situation.

"Rei…Jiro wasn't really at fault for doing what he did since Gil had you and Ichiro completely under his control…you can understand that, can't you?" Bijinder, or rather Mieko since she was in human form, asked Rei pleadingly.

The stoic android inclined his head slowly to assuage her anxiety over the matter, but amazingly enough, finding out that his dismantling was brought about by his brother was not what had caused his speechlessness.

"I understand perfectly…but why have I been installed with a Gemini circuit?"

Fuuten cleared his throat while Den appeared somewhat culpable and wrung his hands. He had been worried that installation of the Gemini would upset them. In retrospect, he was glad that Ichiro had not been told of his own Gemini circuit…

"Ah, well, it seems that you may not be out of danger altogether just yet. Mieko, would you mind bringing in our eccentric guest?" Fuuten asked lightly. She nodded and exited the laboratory. Den took the opportunity to move forward to speak with his prototype.

"Rei…you'll have to forgive me, but we decided it would be pertinent to equip you with a Gemini of your own for protective measures," Den said firmly, bowing his head slightly.

"Protective measures…?"

"Yes, the guest I've sent Mieko after should be able to explain well enough, if you'll be a little patient. Patience is a virtue after all," Fuuten interjected, caressing his prayer beads out of habit as he fervently wished he had imparted that particular lesson to his first ward. They all waited for a moment longer when Mieko flew back through the entrance in an urgent frenzy.

"I can't find them! They're all gone!"

"What're ya talkin' about? The kids should all be up there!" Hanpei said, rising from his seat.

"Oh dear…" Etsuko murmured worriedly, sensing the growing tension in the air.

"What's that?" the old monk said, trying to calm down the frantic woman.

"Arai, Masaru-kun—even Mitsuko is missing!"

"...No...--You don't suppose they've been…?" Den began as worry flooded his veins. Fuuten sighed and placed a hand on his student's shoulders.

"Let's just all calm down and look together, shall we?"

"Mr. Fuuten is right, let's just be rational, ok? Didn't the girl—I mean, Arai say that Masaru was polishing 01's bike…?" Hanpei recalled vaguely, his face set in a serious expression. Fuuten's throat tightened a little, remembering that little fact as well.

"…Well, if Masaru is gone, I can assume we know who he is with in any case," Fuuten muttered, trying to maintain his calm. Den didn't appear to be reassured very much.

"Now, Den, I am aware of what you're thinking, but I sincerely doubt Ichiro would bring harm to a child. He had at least learned a little compassion before the incident. Do not worry; I am confident that Ichiro will protect your son. In the meantime, let's try to look for your daughter and niece."

With that, the detectives exited the lab quickly as the monk leaped out nimbly after them. Den scrambled up the stairs as fast as he could.

"Rei…are you coming?" Mieko said, turning to the quiet android that sat on the couch. He stood, nodded and together they jumped out of the entrance to join the search party.

The humans searched all over the house and shed for signs of the missing parties while Bijinder took to the sky for an aerial view. However, Rei stayed in one spot, inspecting the ground…or rather the two sets of tire tracks that aimed west.

Just as he was making mental note of his little discovery, a soft rustling implicated Bijinder's landing just beside him.

"Rei, what is it?" she inquired, reverting back to her human form.

"…Did any of these people we are searching for own a motorcycle with a sidecar?"

Mieko blinked before nodding. Rei returned his gaze to the tire tracks.

"There is one set here that could easily belong to Ichiro's vehicle, but this second set…the tracks made by the sidecar of the second motorcycle appears to be deeper, as if carrying a heavier weight than Ichiro's sidecar. Does this mean anything to you?"

Mieko inspected the tracks herself before straightening and tugging at Rei's arm.

"Come on, we need to find the others…"
__________________________________________________________________________________________

Mitsuko sighed as she walked around the depressing city. Although she never wanted to return to this place of sorrow, she knew that if there was a chance that there might be information on Jiro…

Arai had gone to buy some food about fifteen minutes earlier in case the journey turned out to take longer than expected. Mitsuko had told her she was going for a short walk to stretch her legs, to which the youth agreed to wholeheartedly.

Taking a deep breath, she turned to face the police station, her hand brushing over Jiro's photo in her pocket.

Just as she placed her foot on the first step, the doors swung open; she stopped as she was met with a group of 5 officers…the leader giving her a snide leer upon recognition. Mitsuko swallowed her feelings of indignation; it was the Inspector who interrogated her years before…who had made some condescendingly personal implications about her relationship with Jiro, whom she had at the time described as a casual acquaintance to deflect some suspicion.

"Well, well, well…what have we here? I've seen you before, haven't I?"

She clenched her jaw and steeled herself to remember why she was there. Mitsuko straightened herself and carefully slipped out the photograph.

"Officer, I need to know, have you seen this man recently?" Her voice was firm, but it was obvious that the politeness was forced. He merely gave her a cold smirk and snatched the picture from her.

"Oh, your 'casual acquaintance', huh? You've gotta be kidding me…"

Something that felt like fire caused Mitsuko's cheeks to flare, but she continued.

"Please, sir; I need to know if you've seen him. He may be in danger and—"

"Yeah, I'll bet. Get real. What's the matter? Did he leave you with an unexpected burden after your 'casual meet up'?" he let out a derisive bark of laughter, nudging the closest officer to share in the joke. Two of the other officers gave short, strained chuckles. He turned to get the other two to join in as well, but one pretended to be distracted by something else while the other just looked away, clearly disgusted with the scene.

Mitsuko bit her tongue, but could feel the burn of frustration at her eyes. However, she refused to cry and this time her eyes would not betray her.

"What's wrong with you, Ikeda? No sense of humor?"

The patrolman turned back to face his superior, his eyes blazing defiantly.

"Sir, she's asking for help. I don't think it's appropriate to make jokes when a citizen asks for our assistance, especially if there may be danger—"

"Hah! This girl would say anything if it got her what she wanted. Listen, Ikeda, this is how little whor—AAGHHH! WHO DID THAT?!" The officer squawked while nursing the back of his head as a bump sprang up rather suddenly.

"Oh dear, has anyone seen my new ratchet? I appear to have misplaced it!" A cheerful voice sang from around the corner. Mitsuko whirled around to see Arai straddling the motorcycle, a bag of groceries in the sidecar as she made her way over.

"A-Arai…!" Mitsuko stammered in disbelief; she knew very well that Arai had done more than 'misplace' her new tool. Mitsuko briefly glanced back at the cops to find the other four fighting to stifle their traitorous smiles.

"Anybody? My ratchet?" Arai asked in an almost convincingly innocent tone. The interrogation officer glared at her as she grinned spitefully back at him. He chucked it at her face, but to his dismay, she plucked it from the air and stored it quietly away in her pocket.

"Thank you," she replied as her eyes narrowed coolly. Mitsuko was taken aback at this completely different side of her younger cousin, who was placing the groceries into the trunk of the sidecar.

"Thanks, nothing! Who the hell do you think you are throwing anything at authorities of the law!" the offended police detective ranted. Unintimidated, Arai's tone became frigid, and she slammed the trunk shut.

"A better question would be who do you think you are? Where does a supposed official of the law get off slandering people?"

Somehow, the atmosphere seemed to freeze along with the icy edge to her voice. The offended inspector fumed and sputtered incoherently when the young patrolman, identified as Officer Ikeda, stepped up with a look of curiosity on his face.

"That bike of yours…I only knew of one man who designed a vehicle with such expertise. Is that machine from the Komyouji line?" Ikeda meekly asked; his eyes hid his childish excitement poorly.

Arai caught the interest, raking her eyes over Ikeda; she raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

"Yes, actually…Ryo Komyouji was my father." Ikeda's eyes widened with boyish exhilaration, though his commanding officer growled his discontent at being ignored.

"Who the hell gives a damn? She—"

"Sir! Ryo Komyouji donated a line of custom motorcycles to this department a few years back since we were so ill equipped and poorly funded. We couldn't even get help from our government because this city is considered too small to require such expenses!" Ikeda explained enthusiastically before turning back to Arai, who continued to survey him with cool amusement.

"Now I'm curious. You don't look like you've been on the force very long, so how did you know…?" she said, seating herself back on the vehicle.

The young officer flushed slightly and nervously adjusted his cap.

"You see…I have a mild interest--ok, I'm a huge bike fanatic. They're kind of my hobby…' he paused, nervously scratching his ear, 'Ryo Komyouji was my hero…I remember wanting to join the force to test out his custom line, but I only became determined when—" A frustrated growl interrupted the young officer.

"ENOUGH! You, brat! I don't care who your father is, let's see how mouthy you get after I call him and let him know how uppity you are!" The cop seemed smug with himself when Arai responded only with a wintry stare. He was about to rub her nose in it more when the other cop who remained silent tugged at his sleeve.

"Huh? What is it, Kuri?"

"Sir,' interjected the quiet cop meekly, 'her father is…" he trailed off, unable to bring himself to finish. This only increased the ire of the lieutenant.

"What the hell is it?" he spat, not appreciating the fact that his gloating was being deterred. Officer Ikeda stared hard at his superior.

"Sir, Ryo Komyouji was killed a few years ago."

Mitsuko nervously turned to Arai, worried at how she would react. There were no tears…just a cold, thin smile. The expression was eerily familiar to her… for reasons that left her anxious.

"I'd watch out if I were you, Lieutenant."

The group of officers turned to stare at Arai while she chuckled bitterly. She then continued, noticing all eyes were on her as she lounged on the motorcycle in an almost feline-like manner.

"This rookie might be taking your place soon if you aren't careful; he actually does his job."

The color drained from the inspector at the audacity—he sputtered, outraged.

"Why you…! You! I'll—"

"You'll what? Soil yourself? By the looks of it, you're too late."

There was no hint of laughter anymore and the cop had reached his limit, spluttering indignantly. He shoved off the officers who had attempted to restrain him and withdrew his baton. He waved it menacingly at Arai, his hand shaking with rage. She continued to sit, leaned over her seat lazily. She didn't seem the least bit worried. No…in fact…

Mitsuko noticed she was smiling…

"Lieutenant!" a voice rang out from behind the interrogation officer. The angry man refused to lower the blackjack until a large hand landed roughly on his shoulder and whipped him around. He would have shoved off the hand and probably more had his own superior not unhanded him suddenly. The officer's anger was forgotten and fear quickly took its place.

"Ch-chief…!" he stuttered, shrinking back from the head of the department.

"MY OFFICE. NOW!" The police chief exploded. Like a dog running with his tail between his legs, the once smug lieutenant shuffled resignedly into the building with the Chief storming after him. They didn't even make it to the office before the Chief verbally tore into the lieutenant.

The meek Officer Kuri knelt down and retrieved the photo that the lieutenant dropped and glanced at it before handing it over to Officer Ikeda. Ikeda frowned and gently handed the picture back to Mitsuko.

"I'm sorry, Miss, but I don't believe I've ever seen him brought in or anything. I've been here for over a year and I have a pretty good memory…"

Mitsuko nodded and bowed her head a little, though it didn't hide her disappointment. She seated herself back into the sidecar and let out a long breath.

Arai frowned, but started the engine and cast a backward glance at the policemen. She could see Ikeda's eyes shining with admiration for the beautiful piece of machinery.

"Thanks, Ikeda. Dad would have liked you,"—and she sped off with Officer Ikeda fighting down a smirk behind her...

They continued to drive through the melancholy city. Mitsuko looked up a little to stare around her, but found nothing that appealed to her attention until she looked at her cousin's waist.

'Why didn't I notice these before…they look so…odd,' she mused, gently tracing the edge of the metal-framed fake jewels. Arai twitched a little and looked down to see what was shifting the long belts around her waist.

"Why do you wear these? They don't hold up your pants, so what's the purpose?" Mitsuko asked, withdrawing her hand from the accessory. Arai's smile looked almost secretive.

"Everything has its purpose; it's just not always obvious."

Mitsuko wasn't exactly sure how to reply to that, nor was she certain Arai was talking to anyone in particular. They continued to speed along in silence when Arai posed a question of her own.

"Why did you go to the police?"

"I thought…I thought maybe they had seen Jiro…perhaps had him incarcerated or something. I'm not really sure, I just thought it was worth a try." The girl nodded in understanding.

"Still…sometimes the police are the last people I would ever go to for information. They don't always see what normal people do."

Mitsuko sighed, accepting that they were probably in for a long search.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Ichiro had run through one city, some countryside and still nothing. No odd signals in his mechanical brain or anything—and it added to his frustration.

People blocking his way on the road didn't help his mood any.

He had stopped by a newsstand in hopes that maybe something helpful would pop up. Ichiro browsed through several newspapers, a few maps and even a couple of magazines.

One he didn't understand at all—what were those women doing? And why no clothing? He huffed in irritation and threw the magazine back down.

'Humans are so strange…jeez, don't they report anything important in all this crap?'

Just as he was picking up another paper, a hand landed over his and he looked up crossly.

"You going to pay for this one, son?" said the vendor crossly.

"Not unless I find what I'm looking for," Ichiro snapped back. The burly man frowned, still restraining Ichiro's hand.

"I'm afraid it doesn't work like that, kid."

"You're afraid for the wrong reason then…" Ichiro's eyes narrowed.

...

All the while Masaru had been making use of his new cell phone. He quickly dialed his home phone number when Ichiro had stepped off of Doublemachine.

The phone rang twice before—

"Hello? Hello! I'm sorry to be rude, but we're in a bit of a—"

"Dad?" Masaru interrupted the rush of his father's greeting.

"—Masaru! Thank goodness! Are you all right? Where are you? When did you—"

"Dad, dad! Listen! I'm ok, just a little hungry is all. I'm in the motorcycle I was working on with Arai yesterday. I think I must have fallen asleep or something because the next thing I know, I wake up and someone's stolen the bike with me inside of it! He's loud and he has funny hair too!"

Den sighed in relief and laughed wearily.

"Son, don't worry. That is Ichiro, or Kikaider 01. He technically owns the vehicle…but listen, where are you?"

Masaru crouched down further into his seat as Ichiro had gotten into a shouting match with the newsstand vendor.

"Um…I'm not really sure. Ichiro doesn't even know I'm here yet. I thought I should stay quiet until I could get a chance to contact someone." There was a sound of something crashing and loud swearing. Then Masaru heard footsteps and panicked.

"Oh no, I think he's coming back, I'll call you later, bye!"—he turned the phone off and tried to smother himself into the sidecar as Ichiro hurried to the driver's seat and started the ignition. They sped off, leaving an angry news vendor with a bloody nose in their wake.

"Dammit! All that searching and still nothing about Jiro!" Ichiro muttered under his breath. Masaru's eyes widened in recognition of the name but he still remained quiet.

That is, until his hair tickled his nose so much it caused him to sneeze.

"What the—!" The motorcycle screeched to a halt.

'I knew I should have taken that haircut when Mitsuko offered!' Masaru berated himself mentally, sitting up.

"Who the hell are you? You'd better get out of my bike, kid!" Ichiro asked, thoroughly aggravated. Masaru responded before he knew what he was saying.

"Would you shut up and stop yelling! You've been doing it all morning!" Masaru gasped and clapped a hand over his mouth, wishing he could take back his words. He hadn't wanted to greet Jiro's brother like that!

"…How long have you been in my bike?" Ichiro asked, ignoring the boy's comment for the moment. Masaru flushed and looked down.

"Since before you woke up. I was cleaning it and must have fallen asleep…" Masaru grinned nervously—then his stomach grumbled. The young, spunky child grabbed it, wincing.

"Oh man…I'm so hungry!" Masaru said, bending over to hide his face. Ichiro mentally debated whether or not to make the boy get out. On one hand, the kid wasn't his responsibility; on the other, Ichiro did basically kidnap him and take him to an unknown city. The argument tossed back and forth in his mind before he finally came to a decision, which baffled him almost as much as it irritated him.

"DAMMIT!"

Chapter Text

The sun had begun to rise as Mitsuko peered out of the window, over the beautiful lily that adorned the windowsill. She had only slept a few hours that night and she awoke early, letting the events of the last two days sink into her head in hopes of figuring out how she'd ended up in the small apartment of a woman she had only met by chance in a nearby bar just the evening before.

Apparently Arai had been right in suggesting they seek their answers with the local residents of the city—though Mitsuko had merely withdrawn the photo to resurrect some strength in herself. Luckily, a kind woman had been fortunate enough to glimpse over Mitsuko's shoulder at just the right second...

"Hm? My, you're up early, Mitsuko," came a sleepy voice from behind the little curtain that separated the bedroom from the kitchen.

"Hah? Good morning, Miss Miyuki. I couldn't rest, so I decided to sit here and just collect my thoughts a little." Miyuki leaned against the archway of her bedroom and smirked.

"Just like him…"

"Miss Miyuki…?" Mitsuko queried as the elder woman smiled wistfully, shaking her head.

"You called him 'Jiro', yes?" Miyuki asked, getting a simple nod in reply.

"When he was here, I woke up to find him sitting in a chair, staring out of the window, just like you were. It's funny how things like this happen; almost as if someone higher wrote things to play out this way," she mused, walking over and starting the morning coffee.

Mitsuko smiled gently, feeling at ease with this woman. She stood up and helped set the table as Miyuki sat down, waiting for her coffee to percolate. Mitsuko then browsed through the refrigerator and began pulling out cooking pans and pots as Miyuki looked at her in surprise.

"In return for letting us stay the night, will you allow me to cook breakfast for all of us?" Mitsuko asked, a genuine smile on her face for the first time in a long while. Miyuki, still stunned, nodded slowly and blinked a bit as Mitsuko went back to setting up breakfast.

She then began to laugh softly. Mitsuko looked over her shoulder at the woman as she lounged in her seat, clad in a bathrobe.

"Miyuki…?"

"I'm sorry,' she paused to gain breath,' but this is the first time I've brought in a stray that wanted and knew how to cook," she finished with a bright smile that made her eyes glitter like sunlight on water. Mitsuko shyly smiled and returned to her cooking peacefully before a loud thud emanated from the bathroom.

"Arai-chan, there's a wall there," Miyuki said, pouring some coffee for herself. There was a snort, then:

"Yep…I do believe we've met."

Miyuki and Mitsuko giggled as Arai came out rubbing her forehead with a good-natured smile. Together they sat down to a traditional breakfast of rice, fish and miso soup.

"So, Miss Miyuki: you said you haven't seen Jiro since a few years back, right?" Arai asked, swallowing a bit of fish. Miyuki sipped her coffee and nodded.

"It was interesting to say the least. The last time he was here, I asked him what his story was. He just said 'I don't have anything to tell. There's no story. I have no home and no one is waiting for me'—it's uncanny how often I seem to hear that," she answered, leaning on her hand.

Mitsuko fumbled while trying to pick up a bit of rice and dropped her chopsticks on the table. She made no move to retrieve them; her face was lowered and her mouth drawn into a sad frown.

Arai glanced cautiously at her elder cousin as Miyuki continued to smile in that sad little way of hers.

"I guess he was wrong though. He was gone the next evening. I figured he must have made his way back to the person waiting for him…did he?"

"Yes…yes he did…but he left again."

"So you're looking for him now."

Arai finished her soup and set the bowl down gently.

"That's about the gist of it." Miyuki closed her eyes, her smile widening a little.

"Where do you fit in all of this, Arai?" she asked serenely, gazing at the girl over the brim of her cup. Something flickered in the brown eyes underneath the loose, uncoiled dark strands.

"I'm serving as transportation and investigative aid," she answered with a cool smile. Mitsuko watched the little exchange silently, once again not sure what to make of the cryptic response. The girl then stood up and carried her dishes to the sink, rinsed them off and excused herself to change.

"Mitsuko," Miyuki turned to her with inquisitive eyes. Mitsuko blinked before replying.

"Yes…?"

"What are you going to do if you find him?"

Mitsuko blinked—she had not thought of that exactly. What if he didn't want to return with her? Or worse—what if he couldn't return with her?

Mitsuko wrung her hands sadly for a moment, and then placed them on top of the table.

"I'm not sure yet…I'm more concerned about finding him, making sure that he is all right…"

Miyuki accepted this answer with a nod before continuing with her next query.

"And then?"

A million memories surfaced to Mitsuko's mind all at once.

"I want to make him see…make him realize that no matter how sad things get…'

"Don't look at me!"—Mitsuko felt her heart throb painfully, remembering the shame on the android's face as he leapt from the window.

"No matter how terrifying…"

Another image flashed across her mind; Jiro, lost and vulnerable, hiding within the wreckage of the lab he was born in.

"No matter how bad…he will always have a home to return to."

Miyuki's eyes reflected many emotions just then: adoration, admiration…envy…

"—And he'll always have someone to heal him," concluded Miyuki, placing a hand on top of Mitsuko's. Mitsuko returned an earnest smile of her own.

Arai watched from the doorway, fully dressed with her long hair back into the odd coil, wrapped around her head with the end tucked and secured.

"Shall we get going?"
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

A cold sort of tension hung in the air between the young boy and the pissy android.

Masaru chewed his food quietly—cautiously, as he watched Ichiro.

"Eat faster."

Suddenly Masaru bit down hard, his temper rising with the command and he stared back at Ichiro defiantly. Ichiro stood, tapping his foot on the ground and crossing his arms impatiently when he caught the glare the child sent his way.

"Don't you look at me like that--I didn't have to get you that food, you know. A little speed and gratitude would be appreciated."

"You punched the drive-thru attendant in the face and drove off!"

"But you got your food didn't you?" Ichiro yelled back. Masaru's eye twitched.

"I HAD SOME MONEY TO PAY FOR IT! WE DIDN'T HAVE TO STEAL!"

There was a pause before Ichiro replied snidely.

"Yeah, well if you had just brought it out faster, we could have avoided the whole mess. Learn to do things quicker."

There was a hesitant pause before Masaru responded with a tone of incredulity.

"Are you sure your head isn't still broken? Maybe Dad missed something…"

"I'm fine, shut up and eat. We have to keep moving."

"Why? You mean you're actually afraid the cops are going to come find you?" Masaru questioned dubiously, taking another bite of his loot. Ichiro snorted derisively.

"Get real, kid. The sooner we get moving, the sooner we find Jiro and I can punish him."

The words 'punish him' set off warning bells in Masaru's head and he jumped up angrily.

"You're still under control of the Submission circuit, aren't you? I'll never let you hurt Jiro! I'll fight you first!"

Ichiro actually looked surprised at the sudden outburst.

'This kid is SO different from the other one…' he mused to himself, reluctantly impressed despite his irritation.

"Hey, Jiro caused me to fall to pieces in the first place; I'd say a little payback is in order—!" Ichiro paused again as Masaru started to growl.

"YOU WERE TRYING TO HURT HIM!"

Ichiro stopped—stunned as the realization hit him. He hadn't really heard it before when Fuuten had explained…but it was true. He had been trying to harm Jiro because he was under control of the Submission circuit. In his moment of blind rage…he had forgotten to consider why his brother, his peaceful brother, would be driven to do such a thing. A sharp jolt to the leg woke Ichiro from his contemplation swiftly.

"What the—HEY!" he yelled as Masaru tried to kick his other shin.

"I WON'T LET ANY EVIL ROBOTS HURT JIRO!" the boy yelled with each thrust of his small legs, which Ichiro dodged well enough until he got so frustrated he picked up the boy by his ankles and brought him up to eye level.

"Listen, brat—!" Ichiro was promptly punched in the nose. Growling, he used his other hand and restrained Masaru's wrists.

"DAMMIT, SHUT UP AND LISTEN TO ME! I'm not evil or under control of that damned circuit, I'm just pissed that Jiro thought he could get away with turning me and Rei into a pile of junk!"

When Masaru stopped struggling and looked at Ichiro in amazement, he was set back down on his feet.

"You're not lying to me…?" he asked warily. Ichiro smirked at him.

"If I really were under the control of the Submission circuit, do you really think you'd still be alive right now?"

The two glared at each other for a minute before Masaru began to grin.

"Ok, I'm sorry I tried to hurt you," Masaru then finished the last bite and hopped into the sidecar. Ichiro balked at the sudden change in mood.

'Just like that…?'

Shrugging off his disbelief, he turned on the engine.

"Whatever—just make sure you're secured in there or you're going to go flying and I'm not going to stop to scrape you off the road."

Masaru just laughed and scooted further into the seat.

"Yeah, yeah…just drive. We've got a brother to find!" he shouted, pumping a fist into the air with enthusiasm. Ichiro just sighed and pushed off the ground.

…But he couldn't help smiling at the little pain in the ass.
__________________________________________________________________________________
Miyuki sighed and smiled softly. Once again, she was alone in her dreary apartment, left with only memories of life that once was there. She walked over to the window, tending to the flower as diligently as she always had since she was told how similar it was to herself…

When she found nothing that needed to be done with it, she sighed again and stared out of the smeared windowpanes. Chuckling wryly, she mused that no matter how sunny the sky was elsewhere, the light never seemed to fully reach the city with the same vibrancy.

"I wonder…' she spoke softly, '…if I had had someone to push me like that…could I have found you?"

As always, silence answered. Closing her eyes, Miyuki was brought back to the days of when he came into her home—into her heart. She wistfully remembered how gentle she had been when tending to his many wounds…how softly he had rested a hand on her face, leaning in closer even though it pained him to move…

She even giggled softly, remembering how he had apologized afterward, looking sheepish—a feeling that appeared to be foreign to him.

"…Good luck, Mitsuko…"
___________________________________________________________________________________________

Den was beside himself with worry. Although he now knew that Masaru was somewhat safe, there was still the question of his daughter…and his niece. What with mention of DARK still being after his family….

"Hey Doc, try not to worry yourself…I mean, you don't want to make yourself sick, do ya?" Hanpei cautioned, unsure of how to word things exactly.

"How can I calm down, knowing that my only daughter is out there where DARK could pick her off at any given moment?" he held his head in his hands, staring hard at the floor.

'Ah geez…Etsuko's giving me that look again…how am I supposed to figure what to say? She was always better at the comforting routine than I was—I'm a detective, not a counselor…' Hanpei looked down at his feet, praying that his assistant's glare wouldn't suddenly disintegrate him into ash.

"My boss is only trying to console you in his own way, Doctor. He is right though: what about your niece? At least Mitsuko isn't alone out there."

Hanpei looked up hopefully.

"Miss Sarutobi is correct, Den. I'm sure they'll be fine so long as they are together," Fuuten said calmingly. Den wasn't sure he had heard them correctly.

"But what about DARK? I highly doubt an evil organization would be dissuaded from attacking Mitsuko just because another young girl is with her!"

"Doc, look at it this way…from the looks of it, that girl has been out on her own for a while, so she must know how to take care of herself pretty well. And your daughter is no pushover, with all due respect, Sir," Detective Hattori said logically…however, something about that sparked a thought in him, something that nagged at him a little…he decided to file it away for later and looked around at the group. Etsuko was filling a cup with hot tea for the doctor in order to soothe him, while Mieko and Rei observed everyone else silently. However, unlike the stoic Rei, flickers of unease and sympathy played on Mieko's expressions.

Hanpei still couldn't figure out how she managed to look that way without a conscience circuit. He had not even been aware that she was not human until after it was explained to him just the day before. He shook his head again and looked at the monk who met his eyes with a meaningful stare. At first he was baffled as he couldn't remember saying anything wrong the second time…but as he continued to look at the monk, he found there was no anger, but instead a look that conveyed a sense of urgency.

They would talk later.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"Arai, it's getting very dark now. We should look for a place to stop for the night," Mitsuko spoke loudly over the engine. The girl stopped the vehicle for a moment and looked at their surroundings.

There was no sign of civilization for miles.

Arai sighed reluctantly, but conceded. However, she turned the motorcycle in the direction of the forest that flanked the road.

"Mitsuko, I'd duck as far under the shield as you can," she said, reaching into the sidecar, flipping a switch placed conveniently under the small dashboard. By doing so, the windshield extended further up over the opening in the sidecar, almost covering it.

"Reach under your seat and push up on the lever so that you can lean back a bit," she instructed. Mitsuko did so and she was able to recline slightly. When she had appeared to have gotten comfortable, Arai leaned further into the driver's seat, revved the engine and they were soon rushing through the middle of the forest.

Mitsuko was so startled when the first branch scraped her window that she almost yelled in surprise. However, fighting her urges, she pressed herself back into the seat until suddenly the stars were clearly seen overhead and the vehicle slowed into a stop.

The windshield retracted to allow room to get out and Mitsuko took the opportunity to stretch her legs. Just as she turned around, a bottle was tossed into her arms. Mitsuko looked at it in confusion for a moment before Arai pointed in the direction where a relatively small river was heard babbling away.

"…If you wouldn't mind, that is," Arai grinned, a little shyly. Mitsuko nodded and headed off towards the sound of water.

A little while after she disappeared over the hill, Arai punched in the numeric code on the motorcycle to retrieve her own phone. Dialing a number, she leaned on the side of the vehicle and waited for the receiver to pick up on the other end.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________

A chilly draft bit at Masaru's nose and cheeks as he sat on the parked Doublemachine. After spending the entire day speeding through various towns and escaping from numerous police officers who eventually gave up the chase, the boy was finally able to stay in one area for more than a few minutes; he took this chance to relax a bit while Ichiro went to explore.

Masaru had actually been glad Ichiro was gone for the moment; aside from all the yelling, which he had not minded all that much, he was most worried when Ichiro got quiet…pensive even. He had kept his eyes on the flanking forest for the last hour as they drove up to it.

At first, he had thought maybe Ichiro needed a private place to use the restroom, but then realized how ridiculous the idea sounded.

'Ichiro didn't eat anything today, so he couldn't be using the bathroom…Oi, sometimes I really do act like a little kid,' he blushed, embarrassed with himself.

Masaru suddenly shot up in the air as something…moved next to him. It surprised him greatly, but then the sensation stopped. He exhaled slowly, laughing nervously.

'My leg probably went all tingly for a second from sitting for such a long time." He laughed at how silly he was being when—

"AIEEEE!" he yelped. He then thrust his hand into his pocket to stop the movement…then realized it was the phone.

He brought it up to eye level and glared at it accusingly before answering it quickly.

"…H-hello?"

"Oi, 'Saru-kun! How are you?" came a boisterous greeting from the device. Masaru blinked before the realization dawned on him.

"Arai…-chan?"

"Mm, who else?" Masaru could hear laughter on the other side and began to grin happily.

"Ah, listen, 'Saru-kun, we're sorry we left so suddenly, but something kind of came up and—"

"Huh? What do you mean, Arai? Who is 'we'?" Masaru interrupted, thoroughly confused by the unexpected apology.
___________________________________________________________________________________________

Arai took the phone away from her ear for a moment and stared at it in disbelief. Hesitantly, she put it back to her ear and began talking again.

"Ahh…Masaru, your sister and I left pretty early from the house a few days ago. We're looking for someone really important to Mitsuko…you don't mean to tell me that all this time you didn't notice your sister and I were gone? Why do you think I left you the phone?"

You could almost hear the puzzle pieces snap together in Masaru's brain from the other end of the line.

"Ohhh! I was wondering who left me with this--but I haven't had much time to think on it! Actually, I'm not home either…" he admitted, chuckling sheepishly. Arai's eyes snapped open on the other end of the conversation.

"Masaru, what happened? You've lost me now."

"Well,' he began nervously, 'it's kind of a long story, but to shorten it, I got shanghai-ed from home by accident."

"Ehh?!"
_________________________________________________________________________________

"Cheh…this is stupid! There's too much junk in here to get through!" Ichiro ranted, making his way through the forest with his usual caution. The natural wildlife scattered in every direction to avoid being left in his destructive wake.

Ichiro couldn't quite put his finger on it, but something about this particular forest had grabbed his attention the second he saw it as he was running through several stop lights. Ever since then, he had ignored almost everything else and just kept driving towards the greenery. It was only the brat's yelling that kept him from hitting random pedestrians…and running into a ditch that one time.

'…Guess the kid was useful after all. There was no way in hell I was going to carry him all the way out here if the bike got trashed,' he smirked as he thought to himself.

Unfortunately, he was so preoccupied with his thoughts that he didn't notice the small dip in the ground and stumbled a bit.

"Oh dammit…Jiro, where did you—what the...?" he grumbled a bit until he heard something…

Straightening up, he found a good low branch that would give him a better view and keep him hidden from whatever was down there. He leapt as quietly has he could and leaned in as far as the foliage would allow him.

'Now let's see what I can find out here…'
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"…So he basically woke up, got mad and drove off without even noticing you were in the sidecar?"

"Hehehe…yeah, that's about it."

Arai blew a loose strand of hair out of her eyes and leaned back in relief.

"Good grief…well, at least you're somewhat safe…"

Masaru could be heard sighing in relief as well, now that he knew his sister and cousin were safe also. The young boy was suddenly struck with a thought that he was sure might make his cousin laugh a little.

"Hey, Arai! You wanna know what he looks like?" He chirped enthusiastically. An exasperated smile crossed her face.

"Actually, 'Saru-kun, I want to know where you are. Have you eaten at least?" There was a reluctant pause and Arai was sure she could hear something growl. Quirking an eyebrow, she posed another question.

"Masaru, what was that?"

"Actually…we haven't had time to eat today because Ichiro said there was something he had to check out. We're looking for Jiro too because Ichiro said he…"

But Arai's attention was focused on something else at that moment. Her eyes narrowed, glaring at the hill to her right.

"Say, Masaru-kun? I'm going to call you back really quick, ok? Mitsuko has been gone for a while and I want to go check on her."

"Oh, ok. I'll be waiting then! Be careful," the young boy warned cautiously.

Arai blinked at the phone before replying.

"…Ah, this shouldn't be too long. Later—"

-Click-

Arai reached for the sky, stretching her muscles…
___________________________________________________________________________________________________

Ichiro huffed from his perch. He couldn't hear anything the weird-looking girl was saying as long as the wind kept blowing and rustling the leaves so much.

Oddly enough, he finally noticed a chill in the air and haphazardly cast a glance back in the direction from which he came; Ichiro considered the sky, coming to a decision…

'I wonder if the kid's getting cold…I'll head back in a—'

-BLAM!-

Ichiro suddenly found himself flattened against the forest floor.

"Son of a bitch, this is getting old!" he fumed, throwing the tree off of his body; ready to confront whatever had caused him to kiss dirt. However, he wasn't quick enough to recover as something whirled him roughly against another tree. When he turned to face his assailant, he was met with a fist that stopped just millimeters from making contact with his nose.

"Eh? Ooh…sorry, I thought you were someone else! My mistake—!"

Ichiro caught a flash of hair springing away from him.

Obviously, Ichiro wasn't willing to let it end there. He leaped nimbly after his attacker and caught a leg, causing her to fall to the ground. Before he could pin her and have a few words, she rolled away and was upright once more.

"HEY! I apologized already, don't hold a grudge!" Ichiro growled and struck at the girl's head. There was a yelp of surprise and she jumped back just in time to avoid severe damage. Ichiro followed up with a volley of punches, which kept getting harder to dodge; he almost made contact with his opponent's torso--but before any of the momentum could carry the blow through, she grabbed his fist and pushed, repelling them away from each other.

"Geez, you really take things too personally, you know that?" Arai panted softly, trying to catch her breath while the Ichiro fumed. The clouds, which had been hiding the moon from view up until now, finally cleared and Arai was able to see one eye glaring at her fiercely, although she could tell the one hidden behind the chestnut tuft of hair was glaring at her with just as much rage.

"What the hell are you?" Ichiro spat, his curiosity overriding his anger briefly.

Now that the moonlight had broken through, he was finally able to see just how unusual his attacker looked. She had a coil around her head like a crown, but a few inches of spare tail blew about in the breeze at the back of her head. An odd suspender-like contraption had a band placed around her waist and her diaphragm as well as diagonally over her chest; in the center, a red jewel glittered vibrantly. He scowled deeper as he noted these oddities, but he wanted an answer to be certain and returned his focus to her face.

She appeared to be completely baffled by the question.

"…Hah?"

"I asked what are you? Hurry up and answer, or I'll just beat you up and find out later,' he flexed his hand into a fist and grinned menacingly,'—the choice is up to you."

As the initial shock wore off, Arai's bewildered expression was soon replaced by one of indignant aggravation.

"Okay, first of all…I AM A 'WHO', NOT A 'WHAT'! Secondly, don't talk so big—you'll end up eating your words as well as your teeth."

Amazingly enough, Ichiro was taken aback at being threatened by a girl who could dodge his hits. There was only one other that he knew that was capable of doing such things…and it helped him to believe that his suspicions were true: this creature was not human.

"Never mind, I know exactly what you are now!" he lunged at her. Unfortunately for him, she saw him coming, hopped back, coiling her leg muscles; she sprang forth where Ichiro's forehead met with her knee bluntly. Incidentally, her landing suffered for this blow as she wobbled slightly.

"Damn…a bit hard-headed, aren't you?" she commented, rubbing her knee. Ichiro seethed and practically roared as he lunged to make another strike when a shrieking sob pierced the night.

Ichiro froze and Arai whipped her head around frantically.

"…Mitsu—MITSUKO!"

In an instant, Arai was racing off in the direction of the sound. However, Ichiro was not ready to end the fight and charged after her. Arai was about to call out again when she was tackled hard from the side—and both fell into the river, sputtering, kicking and punching all the way down…
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Mitsuko's hand absentmindedly clutched at her heart as she stepped closer to the stationary figure before her.

She had only been walking along the small river, looking to the bright starry sky when she had suddenly come upon the small clearing. There, about five feet from the riverbank sat a large, misshapen boulder that had otherwise been perfect for sitting on. Mitsuko stood, gazing up at the heavens and was reminded of a better time; of a similar night which she looked back on fondly…and she smiled, moving closer to sit on the boulder to reminisce for a while.

As she advanced, however, she noticed that part of the boulder that was misshapen was not part of the boulder at all.

A gloved hand lay motionlessly beside the huge rock, covered with what appeared to be bits of moss; sure enough, there was a matching layer over the rock itself. However, as she drew near she saw that the appendage was still connected to something larger. Mitsuko swallowed thickly, trying to get her heart rate back to normal, but it was almost impossible…she knew that gloved hand.

Gathering her courage, she grabbed a handful of the damp vegetation and tore it off of its resting place.

Her heart stopped.

"Jiro…?"

No response.

Mitsuko leaned in closer, laying a hand on his left cheek.

"…Jiro…?" she questioned again, her voice wanting to break. She finally moved in so close that her nose almost touched his and looked into his eyes.

They were hollow, unresponsive…dead.

It was more than she could take. Tears silently rolled down her face at first as she wrapped her arms around his torso…then she began to sob quietly. She didn't even acknowledge the commotion coming from behind her.

...

"DAMMIT, FOR THE LAST TIME: GET OFF OF ME, PERVERT!"

"DON'T FLATTER YOURSELF, SPY!"

"Oh, for the love of—!" There was a resounding splash and the squelching of soggy footsteps reaching the muddy bank.

"Mitsuko, are you all rig—?" Arai was interrupted by further volatile protests.

"I'M NOT FINISHED WITH YOU! GET BACK HERE AND—"

"SHUT UP!" she roared, turning back to him and slinging water behind her unintentionally. Initially, she had thought her outburst had stunned him into silence, but she found her attacker looking past her…towards Mitsuko.

Or rather whom she was holding on to.

"…Jiro…? JIRO?!" Ichiro tried to pull himself out of the river quickly, but his fully saturated clothes gave him some resistance.

"Ji—dammit!" he yelled, frustrated because now his foot had sunk fairly deep into the muddy river bottom. He placed his hands flat on the ground and attempted to pull himself out—until Arai knelt beside him and grabbed his legs, freeing them from their murky prison. He looked at her incredulously—angrily, as if he were going to try to fight her again.

But he stopped himself as she moved immediately to the sobbing woman's side.

"Mitsuko…what—?"

"He's not—he won't move…" Mitsuko said stonily; she did not turn to face the girl.

"What?" Arai asked again, softly.

"What did you do to Jiro?! If he's hurt, I'll—!" Ichiro interrupted furiously, advancing on the women menacingly, with every intention to avenge his brother if anything was wrong—but he stopped himself.

He saw the tears streaming down the other woman's face—then Ichiro noticed her arms wrapped around Jiro in a protective embrace.

'What…? What the hell is going on…?' Ichiro stood by, completely baffled by this turn of events. Not only did he have a distressed stranger panicking over his unresponsive brother to contend with, but his only potential enemy wasn't even paying him any attention. Instead, the soaked girl focused entirely upon the weeping woman.

"Mitsuko, what do you mean he won't move? Is he mad or—"

"No,' she gritted her teeth to keep from screaming in grief, 'he won't respond to anything. It's as if—he's—" Mitsuko had looked up into the lifeless face of the android and was silenced by another flood of tears, and she buried her face into his chest.

Jiro was lost.

Chapter Text

Akira shivered involuntarily as he stared out of the little window up at the moon, which had been reclaimed by the thick clouds.

"Come on, Akira-kun! Mieko-neechan came back home with a boy so that means it'll be harder to stay up late without getting caught," Rieko whispered, winking mischievously. Innocent as she looked, she was often the mastermind behind the rebellious antics of most of the children (though it never amounted to much harm). Akira was often the one who kept his friend from going too far and completely frustrating the staff in charge of the orphanage, not to mention Mieko.

He gave a small smile and shook his head. Rieko was puzzled.

"I'll go to bed in a minute, I just want to talk to 'nee-chan for a minute," he said quietly. The little girl then looked a little worried.

"Akira-kun…is something wrong?" blinked the small girl. Akira knew she was looking him over for any signs of injury and he unconsciously flushed a little.

"No, it's nothing like that; I just need to talk to her for a little bit. Don't worry, I'm fine," he spoke barely above a whisper, but Rieko heard every word, being that she was used to his soft tone. She stiffened a little at his last comment and sniffed in a mock-indignant manner.

"I wasn't worried like that! Good night, Akira-kun," she said, walking past him. Akira glanced at her from the corner of his eye to see if she was actually mad, but for some reason, she was smiling and a little pink in the face.

There were just some things he would never understand about his friend.

'As long as she isn't mad…I better hurry up.'

He quietly padded his way down the hallway towards the door of the main room where he knew Mieko was currently cleaning up whatever was left behind by the children.

Although he was growing more comfortable with his surroundings at the orphanage, he was still somewhat nervous about entering a room abruptly on his own. He took a deep breath, making sure his pajamas weren't too sloppy and prepared to—

"AH!"

The door swung open just as he put his fingers on the handle, thoroughly startling him.

Cool eyes surveyed the boy with close scrutiny until the observer determined who the child was.

"Akira. What are you doing out of bed?" Rei asked calmly. When Akira's heart rate went back to normal, he picked himself up off the floor and regarded the stoic android timidly.

"M-Mieko…wanted to ask her—" he stammered uncontrollably. Then Rei knelt down beside the boy and looked him in the eyes.

"Ask her what?"

Akira steeled himself to make eye contact this time. As he did so, he found his nervousness ebbing to the point where he could smile, albeit shyly.

"I wanted to ask if you and Ichiro were ok after-…after waking up…" Akira suddenly felt a bit more sheepish and he began to scratch his nose lightly. Rei had already had an eye-opening experience with how he was received when he chose to return with Mieko to the orphanage at the monk's request.

Many of the female children giggled and waved as they welcomed him into their home. Many of the young males observed him with admiration—for what, he did not know. There were even some older male children who attempted to remain aloof, exchanging only minimally polite greetings with him. Rei also noted that many of these boys were the most active and eager to do whatever tasks Mieko assigned to them...

However, among the larger surprises of the day, Rei was intrigued with Akira's seemingly more open behavior. Only months before, this was the same boy who never said anything, save for a few whimpers of fear. Had living with other humans changed him this much? Was it humans in general or this particular orphanage?

'Is it perhaps because of Bijin…no, she goes by Mieko now… is it possible this change has worked mutually...?' Rei did not know. There were too many sub factors to arrive at any solid conclusion. Nevertheless, Akira was glancing at him with more anxiety now—more than likely due to the awkward silence that had followed as Rei evaluated him. Noting this, Rei blinked before answering the boy's question.

"I appear to be perfectly fine, so there is no need to worry. As for Ichiro, it is uncertain, as I was not awake when he was revived—but if he was well enough to start traveling immediately, I would presume he is completely back to normal."

The little boy began to smile again.

"I am glad. I think Mieko-neechan is happy too—she did not yell as much tonight when the food fight started at dinnertime."

"About that—why was it started? If you were trying to harm your opponents, how were you going to do it with soft edible substances?" Rei asked evenly, the term 'food fight' perplexing him thoroughly. Akira covered his mouth, trying to hide his smile.

"We don't actually try to hurt anybody... It's just a form of playing."

Ah, yes. "Playing"-another term Rei did not quite understand.

"I heard Mieko yell that word a few times tonight. I believe she had said 'Why do you brats insist on playing around so much'—she appeared to be quite agitated. What exactly is 'playing' and is it a good idea to do so if it irritates Mieko?" It seemed that Rei was quite curious, and Akira suddenly felt a bit on the spot when trying to answer his questions.

"Well, playing is when you do things with people you get along with because it is fun," he tried to explain as Rei quirked an inquisitive eyebrow.

"'Fun'?"

Akira rubbed the back of his head—another action that, Rei noted, appeared to signify discomfort or nervousness.

"Fun is a word that describes happiness, I think." Rei blinked, still confused by the explanation.

"Happiness…an emotion, yes?"

Akira nodded.

'It seems that I have much to learn if I am to understand the greater potential of the Gemini circuit.'

The door opened behind Rei and revealed Mieko, fully surprised at the scene before her.

"Akira-kun, why are you awake? You should have been in bed about ten minutes ago," she scolded lightly, placing her fingertips on his shoulders and urging him towards the bedrooms. Rei interjected on the meek boy's behalf.

"He came to ask of Ichiro's and my well-being. It appears I distracted him with my own questions, for which I apologize."

Akira and Mieko eyed him curiously, and Rei faintly began to wonder if he had erred in something he had said. However, Mieko smiled after a moment's hesitation and things appeared to be fine.

"It's fine, I needed to check on the children in any case. Let's move along, Akira, I'll tuck you in," she said. The small boy smiled appreciatively and they began to walk. Rei hesitated before following.

"Mieko-neechan…when can I visit Masaru?" came Akira's timid question. The friendly honorific attached to her name gave her delighted pause; she smiled again, looking down at the child.

"Whenever he returns. I'm sure his family may want to celebrate when that time comes, so I will ask to bring you then."

"Masaru is gone?"

"Yes, it seems my brother kidnapped Dr. Komyouji's son by accident," Rei said coolly. Akira's eyes widened substantially, and Mieko noticed his anxiety in an instant.

"Do not worry yourself, Akira-kun. Ichiro will bring him home safe and sound. You remember Ichiro, don't you? He may be a foul-mouthed kind of guy, but he'll protect your friend. In any case, it wouldn't do any good to worry now, so you should get some rest, understood?" she said reassuringly. Akira reluctantly nodded as they reached the bedroom doors.

Mieko then turned the knob and opened, only to get a face full of feathers.

"THAT'S IT! LIE DOWN AND GO TO SLEEP OR I WILL ASSIGN DOUBLE DUTIES IN THE MORNING BEFORE YOU LEAVE FOR SCHOOL!"

For the second time in his entire existence, Rei's face resembled that of a startled deer.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The atmosphere of the meadow hung with silence, save for a few muffled cries from Mitsuko. Ichiro stood, dumbstruck at the entire scene. He was completely out of his comfort zone, as he had never encountered a human so distressed to the point of tears before. What nagged at him most was the fact that there was something about his brother he didn't know—and judging by Mitsuko's tears, it was something significant.

Ichiro looked away momentarily, thoroughly irritated and confused. He caught sight of Arai, who continued to drip water on the grass beneath her. Her face seemingly held no expression, which raised Ichiro's suspicion once more…

Upon closer inspection, he found that her eyes betrayed her distant appearance by swimming with pity and sadness along with something else he had yet to identify...

He considered this, but continued to frown at her, though she made no sign of acknowledgment. Suddenly, she spun on her heels and let out a piercing, shrill whistle.

"What the hell was that for?" he bristled at her. She did not turn back to him, so he glared at her and waited. He could hear the sound of an engine growing louder as it approached; a few seconds later, a mostly crimson motorcycle exploded from the bushes and rolled to a smooth stop beside its owner.

Ichiro watched curiously as Arai punched in a familiar code to retrieve her cellular phone.

"What are you doing?" he interrogated sternly. She cast him an irritated glare through her dripping bangs, but answered tersely.

"Returning a phone call, as I promised. Kindly shut up." Ichiro growled angrily, fully intending to retort with some remark of his own, but was cut off when she started talking into the little device.

"'Saru-kun? Ah, sorry for the wait, but now tell me, where are you?" A few seconds later, her face paled and her eyes grew large.

"…WHAT?!"

She whirled about to stare incredulously at Ichiro, taking in his full appearance, eyes twitching.

"…And he has funny hair that goes over one of his eyes and he wears red and blue and he's kinda loud, but he's ok and…" Masaru chattered excitedly, eager to tell someone about his new friend. Arai's eye continued to twitch until it fell on Ichiro's familiar belt buckle…

"…sonuva—"

"Arai…-chan?" Masaru's voice squeaked over the other end timidly. She heaved a heavy sigh and shook her head.

"Masaru, are you in the motorcycle?"

"…um…yeah?"

"Good; duck down in the seat and make sure you're secured in there pretty well, ok?"

"…Ok, but what about Ichi—?"

"Don't worry, just trust me. I'll see you in a minute, I'm hanging up now."

The phone snapped shut and Arai let out another exasperated sigh. After replacing the phone into its socket, she stalked over to Ichiro. He stiffened; bracing himself for anything she might try to pull and continued to glare distrustfully at her. As they scowled at each other, the slight twitch returned, giving Arai a slightly deranged appearance.

Ichiro didn't waver under her scrutiny, though his curiosity continued to grow. She then closed her eyes and shook her head, looking somewhat defeated. Without warning, Arai bent down so that she was at eye level with Ichiro's waist and began placing her hand on his belt buckle…

"What the hell?!" he yelped, slapping her hand away. She snarled and flicked his nose.

"Can it, dumb-ass! I'm not the moron who left a LITTLE KID inside an UNATTENDED VEHICLE BY THE ROAD!"

Birds took flight as the accusation echoed through the forest, and Ichiro was silenced by the outburst due to the fact that no matter how he looked at it, she was right. He didn't even notice her returning to his belt buckle and activating the call signal. Surely enough, within a few moments, another motor was heard along with a few excited laughs emitting from the sidecar. The engine roared as it burst forth from the shrubbery and made a sharp turn, skidding into a stop by the owner.

"Interesting how the vehicle has become as much of a showoff as the owner…" Arai mumbled to herself before glancing accusatorily at Ichiro. He returned her glare for a moment when Masaru popped up and tried to extract himself from the vehicle on wobbly legs.

It was then that the realization hit Ichiro—'The kid did mention his name was Masaru or something a while ago...probably during the drive over here—ah, he should've known better than to try and distract me from driving!' he mentally justified, though a small part of him did acknowledge the fact that he would have recognized the pet name sooner had he tried calling the boy something other than 'kid' or 'brat'...

"That was so much fun; I can't wait to tell Dad and Mitsuko about it, they HAVE to try—Arai? Ichiro? What's going on?" chirped Masaru confoundedly at the pair as they continued to trade dirty looks. Masaru walked up and tugged on the hem of Ichiro's wet jacket and Arai's equally damp shirt to get their attention.

"Ah, sorry, 'Saru-kun,' began Arai suddenly. She glanced over her shoulder at Mitsuko, trying to think of something—anything to distract Masaru.

"Arai-chan, where is 'nee-chan?" Masaru asked curiously. She coughed and cleared her throat before answering.

"Ah, say, are you hungry, 'Saru-kun?" she stalled, hoping his appetite would take over his mind for the time being. Masaru shook his head vigorously.

"Nah, I'm too excited to be hungry! Did anyone find Jiro? Hah? What about you, Ichiro? Arai? Come on, someone tell me! Is Mitsuko with him?" Ichiro frowned.

"You ask too many questions, kid—,' he paused seeing that Masaru was about to protest, but clenched his jaw and forced out his next words, '—Jiro…he's back that way." Masaru practically bounced behind them with exhilaration.

"Why didn't you say—?" Masaru froze when he took a look at his sister covering her hand over her mouth to keep from crying out as Jiro sat with one knee propped up, otherwise unmoving. The smile vanished instantly and he began to jog, then broke into a full run towards his sister. Ichiro and Arai watched him go.

"…Way to go, ass," she muttered under her breath. Ichiro clicked his tongue in annoyance at her.

"What's the point of hiding it from him when we're all in plain sight? What were you going to do, distract him all night?" he retorted sharply. She looked away, glowering. Unfortunately, he was right—Masaru wasn't that gullible. Arai then turned towards them, watching as Masaru kept trying to grab Jiro's attention by talking to him.

"Just so you know, our match is on pause but we're not over…but I still don't trust you, nor do I buy you being a human," Ichiro warned, watching Masaru's fruitless efforts as well. Arai sighed.

"Whatever you want, I have more important things to do regardless." With that, she began to walk towards the little group with Ichiro regarding her shrewdly.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Although Jiro was motionless to the physical world, it was a whole different game within his soul. Or his mind. He couldn't figure out exactly where it was—he just knew it was very dark and very alone.

It was safe.

But it was miserable.

'Maybe…maybe if I just stop moving, I'll break down. Then everyone can be safe.

I wish I had my guitar though.'

Jiro floated amidst the darkness, not seeing nor feeling, hearing or sensing anything of the sort. He had no idea exactly how long he had been this way—in this place—with nothing but his thoughts to keep him company.

It would have driven anyone else mad—but for Jiro…well, his madness and self-torment had been the reason he had introverted to his current state. He had just kept running and running until everything disappeared—the last thing Jiro remembered seeing in the physical world was water…but even his recollections were starting to betray him; when he chanced a dip into his past, the water quickly distorted into the image of a trailing, solitary tear down the face of a pale, beautiful woman.

Jiro suddenly hugged his knees. It was frustrating for him because he could barely remember anything of this particular woman. The android cherished his memories so much…but he found that whenever he tried to reminisce, a great pain seized him within his chest.

So it was easier to just forget.

But still…the woman…she was important. She was so important that even though it pained him to try and think of everything, he could not forget her face completely.

"You know, you look pretty damned pathetic just sitting there like that."

Jiro's eyes shot open in panic, fearing that the disembodied voice that had spitefully imprisoned him had returned at last. He turned in the direction from which the voice came; though he did not recognize the figure immediately, Jiro felt relief at finding a source at all. A man stood on a solid surface that remained invisible to Jiro's eyes.

"W-who are you?" he asked warily. The other man scoffed and fixed upon Jiro with a look of disgust.

"Look at you. I can't believe I took your advice when you don't even follow it yourself."

"…What?" Jiro uttered in confusion. This man was familiar to him as well, but the memory was blurred.

"Think a little bit—but if you try to block it out once it gets heavy, I'll knock the shit outta you," he said coolly. Jiro looked at him closer and suddenly images began to appear around them.

A flower…

A woman…

Blood…

Pain began to grip at Jiro's chest once more and the other man stepped forward to grab Jiro by the shoulders.

"You remember yet, kid?" Jiro winced, but nodded. Toru then began to smile roguishly and set Jiro down on the same surface he was standing on. The android was surprised to feel something solid beneath his feet after so long.

"Why—how are you here?" Toru winked and turned to the side.

"It sure as hell wasn't easy. Never mind the details though—the real question is why are you here?" Toru turned back to Jiro, glaring at him. Instantly, several images began to appear around the two men, but only particularly affected one as Jiro's chest seized in pain. Each picture made him remember all the destruction he had caused as glimpses of all the robots he had killed rolled up. Then there was a glimpse of Rieko's grave, which only contained her head…

…And then there was an image of Ichiro and Rei falling to the floor in pieces as Jiro had dismantled them with his own electrical attack. The floor Jiro was standing on suddenly fell out from beneath him and he began to descend…

But the other man stopped him by throwing him back onto the surface by his collar.

"So that's it…trapped by your own past, eh? I can't believe this…," he scoffed again. Jiro began to grow angry and stood up.

"You've just seen some of what I've been through, and you talk as if it doesn't matter! I'VE KILLED!" he yelled, causing an echo to reverberate in the emptiness. Toru was not phased in the slightest.

"And…? You think I haven't?" Jiro was stunned.

"But…doesn't it matter to you at all…?" Toru closed his eyes, his irritable expression deepening.

"Of course it does, it'd affect anyone who's decent! Still…still, it doesn't mean you can just hide from it—especially not when there is someone waiting…" he trailed off, opening one eye slowly to watch Jiro's expression grow from thoughtfulness to confusion.

"Waiting?" Toru threw his hands up in frustration and walked over to Jiro, grabbing him by the head.

"Come on, kid, you can't have forgotten everything! THINK!"

So he did, and instantly an illusion of the woman's face reappeared. The pain returned to Jiro tenfold, but the other man held him up.

"Don't try to back out this time, suck it up and hold on to her!" he commanded. Jiro grimaced in pain, but the image remained when he opened his eyes. Both men stared at the woman's face as tears flowed down from her eyes against the dark background.

"Mit…Mitsu…ko…" uttered Jiro through strained gasps. Slowly, Jiro found that pain began to recede slightly at the sound of her name...

"You once told me that someone was waiting for me, and even convinced me to save a city so that I could go back to her," Toru said quietly, shoving one hand back into his pocket. Jiro shook his head.

"I can't go back…not with all I've done. She would never see me the same as before…not with this cursed circuit in me—,"

"Kid, what's your name again? I don't think I ever asked you."

"…Jiro," he replied sadly. Toru sighed heavily and placed a steadying hand on Jiro's head.

"Jiro, look—you may think you've done some pretty terrible shit in the past--you have,' Jiro looked down dejectedly at this before Toru continued with, '—but you know what makes you different? What proves you've got a good heart? You regret it. That's a lot more than I can say about some of the people I knew in my time."

"But—?" Jiro attempted to interject. Toru cut him off with a sharp look that triggered another memory suddenly…

"…The agony of having no choice but to fight your brothers…the agony of fighting evil feelings…the agony is what clenches that half of your body. It's because of your honest heart that it's drowning you."

He winced noticeably.

"Jiro, you and I…we've both done some pretty bad things in our lives. Even so…you gotta go on. You have a promise to keep, after all." Jiro looked up in surprise.

'…A promise…Mitsuko…'

"How did you—?" The dark, older man grinned mischievously.

"I hear a lot of things where I'm kept now." The android blinked and ran a hand through his wild hair.

"My point is you really don't have an excuse not to return. If you knew Miyuki well enough to tell me that she didn't care about my past and still hoped to see me someday, how is it that you knew this woman so little yet fell in love with her? Do you really think she wouldn't be as forgiving as my Miyuki with all the tears she's shed over you?" Toru said gesturing at the droplets that trickled off of the illusion's pale, delicate face.

Jiro was at a loss for words. He stared down into more emptiness until Toru began to walk past him. He felt the hand on his shoulder once more.

"I think it's time you started looking at things in the present—A man should always keep his promises-"

"But—!"

"Just do it! You might be surprised at what you find," he smirked down at Jiro who looked back with uncertainty. Jiro then shut his eyes and sighed, nodding his head.

"All right…"

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Masaru had been extremely shaken when he found out that Jiro was not moving, nor had he been for quite a while. Mitsuko could not bring herself to speak or try to comfort her younger brother because she was having difficulty calming herself. Fortunately for her, the other two were able to step in.

"What are we going to do?" he had asked in a panicky falter. Mitsuko had then heard some comforting pats being laid on Masaru's back.

"Don't worry too much. We'll just wait here as long as we can for Jiro to come back," said the soothing, optimistic voice that Mitsuko identified as Arai. Masaru still wasn't completely reassured.

"But how long can we wait? What if he doesn't come back soon?" There was a sound of a fist making contact with a palm and a low chuckle afterward—definitely the other man, Mitsuko vaguely noted.

"Then we'll drag him back home--how's that sound, kid?" There was silence after that, but then Masaru cheered and was back to his normal, bouncy self.

"Good grief…"

"What?" snapped the male voice; impatience evident in his tone. A sigh was heard, then-

"…Nothing. I'm going to go change…" said Arai, getting up. Mitsuko heard the footsteps approaching from behind. A cold, damp glove rested gently on her shoulder and droplets began to fall down her back as Arai leaned in closer to whisper.

"Hey…should I set up a bed for you?" Mitsuko shook her head slightly, but shivered as the water made contact with her skin through her shirt.

"…All right. I'll bring a blanket then…" Arai turned to retrieve said item when a voice stopped her.

"…Thank you, Arai-chan…" Mitsuko had whispered, breaking her long silence. Arai blinked in surprise, for it was the first time the friendly honorific was added to her name by the elder woman. She then had smiled softly and ran off towards the vehicle with all the necessities packed away.

"Oi, 'Saru-kun, do me a favor? Make sure that pervert doesn't look over here while I change, ok?"

"WHAT?!" Ichiro squawked indignantly. Masaru feigned a cough to hide his mirth.

"Come on, Ichiro. It's polite to look away while people are dressing," he'd said matter-of-factly, although he wasn't able hide his gleeful smile at Ichiro's fluster—it was funny!

Grumbling, Ichiro had decided to comply with the request and the night went on as Masaru, Arai and then finally Mitsuko dropped off to sleep.

...

But Ichiro was still awake.

Awake and contemplating.

He stood up from his side of the meadow and walked quietly over towards the pair of sleeping humans on the futon. Masaru had shifted so much in the night that he was almost completely upside down on the mat and half off of the bed.

'Perfect, I won't have to wake him up,' he thought as he stepped closer towards Arai. Her face was still, but her eyes twitched madly under her lids as did her fingers, indicating she was amidst some vivid dream. Ichiro shook a hand in front of her face and waited for a reaction. Receiving none, he squatted over her body and began to think.

'She looks human enough…but then so did Bijinder at first. Now how do I tell a human female from an android female?'

Ichiro had been pondering this while everyone had been falling asleep. He thought back, realizing he had never actually met a human female as Rieko turned out to be an android without knowing it. He tried looking for a simpler way to tell.

In his mind, he drew up a picture of Bijinder…and then, since it was his ONLY other source…he recalled that magazine he had found while rummaging through the newspapers at the newsstand a few days ago. Unfortunately, a plan began to cohere within the limitations of Ichiro's knowledge.

'Bijinder has lasers in hers and they are made of metal…but the humans in the magazine...the way they gripped them...they looked like they had soft skin instead! So if these are hard—' he silently mused to himself, pointing at Arai's chest as it rose and fell with her breathing, —'then it proves that she's not human!'

He was quite proud of himself for having thought up such a 'clever' plan, unaware of what it looked like to anyone else.

Carefully, he lifted up her thin, dry nightshirt. To his annoyance, he found another piece of clothing that secured the parts in question. There was no way he could remove it without waking her…and he was fairly certain that if she was a robot, she'd definitely not let him find out her secret.

'Well…I don't have much choice…I'll just check quickly.'

He extended a finger towards one of the fleshy objects when a thought flashed across his mind—

'Wait! Mental check—'

He suddenly was reminded of the time he had been investigating a paper lamp the first night he met Jiro. It was so weird how the light kept flickering and dancing, and at the time had not known what the source of the light came from. He had only known of natural light that poured from the sun, but he knew that the monk couldn't have had his own miniature version inside the temple. He continued to poke away at the lamp until—

-rip-

Oops.

'…I doubt that will happen this time…but if it does, it'll be kind of hard to cover up.'

He then looked at his palms, and then stretched them out until they rested upon her chest evenly.

With the initial squeeze, he was surprised to find they were soft—even more amazed at how soft they actually were. He then pushed them up a little, and watched them fall back normally; they completely lacked the structure needed for a mounted laser focus or gun barrels. Oddly fascinated by this discovery, he continued to squeeze until—

-THWOK-

--He went rolling backwards until he landed with a splash, back into the river. He sputtered and stood up angrily.

"I don't care if they are soft, that. Is. Not. HUMAN!" he hissed spitefully as she continued to slumber. Arai's face contorted briefly with discomfort.

"…Oww…pervert bastard…" she mumbled, rolling over and gathering up the blanket around her as Masaru's foot twitched in his sleep. Ichiro stomped away to the other side of the boulder, growling under his breath...

...completely unaware that Jiro's eyes were focused on him as he made his way to a little patch of grass to rest for the night.

Chapter Text

Hanpei sighed as he rummaged through numerous documents with the monk.

"Ehh…Sir, what exactly are we looking for? I mean, I already found enough information to prove the girl is Ryo Komyouji's daughter, so—" the monk silenced the detective by holding up a finger, asking for pause.

"I don't doubt her relation to my old student at all. What I'm interested in knowing is more about this child. Something seems a bit off about the whole situation, does it not?"

Hanpei swallowed hard, wondering if he was on the same page as the monk, but feeling somewhat guilty to confess his suspicion. Fortunately, Fuuten spared him the embarrassment.

"The situation seems a bit too vague. I'll admit that I have not had as much conflict with DARK as my student has, but it seems unlikely that such a secret society that has lost a sizable fraction of its force would go about killing needlessly while still planning for world domination. It draws too much attention, I would think." The detective nodded, agreeing with the assessment.

"I understand what you're saying, even if I don't like thinking it…but where do we begin looking for answers?" he asked, scratching his head. Fuuten sighed and crossed his arms, pondering the question as well.

"I understand that as a detective, you have ways of getting certain information from…less than reputable sources, yes?" Hanpei chuckled and nodded again.

"Yeah, no doubt there, but I can make no guarantees on how much information I can get out of my contacts about DARK. I wasn't so successful the first time around if I recall—" there was a knock on the door frame where Etsuko stood with a tray in her hand and a magazine tucked under her arm.

"I thought I'd offer some caffeine while you're both working!" Both men smiled appreciatively at her as she served each of them kindly. Just as she turned to return the tray to the kitchen, she stumbled and the magazine fell from under her arm.

"Oh, darn—can you hand that to me, boss?" Etsuko asked, trying to balance herself as she readjusted her shoes. Hanpei had already stooped to pick it up, but paused before handing it back.

"Boss…?" the assistant asked, confused at her employer's sudden interest in old fashion. Hanpei stared hard at the page the magazine had opened on. The monk grew curious as well.

"Etsuko…how old is this magazine?"

"Eh? It's pretty old—almost twenty years old actually. My mom has been collecting these magazines ever since I was a child. She sent me a box of her collection to borrow since I told her I got bored in the office sometimes—oops!" Etsuko covered her mouth coyly as she realized her sudden accidental confession. Hanpei didn't even look up to catch the inadvertent jibe. Fuuten moved over silently for closer inspection.

"What is it, Mr. Hattori?" he asked. Hanpei finally looked up with a serious expression on his face.

"Tell me, Mr. Fuuten…if you don't think this image bears a striking resemblance to someone we know…?" Hanpei folded the cover back carefully and handed it to the holy man. Fuuten's eyes widened in recognition; he continued to scan the page for details.

"Yes…I thought I recalled this face before, though Den would remain skeptical, I'm afraid," Fuuten chortled before walking over to the desk; pulling out a pencil, he wrote down the name in the tiny print on the bottom of the page. Etsuko tilted her head to the side curiously.

"Sir, what's going on, what did you find?" Hanpei led Etsuko over to the desk where the monk continued to write.

"Etsuko, I'm going to assume you haven't been able to read this issue yet because I know you would have spotted this right off, but…" he trailed off as she gasped and covered her mouth.

"Oh my…do you think this woman is—?" The monk's grin caused her to pause.

"Miss Etsuko, I trust you'll be able to find more information on this fair lady, will you not?" he said, handing her a small scrap of paper with the model's name on it. Fuuten then swiftly made for the door.

"Huh--wait! Fuuten, where are you going?" Hanpei stopped him, gathering up the magazine and grabbing his coat, following. Etsuko was close behind, placing her hat atop her head and buttoning her new overcoat.

"Boss, I'm going out to see what I can find on this woman, I'll be back by ten," she said, hurrying out past the monk. Hanpei laid a hand on her shoulder.

"Hold it a second! Fuuten—?" The monk had the glint in his eye that somewhat reflected Etsuko's sudden spark of determination.

"Hanpei, please find out what you can about the current status of DARK. Miss Etsuko, you are already aware of what you need to do—," here she nodded swiftly, exchanging an eager smile with the monk. Hanpei felt himself smiling as well, but his question was still unanswered.

"I understand…but I saw you write down something else, what do you have in mind?" Fuuten's smirk grew wider.

"Your reputation does not pay your sharp wit true justice—if you are unsuccessful finding out anything productive about DARK…find out what you can about Momochi, Gunta." Hanpei blinked in confusion.

"The photographer?' Hanpei queried after his eyes picked up the name by the photo credits, '—What does he have to do with this?" The twinkle in Fuuten's eyes never wavered.

"I have a feeling that if my suspicions are correct and this woman is who I think she is, we may be able to get a larger portion of the story than what we were given. I don't have much to go on except my intuition as far as the bond between this photographer and this subject is, but it's something…and I believe it is worth looking into. Will you aid me?" Hanpei smirked.

"All right…let's go!"

And the three of them headed out into the streets, determination fueling their steps.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

It wasn't even dawn yet and there was already activity in the nursery.

Fortunately for Rei and Mieko, neither of them required sleep. Luckier so was the fact that there were few infants in such a small orphanage. Rei raised an eyebrow as one of the aforementioned babies tugged at his feathery, overhanging tuft of hair.

Mieko looked up from the changing just in time to catch it. It was quite a lovely sight: the ever-stoic Rei, infant in each arm, eyebrow quirked in what seemed to be annoyance and curiosity as one of the babies tugged excitedly at his hair while the other curled into his jacket and slept.

She couldn't help but giggle softly at the scene. The small sound caught his attention anyway.

"What is it?" he questioned, obviously failing to see the humor for the time being. Mieko didn't have the heart to explain it to him at the moment, so she quieted herself and finished adjusting the straps of the diaper, and then re-buttoned the tiny pajamas.

"Come on,' she said quietly,' let's try to put them back to bed." He followed without question, tilting his head away from the exuberant girl as she made another grab for his hair.

After feeding and putting the freshly diapered child back to sleep, Mieko took the slumbering boy from Rei's left arm and set him down in the crib, gently covering him with soft blankets.

However, the girl refused to settle down. Mieko sighed and took her from his arms, to which the little one protested in whimpers.

"You're going to be as troublesome as another little girl I know, aren't you?" she murmured quietly, smirking at the pouting baby. Rei had a feeling he knew which girl Mieko was talking about as he thought back to a scene from the day before: he noticed that whenever one particular girl got a gleam in her eye, she went straight to Akira and whispered in his ear. After some moments of quiet banter and a few reluctant looks from the boy, the pair scampered out of sight for a few moments with trouble usually ensuing.

Without noticing it, the corner of his mouth twitched…

Mieko had moved over to a rocking chair and attempted to placate the girl with a bottle. Apparently it wasn't working because whines of protest came every time the bottle was inched towards the girl's mouth. Mieko exhaled exasperatedly.

"You're in a fussy mood tonight, what's wrong?" she said to the baby. The infant's bottom lip had begun to quiver threateningly.

"Why do you bother to speak to them? You know they cannot answer," Rei questioned in a monotone whisper. Mieko smiled warmly as she pat the infant's back in a gentle, comforting rhythm.

"Sometimes it's frustrating…but it's beneficial to the children when you speak and interact with them. Without interaction, their brains won't develop naturally. Speaking to them helps them learn how to communicate verbally, so the more they hear and play, the better they develop. That's how it works in most cases, anyway," she explained, hugging the infant gently so she didn't have to look at the dreadfully pitiful expression the child gave her.

Rei let this information mull over in his head for a moment.

'They learn by experience and exposure…in some aspects, we are similar…' he filed the information away silently, turning his attention back to Mieko's attempt to soothe the child. Something about the scene affected him in an inexplicable way…but he felt the corners of his mouth twitch once more. Stepping forward cautiously, he spoke gently.

"May I give it a try?" Mieko looked up at him in surprise, smiling warmly after a moment.

"You're sure you don't mind if she pulls at your hair?" she teased lightly. He shook his head 'no' and took the bottle from her. Mieko stood to switch places with him, and the baby was all too eager as she tried to reach over and settle into Rei's embrace. The baby immediately began poking and prodding at the large buttons on his jacket until Rei displayed the bottle to her. The infant cooed happily and took it, falling asleep a few moments after.

Although Mieko was slightly miffed that the child took to him better than her, she couldn't help but grin.

'Human or not, I know cute when I see it.'
_________________________________________________________________

"I…I don't believe it! Ichiro is—"

Toru chuckled as Jiro gaped.

"See what happens when you hide from the world? You miss out," he nudged Jiro in the ribs. Jiro turned to him, utterly confused though he was trying to understand.

"I see your point…but it was so hard to move my eyes, much less my neck. I could only see him out of the corner of my eye doing…something,' Jiro paused as Toru coughed and looked away, a suspicious tint of pink rising over his cheeks.

'It's probably better that you didn't find out…' Toru silently muttered to himself, rolling his eyes.

Jiro wasn't sure what to make of the gesture, so he went on.

"I only realized it was him when he walked past after getting out of the river…why is it so difficult to move? I couldn't even hear anything. Am I—?" Jiro was cut off in the midst of his question as Toru tried to calm him.

"You need to get used to using your body again. Just take small steps at a time and it'll eventually start coming back to you," he said encouragingly.

Jiro nodded and tried again…

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

There was a sound of someone having a good stretch until—

"Ouch!"

"Hrmm…huh? What's wrong?" Masaru mumbled sleepily at his cousin, who was currently hunched over in pain. She looked up, wincing at the boy.

"Ah…it's nothing. No need to worry. You hungry now?"

The mention of food immediately roused Masaru's appetite and he nodded vigorously. Arai laughed quietly and pointed towards the crimson vehicle.

"Check the trunk, I'm going to change quickly." Masaru was all too happy to obey as he bounded over to the motorcycle and entered the code to open the trunk as his elder cousin instructed him the night before.

While he was distracted, the Arai took the opportunity to glance into her blouse at the source of the pain. Frowning, she noted light bruises forming into interesting shapes that proved she had not just had strange dreams the night before. Arai cast an accusing glare at the prime suspect, who faced away from her on his side, pretending to sleep…

She chose to say nothing for the time being and stepped lightly over to Mitsuko, who was beginning to awaken.

"Mitsuko…you need to eat." Mitsuko responded with hesitance. Arai ran a hand through her colorful hair and smiled comfortingly.

"Don't worry, I'll watch him and clean him up a little. How do you think he would feel if he came back right now and found you passed out next to him due to starvation? Now come eat," she commanded lightly. Mitsuko stood up on wobbly legs, but after a moment of stretching, she made her way to the sleeping mat where Masaru was taking out supplies.

"Arrgh, I can't get this to open!" he grumbled, trying to twist open the jar with all four appendages.

"Masaru, let me try," Mitsuko murmured calmly. Finding her hands were too clammy from the chilled air to make it budge, she sighed in defeat. Arai glanced over at the still unmoving Ichiro and felt a twinge of annoyance as she recalled her unusual bruising...

Walking over to his 'sleeping' form, she leaned over to find his eyes tightly shut, determined to feign slumber.

-BAM-

Ichiro's rear was propelled upwards, causing him to roll onto his other side. He snarled, glaring up at Arai as she stood nonchalantly over him.

"Woman, you must be insane! Are you trying to make me kill you?" he raged. She smiled in mock-sweetness and bent down to face him.

"Your assistance is requested. Please," she added as an afterthought. Ichiro stared incredulously at her before his anger began to return.

"Listen you, if you think I'm gonna—!"

"Ichiro, pleeeeaaaase help us? I'm really hungry! And you know how I get when I'm hungry!" Masaru shouted, chuckling impishly. Ichiro was ready to start tearing heads, but he noticed Mitsuko looking cautiously at him. It then occurred to Ichiro that this would be the perfect chance to get some questions answered.

Yet he was torn; he didn't like the fact that he'd be giving the other two what they wanted…but his curiosity and concern for Jiro took precedence. He would remind his brother to compensate him for this later.

"Thank you!" Arai called out cheerfully. Ichiro growled, turning away from her as Masaru grinned at his approach.

However, in the dense foliage nearby, the atmosphere was considerably tenser.

"Now is the perfect time to strike, so let's move!" spat an angry, feminine voice at her partner.

"Hm…we might stand a chance seeing as how they've only just awoken. However, we are two. They are three. Four if you count the short haired girl. Five if you count the boy as well, to be fair," assessed a calm, decidedly laid-back masculine tenor. He was answered with angry spluttering.

"What?!' she hissed,'--you're going to let this opportunity pass up just because we're outnumbered? Chances are only three of them can put up a fight and one of them hasn't moved since we got here!"

"Oh, you're so hot-tempered…but you remember what the boss said, don't you, Aya-chan? Your replacement arms don't come cheap!" Her silvery eyes widened warily at the mention of her lord, but then narrowed again at the nickname.

"Don't call me that…fine; we'll go back for reinforcements. I'm warning you now though, Karakuri: if they aren't still here when we return, I'm going to vent my anger on you," she threatened, lowering her head so that the ebony strands covered her face, but still allowed her silvery eyes to peer through and shimmer like a moonlit blade.

"Hmm…you're so adorable when murderous, but no fun. It breaks my heart!" Ayatsuri glared at her tall partner who laid the back of his hand on his forehead dramatically, feigning hurt at her words. He opened his bright green eyes when he noted the feral snarl from his smaller, more vitriolic partner. Karakuri sighed, combing back his overgrown, honeyed mane.

"You know, you can call me Yuuki…" he murmured wistfully; it went unnoticed as his female partner was glaring back at the small party. He noted that on closer inspection, she only eyed the more colorful of the two women with such contempt…

He sighed once more and gently tapped her shoulder.

"Come on, we have work to do," he grinned roguishly at her in hopes she'd stop grinding her teeth. Distracted from her malevolent fantasies, she nodded and they leapt away.

___________________________________________________________________________

Ichiro cast a watchful eye towards his brother as Arai brushed him clean of any further vegetation that wasn't torn off of him the night before—she was decidedly untrustworthy.

Though from Ichiro's (limited) experience, any female was untrustworthy.

Still, he took confidence in himself that he could stop Arai should she try anything underhanded and with that resolution made, he turned his attention back to the only person he had yet to speak to since he arrived.

Mitsuko ate quietly as normal, which contrasted with her enthusiastic younger sibling who enjoyed the meal with relish. He was done in the span of two minutes, causing Ichiro to eye the child with a mixture of disgust and disbelief.

"How come you didn't eat that fast when I asked you to, brat?" he said with mild irritation. Masaru grinned and wiped his mouth.

"Ahh, come on. Don't take it so hard, we had just met then and I still wasn't sure whether you were going to deck me or not. Kinda hard to eat when you can't relax," he laughed, scratching his ear lobe. Ichiro leaned in with a sneer on his face.

"I might still deck you just for being annoying, kid. What makes you think you're safe now?"

Mitsuko gasped and Ichiro jerked back involuntarily. Masaru grinned wider at the surprised look in Ichiro's visible eye, which glanced at his elder sister.

"There are witnesses now and I bet my cousin could take you if Mitsuko doesn't feel like it," he laughed loudly at the obvious irritation shown in the android's face. Mitsuko felt herself relax when she realized that Ichiro had only been kidding and felt a sense of companionship between them.

Mitsuko knew that Masaru didn't have many friends, and she allowed herself a small smile when she saw Ichiro roughly dishevel Masaru's already tousled hair in a brotherly manner.

"Haha—hey, quit it!" he exclaimed before breaking from Ichiro's grasp and sprinting towards Arai, knowing that Ichiro disliked her company most of all. He turned back at the last moment and pulled his eye-lid down, sticking out his tongue. Ichiro huffed and crossed his arms, staying where he was.

He then decided that this was the prime opportunity to pry out some answers. Turning his attention completely towards the elder girl, he squared his shoulders and adopted a serious 'interrogation' face.

"So…uh…you mind explaining a few things for me? Like why you were draped all over my little brother last night?"

The bluntness of the query shook Mitsuko out of her silent reverie and she stared disbelievingly at him. She noted his only visible eyebrow twitching and found herself smiling in spite of it all.

"It seems I get that question more often these days…I…oh, how do I put this…?" Mitsuko closed her eyes in an attempt to assemble her words carefully. Ichiro tilted his head curiously.

"Just spit it out, it can't be that hard of a question," he said in mild exasperation. Mitsuko blinked, considering his retort; she began to smile again.

"I suppose you're right. To put it simply, I have been waiting for Jiro to return home to me ever since he defeated Gil the first time…but then I got the full story as to what happened afterward…and it scared me; it scared me to think that Jiro had gone through even more danger and torture with no one to help him. When Miss Mieko had told me that he had been implanted with the submission chip…I...i-it was the last straw for me. I broke down and Arai happened to find me at my weakest moment…" she trailed off; glancing haphazardly at Arai as she and Masaru attempted to pick all the bits of moss and leaves from Jiro's hair.

Mitsuko also noticed that Masaru appeared to be trying to talk directly into Jiro's ear. Arai lightly pulled on the young boy's earlobe and laughed aloud.

"You can't make deals like that, what kind of brother are you?" Mitsuko quirked an eyebrow as her brother pretended to pout. After a moment, he appeared to be in thought once more, so Mitsuko turned her attention back to her interrogator.

"I'm sorry, where was…oh, yes. Arai came to me at that time…and I told her everything in hopes that it would ease the pain…but I didn't expect Arai to take it a step further; that's how we ended up here. You see...Jiro is very important to me, he…I—" she broke off and looked down, slightly pink in the face.

Somewhere during this explanation, Ichiro's mouth had begun to gradually open.

Amazingly, nothing came out of it.

He gaped, wide eyed through her entire story, hardly daring to believe it. Ichiro, while occasionally listening to her words, had paid closer attention to her body language and facial expressions, which seemed to prove so much more.

"Are you saying that…you…and Jiro…?" he feebly strung the words together; she looked up, directly into his eye(s). Ichiro blinked as he watched her tears fall past her radiant smile onto the ground.

"Yes…I love him."

His jaw finally did drop to the ground and any theories he had previously formed before hearing the answer crumbled away, leaving him flabbergasted. He really hadn't been sure what to expect, but that…

"B-but how? I mean, can he even—?" he sputtered. Mitsuko raised a hand to wipe away her tears, and then brought it down to cover her mouth demurely as she giggled at his reaction.

"Oh yes—he confessed first, actually. Jiro may have been confused about some of his emotions, but the way he said it…it was as if he had never been uncertain of that one particular feeling,' she sighed happily for a moment; then she noticed that Ichiro still sat, paralyzed in disbelief.

'Well you wanted to know!" Mitsuko exclaimed, hoping the suddenness in her tone would shake him out of it. Ichiro finally blinked and leaned back, lowering his head; he shook it a few times as if he'd been walloped.

"Anything else you want to ask me?" Mitsuko said, feeling a little bolder than she had felt in a while. Amazingly enough, something about Ichiro had brought out a little bit of confidence that she rarely felt the need to show.

Ichiro let out a long breath and slowly shook his head 'no'.

"Not…not right now, I don't think I could handle anymore answers at the moment. Geez, you think you know a guy, especially when it's your brother and then…" Ichiro exhaled again, running a hand through his wild hair. For a few seconds, Mitsuko was able to see his other eye before the spiky strands obscured it once more.

"So then, you must be the eldest, I think. It's nice to meet you, Ichiro—thank you for trying to protect Jiro," Mitsuko said kindly, bowing in gratitude. Ichiro straightened, unprepared to react to this.

"Uh, y-yea, same to you uh…Mitsuko, was it? Yeah, no problem. Jiro's my little brother, so it's only natural…um…" the words spilled like marbles at random. Ichiro found himself stumbling through his sentiment, unused to the politeness. Mitsuko smiled gently, and Ichiro felt a trace of gratitude for her patience.

Without consciously admitting it, Ichiro began to see why Jiro was involved with this woman; inwardly, Ichiro was glad Jiro's luck with women was better than his.

...

The rest of the morning and most of the afternoon passed with relative ease—Ichiro and Arai kept their bickering to few occasions. Mitsuko returned to Jiro's boulder with a great deal less heartache and more hope than ever, combing through his hair with her fingers for any missed bits of moss (though Arai had finished the task during breakfast). Masaru took to playing referee between the other two until they finally went to opposite ends of the meadow and Arai took to explaining another invention to Masaru, which she pulled from the posterior cross strap of her strange suspenders.

While the boy became enraptured with her lecture on the device, Ichiro made a point to ignore them altogether and wandered over to join Mitsuko and Jiro as they sat in peace. He lay on his back and began to pick at the grass, but kept his gaze on the sky.

"How can you possibly stand traveling with her?!" he blurted out in distaste to Mitsuko. The question caught her off guard, but when she realized whom he was speaking of, she began to laugh.

"Arai gets along quite well with me and she's very kind for bringing me out here on a whim…perhaps you two just rub each other the wrong way," she tried to explain, biting her lip to keep from giggling. Ichiro's ear twitched when he heard the last phrase and spun his head towards Mitsuko, sepia eyes darkening with paranoia.

"What did you see?" he hissed loudly, hoping that he had kept his voice down enough to avoid being overheard. Mitsuko blinked as she watched him glance shiftily over at Arai and Masaru as they continued to have their discussion.

Eventually early evening set in and activity was winding down…but the wind was stirring up numerous dark clouds, which worried Masaru.

Masaru hated being out in thunderstorms…but he hated the idea of leaving Jiro even more, so he kept quiet and sat down, folding his hands and placing them stiffly in his lap.

"What's wrong with you, kid? You look like you're gonna be sick..." Ichiro said, half in irritation. The other half of his tone was laced with concern, though he didn't seem to acknowledge it.

"I'm fine!" the boy retorted a little too quickly. Ichiro was a bit taken aback, but shook it off and turned his attention back to Arai.

"What are you doing?" he asked brusquely while walking up behind her; she adjusted tarp over the open-topped vehicles. She paused to cast a look of agitation over her shoulder.

"What does it look like, twit? If you're not going to help, you can at least be grateful I'm taking the time to do this for your bike as well." Arai then began to grumble profusely, of which only the phrases 'so reckless' and 'all the hard work' were caught by Ichiro's keen ears.

He took this into consideration, then shrugged and turned to walk away when a sudden thought occurred to him.

"Wait a minute—what are we going to do with the humans?"

Arai suddenly dropped her hammer. Ichiro turned back to find her staring at him with a slightly deranged look, right eye twitching.

"WE will be fine for the most part—that is if we can manage to move Jiro into better shelter. I don't like the idea of everyone standing out in the rain; Masaru might get sick…but we can't leave without Jiro either. Neither one of them would stand for it even if I wanted to go," she said, holding her hands tightly as if to keep them from wrapping around Ichiro's throat.

"Just why do you even care what happens to Jiro anyway? I already heard their stories, but you don't seem to have one. What are you really after?" he said, smirking dangerously at her as she raised an eyebrow.

"Why does everyone ask me that…?' she sighed. Arai glanced up into the android's expectant face and challenged his leer with her own.

"I think I'd like to meet this Jiro since everyone seems so fond of him. After all, he has to have better manners than you!" she grinned mischievously.

"Oh, well excuse me, honey—I didn't realize it was proper to greet a stranger by landing a tree on them; or am I just special?" he shot back sarcastically. Arai frowned and crossed her arms, somewhat indignant.

"Still not over that yet? You're a bit too fresh and arrogant to be Prince Charming I'd wager," she scoffed, walking past him towards Mitsuko and the others. Mitsuko was looking frantically at the looming storm clouds over head and she held Jiro's shoulders protectively.

"Oi, Mitsu—!"

-BLAM-

All hell broke loose as an explosive landed in the ground between Arai and Mitsuko. Mitsuko ducked instinctively over Jiro on the other side of the boulder as Arai was thrown back hard onto the ground.

"I knew the peace wasn't going to last…' she mumbled dully before rising to stand and confront the attacker.

"Come out, Stupid doll! If you want to go a few rounds, let's do this in a less crowded area, got it?"

Arai heard nothing but Ichiro running up behind her, no doubt to interrogate her. She turned to meet him first and placed a finger over her mouth to indicate silence was needed.

For once, he didn't argue and stood protectively near Masaru and Mitsuko, but still close to Arai. The wind began to howl, then—

-Fwit-

"What the hell—?!" Arai yelped as a cable snaked around her torso, lifting and pulling her toward her attacker. Ichiro, unable to catch her, braced himself and stepped closer to Masaru and Mitsuko.

"You're getting slow; out of shape already…?" came the acidic, smug voice from the trees.

"Ah, not with you around to keep me young, idiot-puppet," Arai replied calmly. The female attacker snickered venomously.

"This was just a bit too easy, did you think you were safe with this crowd?" she said, tossing back her curtain of raven hair.

"I doubt you're one to talk when you've doubled up on me. I don't recall meeting this idiot before—" Arai was cut off by a tightening squeeze around her throat.

"Put her down, that's not fair!" Masaru exploded, his rage overtaking his initial fear. Karakuri raised an eyebrow at the boy, slightly impressed, but ignored him otherwise.

Ichiro straightened, making his gait casual as he walked toward the assassins—away from Mitsuko and her little brother.

"Listen, I don't really care for her either way, but the kid's right; it's pretty pathetic if you have to double up on one little girl," he said, sneering arrogantly to draw their ire—it worked. Ayatsuri fumed.

"No one asked your opinion, we're only here for her! You'd do best to mind your mouth unless you want to end up like this pathetic orphan!"

That got a rise out of Arai and she glared malevolently at the taunt. Ichiro ignored the threat and continued to walk towards them, but he signaled for Masaru to stay behind him.

"Afraid I can't do that, lady. The problem is that these two have some attachment to her and if I let you take Miss High-and-Mighty, the brat is going to harass me endlessly and I don't wanna make my brother's girlfriend upset. You see the bind I'm in? CHANGE—ZERO ONE!" Kikaider 01 sprung forward to land a punch in Ayatsuri's face before she knew it was coming.

"How dare you!" she spat furiously, recoiling from the blow. She held her hand with her fingers fully extended and Ichiro watched with growing shock as they formed into metal claws; her wrist separated and flew out on a connective cable towards his head. He barely dodged in time to avoid getting whipped in the face.

"Masaru, remember that thing I showed you?" Arai struggled to speak to the boy. Masaru met her eyes fearfully, but caught on to what she wanted of him and he winked. Pulling something long and silver from his pocket, Mitsuko watched as her brother turned a large, diamond-shaped knob 180 degrees, then pointed it at Arai's assailant and pressed down, causing a heated beam to shoot forth with pinpoint accuracy.

He sliced through Karakuri's cybernetic arm with great ease, causing him to release Masaru's suspended cousin.

"You little shit!" he glared at the child. Masaru grinned and wasted no time tossing the weapon back to his cousin as she fell. She caught it, landed and then bounced forward right into her former captor's personal space.

"You're a new face—time to break it in!" she grinned toothily—before sinking her fist into his nose. Arai then threw her hand out; the momentum caused the metallic contraption to open up into a folding fan.

A bladed fan.

"Masaru, get to Ichiro's bike and get a weapon off the back; protect your sister and Jiro," she commanded, keeping her eyes on the fuming man before her as he recovered from her blow. Mitsuko guarded Jiro carefully, but kept switching her attention between Karakuri and Ayatsuri, searching for any weaknesses on reflex. She didn't like the idea of leaving her little brother to defend her, but she didn't want to leave Jiro, who couldn't move at all.

'If they make a move for either of them, I'll intercept first…I can't lose any of them!' she decided to herself.

Masaru made quick time as he returned with a bike blade in each hand, determined to protect his family. Arai assumed a defensive stance, waiting for an attack.

"You're rather brazen—it will cost you!" Karakuri spat, pressing his ear stud with his remaining arm. A few seconds later, something large emerged spinning from the bushes before landing heavily on the ground.

"…You're kidding me with this, right?" Arai asked, eying the robot incredulously. Karakuri sighed and glared, slightly insulted that the large creature failed to inspire any fear.

"It's a salvaged antique, perhaps, but it should prove more than useful!"

The silver tortoise levitated between them before unloading a barrage of bullets.

"Masaru, Mitsuko—get down!" Arai said, leaping above the dated robot and plunging the edge of her blades into its back, disabling the circuitry. Masaru had flung one blade at the robotic creature, severing its head, before flinging himself on the ground as Mitsuko covered Jiro behind the rock. Unfortunately, as the bullets had ricocheted off the stone, one just grazed Mitsuko's right leg—she grit her teeth to keep from crying out.

"What the hell are you freaks?" Ichiro yelled, jumping back to avoid another hit from the skilled fighter before him. Ayatsuri paused in her attacks to glance between her target and the one he had called 'brother' earlier…

"If you're Kikaider 01…then the one she's shielding must be a Kikaider! Shiro-sama will praise me for destroying him!" she exclaimed with sick joy, pointing at the still figure Mitsuko guarded before rushing forward to backhand Ichiro out of protective range. He landed hard, disturbing the earth beneath him as it absorbed his impact.

"You little—NO! JIRO!"

Ayatsuri lunged forward and readied her steel claws to impale the motionless Kikaider…

-SLAP-

The air rang with the impact of Mitsuko's palm against the assassin's face; the blow was so heavy, it diverted the girl off course.

Ayatsuri landed face-first into the moist dirt as Mitsuko shook her hand to get some feeling back into it.

Time appeared to have frozen as everyone stared at her in various levels of shock, disbelief and in some cases, pride. The silence was broken by Arai's outburst of juvenile laughter.

If the practiced killer was mad before, she was absolutely livid now.

"Disgusting bitch! Don't you EVER TOUCH ME WITH YOUR FILTHY HANDS!" she screeched, rushing at Mitsuko in a demonic frenzy.

Mitsuko wanted to move, but felt her right leg buckle from the pain of being grazed with a bullet from seconds before. Masaru attempted to throw the other blade, but was knocked off his feet by a sweep of Karakuri's remaining arm; he dropped the blade to the side where it sunk a few inches into the ground. There was not even time for anyone to scream, and Mitsuko shut her eyes to avoid watching her own death…

A breeze fell over Mitsuko's skin suddenly as she was carried through the air, and then was winded as she landed on the ground, rolling to a stop. When she could gather herself, Mitsuko's eyes flew open to see her saviour crouched protectively over her; her mouth went dry.

"…Ji…Jiro…"

He said nothing, but stood up shakily. Slowly, the revived android turned to these new enemies, his face set in barely restrained rage.

It took a moment before Masaru whooped as he got to his feet.

"YEAH! JIRO'S BACK!" he exclaimed with all the reservation of a 2 year-old alone with a cake. Ichiro, too, felt relief flood through him—little brother was back! And pissed!

Ayatsuri regarded Jiro coolly, retracting her wrist cable casually though her silvery eyes kept him in her peripheral vision.

"Ah…you'd have done better to sit and wait for death, Kikaider. But this way is fine too—you might have just enough time to say good bye to your little pet!" Ayatsuri leapt forward once more, eager to tear into the pair. Mitsuko gasped, trying to reach for Jiro to get him out of the way.

However, Jiro sprang forward at the same time. With a yell of ferocity, he knocked her clawed arm away and countered with a hard, swift punch to her diaphragm. Ayatsuri flew back, unconscious from the blow, smacking her head on the boulder that Jiro previously occupied. Karakuri felt his panic rising, but he attempted to subdue the fear with anger.

"That's no way to treat a lady!" he snarled in outrage as he rushed forward and scooped her up with his only arm, retreating swiftly through the foliage.

Ayatsuri only regained half-consciousness to feebly utter a warning to Arai.

"I promise you…I will break you—when I'm done, you will finally….shed your…pathetic tears…"

However dark the threat was, it went unnoticed.

Silence hung in the battlefield as the assassins retreated—Jiro stood in the center, still and quiet. Mitsuko struggled to her feet and cautiously took a step forward.

"Jiro…Jiro, are you all right?"

He slowly turned and looked into her eyes.

"…Mitsuko…" he stepped toward her, and her heart skipped a few beats.

His eyes were alive and swimming with emotions again. He took another step toward her and began to stumble. Mitsuko didn't wait any longer—she rushed forward, despite her injured leg, to catch Jiro. He fell into her waiting arms and they sank to their knees, Jiro's head landing softly over her rapidly beating heart.

"…I'm home…Mitsuko…" he uttered softly, smiling into her skin. Mitsuko was so overwhelmed that she grinned as tears fell from her eyes.

"Welcome back, Jiro," she replied, wrapping her arms around him and burying her face into his hair.

A few seconds later Ichiro and Masaru rushed to their side, overjoyed at Jiro's miraculous return to the living world.

Arai fell to her knees in relief, shakily chuckling at first, and then laughing until she was breathless, relieved at the turn of events. She looked up only when something cold and wet fell onto her heated skin.

"Aah…it's raining…" she whispered, facing the sky and letting relief wash over her.

Jiro snaked his hands around Mitsuko's waist, shutting his eyes for a moment.

_____________________________________________________________
...

"Toru-I…thank you," Jiro said, smiling brightly at his friend. The shadows that had previously consumed his soul space cleared and brightened immensely. Toru smirked and began to walk past Jiro.

"You're welcome, Jiro."

"Toru, where will you go?" Jiro asked, perplexed and saddened to see him leave. Toru paused to give Jiro one last roguish smile.

"I've got a lot of other things on my schedule. You'll be ok from now on, right?" Jiro nodded. Toru waved and stepped forward, his features becoming more indistinct against the brightness…

…and in a flash, he was gone. Jiro opened his eyes and was greeted by two smiling faces that seemed to glow with happiness through the rain—the third grinned and dug his knuckles into Jiro's temples affectionately.

Jiro was home.

Chapter Text

 

Den gently set his teacup down, sighing. He had spent the last week and a half pouring through the old family photo albums in hopes that he would remember when the shots were taken; a mere suggestion that he might have been more involved with his children's' lives than he initially believed himself to have been.

He was fortunate, and he smiled warmly at the photo of Masaru pushing a then sixteen year old Mitsuko into a pile of snow before turning to run as fast as his little legs would carry him. Den found himself at the end of another album, and gently closed it only to open another.

It had been quite a few days since Masaru had called him, jabbering excitedly that they had found Jiro and that Jiro was back to normal. The last bit confused Den, but before he could question further, there was a disturbance on the other end of the line in which a male and female voice argued over control of the phone. Eventually, Arai got hold of the mobile device.

"We'll explain everything when we get there; we really need to get moving before another storm comes! Don't worry, Uncle! Even with this defective tin man, we'll still be back in good time!"

In the background, Den had heard a slightly irate voice call out:

"Just who are you talking about, Fruit loops?"

"Obviously you, Junk for brains. Do you know anyone else who thinks that taking shelter in an occupied bear cave is a good idea?"

"Hey! I didn't know it was in there at the time!"

"Ohhhh, forgive me; were my warnings of 'I hear heavy breathing from the inside' not good enough?"

As the growling began, Den had suddenly found himself chuckling and had to cover the receiver. Mitsuko had then taken control of the cell phone and reassured her father that they would return as soon as possible. He was relieved to find that he'd heard a tone of cheeriness in her voice that he had not heard in so long…

But that last call was over a week ago and he was beginning to worry a bit more. Den glanced out of the window towards the dark sky looming overhead. He frowned—it was as if he could see the bitter cold seeping in through the cracks of the house.

'I hope they all have their coats…it looks as though winter plans to compensate for its tardiness…'

He then grimaced, remembering the greater threat among them.

'Perhaps if we're fortunate, DARK will get buried within an avalanche caused by their squabbling.'

Den smirked, allowing his mind to replay the colorful bits of the phone call. It seemed as though Mitsuko and Masaru would be well protected after all.


 

Akira wrung his hands nervously as he, too, cast an eye up towards the dark gray clouds overhead. Fortunately for him, his partner seemed to take no notice of it, as if she harbored her own little sun within herself.

"Ne, ne, Akira-kun! Look!" Rieko said, pointing excitedly towards an item in the store window. They had been walking toward the bus stop that would take them back to the orphanage since school had let out earlier that day. Akira turned his attention from the clouds and blinked at the object before he recognized it.

"We finally have enough to get it—and just in time for Christmas! …Akira-kun?" she suddenly asked, stirring his gray eyes towards her.

"Y-yes?"

"How did you get the idea for this?" Rieko queried, a curious smile playing at her lips. Akira shuffled his feet before answering.

"I-I remembered that Ichiro had one and Masaru showed me the one he tried to fix for Jiro—but Rei-nii doesn't have one of his own. I was h-hoping that m-maybe he would…like…like it," he finished, mumbling awkwardly. Rieko smiled angelically, glancing between her friend and the item in the store.

"I think it's a really good idea and I'm sure he'll be happy with it! Just don't go off alone after school to try and get a job anymore, no one hires kids like us legally! Besides, you know that old people think we're cute because we're little—do a few chores or sing for them on the way home and they usually pay in gratitude!" she chirped, the impish gleam back in her shining eyes. Usually that gleam worried Akira, but this time, he found himself smiling back shyly.

"Come on, let's go get it!" she said, jumping instantly and pulling the small boy into the store.



...

"Ok, so we know now that this woman was a model until she got pregnant, divorced six years later and then died the same night as her ex. What I don't understand is why this wasn't looked into any further after that! It looks so obviously fishy, so I don't get it and now my head is—!"

"Whoa, Etsuko, calm down before you burst a vein, alright?" Hanpei said, ushering her back into her seat on the couch. After eight straight days of searching, Etsuko Sarutobi was frustrated with how seemingly little she found. Hanpei hadn't seen Etsuko lose her cool very often—actually, he'd never seen her lose her cool before and frankly, it was starting to worry him. The monk sat across from the duo in the chair with a thoughtful expression on his face as he absorbed all the information that Etsuko supplied.

"And you, Hattori, were you able to find anything?" Fuuten asked, turning penetrating black eyes upon the detective. Hanpei exhaled slowly, removing his cap and running a hand through his hair before replacing it atop his head again.

"As for DARK, or Shadow or whatever they're calling themselves now, I wasn't able to get much more than a few hushed rumors; supposedly one of the leaders of DARK is planning something like a mutiny over the rest of leaders of the society by enlisting 'living weapons'—whatever that means. Sounds like more robots to me," he said, shrugging his shoulders. The monk closed his eyes and nodded once before opening again and posing another question.

"And the photographer?"

Here, Hanpei allowed himself a satisfied grin.

"Well, after a lot of searching and string-pulling, I managed to track down his location. Ran all the way to the other side of the world, practically. You know what the real clincher is though?"

Etsuko looked up from rubbing her temples to ease out the migraine.

"What is it, boss?" Hanpei then turned to her with a serious expression.

"I found out that he ran off at about, if not exactly, the same night the kid's parents were murdered. You were right, Sir: it seems the photographer had some connection to all of this…but how did you know?"

Fuuten smiled with a look of sharp cunning in his wise eyes.

"Call it a hunch, if you will; when I recognized the woman in the photos, I also recalled that every published shot that had been taken of her was credited to one man: Ganta Momochi. After so many years of modeling, it was almost a given that she'd have some sort of bond with the man. When you cannot get answers from the next of kin, you look for the closest connection after that."

Hanpei and Etsuko exchanged expressions of amazement before the monk asked one more question.

"Mr. Hattori, were you able to obtain a phone number, perhaps?" Hanpei nodded firmly and pulled out a small piece of paper, sliding it over towards the old man who took it quickly and began memorizing the number sequence.

"If you two will wait here for a few moments, I'm going to go place a phone call--it is time we fit a few more pieces to the puzzle. Also, if you wouldn't mind too terribly when I return, I think we should check in on my student to see how he is and if he has received any word from our favorite travelers," he smiled, walking towards the door.

When he left, Etsuko turned back towards her employer.

"Boss, what do you make of all this?" she said quietly. Hanpei raised an eyebrow at her query.

"Why ask me? You're pretty foxy at sniffing out information too, you know," he said, leaning back into the cushions. Etsuko fidgeted uncomfortably and for a second, Hanpei thought the light was playing tricks on him--he saw a pale tinge of red flash across the cheeks of his usually calm assistant.

"I really don't know what to make of this situation. Everything seems a lot more complex…and I'm worried. You are good with your gut instincts though, so tell me; am I getting worked up over nothing?" Etsuko asked with a hopeful tone in her question.

Hanpei gave a wry smile and looked at his lap.

"Etsuko, I honestly have no clue how this is going to end up, but my gut tells me things are about to get heavier," he replied, looking slowly at his assistant to find her deflating.

"Sorry, Etsuko. But no matter what, we'll see it through to the end—we always do! We're world-class detectives after all!" he said, encouraging her gently. She said nothing, but adjusted her glasses and resumed her usual confident persona.

"How about I make some more coffee until Mr. Fuuten returns?" she announced more than asked, making her way towards the kitchen. Hanpei smiled contentedly.

'Ahh…music to my ears…'


 

Mieko frowned slightly, looking out from the doorway towards the gate; with the dark clouds threatening to open up overhead, she grew more anxious.

'Where is that bus? Isn't it running a little late now? Akira doesn't have an umbrella and that sneaky Rieko could be dragging him into more trouble without me there to—oh, I should probably just go out there and get them my—!'

"Mieko." The firm addressing of her name derailed her runaway train of thought and she glanced at him curiously, tilting her head in a cat-like manner.

"I'm sure they will be just fine. Their transport is not yet late and the children seem intelligent enough to find shelter and contact us should any difficulties arise."

Mieko could not hide the astonishment on her face.

"How did you know I was just thinking about that? Don't tell me you've figured out some way to alter your bio-mechanisms to hack into my mind and read my thoughts, have you?" she said, narrowing her eyes playfully. Not sensing the joke immediately, he hesitated before closing his eyes and shaking his head.

"No, I don't believe that is possible. I only calculated from what you had your attention directed upon and watched your facial expressions,' he explained, gesturing at the gate, '…it was fairly simple from there to deduce what was causing your anxiety."

He hadn't expected soft laughter for what he believed to be such a simple explanation. Rei was quite certain he was still unfamiliar with the concept of humor as of yet.

"Ahh…' Mieko breathed, calming down before giving the confused android a thoughtful expression, '…you've continued to amaze me these last few days. I hadn't expected you to become so astute to reading and recognizing feelings in such a short time."

Rei said nothing, still confused. She smiled and went on.

"Do you remember, our first meeting, back when my sis-...Rieko...had just...?' Mieko bit her lip, a fleeting glimpse of melancholy crossing her eyes, '…you had told me that you thought my feelings were just some sort of side effect from being around other androids with similar systems. You remember that much, right?"

He nodded slowly and she continued.

"Ever since that moment, I tried to accept your explanation. It seemed to make sense…but I just couldn't believe it. And when you and Ichiro were—" Mieko broke off suddenly and Rei noted that her right hand tightened just as she cut off.

He also noticed her expression—it was reminiscent of the day in question.

He didn't even acknowledge the pang of—well, whatever it was, it was discomforting. Rei walked over and pulled out a seat from the nearby table, offering it to Mieko. He was relieved to see her reverie interrupted by the sound of the chair being set down behind her.

"Thank you,' she said, taking her seat and leaning an arm over the back of it, '…as I was saying, that day…when everything went to hell, I was sure I was going to die. But then the old monk gave me a second chance. He didn't give me any orders or ask me any questions out right…he only offered me a place to stay where I could watch over Akira if I had wished. It was awkward at first—getting used to being around human children…and Akira was still wary around me. But as each day passed, I kept…I kept feeling things—worry, frustration, protectiveness…tenderness…and joy…and it was confusing!"

Her smile grew, consuming her face and perplexing Rei all the more.

"It was confusing,' she went on, 'because I had wanted to assume that what you had said to me that day was the truth. It was so much easier to accept things if it was just labeled as a program…somehow by doing so, it made it seem less significant. But now I know…you may not like this, but you were wrong. Humans do not run on systems as we do…but that did not stop me from caring for them as deeply as I do now."

Rei had thought back to what he had said that day and found himself needlessly adjusting his gloves. He lowered his eyes, pondering his reply.

"Mieko…I have something to confess…that day, when I offered you my theory,' he paused… 'And it was only a theory—because I had no solid explanation of my own. It had seemed the most logical conclusion however, and it felt necessary to remind you of the more important task that had been present." Mieko once again looked thoughtful, as a question seemed to crawl into her head.

"Rei…I always did wonder…why is it that you were the one to come to me that morning? Had you really only been keeping an eye on me…?"

Rei froze momentarily, realizing the answer to her question as it suddenly dawned on him. She continued at his hesitation.

"I can somewhat understand why Ichiro didn't, and I'm glad because I'm pretty sure I would have shot him if he had come trying to order me into battle,' she smirked slyly, 'but I was sure that the android who possessed a Gemini circuit—who might have had more insight to my situation, would have been the one to talk to me. Instead it was you…not that I'm complaining, of course, but why?"

Rei unconsciously took a breath and exhaled slowly.

"I suppose that you had caused me to feel…uneasy."

"Uneasy?" Mieko repeated, now thoroughly bewildered. Rei nodded and stared directly into her dark fawn eyes.

"Yes. It made no sense for an android without a Gemini to feel anything, yet you did—intensely. You were completely consumed in your grief and misery."

Mieko nodded, considering this before turning her face towards him again.

"…So that is why you were hiding behind the tree that day…?" she mused more to herself than him. He frowned slightly, and Mieko had to restrain a smile for it looked almost as if her companion were pouting.

"You are correct: I was unsure what to assess of the situation because it did not fit within reason. But when you discovered me, I could only offer up the explanation that seemed to make sense at the time…though admittedly it was probably more reassuring to myself than it had been to you. Also…" he quietly trailed off, rising to exit the room.

Mieko turned in her chair as he walked away, curious.

"Also?"—he stilled.

"…When you look to be in pain…it distresses me…" he murmured quietly to himself, glancing out at the road.

Mieko's ears barely caught the words, yet her eyes shot open.

"They've returned,' he said after a moment as he turned away from Mieko's view, 'perhaps we should escort them inside with umbrellas—it has begun to rain." Rei then quickly headed off to retrieve said items and handed one to her.

He sprinted out the door, leaving Mieko behind in a daze.


 

After much rejoicing and giddiness, the group of travelers packed up and readied for a quick journey home.

Or so they had planned.

After losing the authorities for the third time that day, the travelers decided to take a break. Or rather, Arai swerved her crimson motorcycle to a stop, jostling Mitsuko and Masaru quite a bit; Masaru had decided to sit with his sister and allow Jiro his former seat beside Ichiro.

Ichiro, too, swerved to a rough stop as the human-filled vehicle (or as he designated it, the vehicle being steered by an unknown with human passengers) was leading him. With a quick glance towards his younger brother, he let out a relieved sigh, and then began to growl testily.

"Hey! Did you see trouble? Because that's the only excuse I might tolerate for you driving like an idiot! Hey! Are you listening—?"

Indeed, she appeared not to be. Instead, she roughly removed her protective eye shades, and though she was not facing him, Ichiro could detect that her eye twitch had returned—and with a vengeance it seemed. In her other hand, a wind-blown, wrinkled piece of paper held tightly. Arai appeared to be restraining herself from shredding it to pieces.

"Tell me…"

Masaru visibly gulped in the sidecar and attempted to scoot further behind his sister. Mitsuko almost seemed to be attempting to restrain a smile, however. Ichiro raised his visible eyebrow with minimal interest, but allowed her to finish.

"Tell me, how is it that you managed to get an arrest warrant in SEVEN CITIES IN THE SPAN OF LESS THAN A WEEK?!"

"An arrest warrant? Pfft, what do I care? I'd like to see a bunch of human cops try to toss me into a brick and metal room and expect me to stay," he scoffed, challenging the notion.

"You're going to have your face permanently embedded in the cement if you don't figure out how we're going to get back without the cops slowing us down and alerting the scrap metal squad to wherever the hell we are!" She finally turned to face him, a feral glint in her eyes.

Ichiro blinked, considering this lack of foresight on his part.

"Oh," was all he could offer as a reply. This practically sent her into a conniption.

"KYAAAAAAAAAHHHH!"

"H-hey, Arai-chan, why don't I just call Dad to see if he can figure out something, ne? He's a genius after all, maybe he can help!" Masaru said cheerfully, albeit nervously.

Jiro peered up at his eldest brother curiously, his motions becoming gradually more fluid as the days passed and he continued to become more active in the living world.

"Brother,' he queried innocently, 'why would you have a warrant in seven cities?"

Ichiro scratched his nose, but did not immediately answer. Jiro raised an eyebrow at this.

"What did you exactly do, brother?" Jiro asked warily. He almost smiled at the responsive twitch that came from Ichiro's brow when he realized he had messed up but didn't want to admit it.

"It's the brat's fault, okay?" This caused Masaru to snap his head away from the receiver, ready to object.

"Say what?!" Masaru glared as Ichiro muttered and Jiro allowed himself a tiny smile—he was quite certain Masaru had little to do with his brother's impulsive antics, but awaited explanation patiently.

"Why did you have to get hungry all the time, or need to go to the bathroom?" This earned an impressive growl from the young boy.

"WHAT DID YOU SAY--?!"



Den Komyouji had definitely not expected to answer the phone only to hear the string of obscenities that should never be heard coming from a ten year old mouth—he almost hung up thinking it was an obscene prank call until he realized he recognized his son's voice.

"Masaru!" he echoed in sharp reprimand, as Mitsuko had done the same on the other end of the line. There was a long pause in which Den imagined his youngest child just realizing that he had been called out by both his sister and his father.

There was a sound of a petrified squeak and then—

"…Hi…D-dad?" Den allowed himself to grin at his son's sudden meekness since no one was around to witness it.

"Hello, yourself, young man. Would you mind explaining to me what that little outburst was a moment ago, for surely those words would not be coming out of MY son's mouth!" he said firmly, sounding angrier than he really was.

Den had managed to hear an "I WASN'T THE ONE WHO DECKED THE NEWSPAPER MAN, THE DRIVE-THRU ATTENDANT AND A COP, PLUS WRECKED TWO GAS STATION RESTROOMS, YOU—!" before the onslaught of colorful adjectives followed, thus realizing the cause of the eruption.

But still, principles had to be upheld.

"Ah hah hehe…about that! Yeah, you see…Ichiro,'—a harsh emphasis was placed on the name here, 'got into trouble in about five cities and now seven are looking to arrest him…so basically, we can't find a quick route back home. Can you help us, dad?"

Den was speechless and let out a long breath, ruffling his tufts of hair in exasperation.

"…Oh dear…well first, where in the—,' there was a sudden knock at the door. Den turned, 'Oh, just a moment, someone is at the door. The trouble you've all gotten yourselves in to…"

He cautiously opened the door and peered through to see his teacher smiling in greeting.

"Oh goodness, sensei, you worried me! Come in! Ah! Mr. Hattori, Miss Sarutobi! Please, enter and get comfortable! Perhaps you can help me figure out a safe route for my children to return home—"

Fuuten grew apprehensive.

"You mean they've been—?"

"No, nothing of the sort, sensei. It seems that Ichiro couldn't keep his temper in a few cities and now they cannot get back through without drawing attention from the police," Den said, no longer able to hide his amusement at the matter as his old teacher covered his eyes in mild embarrassment.

"That boy…I thought I had taught him somewhat better than that…No matter, I can be of assistance. I have had several hidden traveling conveniences built all over this country." Den directed his mentor towards the phone receiver that lay on the table; he was awed at how well his old master was prepared.

Though others might have considered his caution to be a bit paranoid.

"Um…" Etsuko murmured. Hanpei, slightly worried, walked up to the doctor and asked for more details as to what went on. Den shook his head before answering.

"I'm afraid I don't know any more than you do now; you all arrived just a moment after I received the call," he replied. Hanpei rubbed his head and nodded, turning his view toward the holy man giving directions over the phone.

"Hey, Etsuko, would you mind if, uh…?" Hanpei suddenly asked, gesturing his hand upstairs. She made a noise of recognition and hurried up the stairs towards the doctor's bedroom.

"What was that about, Mr. Hattori?" Den now questioned, wondering what business the detective's assistant would have in his room.

"We actually came here to tell you that it might be safer to relocate for a while until we know more about who's after you now—Fuuten was also hoping that you had received word from the kids so that he could tell them where to meet us."

"Where are we going?" Den asked with curious apprehension.

"My orphanage, Den," Fuuten answered, having hung up the phone just a few seconds ago.

"It's on the outskirts of town and near a woodland path that is concealed from passer's by—ideal for guaranteeing a safe journey home for your children," he said matter-of-factly. Den realized that this made sense, and agreed without further questioning. As he went to retrieve his coat, the old monk interrupted him.

"Den…your son had a request that I didn't quite understand, but he implied you would," Fuuten said, looking as confused as his old student.

"He asked for you to bring the 'you-know-what' that he keeps in his room to the orphanage—and then he asks that you hide it somewhere until he says otherwise." At this, Den chuckled.

"Ohh, I understand. Excuse me for just a moment, sensei—" he said, walking carefully up the stairs. Fuuten waited down at the bottom with the detective when Etsuko returned a moment later, carrying two of Den's suitcases, which she had packed carefully. Hanpei took one and they went to pack it in the car.

Then Den walked carefully back down the stairs, cautiously carrying his son's project.

"Oi, when we can move back in safely, I'm going to have to have that boy clean his room!" he said, rubbing dust from his nose with his shoulder. Fuuten looked at the object curiously.

"Den, what is that?" he questioned, gesturing at the instrument. Den smiled, holding out the fully repaired guitar.

"It took my son several tries and many days, but he managed to carefully seal all the fragments seamlessly back together. This is Jiro's—I had originally given it to him, hiding the blueprint for the Gemini circuit within it. However, after stories from my son and daughter, I realized that it was a source of comfort for him as well."

The two grinned fondly at the guitar before joining the detectives outside, locking the door behind them.


 

"So what did Fuuten-mushou say to do?" Mitsuko asked calmly, since Arai did not seem to be speaking to anyone at the moment—in fact, her shoulders seemed to be convulsing. Mitsuko momentarily worried that if she tried to address the girl at the moment, she would explode even more violently than Masaru had.

Ichiro paused in surveying his surroundings to answer her.

"He told me to try and remember back to when he showed me all the secret passages from when I had first been awakened. He said once I was able to lead us back to a main road, Fruit loops should be able to take us to the orphanage," he said, looking disdainful at the thought of having to work together with the one creature he least tolerated within the group.

"How long will it take us?" Masaru piped up curiously.

"For me to get us to the main road, if we don't stop often…maybe a day and a half. As for the rest of the way, that's up to however useful that thing is," he sneered the last part, expecting to get a response to assure him that she had been listening to the plan. She slowly craned her head around at him before turning to ask a rhetoric question.

"...Why did I ever agree to help revive you?" she said, earning a giggle from the boy and a light, hushed scolding from Mitsuko.

"Beats the hell out of me!" Ichiro called to her back. She stared dully at him for a long minute.

"Don't tempt me—you could at least pretend to be grateful I hauled your mechanical butt halfway across the city and onto a lab table," she said, sticking her tongue out. Ichiro answered her with a derisive snort though Jiro seemed to shrink in on himself.

"Hey, Jiro? You ok?" Masaru asked, frowning in uncertainty.

Jiro hesitated before answering; an uneasy smile fixed itself onto his face.

"Oh…I'm fine, Masaru. Just…"

Jiro paused when he saw Mitsuko's equally concerned face and Arai wincing slightly.

"Ah…sorry, Jiro. I got careless with my words; I didn't mean to remind you of…" Arai said in a barely audible tone. Jiro blinked and for a moment, he was certain he saw a distant look in her eyes that indicated she understood exactly what he had been feeling in regards to that particular memory.

"It's all right, really. I'm fine; it's just going to take some time for me to move on. It should be easier now, since my brothers are both alive…for that, I'm truly grateful," he said softly. Arai was caught off guard, appearing somewhat flustered.

"Eh? I didn't do very much, really…t-the thanks should really go to Dr. Komyouji and Fuuten…but I will check your bike over and repair it when we get to the orphanage!"

Jiro nodded and smiled as she grinned excitedly, no doubt glad to finally have an excuse to check up on the status of one of her and her father's old projects.

Ichiro looked thoughtfully at his brother's gentle expression, feeling a tiny smile of his own turning the corners of his mouth. Taming it down to a smirk, Ichiro looked back to the female driver.

"Well now that we're done wasting time, let's move!" he said, starting the engine of Doublemachine. She narrowed her eyes and frowned once again.

"Ingrate," she muttered under her breath.

"What? If Jiro doesn't have to be so thankful, why should I?"

"...Jiro isn't an absolute mule, for one."

He smirked, driving up in front of her just as she was mounting her vehicle.

"I'll let that little comment slide then, huh? There's your gratitude," he grinned sarcastically over his shoulder at her. She shook her head, but returned his smirk.

"Ohhh, how big of you. Shut up and drive," she sneered, chortling. Mitsuko covered her mouth to keep from laughing at the exchange between the two. Masaru, however, did not restrain himself and giggled merrily.

Finally agreeing upon something, Ichiro revved the engine and sped off with the humans close behind. Mitsuko glanced at Arai after about fifteen minutes and, to her concern, saw that the girl was shuddering again.

"Arai, are you sick?" Mitsuko asked, hoping that it was not the case. Arai shook her head and her smile widened into a grin.

"No, I'm fine, it's just…Masaru, where did you learn to curse like that?"

The young boy rubbed the back of his head, giggling sheepishly while his cousin laughed in a mock-sinister fashion.

"Daddy would have been impressed…" she sighed fondly, now focusing her attention on following the loudmouth driver ahead of her, who seemed to be exercising his own vocabulary at the moment.

They raced off down the hidden paths just as a gentle snowflake kissed the ground behind them.



(A few days later…)

Akira sat in the room on his bed, repeatedly turning his most recent purchase over in his hand, finally closing his small fist over it and shutting his eyes.

'Rei-niisan really did take care of me back then…and he didn't complain either. He's so powerful…but he is always gentle,' he silently mused, suddenly feeling very humble that there had been people to protect him so fiercely back then as there were now.

He opened his hand once again and shined the object with his blanket to make it more presentable when the time came.

'…Maybe he'll accept this as a 'thank-you' gift,' he hoped to himself as the reflection on the instrument returned a small smile of encouragement. He placed the gift back in the box and back under his mattress when his exuberant friend burst through the door.

"Akira-kun! Akira-kun! Come look! Akira? Where are—oh there you are! Why are you on the floor? Did you see a rat or something?"

The timid boy shook his head, taking his friend's hand as she helped him up. She questioned him no further and sought to enlighten her friend to the source of her excitement.

"Guess what? That funny looking girl we saw a while ago came back and she brought friends! I think Gramps said Masaru was riding in the seat next to her! Come on!"

Akira blinked before springing up and running out the door.

"Oi! Akira-kun, wait up!" Rieko called after him, surprised to see him move so quickly.

When they both came out to the front yard, they realized they were a bit late as the group was surrounded by a mob of children who were gaping and chattering excitedly. Masaru grinned at the other kids, happy that there was a large group to celebrate with, but looked up at the two figures that had just exited the building.

"Hey, Akira!" he called out happily. Mieko, standing in the doorway with Rei, nearly lost her balance when she saw the usually skittish boy grin wholeheartedly before running towards his friend.

"Well that's a firs—…" she had started before she caught the expression on Rei's face—he had been smiling wider than she had ever seen him previously do…which admittedly wasn't saying much, but was a shock all the same.

When she regained her composure, she placed a gentle hand on Rei's shoulder. He turned to her, raising an eyebrow curiously.

"Go on; greet your brothers properly--it's been a while since you've all been together." Rei closed his eyes, nodding before walking towards the sea of children. Mieko found herself laughing softly at the happy scene before her as Den practically smothered his two children in his arms, and Arai tightened the borrowed jacket around herself, trying to get warm. Casting a glance at the detectives who chose to stand to the side, the attractive caretaker noted that Etsuko was positively beaming while her boss grinned and walked to give Jiro a welcoming slap on the back. Ichiro's brows knit in annoyance at all the children crowding around, and particularly at the ones tugging at his sleeves, pants' legs, etc...

"I suppose there really is a first for everything…I'm glad," Mieko quietly murmured just as she felt a light nudge in her back. She looked back to find the monk gently smiling at her.

"You shouldn't separate yourself from the joy and laughter. You deserve it as much as they do," he said coaxingly. Mieko absently bit her lip, reluctant to intrude.

"What about you? Why are you here with me instead?" she retorted. Fuuten grinned happily, although Mieko thought she noted a familiar twinkle in his eyes before they crinkled and shut altogether.

"I won't be long—I just want to stand back and look at this big picture for a moment; committing it to memory, you see," he said, making swift steps down the hallway. Mieko raised an eyebrow, but shrugged and resolved herself to join in on the delighted celebrations.

Chapter Text

I was born with the name of…well, I suppose it doesn't matter now. My name is now Ayatsuri. Not really significant information because most who learn my name are soon eliminated.

I just consider it common courtesy to let my prey know who is to claim their life.

Unfortunately, I'm still playing this damned 'Cat-and-mouse' game with a royal bitch of a mouse.

I feel my lips curl back in revulsion at my continuous failure. I know I could make Shiro-sama happy if I could just delete this one, miniscule annoyance from his life. If I don't…my existence…—ugh, I can't think with all of Karakuri's obnoxious humming!

She's a fool, that girl. Had she just stayed hidden and not disturbed Shiro-sama's plans, I would not have to hunt her down like the pathetic stray she is.

Like I once was.

That is, until Shiro-sama took me in. It had been the first time anyone had considered me 'skilled' and 'worthy'…but I digress. The fact is that she won't butt out and anything that stands in our way must be dispatched.

I almost feel sorry for her…perhaps it's the human left in me. I shrug it off as I stand waiting outside my savior's office. He has summoned me, and I fear it is not going to be for praise. Karakuri already gave a report summary, so therefore I am likely the one to be dealt punishment since this is his first mission under my lead. I can feel my heart throbbing painfully against my ribs.

It's not fair!

As I wait for him to call me in, I choose to reflect on my past for a bit. Not that it was happy, but just because I want to evaluate how far I've come since then.

I was born into a family that, save for my mother, did not want me. I've known that ever since I was young; ever since she died, to be precise. Mother was never very physically strong, and my birth hindered her health even more. It was not long after my third year of existence that she faded away into nothing before my eyes.

Dammit, my eye is irritated…Karakuri is looking at me curiously—not with the usual leer.

"What is it?" I snap at him. He raises an eyebrow, not phased in the slightest. I wait impatiently, which he finds amusing and shrugs, resuming his inane string game. I sigh; this fool NEVER takes things seriously. I suppose acting carefree is all he knows how to do though; it must be how he persevered through the ridicule and shame.

Karakuri is Shiro-sama's bastard nephew. Shiro and his family are of high social standing—and there simply was no place for a child of improper conception within that circle.

That's why Shiro-sama is so wonderful. Like me, he took Karakuri in and put his skills to work; though the fool seems to waste his gifts playing with various string games and finger traps.

Karakuri is now deeply immersed in the complex pattern he's now made with the twine, leaving me free to reminisce as I please for the time being.

In any case, skip ahead some years and to summarize: I ran away. I had hoped to find the aunt I had met once as a child—I had heard whispered by my other relatives that she had a home somewhere close to sea…perhaps I could have made home there. She had not appeared to resent me as the others did…but alas, when I arrived to the supposed area she inhabited, Auntie was not there, nor had she been for some time.

By then, I was out of options, so I resorted to any means to survive. After a few more years of stealing and running, I had become quite agile and fast. Granted, I was malnourished and thin, but it served me better at times.

Other times, it did not: One day, a quick heist was botched by one slow misstep due to a poorly timed fever.

All I had recalled seeing that day was someone in a nice, expensive looking suit. Had I been well and not so desperate that day, I would not have tried to pick the pockets of Shiro-sama's bodyguard.

But then perhaps I might not have met Shiro, so I consider it a blessing in disguise—even if I did suffer a few bruises from the guard.

I still cherish that day. It was the day I met my savior; the day I was taken in and finally cared for. I had been 15 then.

About three days after that meeting, Shiro-sama came to me to ask if I was well.

"About as well as I'll ever be…why did you take me in?"

It was then he made me the offer.

"I was surprised by how fast you were, despite your obvious fever. Had you not fumbled at the corner, you might have escaped my bodyguard—not an easy task, mind you." He had smiled then, and oh, how his eyes had shimmered like ice in the streetlights. It was like looking into the eyes of a dragon.

I remember swallowing hard, but remaining silent. Shiro-sama had continued anyway.

"You're alone, are you not? Thrown out by heartless relatives or worse—driven out? How would you like to start over…?"

"Start over? What do you mean?"

"I want you to put your talents to work for me."

"My talents...?"

"Your agility, your speed, your reflexes—all you lack to become a perfect being worth guarding my life is strength. This is the fault of your so-called family's negligence, is it not?"

I shudder now, realizing that I had wept back then. Tears were for the weak…but back then, I was weak; I was human.

"I can fix that. I'm a powerful man…and I can buy you strength. I can buy you perfection…but in return, I want you to protect me. Be my guardian angel, won't you?"

My face must have flushed without my notice, because Karakuri has disrupted my thoughts with an obnoxious "Yo, you sick, Aya-chan?"

I growl softly. "How many times have I told you not to call me that?" I snap again. He's not paying attention to me, so I roll my eyes. No, there is just no way of getting through to that simpleton.

"Put your finger through," he gestures suddenly, thrusting the patterned web of twine in my face. I narrow my eyes, hoping that for once, he'd get the message and back off.

Of course it was in vain, so I give up and stick a finger through, waiting for his next move. He then pulls away the frame of the web he spent 10 minutes weaving and I find my finger caught between the strands.

"Haha, looks like I've caught you! But don't worry, I like to share my victories." He leans in to my face, far too close for my preference.

"And your victory would be…?" I ask. I regret doing so almost immediately, as he looks away coyly before turning his green eyes back to me.

"Traditionally, the victor receives a kiss...though I wouldn't object to giving one myself…"

I answer him by baring my teeth, and his face falls dramatically.

I really loathe when the moron pouts.

"You're no fun, Aya-chan. It makes me sad," he whines at me. I've had it at this point.

"I am in no mood to be teased—if Shiro-sama wants to see me after a report, it is likely because I am going to be punished for failure again!" I hiss, almost losing my composure.

Scratch that, I have lost my composure completely, but at least the message finally got through his head. He backs up, unusually silent.

"Aya-chan, worry not! I'll save you if things get tough!" he grins, pulling at my cheeks.

I swear Shiro-sama was being far too kind when he took him in. I slap his hands away and massage my face.

"I'm surprised that your adorable cheeks are still flesh and blood," I catch Karakuri murmuring softly.

He's referring to the changes I underwent to become the perfect angel for Shiro. Unlike Karakuri who only had his arm marred by a birth defect replaced with cybernetic enhancements, I underwent a great deal more of remodeling. Some of Shiro's lackeys once whispered amongst each other that I am more machine than human.

Of course, they say nothing now—they are unable to.

After I had mostly perfected myself, I began to do as many tasks as I could because it gave me the chance to report to my Shiro directly. I had developed an infatuation, now an obsession, with him.

It bothered me back then when he had a wife—she was the only reason he left me back at the office buildings at times. But that didn't last for long…

It was the night she was killed that I first met my main prey—about a year after I started my life working for Shiro-sama. My orders had been to destroy a man's home and anyone living inside it. I did not know why exactly, but I did not question it either.

It turned out to be the girl's father that I had been ordered to kill. Oddly enough, he had somehow known or had been tipped off that his end was near--not that it stopped the stubborn old bastard from preparing in advance. Because of his planning, she was allowed to escape me temporarily that night.

I have mixed feelings about that particular mission: It didn't seem fair that such a caring father would have to die—but then it wasn't fair that I had been born into the environment I had grown up in.

I'll never admit this to anyone, but I envy the little bitch for being spoiled with a father who gave everything he had to ensure her safety, however temporary. It had been a long twenty minutes, indeed.

I was sure then that I was unlikely to find her after I had finally finished off the old man and burned down his house, so I went to report back to Shiro-sama at his mansion.

I hadn't expected that the girl would actually be there. She just stood there with her back to me, staring at the body in front of her as it bathed in its own blood.

I had thought it best to just get rid of her there, in hopes of being able to report a full success back to Shiro. Out of pity I had once held for her back then, I decided to forgo introducing myself; I tried to make it quick, clean…painless.

The little bitch didn't even turn to look at me when she flashed her weapon, severing my left forearm. I had wanted to keep that hand human for Shiro-sama someday…

Needless to say, it is impossible now.

I had been frozen in shock at the sudden amputation, so I had not struck down the wretch. After a period of inappropriate leisure, she left without a single uttered word.

It was odd; I had expected that as a weak, human little girl, there would have been tears in her eyes, but as she passed me—Nothing. I'll change that. I promised then that I'd make her show her weakness as payment for destroying my chance of ever wearing a ring.

A ring on a cybernetic arm would interfere with its functions.

I can hear the doors suddenly open.

"Enter," Shiro says simply. I try to replay that one word in my head to detect his tone for any signs of anger, but I have no time…I cannot keep him waiting.


_____________________________________________________________

Mieko fretted over the large bruise that had formed on Mitsuko's calf while she changed the bandages. The nick from the bullet managed to make an unattractive, but thankfully small gash, which was healing quite nicely.

The bruise would remain for weeks, however. Not to mention what a pain it would be to walk.

Jiro worriedly cast a glance from his seat towards the kitchen where the women were cleaning up Mitsuko's wound. However, before he could be depressed over the matter, an excited child began to lean over and curiously poke one of the large buttons on his jacket. The toddler smiled brightly and then toppled unceremoniously over his knee. Not moving, the child giggled despite his position until Jiro gently set the little boy upright once again, only to have him resume poking at the shiny buttons…

On the other side of the room, Ichiro frowned, snorting quietly.

"Good grief, this place is crawling with the little pests! Rei, how did you put up with this while I was gone?" He criticized while attempting to extract two children from his leg, although half-heartedly. Unbeknownst to him, one of the children strapped to his shin was paying attention and understood the word 'pest'; her bottom lip began to quiver dangerously as large, bright eyes welled up with fat, threatening tears.

Rei ignored the question as he bent to scoop up the trembling child, who immediately began to burrow into the yellow jacket like a hamster into wood shavings.

-SLAP-

"What—HEY!"

Ichiro received a particularly withering glare from Arai, who had just stepped into the room at the right time. Before Ichiro had time to retort, his youngest brother interrupted him.

"Ichiro, do keep in mind that these are small children, they are quite sensitive. Please refrain from offending them," Rei cautioned, frowning slightly at the elder android. Ichiro was still surprised at the change that had overcome his youngest brother—it was only a few days ago that he had been reunited with him at the orphanage, but he had not expected Rei to be so…so…good with the little rug rats.

'What did they DO to you?' he silently wondered; Ichiro raised an eyebrow at him, half-joking in manner.

"I'm not exactly Mr. Sensitive, that's Jiro's department—what if I don't?" he retorted, smirking as if to challenge. He received another slap upside his head.

"If you don't, I'm going to put you back the way I found you!" Arai hissed menacingly. He grumbled and rubbed his head; out of the corner of his uncovered eye, Ichiro could have sworn he saw Rei smile discreetly, as if he were actually amused. Ichiro blinked, but it didn't stop him from muttering his defense.

"I wasn't actually going to go out of my way to hurt the little—,' here he received a warning glance from Rei as he gently bounced the little girl back to happiness in his arms.

Ichiro noticed suddenly just how outnumbered he was in this and chose his next words carefully.

'—Ones." Turning back to Arai, he resumed his sarcastic sneer.

"What's with the extra abuse? I don't recall talking to you directly anyway, why'd you decide to stick your nose in?"

Suddenly her face fell, losing almost all expression and her brown eyes suddenly looked very hollow…

"You don't get it,' she murmured, 'these kids have no parents—no family. Having no family is like having a big hole in your chest; a void you'll always try to fill in. You have no idea just how impossible that really is…" she turned away and entered the kitchen to check on Mitsuko, leaving behind a confused Ichiro, a pensive Rei and a now sleeping toddler.


________________________________________________________________________________

 

Masaru, Akira and Rieko all sat on Akira's bed as the eldest began to tell of his most recent adventures. However, he stopped himself, casting a hesitant glance towards the girl.

"It's ok,' she whispered, 'Akira-kun already told me about Mieko, Rei, Ichiro and Jiro's secret when he decided to tell me about his past." Rieko winked, grinning as Akira slightly fidgeted. Masaru stared at the both of them for a moment as Rieko teasingly poked at Akira to get him to stop fidgeting.

"Oh, that's good then! Saves me the trouble of telling the whole story, doesn't it?" he laughed good-naturedly. He eagerly told his recount of the last couple of weeks to his captivated audience. By the time the tale drew to the present time, Rieko was practically bouncing with excitement while Akira was silent with worry and awe.

"So…so those dangerous people really are after you then?" Akira asked quietly.

"Eh? From what Masaru just said, it sounded more like they were after Arai-nee and now maybe Jiro and Ichiro-nii," Rieko observed with a thoughtful finger to her chin. Despite the elation of having people to tell stories to, Masaru suddenly considered this bit of information and felt somewhat disturbed.

"You're right…" he said quietly. The other two stared at him curiously as he processed and filed the information away for later.

"Oh well, let's go play! I've been meaning to get even with Ichiro for blaming me about having to take the long way home!" Masaru grinned impishly.

There was a familiar sheen to the girl's eyes and a feral giggle sprung from her throat. She leapt up towards the door to lead the way to her special 'plotting room'.

Akira sighed, shaking his head gently in mild exasperation as Masaru blinked, slightly nonplussed as to what had just happened.

"Akira-kun…"

"Yes, Masaru-senpai?"

"She's a little…weird," Masaru said cautiously. Akira felt himself give one of his small smiles before he replied in light defense.

"Mm, a little. But so is your cousin, right?" Akira was slightly surprised at his own daring. Masaru grinned once again and nodded vigorously, laughing merrily.

"It's because they're girls, I guess. We'd better follow, huh?"

"Yes, we probably should," Akira confirmed before they both began to jog out of the bedroom.

"Akira-kun?"

"Yes, Senpai?"

"Don't call me 'Senpai', it's too formal! Masaru works well enough!"

"Sure, Sen-Masaru…" Akira said, catching himself. The words felt odd in his mouth somehow, but then again, most words did at first.

_______________________________________________________________________
...

Karakuri shuffled his feet out in the hallway, completely bored since the string no longer amused him.

'Geez, Aya-chan has been in there for hours! She must really be getting reamed out by uncle…' he thought glumly, sighing. Then, as if the sky opened over him and sunlight poured out, an idea struck him.

'Idea! I'll find something to cheer her up after she gets out! Yuuki-sama, you're so smart!' he grinned, mentally praising himself. When the elation wore off, his grin receded into a wistful smile.

"…Maybe Aya-chan will warm up to me a little more,' he whispered to himself. Then, in a bolder tone, '—it's a long shot, but no matter, I will make an effort! For Aya-chan!"

And with that, he shot off down the corridors, nearly flooring two random guards in the process.
__________________________________________________________________

Ichiro was irritated; more so than usual, in fact. Lunchtime had come and gone, though part of it remained with him—literally. He was wearing it on his shirt, on his cheek and mostly in his hair.

Yes, the children had decided they wanted to try and tame the ruff of hair with sticky rice and fish sauce (to act as a de-tangling agent).

Needless to say, he attempted to escape, but was unable to do so unscathed considering he was outnumbered by an approximate 21:1 ratio.

Suspiciously enough, Ichiro recalled that both he and Jiro had been settled with the task to take out refreshments for the children, but Jiro was hauled back into the kitchen area abruptly. Only after he had served the first table of children did he realize he was alone…and then it happened.

21 pairs of eager, bright eyes sparkled with a light Ichiro had come to consider dangerous by instinct—and he was suddenly amidst a storm of edibles.

He remembered yelling for help repeatedly before Rei answered him in a slightly less monotone way than he recollected.

"I warned you about insulting them, there is no stopping them now…"

Ichiro dodged a bowl of soup aimed for his head before retorting violently.

"YOU AREN'T EVEN TRYING!"

"Children, please keep in mind that this is the only meal you are permitted before dinner. I would advise you to save a filling amount to avoid hunger pains between now and then," he admonished from the kitchen. Jiro was peeking out in confusion from the corner of the opened counter shutters when the children paused to give a collective 'Okaaay!" in unison. Rei then nodded his 'defeat' and closed the shutters once again, and Ichiro was quite sure he heard raucous feminine laughter before a hailstorm of rice aimed for him once more.

That had been an hour ago and now he sat crossly on a tree stump outside in the snow, trying in vain to remove all the bits of rice from his hair. He'd worry about the fish smell later.

"Excuse me…" came a shy voice from behind him. His eye twitched and he planned to turn, baring his teeth in hopes of scaring off the little demon—but he then realized it was the girl that he had seen Akira hang around with.

'Akira wouldn't hang around with a demon girl, right? He'd be too scared to, right? Well, I sure as hell would be!' he thought, somewhat in hysterics. She lowered her eyes slightly in a display of meekness. Rieko handed him a bottle with both hands and bowed when he accepted it.

"What is this?" he questioned suspiciously. The small girl coughed and rubbed her hands.

"…It will help get the rice out and get rid of the fish smell. Sorry about what happened with the others today," she said, twiddling her fingers innocently. Ichiro looked between her and the bottle repeatedly before he came to a decision.

"…You should get back inside, it's cold out here. Go on," he said, ruffling her hair. She smiled gracefully and turned to retreat into the house.

Ichiro missed the devious gleam altogether and immediately began pouring the contents of the bottle directly onto his head.

Ten minutes later, Arai walked back through the gates, pulling the red jacket tighter around her lean frame, regretful and wishing that she had not lost her own, warmer winter coat to a skirmish with the cybernetic assassin in the previous winter.

When she looked up, she found Ichiro glaring heatedly at a small bottle in his hands.

"What's up?" she asked cautiously. He didn't even acknowledge her presence and mumbled quietly to himself.

"…this feels worse, why isn't it working? Do I need to wait longer or…?"

On closer inspection, Arai noticed that Ichiro's hair was even more unruly than normal.

And it appeared to be stiff. Seeing that she was not going to get his attention immediately, she leaned in closer to take an estimating smell of whatever was on his head. She wrinkled her nose in disgust as she noted the bottle read 'shampoo'.

Arai slipped the bottle out of his hands with some difficulty before he let go. She opened the top and inhaled deeply to be sure.

"Oi…"

"Hn?" he groaned slightly. She blew a few stray strands of her hair out of her face before answering.

"This is honey."

The explosion did not come. In fact, Ichiro appeared to have folded in on himself.

"…Oh man…"

Arai noted the whimper in his voice and decided to withhold her laughter out of pity's sake. Turning the bottle over in her hand, she felt the weight of the dense substance slowly move and she shook her head sympathetically.

"This is a classic…just which kid did you pick on?" He glared at her, and she raised an eyebrow.

"Ah…group effort, huh?" All she got in response was an eye twitch. Thoroughly amused, she sighed and took him by the arm, tugging him inside.

"I'm not going back in there to those monsters!" He protested, wrenching his arm from her.

"You're not going to get that junk out if you don't come inside and let me get rid of it. I can't let you keep it on either, you'll stink. Now, come on—!" she urged, pulling him in reluctantly.

"Consider it payment for letting me borrow this jacket if you have to; you could have let me catch hypothermia and be rid of me completely—then my being human or not wouldn't matter anymore, right?" Arai smirked, teasing lightly over her shoulder. He mumbled something incoherently and chose to stare elsewhere.

Assuming it was his way of saying 'thanks', Arai hauled him into the restroom with a chair, and began to turn on the hot water in hopes of removing the sweet, paste-like, hardened gunk from his unruly hair.
____________________________________________________________

Jiro quietly closed the door to the nap room behind him and walked softly down the hallways towards the lounge area where Mitsuko sat on a couch, taking the chance to relax while the place was quiet.

The infants and toddlers were napping, while a few of the older kids caught up on their studies and the rest played in the snow. Rei offered to watch the kids outside while Mieko finished up with the infants. Jiro took over the task of settling the toddlers into nap time. Mitsuko had offered to go along with him, but was asked by Fuuten to relax and give her leg a chance to heal.

Hanpei and Etsuko had left a few evenings ago, promising to return soon. Fuuten had disappeared with them at the time, but he came back the morning after, so Mitsuko let it pass without much further question...although it did strike her as curious.

Sipping her tea, she smiled, noting that Masaru finally had other children to play with. It wasn't that she did not like to spend time with him, but it just wasn't the same for him to play with his elder sister than when he played with those his own age.

She smiled even more when she recalled how many of the small toddlers had taken to her father, wondering if he was Santa, or perhaps one of his elves. It was Christmastime after all, so they could not really be faulted…luckily, he didn't seem to mind too much. Indeed, he merely said that he was not permitted to reveal that information, but winked.

Ever since then, her father mostly kept in company of his old teacher, no doubt catching up and discussing about the news of the journey she had just completed. She sighed, quickly brushing her fingers over the graze mark and frowning. It was disheartening that as soon as she found Jiro, danger set upon them. On the other hand, it was because of that danger that Jiro found the strength to move in and save her life.

"How is your leg? Does it still hurt?" came a quiet, concerned voice. Mitsuko smiled and turned around in her seat on the couch.

"It's doing fine, Jiro," she said, beaming. He returned a small smile and settled down on the other end of the sofa.

"What about your hand?" he asked tentatively. Mitsuko blinked, slightly confused.

"My hand?"

"Back there, when I was still…hiding…inside myself…I couldn't see what was going on until I heard a really loud slap. That was when I saw you standing in front of me and I realized there was a fight going on," he explained, looking at her hands as one rested on the armrest. When he finished, she shifted her position and leaned closer towards Jiro this time, laying her hand on his.

"It doesn't hurt anymore, Jiro,' she assured, slightly amused that once again, a slap had been what had returned him to his senses. They sat in silence for a few moments, Mitsuko looking down as she leaned back a little.

"Jiro…" she said quietly after a while. He tried to peek at her eyes curiously.

"Yes…Mitsuko?" It was another moment before she answered, as she was trying to organize her thoughts and emotions into words.

"I know about what happened during that time when we were apart…I can't begin to tell you how sorry I am that you had to go through that alone…that I was unable to be there. Fuuten told me that you tried to find my father at our home…but I was still away with him during his rehabilitation—"

"Mitsuko, it's not your—" he interjected, hoping he could wipe the guilty look from her face, but he was in turn, interrupted.

"I know. I know, you told me I had to take care of my father, and you were right…but that still doesn't erase the pain and regret of not being there for you. It was frustrating at times, to only be able to think of you, not truly knowing if you had survived. All I had was my hope to hold on to, and my family to immerse myself in…but that can only work for so long."

Jiro kept silent as she continued, not really knowing what to say.

"Eventually, the pain I ignored caught up with me, and I started to lose my mind by keeping it all inside."

Jiro looked both pained and horrified as he recalled back to when he heard a voice describing to him a Mitsuko, broken and crying, completely disheveled and too grieved to function properly. He now knew that the voice had belonged to the girl that had sat in the rain; smiling as the other three surrounded him with their joyous faces.

"Jiro,' she said quietly, her eyes still lowered, 'I don't want you to go through that anymore. Please don't try to face the burden by yourself. I want to share it with you, no matter how dangerous."

Jiro felt a powerful grip somewhere in his chest and he was speechless. A drop fell from her face, and Mitsuko smiled shakily.

"Nothing is more painful than being separated from the person one loves most, so please,' she leaned back, finally lifting her eyes that swam with various degrees of warmth, 'don't leave me again. I really love you."

For Jiro, the universe had stopped—something within him begged for a sign that he hadn't just imagined her voicing his own secret wishes—could it be possible that he could cause her so much anguish…and she could still love him?

The phone rang and Mitsuko looked over her shoulder at the direction the ringing came from. With an apprehensive jolt, Jiro saw her make motions to get up.

"I'd better answer tha—oh!" Mitsuko made a small noise of surprise as she was suddenly pulled back, almost roughly. An arm wrapped around her abdomen and the other wound through her own arm and lay across her chest and collarbone. Jiro's cheek rested against hers as he buried his face into her neck, savoring her.

"I'm not very good at this if I keep making you cry…but thank you for crying for me, Mitsuko. Thank you for falling in love with me. Thank you for letting me love you,' Jiro held her a little tighter, 'I'm not going to run anymore, so please…don't cry any more, Mitsuko."

As Mitsuko hesitantly turned her head back, Jiro capitalized on the boldness he had gained from expressing what he'd wanted to for so long; he took advantage of her lips with his own as she turned to smile at him.

Unknown to them, Mieko entered in from the hallway, took one look at the scene, and retreated back down it to find another way to get outside. If she had had access to a mirror, she would have been surprised at the sudden heat that rushed to her face.
______________________________________________________________________

Rei surveyed his surroundings carefully and a slight crease formed in his brow.

Things were not looking good.

He was outnumbered twelve to one, which equaled about twenty-four snowballs aimed straight for him. At point blank range.

No, this did not look encouraging at all.

As soon as the arms reared back and let go of the frosty projectiles, he once again leapt over their heads and dodged the second round. When he turned around to assess their locations as they reloaded, he allowed himself a smug smile. They had been trying for a straight hour and to no avai—

-SPLAT!-

His eyes widened at the sensation of ice melting and falling through his hair and partly down his back. Rei turned to find a small boy and girl had actually tunneled their way through the snow and snuck around behind him, both landing their snowballs on the target.

The girl cheered, and then said with a grin, "I knew those tunnels we built would come in handy some time!" She and the boy gave each other the 'V' sign for their strategic victory.

Rei stared incredulously at them before shaking his head to be rid of the remaining snow. He then did something he had never done before.

Rei gave a short chuckle.

"Very well played. But now it is my turn; pay attention or it will be too late," he said, scooping up the flakes and compacting each handful into a sphere.

Several of the older boys gave challenging "Ohhhhhhh's". One boy, who Rei noted to resemble Ichiro in attitude amazingly enough, took a step forward with a haughty expression on his face.

"You think so? Did you forget that we outnumber you twelve to—"

-SPLAT!-

It was only seconds before a barrage of snowballs came…and within five minutes, Rei stood, victorious of the Snow War.

He then heard soft footsteps approach from behind and scooped up a new handful when—

"Gyahh!"

"Akira?" he questioned calmly. Fortunately this time, the boy only jumped back and did not fall. A small box was held between his mitten-bound hands.

"Ah…t-this is…this is…a gift!" Akira said, presenting the box to the bewildered android as formally as he could.

"A gift?" Akira nodded vigorously. Rei was perplexed, and this time it showed in his eyes. He carefully opened it and extracted…a harmonica.

"I thought it would be ok since you didn't have an instrument to play with, and it's not really as loud as the horn Ichiro has, so I thought that maybe…maybe you…" he mumbled, flushing lightly at his ineptitude with words.

Rei turned the object over in his hand. It was small enough to fit in his pocket, which he considered very convenient. It shimmered brightly, as though it were polished often. He then turned his attention back to the young boy who was beginning to wring his hands at the prolonged silence. Akira was about to turn and walk back towards Rieko (who cheered him on from a distance) when a hand landed on his shoulder. Turning around, Akira saw Rei was knelt down beside him. Akira looked up into his face and noticed…there was a smile there. Not just any smile--a smile that was actually wide enough to shut the stoic android's eyes.

"Thank you, Akira. I will practice until I know how to play something for you," He said softly, opening his eyes. Akira was thankful to see that there was actually noticeable warmth to the usually frosty gaze.

"It's really ok? You like it?" he queried. Rei nodded and explained.

"It's small, convenient, and you were right to pick something that isn't as obnoxiously loud as Ichiro's trumpet....though I admit he seems to play well enough," he said. Akira gave a small giggle at the slight barb. Akira turned to walk to Rieko once again when he noted she wasn't there.

Mieko had just walked out and was bent down as Rieko whispered something into her ear before scampering away. Mieko stood once again, a confused look on her face, and joined Rei and Akira.

"Mieko, what's wrong?" Rei asked in reference to her expression. When she looked up at him, she only shrugged.

"All she said was "Merry Christmas", but usually this is the kid who shouts her joy for holidays at the top of her lungs; it makes me think she's done something," she said, placing her hands on her hips. Akira looked at the right side of her head, smiled and then walked away, keeping her in the corner of his eye as he did so.

Rei caught the glance, leaned slightly to his left and pointed to the ornament in her hair.

"Perhaps she needed you to kneel down," he explained, removing the piece from her dark hair. It was a butterfly ornament, set with gold paint and carefully painted details. She looked at it, just as astonished as Rei was when he received his gift from Akira.

"That little sneak, she's lucky it wasn't snow or honey—I just found that it's gone missing and—" Mieko complained, uncharacteristically flustered; Her hand closed over the hairpiece--Rei stopped it with his own.

"Put it back on, please. It suits you," he said. The feeling of heat resurfaced to her cheeks as she complied, her smile just barely concealing her flattery. Just then a yelp was heard and Masaru came rushing from the entrance with the guitar in hand and dunked his face in a pile of snow. Rei and Mieko both looked at him curiously before she resumed her composure.

"I think it's time we get everyone inside now, it's almost dark," she said, walking with her head a little higher than it had been in a while.
__________________________________________________________________

Ayatsuri set out into the snow with grave purpose in her gait.

She was determined to make this the last time she failed; Ayatsuri leapt into the trees, her new emerald pendant swinging heavily…

Sometime later, Yuuki had returned with a gathering of various beautiful flowers only to find the recipient had departed on her solo mission just before.

"She's gone to fulfill her task to make up for disappointing me--why Yuuki-kun, did you think she would like those flowers?" said the cold voice silkily. The cybernetically enhanced young man made motion to hide the bouquet behind him and ignored the last comment.

"Uncle, I'm going to go find her and help. The situation is different now and she'll be completely outnumbered," he said with an equal amount of concern and determination as he walked from the office with great strides.

Toshiaki Shiro did not even attempt to stop him; instead, he reclined in his chair, a cold smile playing on his mouth.

"Impulsive, love-starved fool…"
_____________________________________________________________________________

It had taken almost two hours, but finally, (FINALLY!) Ichiro was able to dry his hair and it moved just as haphazardly as ever. Ichiro had mixed feelings on the matter, considering it was her who managed it. Arai even stated her motive this time, however flimsy it seemed.

But he was begrudgingly thankful all the same. Arai then folded the jacket and handed it back to him, smirking.

"Debt repaid, feel better now?" she cooed teasingly. He looked as though he might have retorted with some juvenile comment of his own…but he settled on a derisive laugh.

"If it's kept simple, that's all I'm after. Thanks, Fruit Loops."

"You're welcome…'honey'," Arai taunted playfully, earning a sour look from the eldest android. They decided to walk the rest of the hallway in silence, though they exchanged mildly insulting to downright rude gestures until the air grew thick with palpable tension upon entering the room. Ichiro halted, noticing the anxious stares around the sitting room.

The looks were received namely from the detectives who had just arrived, Fuuten, and Den Komyouji, who also appeared to be somewhat angry. Ichiro frowned and looked to Arai for explanation, as he assumed it had to concern her. However, she was frozen in shock staring at a man, unfamiliar to Ichiro, who looked at her with the utmost guilt and sorrow.

"Gunta-jii…" she whispered disbelievingly. Fuuten cleared his throat and approached her quietly.

"My child, it is time to talk."

Chapter Text

Ichiro watched the rigid atmosphere; Fuuten's eyes burned intensely, but all of Arai's focus was on the morose man in front of her. After a brief pause, the color came back to her face and she suddenly looked exhausted. Arai took her seat at the end of the room, which was beginning to look like an impromptu trial.

The defendant raked her fingers through her hair and sighed deeply.

"Where do I even begin…?" she muttered to herself. Den leaned forward, slamming both hands on the table in between them, startling his daughter.

"You can start by explaining why you've put my children in-!"

"DEN!"

"No, Sensei! This has—"he was silenced with a severe glare from his mentor.

"That will do for now. We will get to the bottom of this in due time. I do not get the impression that the young lady intends to run from this anymore," he said calmly, hoping to ease the heated atmosphere.

"Hey, Old man!' Ichiro called from the hallway entrance heatedly, 'what the hell is going on? Why's the puffed-up old geezer barking?"

"Ichiro!" Jiro interjected sternly at the sudden disrespect. Ichiro raised an eyebrow.

"Hey, that's pretty much what he looks like right now and I just want to know why," he replied unapologetically. Fuuten shook his head and muttered under his breath, attempting to conceal his ill-timed mirth.

"Ichiro, you are almost honest to a fault. But if everyone will calm themselves, we will be sure to get some answers, now I ask that everyone—' here he cast a furtive glance towards Den, '—remain under control."

Rei and Mieko entered silently through another corridor, confused and curious to hear what was happening at the moment.

"The other volunteers chose to take over dinner and bathing the children for the time being. Please continue," Rei assured. Fuuten nodded appreciatively and chose to take his place beside the detectives who had remained quiet against the wall as everyone settled. Hanpei looked grim, almost guilty while Etsuko still appeared to be recovering from the shock of seeing Den lose his temper as he did.

"Hey, eh…why don't I start off first just to get the ball rolling, ok?" Hanpei said, trying to lighten the mood and urge on conversation with his informality.

Unfortunately, he only succeeded in turning all intensive gazes towards him with the exception of the monk, the girl in question and the guest. He did manage a semi-sympathetic look from his assistant though.

Hanpei coughed and adjusted his lapel to regain his composure.

"Well, as we know, Arai showed up without telling much of her background, so as a detective, I'd obviously wondered about it. Well, apparently our resident monk was just as interested as I am, so we ended up searching for more information on her back-story together. By some sharp snooping and a lot of luck, Fuuten managed to recognize you as bearing a resemblance to this woman—" he broke off to shove the dated magazine clipping towards the center of the table.

Mitsuko leaned in closely and gasped and Jiro too found the image having such a similar appearance to the young girl Mitsuko and Masaru had come to call family—except for the eyes. The eyes of the woman in the photo were green…like polished jade.

Unfortunately, Ichiro was not as meticulous in his scanning. After about ten seconds of staring at the image, he pointed an accusatory finger at the seated girl and raised his tone accordingly.

"I KNEW IT! You're NOT human! Otherwise you'd look like an old hag by now!"

Ichiro was met with blank, disappointed stares. Arai shook her head slowly, pinching the bridge of her nose.

"Dumbass…look closer. The eyes are different—or are you already so much of a man that you failed to notice?"

"Hah, funny—I'd have to have a conscience circuit thingy to become more like a human —No thanks…but having a closer look…maybe…this isn't you after all. She's prettier," he said, throwing in the insult to help mask the slight embarrassment of failing to notice the most obvious difference.

Den looked confused for a moment.

"But Ichiro, you do hav—," he started, but Rei held out a silencing hand in front of him. Den waited for an explanation, to which Rei only shook his head gently as if to say 'It is better that he just not know for now'.

"Yes, I know my mother is pretty—she'd have to be if she made a living out of it…" Arai confirmed snappily.

Etsuko chose this moment to step forward and add her input.

"Ichiharu Yuri, who later became Komyouji Yuri and then took another name after that though I could not find much information as to who her second husband was—only that he was a wealthy technological developer. It seems that measures were taken to keep the second marriage quiet," she said, keeping her gaze lightly on the daughter of the acclaimed model. Arai gave no reaction.

"I never would have believed…" Den murmured absently, staring disbelievingly at the image. Fuuten allowed himself a small smile, but said nothing. Hanpei took this as his cue to continue, figuring he didn't want to know why Ichiro suspected the girl of being...not human.

"Anyhow, that's kind of where Momochi comes in," he said, waving a hand at the man who loosened his collar subconsciously. Taking a big gulp of air, Gunta Momochi began to speak.

"Yes, I…I had just received my degree in journalism and visual arts. Because of some string pulling, I managed to land a job photographing for fashion magazines for a while and Yuri was my first model. We got along pretty well later on, and I still managed to keep my ties with her after she got married the first time. In fact, I took her wedding photos—,"here he paused pulling out a manila envelope extracting the pristine image. Sure enough, as Den carefully handled the photo, he found his younger brother beaming back up at him, an arm around the waist of his new bride.

"When was…why was I not even informed of his marriage…?" he said, unable to hide the hurt in his tone. Arai scratched her temple, chewing her lip as she considered her words.

"About that…well, do you recall getting into an argument with my father a few years before that? Around the time of your marriage to Sakamoto?" Arai asked cautiously.

Den took a few minutes, scanning his memories. Oh yes…the start of it all; he nodded grimly.

"Yeah…well, Dad never did approve of Miss Sakamoto because he couldn't shake the feeling that something wasn't quite right about her. He also thought you were moving really fast considering that your son had just..." Arai's voice stilled, not wishing to open another old wound.

Jiro couldn't help feeling somewhat awkward at this mention, since the Doctor's first son had been murdered around the time they had begun constructing him. To his relief, Mitsuko slid her hand into his and kept it there.

"Well…you remember how it happened soon after that…when he decided to wed a few years later, Dad was not sure that you had forgiven him or not as there had been no contact between you since the falling out—he thought he might have offended you by asking you to attend his wedding when he still didn't approve of Sakamoto…"

"And he was right to do so…much as I loathe to say it…" he grumbled bitterly. Arai offered a sympathetic smile.

"Hmm…at least you came out of that with gains, right?" she offered quietly. Den closed his eyes and nodded in agreement; no matter the circumstances, his children were his blessings.

Etsuko sighed, slightly relieved that the angry tension seemed to relax to some extent. Hanpei was also grateful for the calm, and went on.

"Heh, say, why don't you tell us a little bit about your mom?"

A sudden chill ripped through the room. Ichiro raised an eyebrow at Arai, for though she smiled politely, her eyes implied she would have much rather bit off her own tongue.

"Aa—mother…yes, what can I say about her? Apparently, I had been a difficult birth and she was unable to return to work—I daresay she might have held it against me"—Momochi cut across her abruptly.

"Arai, don't say such things! She loved you very much and doted on you—," he said, halted at the icy stare he received in turn.

"I never said she resented me openly. She put me through a lot of hell in the claim that it was for my own good…heh, I wasted so many years in classes I hated and never had any real use for," Arai scoffed, reminiscing with irritation.

"She wanted you to be educated!" Momochi defended firmly. Arai shut her eyes, considering his words; the memories floated to the surface…

"Please do this for mommy; you want me to be happy, don't you?" Yuri coaxed absentmindedly, as she was already preparing to drive off; her child stood in front of the building, shuffling her feet in front of the dance studio. Three-year old Arai sighed disappointedly, knowing this was only the beginning of a long day.

Present-day Arai clenched her jaw as another cold memory followed.

"I want the best for my beloved child so that she'll be happier than her mommy!" The smile was so fake; the green eyes were dull and miserable. The five year old Arai stood apprehensively on the threshold of her vocal instructor's classroom; the child wasn't sure she could sing that day as tears welled in her eyes—
'why isn't mommy happy...?' she had worried.

The current Arai forced her eyes closed, willing the painful throb of her heart to decrease.

"…I don't doubt that, Gunta-jii…but claiming that she wanted my happiness when I would have rather stayed at home and just played with Dad or played with her—you can't say she really paid attention. Being loaded down with tedious subjects and practices one after another left me little time to make friends—that's why I ended up having to home-school."

The photographer silenced himself after that, recalling the distressed letter he had received from his friend about this matter long ago.

"So is that why you're such a pain in the—?"

"Ichiro," Rei interrupted him to avoid the argument, as he would have with the younger children. He quite frankly did not want to find out if Arai would bite her offenders as Rieko had done days before.

To his luck, she ignored the comment and continued.

"Well, I don't think Mother was very happy after I was born. Not being able to model anymore cut off her income and Dad wasn't really making a lot of money building motorcycles because the area around our home had more open spaces instead of paved roads at the time. She poured most of our money into paying for the overpriced classes that I did not particularly enjoy. One day she finally got fed up and left to marry someone who had more money than he knew what to do with," she said, picking a bit of dirt from her nails nonchalantly, 'it really surprised her when I chose to stay with father instead, though she shouldn't have been really..."

Gunta cast a very stern glare at her behavior.

"Arai, I don't claim to understand the anger or resentment you have for your mother, but you will please respect her in front of me as she is no longer alive to defend herself!" he said, almost regretting his words the instant they were out of his mouth. Her indiscernible smile unnerved him.

"For you, of course," she murmured breezily.

Hanpei gulped nervously, praying that they could get through the whole story without another explosion of some sort.

"I see…so why don't we just get off the subject of your mom since I doubt there's much left to tell at this point anyway…what about your dad? Why didn't he ever make any mention of you to his brother?"

Arai looked at him much like she was trying to teach a child that one and one equal two.

"Well, I'll be first to say that my father was a brave man…but there was just one thing he couldn't face and that was being hated by his brother. Not that Den ever said he hated him, I don't think—but my father was always afraid that if he contacted his brother too soon and thus offended him, he might finally hear those words that would hurt him so much. So he kept thinking that he'd tell him later…and 'later' eventually became the fourth of never," she said, poking her index fingers together in slight embarrassment. Mieko, thinking the situation sad, found the sudden expression amusing and stifled a smile, causing the butterfly ornament in her hair to stir gently.

Hanpei nodded, seeing complete reason in this as he had his own qualms with his brother.

"I get it…so what did you do later? How did you survive if your dad wasn't pulling in enough money?"

Here she finally grinned.

"Without having to pay for all those classes, which I dropped almost immediately after mom left, we were doing just fine. Dad then finally built a bike that could manage almost any terrain and earned a good income that way. I still wasn't very good with other people my age though, so I did things together with Dad part of the time before I finished my home schooling early, then all of the time after. He taught me all he knew about motor mechanics and when we got bored with that at times…we decided martial arts would be fun to do together. He enrolled us both in a class, but he dropped out later when he got more calls for custom jobs."

Hanpei nodded as he filed it all away in his head when a sudden thought struck him.

"Hey wait! If you finished schooling early…then how old are you exactly?"

She took this moment to get her information in chronological order.

"Let's see…I finished at about 16…and that was about one or two summers ago…hm. Almost 18, I think—soon anyway. I haven't exactly been keeping up with the date," she admitted sheepishly, scratching her head.

"I see…anyhow,' Hanpei said, clearing his throat, 'I think we ought to move this along just a bit. Now, the reason we went looking up your background was because something didn't seem right. Fuuten noticed this too: why would a secret underground society go making unnecessary killings simply because of a last name? I can understand if maybe they were going after the doctor because he created Jiro and his brothers—but no attacks have ever been made on him; for a group with enough money to pay for spies, it wouldn't have been that hard to find Dr. Komyouji if they'd really wanted to snuff him," he explained, watching her closely. Her expression stayed blank, but her hands lightly gripped the armrests.

"We did a little research on you, obviously, to check out your story and we found it really surprising that your mother's life was taken on the same night…."

The detective continued to watch.

Still no visible reaction.

He then turned to the photographer who had sunk his face into his hands and took a few deep, steadying breaths.

"It's my fault," he said, eyes suddenly very heavy. Etsuko placed a comforting hand on the man's shoulder.

"Of course not, it was—"

"—my fault. There is no getting around it: my own stupidity sealed the fate of two people I considered dear friends…and I have a feeling that is only the beginning of the consequences of my folly," Gunta said, cutting the assistant detective off and casting a remorseful glance at Arai who broke from her immobile position. She turned slowly towards the mournful man with interest barely visible on her features while the others leaned in, eager to listen.

"About two years ago, I had long since expanded my resume of photography outside of the modeling world and dabbled in taking shots for newspapers and the like. I had heard about DARK in whispered rumors and thought how famous I would become if I were able to expose them and bring the rumors to light, so I kept my ear out and collected information as discreetly as possible," he paused to swallow heavily. Den was on the edge of his seat, almost fidgeting until Fuuten laid a restraining hand lightly upon his shoulder, nodding for the story to continue. Gunta swallowed once more and went on.

"One night I came home and sifted through my mail when a piece caught my eye. It was addressed to me from Yuri—I hadn't been able to keep up much contact with her after her second marriage, so it was a shock to see her name. When I opened up the letter, she had written that her only daughter was turning sixteen and that she hadn't seen her in almost ten years. She asked that as a favor to an old friend that I might take some nice photos and send them to her since she was unable to do so herself for some reason," he cast a furtive look at Arai, who remained firm, but silent. Her expression remained unreadable, though her white hands implied that the information was news to her.

"I contacted Ryo first, asking his permission though I already knew he'd let me. We had kept contact on and off for years ever since he and Yuri had wed, and took solace in one another over drinks when recalling the good days when Yuri had been best friend to both of us. I then came over the next day and Ryo had arranged it so that she just believed it was a friendly visit to catch up—"

He paused briefly, struggling to maintain his composure. Gunta brushed off his pant leg needlessly before continuing.

"Yes…well, the photo shoot was a success and I went home. That evening, when I arrived back home, my answering machine had recorded a message from a friend of mine who also wanted DARK exposed for what it was and helped me look out for leads. My partner, Misao had called, telling me of a tip-off she'd discovered and when we should meet up. When I looked at the clock, I'd realized that it was almost time for the rendezvous, so I ran out with my camera before I had thought about it."

Gunta's hands began to shake, so he set his photo envelope down on the table and tightly gripped his hands together.

"Well, the information paid off big time. We managed to spy on a major meeting between the remaining members of DARK. They had been discussing the recent downfall of Professor Gil and how to cover the rest of the society from being discovered. I managed to take pictures of all the leaders; some blueprints of cybernetic designs and my friend had been recording the whole meeting on tape. Unfortunately, the tape ran out and the record button snapped up too loudly; it caught their attention and we had to split. Misao took off in one direction and I took off in the other. Miraculously, we both managed to come out unscathed."

Mitsuko eyes had grown large, imagining the kind of danger that the aging man had placed himself in. Jiro listened closely, squeezing her hand gently to reassure her as she had done for him earlier.

"However…I was too hasty. I developed the photos that night and made two copies so that Yuri and Ryo could have photos of Ume-chan-"

"Ume-chan!" Ichiro snorted, not even trying to stifle his mirth at the affectionate name. Arai noticeably reddened and spat at him.

"SHUT UP!" she snarled impatiently. There was pause before Arai settled back down and gestured for the photographer to continue. He shut his eyes tightly and his voice became a bit strangled.

"I…I am to blame for their deaths! I sent the wrong photos and didn't find out until too late! Ryo and Yuri ended up with the evidence shots and the media and police force got the shots of Arai. I only found out when Ryo called me and told me what had happened and for some reason…he requested that I turn in any other evidence I had gathered to him as well. He also then told me to make arrangements to get out of the country as fast as possible. After much convincing, I received the tape recording and got over to Ryo's place as soon as humanly possible. Ryo then assured me that he would protect all the information and—"

"—Then had me drive you to your house to pack, and then to the airport that same day…" Arai said emptily, fitting the pieces together for the first time. She then removed the fan secured to the small of her back and stared at it with half-lidded, sad eyes.

Gunta went silent, as though he might tear apart at the seams if he said another painful word. Arai continued on in her disconnected, hollow tone.

"I came home that evening and the house was a worse mess than usual. I ran into the garage and found Dad in the middle of a fight with a girl I'd never seen before—Ayatsuri. I didn't even have time to ask what was going on, he just threw these at me," she said, gesturing to her belts and the fans. She blinked and continued on, 'then told me to grab my mother and hide for the time being…and then to seek out Den Komyouji when the worst had passed."

Hanpei took a step forward and supplied the rest of the story for her.

"And when you got there, your mom was already…"

Arai lowered her eyes.

"So you found your way here eventually…but you told us that DARK was after Dr. Komyouji and his family. What was your real objective?"

Her brown eyes froze and closed momentarily. When she opened them, she smiled in a very feline manner.

"Every bit as sharp as you were reputed to be…what was I really after?"

Here, Ichiro leaned in closer, just as eager as the others now.

"In a word: revenge," she answered, interlacing her fingers and peering over them with cool eyes. Another pause of silence passed before Etsuko swallowed thickly and stepped closer to the girl with her own question.

"And how exactly did the Komyouji family fit into all of this?" she uttered, almost afraid of the answer.

"Hm…yes…I asked myself that at first, but then I came across some old articles talking about a red and blue robot with destructive capabilities. I had remembered then that my father had once told me that my only uncle was a robotics genius when I was curious one day. Then, as I mentioned before, I figured out that the robot…no, android…was linked to my estranged uncle when I noticed the vehicle in the picture; Sidemachine was the second custom vehicle my father and I had ever worked on, the first being Doublemachine—my father had built them with the intention of making them peace offerings, though I believe Dr. Komyouji was a bit too occupied at the time. Anyhow, once I had recognized the link…' she paused, her face still hidden partly by her hands.

Jiro was taken aback. Though he had known the girl for such a short time, he had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that she had harbored an ulterior motive. Her eyes gave nothing away as she continued to confess.

'…I was determined to have that force unleashed upon the one responsible for the death of my parents." Gunta lowered his head with disgust at himself, but the girl turned towards him, wearing an expression as though she had read his mind.

"No, not you, Gunta; the one who gave the order to send Ayatsuri after my father and who either killed or had someone kill my mother—I will end that person," she clarified. There was no doubt evident in the way she said it, nor was there a trace of emotion in her expression—save for her eyes. It was the intensity of her eyes that invoked a fearful reaction from the group; this was not the boast of an immature anger, but rather a promise of blood in cold fury found only at the brink of insanity.

Mieko's head swam as she listened in silence with Rei, though he appeared to be observing Arai closely instead of showing how he felt on the matter. The female android did note that something about the girl's tone seemed off…as if she were relieved and yet despairing at the same time, though it did not much show in her words.

Ichiro recovered from his shock before the others, adopting a cynical smile in an attempt to reassert something familiar into the situation.

"So why not just say what you wanted at the beginning? Why go through all of this?" he asked, thinking this was the obvious answer. Arai faltered, raised one disbelieving eyebrow at him.

"How many people do you think would offer to help me, not knowing of me or even my existence beforehand? Especially people who already know how dangerous DARK can be firsthand?" she retorted skeptically.

"Well if you know how dangerous it is, why would you be dumb enough to go after them in the first place?" he countered, slightly hoping to make her angry…something about her hollow eyes made him fidgety.

"What else did I have to lose?"

The room grew cold and silent.

"… Having no family is like having a big hole in your chest; a void you'll always try to fill in. You have no idea just how impossible that really is…"—Ichiro recalled her earlier words and his brow furrowed slightly.

'…Is that why some of these kids cry at night in their sleep? Is it really that painful?' he silently pondered to himself, trying to understand why someone would willingly walk into a defeat. His eyes fell on Jiro, his younger brother; he noted a sad depth to his large, dark eyes that spoke volumes of his empathy.

Ichiro suddenly knew and he fell silent.

Conversely, Mitsuko had just found her voice—and it choked with pain.

"So…this whole time…from the very beginning—you were planning to use us? Even worse, you were planning to use Jiro? And when you saw me…was that part of your plan too?" Jiro could hear the tears Mitsuko fought to subdue in her cracking voice.

Gunta could feel the rising anger and tension in the atmosphere; it was almost smothering. He felt his guilt press down harder on him, further suffocating him.

Arai only lifted her eyes to her cousin with a wistful smile.

"The very beginning? No—not quite…to be honest, I was still formulating the details of my plan with every complication that came up along the way—but yes, the initial plan was to gain trust so that it might be easier to receive aid or assistance in pursuing my goal," she confirmed, touching her lip as she had been considering the answer.

Mitsuko was frozen.

"How…how can you say that all so calmly?"

The plum head lowered for a moment before a reply was received.

"Perhaps because it really doesn't matter what happens next; I knew for some time that I was going to fail in this part. Hell, I might even be somewhat relieved—" she cut off as she stood up to stretch. When she looked up, she smiled far too casually for the situation. Rei continued to watch her closely as the monk did, though the monk seemed to be filing away information as the detectives were doing.

Den had heard enough.

"Get out," he ordered, eerily calm. Mitsuko gasped as Etsuko did. Even Mieko's mouth fell open a bit.

"Father!"

"I mean it, get out. My family has been put at risk and betrayed far more than enough—I want no more of it. Leave. Now. I don't ever want you to return."

Jiro was at a complete loss for words, having never seen the kindly old man so angry before this night. In fact, everyone seemed to be visibly shocked at the sudden demand…except perhaps for Arai.

She regarded him quietly for a beat before giving a small nod.

"Fair enough," she complied, turning with her eyes lowered to the ground; her pensive smile held no warmth.

The others exploded with various protests.

"You can't! Come live with me—it's my fault this happened in the first place!"

"Gunta,' she said firmly, '--mistakes happen. We fix them by learning from them, isn't that right?"

"What?" he said, the question taking him off guard.

"You told me that once… when I practiced taking pictures with your camera that time, remember? You told me that in this way, photography helps to teach one of the valuable lessons for life, right?"

His chin quivered feebly; he was at a complete loss as to how to respond to that.

"Where will you go? What will you do?" he implored. The smile vanished and her eyes lifted just so they could barely be seen between the loose bangs.

"I have some work to finish anyway…now quit blaming yourself. Daddy would knock you out for it if he saw right now," she gave a tiny grin as she took a few steps away from the group towards the door leading to the outside.

"Wait a minute, Fruit loops!' Ichiro said, grabbing hold of her upper arm. Then to Den Komyouji, he turned and attempted to keep his tone low, 'Geezer, if you send her out there on her own, those two freaks will find her and pick her off in no time!"

"Father, Ichiro is right! They are bloodthirsty and will not hesitate to kill anyone in their way—" Mitsuko pled to her father, springing to her feet. The intensity of his glare startled her as Den cut across her plea.

"And because of her, you know this first hand!" he said, pointing accusingly at her bandaged leg.

"Father!" she yelled in protest, growing frustrated. Den continued to ignore her attempts.

"Mr. Hattori, you said so yourself, she's been out on her own for a while, she's quite capable of fending for herself!" Hanpei looked as though he would have loved to sink into a black hole at that very moment.

Ichiro could feel a growl emanate from his throat, but it abruptly halted when he felt Arai's arm muscles tightening beneath his fingers at Den's cold remarks.

"They're right; I'll be fine on my own. Just like before!" she said cheerily. Ichiro was about to snap at her stubbornness when he saw her give a poor attempt at a bright smile.

Ichiro had an epiphany then: Arai could not hide her emotions in her eyes, so she hid them with a smile to keep from revealing just how deeply she had been stung.

Apparently, while he was still recovering from the revelation, she had gently pried his fingers from around her arm and started for the door again.

"Wait!" called the detective. She paused hesitantly.

"Hm?" came the quiet response. Hanpei looked remorseful, though he forced out his question.

"You didn't have much contact with your mom after the divorce, right? How did you manage to find her?" Though her back was turned, the detective's keen senses told him that she was swallowing with difficulty.

"You're right, I didn't have any contact—except for this letter," she explained with an impressed smirk, pulling a wrinkled envelope from a side pocket. Arai unfolded it and tossed it back towards the detective who managed to catch it. Gunta regarded the letter and the girl with surprise.

"You kept it with you all this time?" he said, almost in disbelief, scratching his long, shaggy, dark hair. She nodded, turning her back once more.

"Of course. It was my mother's only written apology to me. Well…good bye," she said, finally heading out the door and towards the garage. Etsuko ran after her in an attempt to stop her, throwing a furtive glance to her employer before she exited, meaning she wanted Den Komyouji calmed down and recollected by the time she returned.

Hanpei gave a hopeless nod and unfolded the envelope, removing the long letter inside.

'Why did this have to happen…?' he thought miserably.


 

On the other side of the kitchen door, adjacent to the lounge room where the adults had been discussing just then, three children hovered just outside the door, in shock at what they had just overheard.

"This is terrible, Masaru!" Rieko whispered mournfully. Masaru had stood stock still for quite a while, clenching his fists. Akira frowned sadly at the situation.

"I'm so sorry, Masaru…this must be very complicated for you…" he murmured softly.

"Not just Masaru, Arai-neechan too! She's going to have to go out there on her own with two killers hunting her down! Not to mention, it's cold…" Rieko hissed, shivering suddenly as though the cold air had seeped under the kitchen door and grabbed her ankle.

"I can't let him do this…" Masaru muttered after a pause.

"Eh?" Akira questioned cautiously. Masaru's face snapped up, angry and determined.

"I can't let him do this!" he repeated, bursting through the door.

"Masa—!" Akira attempted to yell, but Rieko smartly clamped a hand over his mouth and dragged him out of the line of vision as the door swayed.

"Akira, if we're going to help, we're going to have to plan while he has his word in there! We don't have much time either, let's go!" she said, taking his hand and sprinting silently towards the window that kept the garage in view.

"Rieko…what can we possibly do?" he cringed, almost pleadingly. She turned towards him with the familiar gleam in her eye, though without the feral grin.

"Akira, do you remember that time you told me about the things you could see when you focused a little?"

He nodded nervously, not sure where this was going.

"Yes…it's because of a side effect from all those…"

Rieko nodded, indicating that she remembered well, tightening her hold on his hand in a comforting manner.

"We might be able to put that to use…but what we need to figure out is how to get you a ride," she said, wrapping her coat around her and handing Akira his. They carefully walked towards the back door and exited after putting on some shoes, and exited, treading softly towards the back window of the garage…


 

Etsuko pleaded to the girl who responded with a deaf ear.

"Just wait, you'll see! My boss will get the Doctor to come back to his senses and then we can figure out what to do, just—will you please listen!" she begged frantically, pulling on the girl's arm. Arai shrugged it off and continued to inspect Sidemachine for any last minute improvements she could make as promised. Finding nothing to adjust, she returned her attention to her own vehicle, checking the air pressure in her tires.

They stood in silence as Arai determined that her motorcycle was in optimal condition.

"Miss Etsuko…"

Etsuko stopped chewing her lip and looked up.

"Yes?"

"Thanks." Etsuko was confused by the response.

"What for?" she asked, her curiosity taking over her defeated mood.

"Had you not taken pity on me, I might not have ever met the rest of my family. I'd always wondered what they were like because my dad wouldn't—or couldn't—tell me much. I'm happy I met them. I'm happy I met everyone, in fact…and I wouldn't have that if not for you. So I owe you a lot—but I need to ask one more favor, if you could humor me…" Arai elaborated, unhooking one of the long belts from around her waist and handing it to the assistant detective.

Then she extracted a scrap piece of paper from her pocket and a pen, scribbled a quick note and folded it, also handing it to Etsuko. Etsuko received both with a perplexed face.

"Give those to Masaru, please?" she offered, smiling softly. Etsuko scanned the belt, suspecting its true purpose.

"In case something goes wrong, I want him to be able to protect himself at least," Arai explained, not looking Etsuko in the eye. She then steered the crimson motorcycle towards the garage opening. Etsuko felt her chest constrict tightly as though the cold air had frozen her lungs.

"So you're really going? I can't stop you?" Etsuko called as the girl mounted the seat. The only response she received was a small shake of the head. The assistant detective sighed sadly, removing her second coat that she had worn for the trip to the orphanage, shivering slightly at the sudden draft that her normal pink coat couldn't immediately protect her from.

Arai took it without word, but before starting the engine, she turned back and grinned once more.

"Take care of Hanpei, ne? He'd self-destruct on his own, you know," she said, tying the belt of the coat. Etsuko nodded in response and watched the lone girl drive away as a small tear escaped and rolled down her face from behind her glasses.



Arai had been driving at illegal speeds for at least half an hour when a sudden pain flashed across her face. She swerved to a stop along the powdered road, removing her goggles and flexing her already numb fingers before bringing them to her face.

Sure enough, a smear of crimson indicated she was bleeding.

"You're late," she called cynically to the trees. A sudden drop was heard in the snow about fifteen feet away, then slow footsteps. The clouds opened up to reveal the moon for a few minutes, shedding light upon Arai's aggressor, dancing off of a stunning viridian pendant.

"I'm not here to play anymore, Arai," Ayatsuri said as she transformed her synthetic fingers into claws. Likewise, Arai shed her borrowed coat and extracted the fan from the small of her back and the one from the strap that extended diagonally across the top of her back.

"That's great to hear, because I'm really not in the mood tonight," she replied dully, opening the weapons to expose the blades.

"This is the last time we do this. I am not allowed to fail again," she said, forming her legs into fighting stance. The Emerald pendant swung heavily with her movements.

"If you say so—let's go!"

And with each countered blow, the fighters plunged further and further into the forest as the clouds darkened and gathered, hiding the moon once more…


 

Elsewhere, in a city neglected by the sun almost all year long, a ragged stray found itself collapsed upon a doorstep. Ironically, the doorstep seemed familiar, as though the creature had come upon it a lifetime ago…

"Oh…? It looks as though you need some patching up," spoke a soothing, feminine voice. The bedraggled stray's vision cleared only slightly amidst the hazy snowfall only to meet a particularly beautiful face as it was lifted up towards it.

The cat amazingly did not fight the compassionate woman, and relaxed almost immediately within her embrace.

...


 

Chapter Text

"Dad, what are you thinking?!" Masaru erupted, bursting in on the commotion dramatically. It was quite an impressive sight, considering he'd managed to silence the entire room while only being ten years old.

The adults observed him with stunned disbelief; Masaru, too, made observations as to what might have been going on before he entered. He noticed that everyone seemed to be crowding around his father as if to have his or her own words with him. This encouraged him slightly, knowing that he wasn't completely alone in this matter. He advanced a few steps further into the room, letting the anger take hold of his features.

Ichiro eyed him warily, not used to seeing such animosity from the child previously.

"Squirt…?" Masaru ignored him, keeping his eyes on his father.

"Father!" he commanded. Den lifted his eyes with an admonishing glare.

"Masaru, you will speak to me with respect," he warned, frowning. Masaru growled as loudly as a ten year old could.

"How can I? You just threw out your own family!" he raged. Mitsuko looked torn between joining in with her brother and scolding him for such disrespect.

"Masaru…" she uttered, still undecided. Den shook his head and sighed heavily.

"Masaru, you're too young to know what you're saying—"

"I'M NOT AN IDIOT—!' he exploded, struggling to regain control of himself,'—I may be the youngest here…but that doesn't make me stupid! I can tell what's going on—and I've been through more than most kids, so that has to count for something! Why…? Why did you throw her out, Dad? Why did you throw her out into the snow where those two killers will catch her and cut her into pieces?"

"Masaru—you just said yourself that you've been through a lot. I don't want you—any of you—to experience anymore pain. It's my job as a father—one I've neglected for far too long!"

"She's family too!" the boy screamed back.

"She was using us!" Den answered, his tone growing louder. Hanpei backed up a step, uncomfortable with being in the middle of the family squabble. Mieko was growing frustrated with all the quarreling.

"I WOULD HAVE DONE THE SAME!" Masaru roared. He halfway expected to be hit, but was internally relieved to see the taken aback expression on his father's face. Fuuten observed the young boy with pensive eyes from a short distance.

"Keep your voices down; I won't have anyone upsetting the other children should they overhear this!" Mieko warned sternly, hoping her glare was intimidating enough to make them do as she asked. Masaru's eyes flicked in her direction, but he remained facing his father. The monk smiled, ever glad for her assertive personality.

Rei gently pulled Mieko back toward him by the elbow, so that he could better view the scenario. Masaru cleared his throat quietly before he continued.

"I would have done the same if I had been in her place…I thought about it a lot back when you first disappeared—how much I wanted to get even with the people who did it—because it really hurts when the people you love are in danger and you can't do anything about it. The only reason I didn't was because Mitsuko was with me…Mitsuko was always with me, and I was afraid that if I went off on my own, she wouldn't be there when I came back—but she didn't have that—Arai. Arai didn't have someone like Mitsuko," he said, tears threatening to well up in his eyes. He shut his eyes tightly and lowered his head, fighting the salty pools into submission.

Mitsuko bit her lip, recognizing this to be true as it temporarily overrode her confusion and anger towards both her father and the manipulative girl that had just left. She knew all too well of betrayal, and it stung even more to feel that she was taken advantage of at her weakest moment.

"Mitsuko…" Jiro murmured softly, catching her attention.

At that moment, Mitsuko felt Jiro's finger on her lips; when he swiped his thumb, it came away with a streak of red and Mitsuko realized she had bit her lip too hard. Jiro frowned worriedly, leaning in for closer inspection. Staring back into his brown eyes, artificial as they were, they held more depth and emotion than most humans—and Mitsuko was again reminded of how fortunate she had come to be.

Considering this, a tiny smile crept onto her face.

'I've forgotten already…there is no possible way she could have known about my relationship with Jiro…' she asserted mentally.

"Mitsuko…?" Jiro asked softly, curious of her change in mood. She shook her head, leaning slightly to her left to nod at Masaru to continue.

"If I had lost everyone and everything in one night…I don't think I'd want to live anymore," he uttered, voice cracking as he did so. Fuuten stepped towards him, gently patting his shoulder.

"Perhaps she feels the same way…if one feels they have nothing left to lose, they may as well attempt one last victory," he said wisely, looking down at the young boy as his shoulders convulsed lightly. Den could feel his heart breaking, and he rushed forward to Masaru, kneeling and taking his young son's face in his hands.

"Masaru…I understand what you're saying…but please don't ever speak those words again. There is nothing more painful to the heart of a parent than hearing their own child say something so devastating," he said, closing the boy within his arms tightly. Masaru did not return the embrace; he seemed to be exerting all his strength into not falling apart in tears.

"Although I can somewhat understand her desperate motives…that does not justify placing her remaining family back in danger's path, as well as our friends and several other innocents," he said softly, and sadly. Masaru stiffened even more so, and looked up slowly to glare at his father with such furor that most ten year old children should have been incapable of.

Gunta sat silently in his seat, letting the girl's departing words replay in his head. Mistakes are meant to be learned from—this he knew…but it was hard to treat such a devastating ordeal as a learning experience for such a simple lesson. There was something else that disturbed the photographer as well.

After years of capturing perfect images, he had a sharp eye for detail—and something about the way the girl's face had looked when she said that…it was off. Gunta had a horrible feeling settle in his stomach and he winced. He reached at the table for his envelope of pictures only to find it wasn't there—

Ichiro was rifling through the packet, scanning the collection.

"Please be careful with those—" Gunta said, feeling protective of his work. Ichiro paid him no mind, but paused in sorting through the photos.

"This one's the most recent one, right?" Ichiro asked, flipping the image over for the photographer to inspect; it was the picture taken on Arai's birthday. Gunta nodded and Ichiro turned the picture back towards him so he could examine it closely.

In the time that he'd known Arai, he had never seen her smile as purely as she did in the image—clad in a pale yellow furisode and deep violet obi, and seated on the shoulder of a well-toned, rugged looking and aged man. They both laughed merrily, seemingly oblivious to the world around them. Ichiro's brows furrowed anxiously.

They looked so happy.

"The old guy in this picture—it's her dad, right?" he asked, not looking away from the image.

"Yes. That's Dr. Komyouji's brother, Ryo," Gunta confirmed. Ichiro stared at the image a little longer, a slightly disturbing thought forming in his head. He glanced towards Rei, who was no doubt calculating everything that had just transpired and was muttering his observations to Mieko. Ichiro then turned to Jiro, who tended to Mitsuko's bleeding lip while giving Masaru sympathetic looks.

Ichiro could feel himself grow uneasy because something didn't add up—how does an android without a Gemini circuit grow so attached to the people around him? Technically, it shouldn't be possible, yet…

The door suddenly opened and closed in the kitchen. A few seconds later, Etsuko Sarutobi entered the lounge area, her face downcast and a long belt in her hands. Ichiro was sidetracked from his discomforting line of thought as he recognized the accessory.

"Hey…isn't that—?" he began to ask before Etsuko brushed by him with a small, confirming nod. She then knelt down next to Masaru, who was perplexed as he broke away from his father to face the assistant detective. He was not used to seeing the normally optimistic woman look so depressed.

"Etsuko…?" he asked, worry clearly written across his face. Etsuko swallowed and spoke gently.

"Masaru…she asked me to give this to you," she explained, handing the belt over with the note. Masaru received both curiously and unfolded the note as Etsuko stood back up. Hanpei walked over to her, placing his hand on her shoulder.

"Hey, Etsuko…you ok?" the detective asked meekly. Hanpei had a feeling he knew the answer, but half-expected Etsuko to reply with an energetic 'yep' as she usually did.

Instead, she just lightly placed her hand over his and leaned her head onto them as they rested on her shoulder. Hanpei sighed.

This was bad.


 

Yuuki wiped his nose as he leapt through the air, tracking down Aya as fast as he could. He clutched the bouquet in his hands tighter, not wanting any of the floral arrangement to drop onto the snow below.

"I'm glad the snow stopped falling—makes it easier to travel…but there's something unsettling about this…it's almost as if nature has stopped to observe something terrible," he observed solemnly.

Yuuki started chuckling.

"Hehe, Aya-chan is right, I'm such an idiot! I better speed up before her gift freezes and wilts!"

And he tore through the wind, happily humming to himself.


 

"Rieko-chan…are you sure this is a good idea?" Akira asked uncertainly, peering up from his spot in the trunk of Sidemachine. Rieko aimed a pout at him for his doubt, but reassured him with one of her sparkling smiles which Akira had privately named the 'uh oh' grin.

"Of course it will! Going by what you and Masaru said about Jiro-nii, he'll definitely go save her! And if she's being held somewhere, you can find out where and then BOOM! She's freed and you can all come back safely and things will work out! It's a good plan!"

Akira actually managed to look skeptical at her as she posed proudly.

"Ok, let's say this works—why did you make me get the guitar as well?" he said, gesturing to the repaired instrument next to him in the confined area. She giggled.

"Heroes need background music, don't they?" she winked. Akira could only stare in blank confusion.

Yes, girls were weird creatures indeed.

"I hope you're right, Rieko-chan…" he mumbled, curling up so that she could close the trunk. Akira gulped, dreading the ride that was sure to come.


 

Masaru held the note close to his face as he unfolded it, not wanting anyone else to see what the message read. It was a short letter…but he read every word with astute observation. It read:

 

 

'Saru-kun,

I want you to keep this just in case something goes wrong and you need to make an exit. I trust you remember how this thing works, but just in case: Twist; target; place; press and run

Sorry.

- Arai

The parchment began to quiver; Masaru's hand shook with rage, frustration and fear that he was about to lose another member of his cherished, declining family; he could take it no longer, and ran from the room, hot tears falling from his face.

There was a pregnant silence after he exited the room, until Den heaved a heavy sigh.

"…I don't know what to do anymore…I'm just an old fool making one mistake after another—even when I try to protect my family, they still end up suffering," he lamented quietly, eying the floor somberly. Mitsuko gave her father a sympathetic expression, walking to place her hands on his shoulders to comfort him.

"You know, you really piss me off," Ichiro said, absently rubbing his temple. Everyone aside from Rei gave him uncomfortable stares, which Ichiro challenged with his own glare.

"You're supposedly the genius that made me and my brothers, so why is this so beyond you? If you're so damned sorry about screwing up, why don't you do something to fix it instead of just wallowing in your own crap?" he sneered. The words finally struck a chord within the doctor, who grimaced in frustration.

"And what do you suggest I do? Everything I've tried has been in vain!" he retorted bitterly. Ichiro curled his lip and snorted.

"That's enough, Ichiro! Dr. Komyouji has had to struggle so much and you're—" Jiro started in Den's defense before he was interrupted by a serious look from his elder brother.

"Everyone's got their issues around here, apparently. I don't see anyone else pissing and moaning about it, so why can't the supposed genius doctor suck it up and make things work? Logically, he should be the first one to come up with that kind of solution, eh?"

"Not necessarily, Ichiro," came Rei's voice after a long period of hushed observation. Ichiro raised an intrigued eyebrow to his youngest brother.

"Oh? What's this from you, Rei? Aren't you the authority on logic? Tell me why this isn't rational, little brother," Ichiro asked, grinning haughtily. Rei returned a sly smile.

"Human actions aren't always guided by logic, therefore complications arise—" he began methodically. Ichiro looked self-satisfied.

"What'd I tell ya? Emotions mess up everything—" he stated before being interrupted in turn.

"—However, some circumstances are beyond control and it is the fault of no one. That is why humans have the vital ability to adapt to these chaotic conditions—those aided with sharp wit and determination are more likely to succeed than those without," Rei explained. Ichiro favored his youngest brother with a mirthful smirk.

"So basically it's like I've been saying the whole time: either do something or deal with what you got," he concluded, crossing his arms sternly at Dr. Komyouji.

"Amazingly enough; yes, you are correct," Rei confirmed. Ichiro allowed himself a split second of smug satisfaction before the mild insult registered.

"Hey…what's that supposed to mean? When did you get to be such a comedian, Rei? You almost sound like you've grown a p-per…person…personali—?" You could almost hear the gears turning in his head as the uncomfortable train of thought came right back on track.

"…Rei?" Ichiro questioned slowly. He received a furtive glance in return, to which Ichiro responded with a blank stare; If Rei was able to feel and express emotions as he had recently, however rarely…then there was a chance that…

He shook his head roughly and shuddered, not wanting to think of it. Ichiro rounded on the aging doctor once more with an irritated, expectant look on his face.

"Well?" he asked, tapping his foot impatiently. Den's gaze remained on his hands as though he were studying a chess match.

"I'm not sure—" Ichiro didn't even let him finish before he spun on his heels.

"That does it—I'm outta here," he said hurriedly, eager to leave the room. Ichiro snatched up Gunta's portfolio of Arai's photos, extracting one of the smaller versions of the image taken from her 16th birthday and tossed the envelope back. Turning to Rei, Ichiro tilted his head to gain his attention.

"Rei, what do you think she's up to?"

Rei closed his eyes, considering an explanation.

"I was watching her face the whole time, looking for something that might give away a clue as to her thoughts—admittedly, I was unable to deduce much…" he trailed off with a frown of disappointment; Rei couldn't quite figure out the logical pattern to Arai's actions, as they were fueled by emotions he did not fully understand.

"I thought her eyes looked strange…like she was without hope…but then, she also seemed to be relieved—,' Mieko offered, cutting off at the end when a horrifying thought occurred to her. Rei noted her observation and nodded as though it may have confirmed something he had theorized.

"I mostly paid attention to the last few minutes she was present here. When she was speaking with Mr. Momochi, I became confused momentarily by watching her: While she appeared to be consciously talking to him, her eyes were unfocused; implying the bulk of her attention was set on something else. If I take Mieko's observations into consideration, the only logical explanation I can surmise is that she is going to either try to destroy the enemy on her own, or lead them away from Dr. Komyouji and his family," Rei concluded. Hanpei frowned, uncomfortable with this theory.

"Where would she go though? I get the feeling she doesn't know where DARK's base is this time either—otherwise she probably would have tried to attack it once already. In which case, she'd be dead or marred beyond help. I didn't see any noticeable scars on her, how about you?" he asked, addressing the group that had been with her longest. Mitsuko and Jiro both shook their heads.

"Well, there was a small one on her side, just under her right…" Ichiro answered before he got the feeling that he'd said far too much. Etsuko was shaken out of her depression enough to give the outspoken android a scandalized look. The detective coughed, moving on quickly.

"Yeah, well, if it was small, it was probably received in a skirmish with the girl you mentioned with the cybernetic body. Arai can probably take on a couple of people at a time, but a big organization like DARK…? No, I can't see it happening, not even if she's armed," the detective concluded, moving the attention off the implication that Ichiro had seen more of the girl for whatever reasons that just did not compute.

Ichiro nodded in agreement, and then saw the detective giving him a cautionary expression. Ichiro looked around to find all eyes staring at him with confusion, suspicion (or amusement in Mieko's case).

"So uh…Rei, where do we find her?" Ichiro asked, hoping the evil, evil females would focus on someone else. Rei closed his eyes and lowered his head in contemplation.

"I am unable to make a suggestion at this point. We have no clue where she would go, what her intentions exactly are now, nor do we know the location of the enemy's base. I believe the children describe this situation as being 'up the creek without a paddle'," Rei added as an afterthought. Ichiro's irritation returned twofold.

"So we're screwed. Dammit…guess I'll just have to do it the hard way," he grumbled, heading for the door. Den halted him.

"Ichiro, wait! What do you intend—?" Den's question fell apart when Ichiro turned and gave a feral grin.

"I intend to drag her ass back here and I don't give a damn if you like it or not,' Ichiro answered, daring the old man to dissuade him. He turned his back on Den—then, after a few seconds, '…the brat seems to like her and I've already found out how evil kids can be when they're pissed off—I don't know about you, but I don't want to find out what this level of 'pissed off' is gonna result in," Ichiro added, combing his fingers through his hair unconsciously. Mieko raised an eyebrow before she drew a connection and realized what Ichiro was referring to. Her eyes sparkled mirthfully, but she covered her smile with her fingertips.

"So that's what happened to the honey," Fuuten chuckled as he came to the same conclusion, smiling after Ichiro's retreating back.
----------------------------------------

"Akira!" Rieko exclaimed, throwing up the lid of the trunk. Akira almost had a spasm of shock before he realized it was his friend.

"Rieko, what's wrong?" he asked, panic arising in his tone. She gulped and pushed him back down into the space.

"Listen, I can't find Masaru! You're going to have to travel on your own, ok?" she explained, giving his shoulders an encouraging squeeze. He almost blanched.

"…You're not coming?" he asked, barely above a whisper. She shook her head and looked apologetic.

"I won't be of any use there; I can't see what you can. At least if I'm here, I can come up with a cover story if they come looking for you. Don't be afraid, Akira! You've done this once before and I believe in you! You could save a life tonight!" Rieko smiled at him and the color returned to Akira's face.

'I can't live the rest of my life being afraid…I have friends now…I have people I want to protect, even if I am weak…' the young boy realized, nodding bravely back at Rieko. She looked surprised (if not pleased) at Akira's newfound resolve. Unused to her silence, Akira peered at his friend through his overlong hair.

"Rieko…?" he asked in confusion. She snapped out of it a second later, shaking her head.

"Eh? Oh, it's nothing! You only looked a little…different just then. Good luck, Akira," she whispered, placing a tiny kiss on his cheek and closing the trunk lid before he could register what had just happened. Akira made motions to rub his face, but felt oddly comforted.

Girls were just so incredibly, damnably weird…and Akira was grateful for Rieko.

...
-------------------------------------------------

As metal hit pseudo-flesh, the forest rang with dull clangs of the battle. After the last charge, both opponents leapt back to opposite ends of the clearing, breathing raggedly and looking worse for wear.

"You're better today…have you been holding back on me this whole time, Aya-chan?" Arai taunted, wiping the blood from a cut with a swipe of her gloved hand; Ayatsuri spat out a glob of crimson liquid, which landed and blossomed in the snow around them.

"I told you this would be the last battle. You won't keep up forever, for you are merely human," she sneered. Arai slung back her mass of wild hair, which had become unraveled during the fight.

"How many more variations of that are you going to come up with before you get tired of repeating yourself?" she snapped, rolling her eyes. Ayatsuri responded with another lunge, which was dodged. The emerald swung forward heavily, barely missing a collision with Arai's nose.

It was a miracle they could see each other at all, one could only wonder if they were able to detect the other just by aura. Arai attempted to sweep out her opponent's cybernetic legs from under her, but she recovered quickly before she could be toppled. The pendant made another heavy thump against Ayatsuri's sternum.

Arai caught the flicker of the jewel and squinted disbelievingly at it.

"What's with the cheap costume jewelry? Surely you didn't get dressed up for little old me, did you?" she taunted before a frightening realization dawned on her almost instantly. The moon was currently hidden behind the thick clouds overhead...

…But the jewel continued to glitter, growing brighter with every second in a rapid tempo.

It was almost a split second later when Ayatsuri took the opportunity and sprang forward, bracing her claws for another hit. Arai wasn't concerned about the razor-edged digits though.

"Oh shit, AYA—YOU'RE WEARING A BOMB!" she nearly shrieked, bringing her left fan up between them and severing the pendant from the chain just as the claws slit the surface of her lower right cheek and the portion of neck just beneath it.

The emerald went flying with a pulsating glow. Ayatsuri threw the girl behind her and dove after the jewel frantically. As the gem landed in her left hand…


 

Ichiro leaned into Doublemachine, avoiding wind resistance behind the windshield when he heard a dull thundering ring out, causing several birds to take off screaming invisibly to the night sky. He momentarily saw a flash of reddish orange before snow began to fall lightly, gradually subduing the light.

He stared forebodingly in the direction it came from and sped up. About fifteen minutes later, sure enough, he found the familiar red vehicle by the road and surveyed the damaged shrubbery path that led into the deep, tangled forest.

Turning off the motorcycle, he glared darkly into the pitch-black shrubbery.

"You'd better be alive, dammit," he muttered gravely, following the path of forest debris.


 

Gunta turned to Etsuko with deep interest as she took a seat beside him, nearly collapsing with exhaustion.

"What did she say…?" he asked quietly. She laid her head on the back of the sofa and closed her eyes.

"As for the note, I didn't read it out of respect, but I assumed it was just a note of apology to Masaru…but all she told me was to take care of my boss and she thanked me. She didn't say much of anything that could be considered helpful," she sighed, taking off her glasses and cleaning the lenses carefully. Fuuten stood across from them, frowning as he tried to predict her next course of action…unfortunately, at this point, too much had happened for him to get the situation completely straight. The old monk clicked his tongue in frustration and glanced at the detective to see if he'd had an epiphany while going through the long letter from the late Yuri.

"Anything relevant to our current situation in there, Hattori--Sir?" Gunta questioned hopefully. Hanpei did not answer immediately and refolded the letter, placing it back in the envelope.

"Not just yet," he groaned. Gunta sighed and returned his gaze to the floor. The detective held up the creased envelop to his face, inspecting it closer.

"Hey, Momochi, does the last name 'Shiro' ring a bell with you at all?" Hanpei suddenly posed the question to the weary man. Gunta looked up, slightly confused.

"The name sounds familiar…but I can't place where…why do you ask?"

Hanpei remained silent for a few more seconds before he turned the envelope over to the photographer.

"Because this letter is addressed from Yuri Shiro," he answered. Then, turning to Etsuko, he asked her a question as well.

"Etsuko, help me out a bit, can you think of anyone wealthy by the last name of Shiro?" In an instant, the exhausted expression disappeared from the assistant's face as she stroked her chin in thought. After a moment, she appeared to be perturbed.

"That name sounds familiar to me, like it's on the tip of my tongue. Maybe if I had access to a computer or something, I might be able to come up with more information…Shiro…"

Fuuten's eyes lit up and he stepped forward, pulling Etsuko up from her seat.

"There are a few in the children's activity room, feel free to use one. As adept as I am with robotics, I wasn't much for surfing the Internet, I'm afraid," he admitted, grinning. Etsuko brightened up and practically took off running for the play room.

"Hey, Etsuko! Wait up, will ya? Come on, let's follow; maybe we can think of a few more clues along the way," Hanpei said, gesturing the others to tag along. Den followed silently, still disturbed by the last hour of events. Rei and Mieko also followed without word, interested in finding out the result of this turn of events.

Jiro and Mitsuko were left to themselves in the now darkened room as Hanpei had flipped off the lights while exiting. Neither made a motion to turn the lights back on.

"Mitsuko, are you all right…?" Jiro asked quietly. Mitsuko sighed despondently, leaning into him.

"I don't know…on one hand, she reminds me of my…my mother; she didn't seem to care that she was using us…but at the same time, I wonder just how truthful she was being. When Arai left, it was as if all the fight went out of her…and it's not like her—especially if she wanted revenge these last couple of years. I keep replaying all the times she did help me in my mind, trying to figure out what was planned and what probably was not," she answered, burying her face closer into the android's neck. He gently lay his cheek on her head, hoping to comfort her.

"I'm sorry this happened to you…it seems I'm always going to bring you trouble in one way or another…but for what it's worth…I don't think she was using you completely," Jiro said softly, his voice gently lulling her into a serene calm. However, she caught his last few words and looked up in confusion.

"What makes you say that, Jiro?"

He looked down into her eyes as a serious expression formed on his face.

"Well…when I was still regaining my senses back at that time, her voice was the first thing I heard. I was confused because I was pretty sure I had not ever known her…but she was talking about you, so I paid close attention," he explained while surprise lit up in Mitsuko's warm eyes.

"…Me?"

Jiro gave her an apologetic frown, drawing her as closely as he could.

"Yes…she told me that even though I had gone through something really bad, that I shouldn't hide because I was hurting you…" he trailed off, nuzzling her hair with his nose. Mitsuko felt guilt rise up in her slightly and she pouted sadly.

"She told me you looked very…broken…that you couldn't stop crying; that you were so distraught from discovering my troubles, you became unable to carry on normal functions like eating, sleeping and dressing yourself," he continued. Mitsuko felt herself blush deep scarlet in the darkened room.

'I'm not sure appreciate that being told to him…' she mentally frowned. Jiro sensed her embarrassment, choosing to distract her as he placed a soft kiss on Mitsuko's cheek. Her face remained red, but for a different reason at least; Mitsuko favored her beloved with a gentle smile, which he took as a sign to continue.

"I thought it would be worse to see you in such pain, but it was just as painful hearing it—hearing that even though I was far away, I was still causing you to hurt...Mitsuko, I don't know what to do to keep you safe, but I don't want to go away knowing that you might suffer for it. Also...when I am here with you, I am happy. Even if it might put you, Masaru and Dr. Komyouji in danger…I am happy. Is that wrong?" he asked guiltily, shameful of his selfish impulses.

Mitsuko swallowed hard, shaking her head with a smile, feeling as though she were glowing. Jiro then lifted her chin with his forefinger.

"Mitsuko, are you really happy when I am here? Even if it means I might bring danger into our lives?" Jiro asked, eyes eager, almost dreading the answer. He didn't want her to spare his feelings, even if the answer could potentially break him on the inside. Jiro started to worry as her face seemed to hesitate and go blank; she appeared to be deciding something.

Mitsuko normally used words to get her meaning across; she was an intelligent, young woman with many years of schooling behind her after all.

However, for this particular moment, she felt actions spoke much more elegantly.

Jiro blinked wide when Mitsuko broke away after a moment to breathe, inhaling deeply as she smiled into his chest.

"…Thank you…," he answered softly, letting out the breath. After a moment passed in silence, Jiro made another observation.

"Arai didn't sound like she was trying to deceive anyone then…she didn't have to talk to me at all—"

"She certainly didn't need to tell you all that she did, how embarrassing!" Mitsuko interjected, eyebrow twitching slightly. Jiro found himself smiling at the reddish tint on her cheeks.

"So what do you want to do, Mitsuko…?" Jiro asked patiently, already sure of her answer. Mitsuko massaged her temple, trying to form a conclusion.

"I think…somewhere along the way…she forgot her plan and chose to act from her heart instead; Arai truly went above and beyond what was necessary for what she claimed she wanted…" Mitsuko admitted with a sigh. Jiro held her a little closer.

"So…?" Jiro coaxed playfully. Mitsuko chortled quietly.

"So we can't possibly leave such a confused girl out there to fend for herself." Jiro stood, pulling Mitsuko up with him.

"…The question is how do we find her…?" Mitsuko pondered aloud. Jiro let go of her and grabbed Mitsuko's coat, wrapping it around her and closing up the front.

"I think we should find Ichiro and help him look. He has a head start and he managed to find me before, so I think he should be able to locate her…besides, we can at least make sure he doesn't get an eighth warrant," he answered, leading her out the door towards the garage where Sidemachine was parked.


 

The smoldering pile of bark shuffled for a few seconds before Arai emerged from it, nearly passing out with pain. The explosion, aided by Ayatsuri's rag doll toss, managed to hurl her toward a rather thick tree, which was going to make a fairly large bruise across the middle of her back.

Arai crawled out from her landing spot, back towards the clearing to see what was left. Eventually she regained her footing and staggered towards her destination, looking to reclaim her fallen weapons.

Stepping on one of the silver devices, she was grateful that the contraption had snapped shut once it hit the ground. Gently, the messy plum curtain fell over her shoulders as she knelt to retrieve it. With some effort to regain her posture, she searched the ground for the other when she caught sight of something that froze her to the core.

"…Aya…?"

Silence.

"Ayatsuri?" she called again, slightly louder. Receiving no reply, Arai forgot her pain and began to run to the battered body of her cybernetic nemesis.

It was a gruesome sight to behold. The malevolent gem had scorched off the entirety of her left arm and a large portion of her body. Blood leaked from her body along with hydraulic fluid, pooling on the meadow floor. Arai's knees seemingly fell from beneath her, but she gently pulled Ayatsuri's decimated body towards her, her voice trembling.

"You…idiot…didn't you hear me? No…you didn't even need to hear me, those eyes of yours can detect explosives…there was no way…no way you could not have known that wasn't a bomb! So why? Why? All for some crappy piece of—"

"It was a gift…from…Shiro-sama…" Arai stared disbelievingly into her face as she smiled softly. Arai had never seen her look so…serene. It really pissed her off.

"Who gives a damn?! He gave you a bomb! He intended to kill you and you took it like some dumb ass puppet—" she was cut off from her verbal assault as Ayatsuri's remaining hand reached up and brushed something off of the infuriated girl's cheek.

"…I win."

Arai practically shook as she looked between Ayatsuri's seared, beaming face and her own teardrop settled on the mechanical fingers. It was insane…it was twisted! It was—

Arai smiled as cheerily as she could manage, spilling more tears from her eyes.

"Yeah…you won…"

Some of the lively spite returned to the silvery eyes, causing them to gleam although her wounds continued to leak blood into every crevice and groove built into her cybernetic body parts.

"Never forget…I kept my promise. I, Shizuku Sakamo-…"

The hand dropped, causing the resting droplet to shudder and slip from her fingers into the blood mixture beneath it.


 

...

Ichiro felt relief as he finally saw the forest open up into a fairly clear meadow…rather, what was left of it. There had been one hell of a fight that ended in an explosion, which managed to take out a few trees. Luckily, the light snowfall accompanied by the already fallen powder helped keep the flame from spreading much further.

As his feet finally made contact with grass, he looked down, calculating the force of the explosion. It wasn't a huge bomb, but enough to take out someone in close range.

Ichiro felt sudden urgency to find what he was looking for and quickly scanned the clearing for any sign of her, hoping for all he was worth that he wouldn't have to take back a lifeless body.

"If she survived this, I'm going to spend the next few days making sure she regrets—…what the…?" he muttered softly before breaking off as his eyes caught sight of an unusual silhouette about 30 feet away. He took careful steps towards the hidden figures until he could discern whom it was.

When the light was in his favor, he froze.

There, in the middle of the meadow, surrounded by flaming forest debris and bleeding from numerous wounds, sat Arai. But something was amiss; she was huddled over, cradling something protectively and convulsing slightly.

"…Fruit Loops?" he asked warily. The crouched figure did not respond, only attempted to straighten in order to stop the convulsions. Ichiro steeled away the anxious sensations that fought to constrict him at the scene, and tried again.

"…Arai?" he said, very quietly. Taking a step closer, he was surprised when she hunched back over whatever she was holding as though he were some scavenger come to steal from her. His brows knit in confusion and he bent down beside her in an attempt to see her face.

However, Arai refused to look at him. Growing irritated at her behavior, he placed a hand on each of her shoulders and pushed her back to see what—

"Oh geez…" he almost gasped, discovering the remains of what used to be a difficult foe. It was disturbing how the corpse smiled with a portion of the face missing…Ichiro was thankful that Ayatsuri's long, black hair covered the obviously missing portion to some degree.

Carefully, he extracted the rest of her body, most of it being machine, from Arai's unusually possessive grasp. When he finally managed to do so, he took a few moments and studied the body a little more, morbidly fascinated with the composition of what was once a living creature; it was awful, sickening and mesmerizing all at once. He turned away a moment later, but not after noting an odd logo of some sort engraved into the remaining wrist frame.

'…Who did this to her? Is it possible she allowed this to happen…to have her body replaced?' he thought while surveying the half-organic body, hiding his horror behind a mask of stern scrutiny. Ichiro took a steadying breath.

"Did you—?" he began to ask the shaken girl before him. The moon then broke out again from behind the clouds and for the first time, he saw something that he had missed before during his initial analysis.

One look and the answer was clear that this was not her doing; the moonlit tear streaks spilling from her traumatized eyes confirmed as much.

In that moment, two revelations came to Ichiro, both of which he accepted gravely.

"…I suppose…you really are human then…" Ichiro uttered quietly, wincing at his own words, which brought up the second realization that made him swallow heavily. Ichiro chanced to open one eye and found that Arai had shakily gathered up her knees, hiding her face; she began to rock back and forth.

Ichiro exhaled, stood and stared up at the moon soberly before closing his eyes in resignation...

Arai then felt herself being lifted into a standing position, which she weakly tried to support with her numb legs. Two arms encircled her protectively; gentle enough to avoid causing more pain to her back. Arai froze within the embrace, but Ichiro held her firmly.

The other revelation was that he did have a Gemini circuit; and it was working.

"We can bury her if you like. Then, we go home…" he whispered quietly into her ear. Ichiro could hear her stifling a sob at the sound of his voice, and he momentarily wondered if she was afraid to return. She became stiff and silent; Ichiro moved an arm up closer to her shoulders and held her a little tighter to his front so that he could at least check to see if her heart was still beating, then continued with his offer.

"…But we'll do that later…for now, just...' he forced an odd sensation in his throat down with another swallow, '…take your time…"

Without realizing he had held it in, Ichiro let out a silent breath of relief when he felt her body go lax against him. A few seconds passed before he realized hot tears were seeping through his clothing as she weakly held onto him.

Chapter Text

...

"Shiro, Toshiaki: Well-known businessman best known for his contribution to the advancement of medical prosthetic appendages. Status: widower…it doesn't say whom he was married to…Boss, what do you think?" Etsuko asked as she finished reading off the seemingly brief description. Hanpei carefully leaned over her shoulder, getting a good look at the head shot of the shrewd-looking man.

"Hm…prosthetics, huh? I wonder what I could find out if I hit a few of my hotspots for information…Ahh, but I don't think we have time for it—there's no telling how far ahead of us she is," he said, removing his glasses to clean the lenses with the end of his coat. He frowned at the smudge on the glass, but resignedly shoved them back on.

Fuuten stroked his chin pensively, voicing the connection that automatically formed in his mind.

"Prosthetics is an easy cover for cybernetic experimentation, I'd imagine. I've got a feeling we've found our link, but unfortunately, I know not how to be certain," he said, brows furrowing in discontent. Den let his guilt subside as he tried to remember anything pertinent.

"This man…I think I remember hearing of him a few years ago. Apparently he was trying to expand his prosthetic inventions from medical purposes to military enhancement. However, the military found the idea of testing out such theoretical technology on perfectly able soldiers ludicrous and shot down the outlines immediately—what's more, I believe they placed a ban on any further developments as there was no way for him to legally implement his ideas on human subjects… at least, I believe this is the same man. I recall his name being scoffed at during the last Robotics seminar I attended, but that was quite some time ago…" admitted the old doctor, wishing he could be more certain of himself. Hanpei nodded, looking back at the screen.

"Don't worry yourself too much about it, Doc. That's probably some of the most helpful information we've found yet. It fits in with my theory…just because the military says 'no more' doesn't necessarily mean he's gonna stop. He's got more than enough money and power, so I doubt it'd be too hard for him to continue his plans," the detective assessed, scanning the web page for any missed details.

"Rei…Ichiro told you that the girl looked to be around Arai's age…do you suppose…?" Mieko whispered to her companion, making a grim speculation that hardened the edges of her eyes. Rei tilted his head toward her.

"…That this man may have found that child and manipulated her into being a test subject?" he finished, watching Mieko's face solemnly.

"Since we know nothing of that other girl's past, it's hard to say…but since I doubt it was pleasant and she is unlikely to have any positive guidance…it's a definite possibility that you are right," he concluded, eyes narrowing at the idea. Even to him, the thought of having perfectly good appendages amputated and replaced with machinery willingly was disturbing. There were just far too many complications that could arise from such untested technology.

It seemed inconvenient as well, for if the cybernetic implants were damaged, the repairs could be harmful to the rest of the human body and vice versa. He shook his head, only looking up when Gunta made his way toward the computer screen with fixed interest.

"Etsuko-san…could you please scroll to the image again?" his voice nearly cracked with dehydration, throat tightening with anxiety. She looked confused, but nodded and scrolled to the image, clicking it to enlarge the photo.

He nearly passed out when the pixels came into focus.

"It's him!" he exclaimed with a tone caught somewhere between horror and triumph.

Immediately, every eye was on him.

"I remember that twisted face! This man, he was from that night I took the photos! He brought along a young girl with him, telling his partners that she was his most successful experiment yet—a living weapon. This man…he's delusional! She sliced a bull in half with one swipe…and he watched her with such greedy, proud eyes…and then he gloated about having another possible candidate on the way with a little more persuasion," Gunta said rapidly at first, slowing down and extracting the words from his mouth as if they were making him ill to recall.

Etsuko blinked back her horror before turning back to the screen, scrolling down for more information. Her eyes narrowed in on something in fine print at the bottom.

"Boss, his main building is about three cities over, do you think it's worth checking out?"

"Etsuko, you read my mind. It's possible…that the kid figured out something while she was talking with us. You said that she looked unfocused for a bit, right?" Hanpei questioned, turning towards Rei, Mieko and Gunta. They nodded in confirmation.

"Well, if Rei's right, and she was planning something…she might have drawn the connection of the surname like we did, figured what we know now and is waiting for Shiro to show up at his main building so she can do something drastic--we can't let that happen, or she'll look like a murderer! We gotta get her back until some proof can surface! Gunta, you said her dad asked for all the evidence you gathered, right?"

He received another nod from the grim-faced photographer.

"He musta known that something serious was going down…and he told his kid to run, tossing her weapons…what are the chances he hid the evidence on her somehow?"

"Huh? Boss, how do you figure that? Don't you think she would have mentioned that if she had it?" Etsuko questioned, unsure of the theory. Hanpei grinned, winking back at her.

"How much you wanna bet she doesn't know? Best way to fool your enemies is to fool your friends!"

Den was struck by the notion as he delved further into his memories. With a fresh pang of guilt, Den pulled the face of his younger brother to mind; not the frustrated anger that had dominated their last face-to-face encounter, but as Den always remembered him: a childish, boisterous smile and impish eyes set in a rugged, scruffy face. With a wry smile, Den could even hear the equally rough voice he grew up with.

'That was good, Den--took me ages! But watch out, because it's my turn now and you'll never see it coming!'

Then it hit him. Chuckling to himself, Den had to agree--he certainly didn't see this coming.

"…The game…,' he murmured; the others turned to him for elaboration, "—when we were younger, my brother and I, we used to love hiding each other's belongings in the last place anyone would look! We got that habit from our mother during birthdays, but we made a sport out of it. As I recall before our falling out, I had one up on him, but Ryo always had to have the last word…and he did tell my niece to come to me when it was safe...,' Den mused to himself, rationalizing the idea a few more seconds before he looked up, '…Hanpei, you are undoubtedly right! He probably wanted to send her to me so that I could find the hidden evidence!" He concluded excitedly as the pieces fell into place.

Fuuten grinned, shaking his head at the childish antics of his former students while noting the cleverness of it all.

'My my, I must be getting old—all those times my lecture notes were missing; the conspiratorial glances…how could I forget?' the old monk reminisced fondly.

"Rei, Mieko; I'm sorry to ask for more, but will you keep watch over the orphanage while we go to retrieve the girl? The other volunteers will be returning home shortly, and I would hate to leave the children unattended," he asked, knowing they would grant his request.


 

Within two minutes, the androids were left alone in the room. Mieko was uneasy.

"What if she isn't there…? What if they are wrong and she has been caught?" she fretted as they walked down the hallway.

"Mm, I understand your worry; so far it has been difficult to predict the actions of these humans…while they came up with a good theory, I don't doubt the girl could be elsewhere and captured as you, Ichiro and young Masaru suggested earlier," Rei responded, his voice empathetic. Mieko pursed her lips, but was grateful for the subtle support…they walked along a few more moments in silence when-

"What are you two so wound up about?" came the jesting, kindly voice of one of the elderly volunteers at the orphanage—Ms. Mizunoe. She was always the last to leave and first to arrive, and had often made light teasing remarks over the last few weeks whenever Rei was seen with Mieko—which was often. Mieko rubbed her temple, irritated.

"Please, not now, Ma'am," she said abruptly. The old woman took no offense and smiled sweetly.

"I only asked what was bothering you two, you both look so serious. You're young; you should be smiling; goofing off; getting caught with your—"

"Granny…" Mieko cut her off with a warning tone that she often used on the children. The older woman pouted—sometimes, Mieko thought, she was just as bad as the children.

"Well, come on then! If you want me to stop teasing, start telling what's the matter. I'm not quite that senile yet. Now spill: where have all the other young blood gone?" she interrogated as well as any practiced matriarch could.



...

They sat silently after they finished burying the fallen assassin. Ichiro mulled over recent events in his mind, trying to clue into detail. After the third run-through, he still understood the situation no better than before—but he said nothing and instead watched Arai as she knelt in front of the makeshift grave like a statue.

Ichiro winced uncomfortably.

Initially, when he had started out searching for Arai, he'd been angry and intent on telling her off as he had done with Den. However…with the recent turn of events, he found he could do nothing that made sense. Even his body seemed to be acting of its own volition; embracing Arai when he did was never a conscious decision for Ichiro, but rather an instinct he couldn't remember developing.

His first thought was to blame Rei; he'd seen Rei do the same to a little girl almost a week ago when she tripped and scraped her knee. How did Rei know to do it though? Why? So many questions, not nearly enough answers…Ichiro briefly considered slamming his head into a nearby rock.

He looked at her again…the drops that had soaked into his clothes were almost dry and she had stopped shedding them a few moments ago. Ichiro grew even more confused—

'That can't be all—don't humans cry more than that? The children sure do, but I can't accurately compare her to the younger midgets—Mitsuko cried for hours, so adults aren't immune to it…'

The android stood up and dusted off the back of his pants as he walked toward the grave, kneeling a few feet ahead of Arai. She did not even acknowledge his presence as he passed her.

"You know, this could have been you tonight," he said darkly, not turning to her. No response.

"Do you have any idea how much Masaru would wail if I brought back your dead body?! Or how upset Mitsuko would get? Or how shitty the rest of us would feel? What's with you?! You've never taken orders so easily before, so why start now? The old man...he wasn't thinking straight anyway. Nobody really blames you for all this…" Ichiro ranted, gradually losing steam; eventually he turned around in hopes of a response; an insult—anything. Continuing silence was all he received as Arai bowed her head quietly. His irritation flared once more as he crossed his arms and turned back to the grave.

"Listen, I'm sorry you had to see this girl destroy herself, but you are coming home! We can deal with the bastard later, but first we regroup and clean you up—you're not going in alone. I mean it," he warned stubbornly as he stood up. Ichiro began to feel anxious when he continued to hear nothing—was it possible to die sitting up? Just as he turned back to find out, an arm slid around his torso; Ichiro felt warmth on his back.

"Gyaah—…Fruit Loops…?" he asked weakly, startled. The impulsive android was expecting a more volatile response for being ordered around—certainly not this.

"…Thank you—"

As several thousand volts tore through him, Ichiro's sensors went haywire and he didn't even realize that his knees had fallen from beneath him. Just before he passed out, he recognized the feeling that someone was supporting his head to keep it from colliding with the woodland floor.

"—Sorry…but I really can't afford any more losses," Arai gently whispered into Ichiro's ear before he was submerged into complete darkness.

Arai took great care in transporting Ichiro's unconscious body back to his own motorbike, covering him with her borrowed coat; Her skin was still hot, and she knew she wouldn't need it much longer anyway. With one backward glance, she drove off toward the city with the building that shared the same logo as was imprinted on Ayatsuri's wrist.

No one saw the silent figure leave the large bouquet on the crude grave before he followed after the 'victor' of the showdown.


 

Mitsuko shrunk into the sidecar as far as she could. Though Jiro had found her thickest coat and she'd bundled up nicely, there was still nothing preventing the wind from attacking her eyes, causing tears to leak out involuntarily. Worse still were her fingers; she could barely feel them any longer and it was almost excruciatingly painful to move the parts that weren't numb.

It was fortunate that Jiro noticed her condition and pulled over to the side of the road.

"I'm sorry, Mitsuko, I forgot. I didn't mean to be so careless…" he lowered his eyes apologetically. Mitsuko forced a smile through her chattering teeth.

"Jiro, don't be silly, I should have thought of this beforehand, but there's no point in stopping now—Jiro?" She broke off when he knelt beside the sidecar.

He found her hands and fitted his gloves onto them, rubbing her left hand between his, just hoping that the friction of the material would bring her some heat.

Apparently it was quite effective, Jiro noticed, for when he looked back up at her face, she was a rather vivid shade of red.

"…Is that better?" he asked curiously. She paused for a moment, looking completely bewildered before she beamed up at him.

"Much," she answered, trying to stifle her sudden euphoria. Jiro was amazed at how well this method actually worked, but smiled in relief and got back on his vehicle.

'I wonder how that must have looked just now—I feel so childish! It's not as though he were fitting a ring on my finger exactly, but…' she subdued another grin, allowing herself to indulge in the girlish fancy for a moment.

As they continued forward, a sudden realization struck her while she was folding her hands in her lap.

'…Jiro's hands…they are…warm?'

"I see something!" Jiro announced, shaking Mitsuko out of her reverie. They slowed when the jumping figure came into view.

"Masaru!" Mitsuko yelled, jumping out of her passenger seat and running to her brother.

"Masaru, what are you doing here?" Jiro asked, wondering why his brother allowed Masaru along without telling Dr. Komyouji at least. He would have to remind himself later to tell Ichiro not to do this again; Jiro knew the chances of him listening were probably slim to none, but felt Ichiro should be told nonetheless.

"Never mind that! Ichiro's knocked out! And I found this too!" he shivered, handing his discovery over to Mitsuko. She swallowed hard, turning the device over in her hand, rubbing her gloved thumb over a small engraving in the handle…

It was Arai's second fan; the tassel danced as a frigid breeze floated around them. Mitsuko looked towards Jiro as he tried to revive Ichiro, moving to help him.

"Ichiro? Brother, what happened? Wake up!" Jiro nudged him urgently.

"Ichiro, are you all right? Please, wake up! Tell us what happened to you! Did you find Arai?" Mitsuko joined in, taking hold of Ichiro's head so it didn't flop about as Jiro tried to shake him awake. There was still no response and the pair grew worried. Suddenly, Masaru pushed them both aside.

"Lemme try something… ICHIRO, ARAI STOLE DOUBLEMACHINE AND BIRDS CRAPPED IN YOUR HAIR!"

There was an immediate movement and Mitsuko barely missed being cuffed on the side of the head.

"SHE DID WHAT?" yelled the panicked android, clutching his hair while looking around for his beloved machine. When he found it parked safely under him, he glared at Masaru.

"…Not funny, brat! How'd you even get here?" he growled, gradually removing his fingers from his hair. Masaru clicked his tongue once and waved him off.

"That's not important, what happened?" Masaru shot back impatiently. Ichiro was about to lay into the kid some more, but his memories caught up with him, prompting him to put his priorities in place.

"Oh… that's right…dammit," he muttered, letting out a deep, irritated sigh. Jiro leaned in closely, anxious to hear as Mitsuko was.


 

Dark, narrowed eyes surveyed the structure with close scrutiny from the shadows. The lights of the city were so vibrant and luminous that the light snowfall turned into a mere drizzle. Droplets hung off the ends of messy, dampened maroon tips, rinsing a little of the blood away as it fell and rolled down the girl's face.

"One way or another…this will be over by tomorrow," Arai declared, gripping her razor-edged weapon tightly. She chanced to step out from the darkness, looking at the top of the building and confirming it to have the same insignia as Ayatsuri was branded with. As though she were finally feeling the burden of all that had transpired within the last few years, she shut her eyes tightly; She felt so tired. Bitterly, she managed a wistful smile.

"…I'm sorry…" Arai whispered aloud.

-FWIT!-

--there was a soft sound of flesh being pierced.

"You should be," Karakuri hissed spitefully into her ear, leaning in to hide the wound he had made in the girl's right shoulder blade. As he had predicted, the pain was too great for her to even scream. Instead, she involuntarily fell back into his arms, seething venomously at him.

The irony was that, had there been any passersby just out of earshot, they could have passed as a young couple meeting in the night.

"I…thought…you cared…for her—AGH!" she spat before reaching her threshold of pain and passing out. Once she lost consciousness, he stopped twisting his own synthetic claws and extracted them, catching up her knees with the other arm.

The assassin stared grimly at her unconscious, briefly peaceful face—he seemed to be contemplating something; after a moment's hesitation, Yuuki tore away the midriff of her soaked shirt.

"…More than you know…In any case, we find out how lucky you are tonight."

...


 

"Ikeda! Good to see ya, kid!" exclaimed Hanpei good-naturedly. The young officer rubbed his nose and quickened his pace to meet with his friend as planned.

"Mr. Hattori, Miss Etsuko—it's good to see you both…but why did you call me out this late at night? Who are these others? I hope it's something important!" he replied, tugging his coat closer around him.

"Of course it is! I need your help! Introductions come later though, for now," The young policeman fixed the experienced detective with a skeptical eye.

"Very well…what's up?" Ikeda watched as Etsuko extracted something from a manila envelope that a long haired, sorrowful-looking man held protectively. Den moved his umbrella over Gunta and the photos as an extra precaution, which the anxious photographer appreciated greatly.

"Ikeda, have you seen this girl recently?" Etsuko said apologetically as Ikeda gave her a bewildered expression. Nevertheless, he obliged the woman by looking at the picture. His eyes jumped in recognition.

"Yeah…this is Arai Komyouji! I met her not too long ago with another young lady—they said they were looking for someone too, oddly enough. What's going on?"

Fuuten lifted his large hat that shielded him from the rain to meet the young man's eyes.

"I take it you have not seen her since then?" he asked, business-like in manner. Ikeda shook his head. Fuuten then stroked his chin.

"I see…well then, can you direct us to Shin-Pro's main building? We must hurry, I'm afraid. Our young friend may be in great danger—"

"Danger?"

That was all rookie Officer Ikeda needed to hear before he set off running toward the street corner. Everyone but the monk scrambled into Hanpei's car.

"It's 4 blocks down, then turn left and continue for 5 blocks! Look for the corporate logo on the top; it's hard to miss! I'll meet you there in fifteen minutes with back-up!"

"No, Ikeda, not yet! Just get there first before you call anyone in—more people might complicate the situation!" Etsuko warned before the detective rounded the corner and sped off towards the destination.

Had he not been a friend to a few members of the city's force, Hanpei surely would have been pulled over. Ikeda then turned to lead the monk with him through the shortcuts…only to find him not there. Scratching his head in confusion for a few seconds, he shook it off and headed for the alleys.

...


 

"What do you mean 'that's it'? Don't you have any idea where she went? Come on, Ichiro! I thought you said Dad fixed your head—think!" Masaru frantically exclaimed, hopping about the irritated android and poking him in the head dangerously. Ichiro's eyebrow twitched before he finally grabbed Masaru's hand and whirled him around until he was sitting still in his lap on the snow-covered asphalt. The young boy continued to squirm.

"Shaddup, will ya? I'm trying to think, but all that chirping is distracting!" he warned, letting go of the squirming boy.

"This is terrible… Mieko and Rei were right—she is going after those people by herself. Now the question is where would they be?" Mitsuko pondered, her eyes glowing darkly in the twilight. Jiro had kept pensively quiet.

"We may not have much of a problem there if we just follow these tracks…unless we get to a section of road that doesn't have snow. It's the best chance we have, so we should start moving," Jiro calmly surmised, extending an arm to help Ichiro off the ground. Ichiro nodded in return and got on Doublemachine just as Masaru hopped in the sidecar. He momentarily considered throwing him back out… but knew he wouldn't be allowed to do that so long as Mitsuko was present. Ichiro looked to the road ahead, grimacing.

'I told you, you are NOT going into this alone! You'd just better not be dead before I get there!'

Ichiro threw his jacket over Masaru, confusing the boy.

"I don't have a windshield, so you'll have to make do," he said, starting the engine and leading the group along the tracks.


 

"Ohh? What's this, nephew? You've found a replacement for Aya so soon? There might be hope for you as a man yet," joked the snide character as he cupped a hand under the unconscious girl's chin.

"Hm…' Shiro observed with slight dissatisfaction, 'she could do with a bit of cleaning up." He extracted a handkerchief from his suit pocket and tossed it haphazardly to his nephew, who caught it by extending his free arm so that the cloth caught onto the lengthened digits. Yuuki then wiped the blood from Arai's face and neck so that it no longer soaked into her torn, fully saturated shirt.

"I found her outside your main office building in the city. It seems she intended to—" Yuuki began his report before he was halted by a gesture.

"I can guess very well what her intentions were. Indeed, she is the daughter of my dear, departed wife…now one can only wonder what it was that finally prompted her to come here,' he said with a cruel smile on his lips. Yuuki remained stern, but his eyes momentarily flashed, unknown to his uncle who kept his back turned.

"I found her alone—it seems she must have had a falling out with her allies. What do you want me to do with her, Uncle?" Slowly, Toshiaki Shiro turned, maximizing the dramatic effect of the moonlit silhouette.

"Bind her over there. I daresay I've a few things to discuss with our lovely guest…"


 

Mitsuko began to grow disheartened as the group approached the bright lights. The snow tracks had long since disappeared once they entered the borders of the vibrant city. However, for Masaru's sake, she would not lose face. Ichiro, too, seemed unusually determined in his search, for he had not ranted once about the trail disappearing. Jiro stared up at the lights every now and then, hoping perhaps he might find a red motorcycle parked by the road or--

"That sign! I've seen it! It was on the freak girl's arm! Head there!" Ichiro yelled abruptly, speeding up towards the chosen location.

"Brother! Slow down! We don't need to draw any more attention to ourselves!" Jiro called after him, speeding up to as much as the legal limit would allow. He really was hoping they could avoid Ichiro attaining yet another warrant.


 

Hanpei rubbed his temple soothingly, fingering the damp cloth gently. Etsuko had been studying the bloodstained parchment that came with it, intensely scrutinizing it with the young officer.

"Well, we were right in guessing she might come here, but…" Hanpei sighed heavily. Den grimaced, his grip on the umbrella trembling. Having long since stored the photos in the glove compartment of Hanpei's car, Gunta had begun pacing about the closed building, looking for any sign of the girl. Just as he reached the corner leading into the alleyway for the fourth time, he finally noticed something that he was ashamed to have not seen before.

"Dr. Komyouji! Come here, help me!" the photographer called out suddenly, his rather long hair dripping from the cold rain. Den hurried over, closing his umbrella just as Ikeda looked up curiously from the vague note.

"What is it? Is she—?"

"Just come!" Gunta exclaimed, disappearing into the alley briefly. Den and Ikeda followed him. A few moments later, they re-emerged, pushing and steering the familiar crimson vehicle.

"Hmm… this does not bode well," Fuuten mused from behind the Etsuko, thoroughly startling her.

"Kyahh! Don't do that, I didn't even realize you were there, Fuuten!" she scolded, patting her throat as if to coax her heart back down to its normal place in her ribcage. He gave an apologetic bow before quietly taking the note from her.

"It doesn't say whether or not she's alive, but this map leads to a definite trap…what do we do?" she said, explaining her findings in hopes the monk would be able to come up with a solution.

Fuuten observed the note grimly, though hiding his worry from the young woman. The last thing needed in an emergency situation is panic—this he knew well. Unfortunately, as he looked between the men surrounding the motorcycle, the letter and Etsuko's pleading expression, he found that forming a plan at that moment was quite difficult. Fortunately, Officer Ikeda was trained for such a situation.

"I will take the note and make a copy so that we each have our own map. I'll take this bloodstained original to the department and get a force over there as soon as possible!"

Fuuten smirked—Yes, while it was true that they could not prove yet that Shiro was involved with an underground society, a bloody note containing the location of a missing person would certainly result in an investigation. While the others murmured their approval of the plan and felt uplifted, the old monk took the opportunity to slip away and make a quick call...


 

"Whoa, whoa, whoa! What's going on here?" Ichiro called loudly as he turned the corner; Jiro and Mitsuko following closely. As they rolled closer to the scene, Mitsuko saw her father, the photographer and the detectives gathered around another familiar motorcycle discussing something amongst themselves. At Ichiro's call, Den looked up in surprise and turned towards them.

"Masaru, what are you—?" Den started before Masaru threw up his hands in exasperation.

"Never mind that; is Arai here?" he interrupted, looking eagerly between the other adults. Hanpei chuckled and nodded at the child.

"Yeah, we know where she is, kid…problem is, this is a most likely a trap," he finished, frowning as he explained. Masaru gulped, but kept his composure.

"What do you mean, Mr. Hattori?" Jiro asked calmly, getting off of Sidemachine. Mitsuko held the fan tightly before slipping it into her coat pocket. She did not make motions to get out, knowing they were going to be off again shortly.

"It seems she did show up here, but someone got the drop on her and took her someplace else just outside of town—well hidden from the general public, I might add," the detective replied apprehensively.

"Keh...dammit. I bet it was that other freak that got her, I told her—!" Ichiro started, until they heard footsteps running towards the group.

"...Who the hell are you?" Ichiro glared at the approaching young officer as he handed back the parchment to Etsuko.

"Officer Ikeda!" Mitsuko exclaimed in surprise. He looked up to find who had addressed him, saw Mitsuko and nodded with a quick smile.

"No time…hurry on ahead…I'll get a force assembled quickly and follow! Just go!" Ikeda commanded, spinning on his heel and running back towards the local police department as he gained his second wind…but not before hesitating as he looked at Ichiro, almost certain he'd seen his description somewhere else recently…

Etsuko nearly shrieked as Ichiro swiped the paper from her hands as he drove past her on Doublemachine. Doing a sudden 180-degree spin, he memorized the information on the map and revved the engine.

"Come on, bro! We don't have much time!" he yelled at Jiro as he blazed past the group towards the final location. Masaru had yelped once, but situated himself firmly in the sidecar, glad for once that Ichiro was so impulsive—it did not leave anyone time to demand that he stay behind or be sent back to the orphanage.


 

A throbbing sensation pulsed through Arai's head as she stirred into the conscious world.

"Oh! You've awakened," a silky voice observed coolly. Blinking the spots out of her eyes, Arai looked up to see who had spoken. With dark realization, she found herself suspended from the ceiling, and her heels bound to the wall by shackles. Shaking the matted burgundy strands from her eyes, Arai began to growl before she felt the pain caused by the vibrations.

"You'll have to forgive me, I'm going to be late for an important meeting with my…associates—"

"Who the hell are you?" she spat, interrupting Shiro as he adjusted his cuffs. He paused, raising one thin eyebrow at her.

"You mean you do not know? Heavens, and here I thought you had cleverly figured it out and came for revenge for your dear mother…well, perhaps your father, really," he replied with a cold smile.

"My…mother?"

The truth struck her all at once, and Arai felt all the air leave her lungs.

"Indeed. Toshiaki Shiro, pitiable widower of the dearly departed Yuri Shiro, at your service," he taunted, his thin smile growing as he emphasized the 'widower' part.

'Shin-pro, Shiro prosthetics…Shiro…Shiro Yuri! The letter—oh God! Mother!'

Her aching head swam dangerously as the full picture came into view.

"You…you were the one that made Aya into an assassin…you were the one that Gunta-jichan saw that night…you sent Aya after my father." The words spilled from her mouth as soon as she thought of them.

"Why, yes, I am. Better late than never, I suppose, eh? Sadly, Ayatsuri couldn't manage to finish you off even with all of her upgrades. Though perhaps, maybe it is a testament to your own skills?" Shiro smirked cruelly, advancing on the restrained girl. He stroked her throat before capturing her jaw, forcing it up for inspection. Brown eyes fell into grey; Arai continued.

"…You were the one who married my mother…and you killed her when you found out she had received the wrong pictures."

About halfway through, her eyes discarded the empty expression and filled abruptly with intense rage. The twisted man continued to smirk, narrowing his eyes in an appraising sneer.

"Hmm…such a pity. Had I thought things out further and you not been so stubborn, I could have simply had you fill the role of my wife once you became of age. I'd have been spared the cost of a funeral and quieting the media for a pair of colored contacts," he observed cruelly while continuing to trace the incisions on the right side of Arai's face and neck. However, his taunting came to a sudden halt when she spat in his face.

"What makes you think I'd ever have agreed to it, you sick bastard?" she snarled, fully intent on tearing out the man's throat, though her arms were restrained above her. He glared coldly before retrieving his handkerchief once more to wipe himself off.

"I'm considered to be quite…persuasive…" he whispered silkily. Then he struck her with a surprising amount of strength for his wispy build; her body swung heavily, as the chain jerked sharply and dug into Arai's wrists.

-BOOM-

The building shuddered dangerously down below. Shiro rolled his eyes and extracted a remote from his pocket, activating a code to reveal a wall of surveillance monitors.

"Ah, it appears there are more guests…' he said flatly. He then turned to another corner of the dark office, 'Yuuki, if you think you can handle it, watch the girl while I go greet our other visitors...I've always wanted to prove that I have bested Professor Gil by destroying these Kikaider models that plagued him so…after that, I'm taking my new blueprints and subjects to the meeting. Make sure they are ready for the trip, and do gag them, please. I absolutely loathe whimpering…," Shiro ordered, speaking as though the last part left a sour taste in his mouth. He then returned his gaze back to Arai as she steadied her vision from the last blow.

"As for you, my dear…" he leaned in close, mocking her with a smug grin, 'I shall take care of business with the rest of your family, then we'll talk…I may have a proposition for you: I'm in need of a replacement angel; I had to let go of my last one as she was costing me too much on repairs--"

He backed up suddenly as she lunged forward, growling; part of the ceiling plaster crumbled onto the floor.

"Yuuki-kun, deal with her for now, I've got a toy to test out," he commanded, smoothing his hair and walking out to the elevator.


 

"Oh, I've missed this!" Kikaider 01 said, grinning proudly at the huge chasm made in the well-concealed tower, via Doublemachine's auto-rocket launchers. Masaru laughed impishly and called out to Ichiro, tossing the silver trumpet to him.

"Found that in the trunk—now charge!" Masaru cheered, gathering up the belt of explosives left to him by his cousin.

"Masaru, you must stay behind for your father! Wait for them to come so no one gets hurt!" Jiro urged just before transforming for possible battle.

"But—? Why is Mitsuko—?" sputtered the young boy indignantly. Mitsuko knelt down and hugged Masaru close.

"Masaru, please…I owe her…now wait for father and the others to arrive," she pleaded gently before grabbing the fan again, following Kikaider into the wreckage.

"Do you even know how to use that thing?" Masaru protested further, pouting.

"Just do as she says! Don't worry, I'll get her back," called 01 over his shoulder before playing a boisterous melody to announce his arrival. He then tossed the trumpet back over his shoulder to the boy.

Masaru caught it and pouted angrily, leaning against the yellow panel of Jiro's Sidemachine.

-Thump-

Masaru raised an eyebrow. The thump came again and he backed away momentarily before opening the trunk.

"Akira?"

The smaller of the two boys rubbed his head a few times before wobbling out of the trunk space.

"I don't recommend this mode of travel," he replied meekly. Masaru, forgetting his previous slight, grinned and patted his friend on the shoulder.

"Haha, you should try it when it's Ichiro driving!"

Both boys snickered before Masaru broke off first.

"Oi, Akira—why are you here?" questioned Masaru suddenly. Akira quieted his laughter and looked up at him with a serious look on his face.

"Rieko says I can help; you see…my father, he…when he performed all those experiments on me…I got this weird ability to see through machines…Rieko thinks it's because I was supposed to be part of a machine," he admitted timidly, the memory still causing him to pale. Masaru swallowed hard, acknowledging the difficulty his younger friend had faced; he gently squeezed Akira's shoulder in a comforting manner.

"Akira…" he began, not knowing how to finish. Akira shook his head.

"It's ok, really. But since I can see through that building, I can probably find where your cousin is, and then we can find some way to get her out…at least, I think it's an ok plan, I don't know if…" he stammered under Masaru's perplexed gaze.

"Akira…when did you get to be so bold?" he suddenly grinned. Akira's eyes widened before he began poking his fingers together absently.

"...I guess it's the company I keep," he admitted quietly. Masaru grinned proudly, grabbing Akira's arm and heading towards the building.

"Ok, for starters: are my sister and brothers still in there?" he whispered. Akira raised an eyebrow at the sudden timidity from the elder boy, but checked anyway.

"Yes…I see them. There are 3…no, 4! 4 robots surrounding them, Ichiro and Jiro are guarding your sister, and she seems to be looking for something. I can also see some people with guns aimed at them. This is no good, we can't go in there, or we'll be shot!" he evaluated.

"Dammit!" cursed the ten-year old, kicking at the cliff side that hid part of the tower-like building in frustration. Akira grew sad, watching the rocks hit the wall of the cliff.

Then he gasped.

"Masaru! This rock wall—it's not real…there are people inside! Other kids!"

"What?" exclaimed the other boy, leaning his ear to the rough wall in hopes of hearing something; he could hear muffled weeping.

"What are kids doing here?" Masaru whispered to his partner, oblivious to the irony in his query. Akira unconsciously gulped, but could offer no answer. Masaru looked down at his feet for a moment, then began to chuckle.

"…Ma…saru…?" Akira whispered nervously, failing to see the humor of the situation. He received the most terrifying response ever: an oddly familiar, devilish gleam in Masaru's eyes as he plucked one fake jewel from the wide belt…


 

 

Things did not look good. To Mitsuko's right, past Jiro, a black centaur-like robot advanced with a spear while a mechanical cobra slithered towards them, giving Mitsuko un-fond memories of Karakuri's extendable arms. To her left, past Ichiro, a sinister ape robot gathered a large chunk of debris as the last automaton stamped its artificial hooves and lowered its horns to attack.

This wasn't even counting the twenty or so men behind them with automatic guns.

"Bro, tell me again: why was it a good idea to let her come in here with us?" Kikaider 01 asked off handedly, staring grimly at the ape and buffalo robots. Jiro made a noise of frustration, but ignored his brother's question and continued to size up his opponents.

Luckily, Mitsuko wasn't a genius for show only.

She stuck out her arm, pointing the borrowed fan at the beams supporting the second floor ledge that hung over the left flank. Using her thumb to turn the switch 180 degrees clockwise, she pressed down as she had seen Masaru do before. The weight of the guards gathered above the ledge managed to send the whole platform to the ground as she sliced through the support beam, incapacitating most of them.

"Ah, right then," grinned 01, who then joined his brother and let loose his own barrage of bullets with his built-in arsenal. The remaining guards took cover and Kikaider took the opportunity to defend against the Purple cobra that struck at him. Mitsuko nearly screamed until she noticed that Kikaider had caught the jaws of the cobra just before it would have snapped his head off of his shoulders.

"Mitsuko, take cover!" he yelled before gathering the electricity in his left arm and jamming it down the snake's gullet, also breaking the nozzle from which acid dripped.

"ELECTRO END!"

Now only the centaur-like android remained, along with the scattering humans. A few ran through the opening Ichiro had made earlier. Jiro decided to ignore them and turned his attention to the direr situation at hand. Not only was the half-horse machine large and menacing with internal weaponry, but it also carried a large, sharp-looking spear.

Even worse, it was eying Mitsuko as she ran to her hiding spot near the elevator at the back. Kikaider chose not to wait and leapt at the creature's legs in hopes of disabling it. Unfortunately, it predicted the attack and lifted its hind legs to kick him back thirty feet.

"Jiro! Hold on, I got—AGGHH!"—and Ichiro went sailing in the opposite direction, courtesy of the spear swatting him away. Mitsuko chose not to panic but could not help wondering why it had targeted her specifically. Relatively speaking, she was not nearly as much of a threat as Jiro or Ichiro in their android forms…but perhaps her location was what prompted the focus of the dark creature. Chancing a brief, appraising glance, she found nothing of real importance other than a fuse box and the elevator—

The Black Horse robot then reared on its hind legs and charged at her, spear poised to skewer her body to the wall.

"MITSUKO!"

"GET OUTTA THE WAY!"

She aimed and pressed the switch unconsciously, searing the spear and one of the robot's hands in half. It paused momentarily, as though in shock of its sudden loss…but then it appeared to grow angry and charged once again, perfectly content with the idea of running her down.

Mitsuko made movements to dodge, but her injured leg chose the most inopportune moment to betray her; it surged with pain from the sudden stress she placed on it by trying to leap away. Fearfully glancing up as it reared over her head, Mitsuko instinctively shut her eyes.

-BOOOOOM! -

Mitsuko felt the ground shudder and heard a great crash before she dared to open her eyes once again. She was pinned under the beast's four legs and chunks of debris. The unexpected explosion had loosed the other support beam that she had left intact, causing it to crash down upon the horse creature just as it intended to trample her.

How ironic that for the second time, an enemy android would save her life—though this time it was by accident.

"Mitsuko? Mitsuko! Ichiro, help me get her out!" came the frantic voice outside the wall of rubble obscuring her view. A few seconds later, she was able to stick a hand through a small opening and was pulled out by both brothers.

"You ok?" asked 01 while the other lifted Mitsuko's legs out of the mess. She sighed in relief, but nodded.

"Thank you, I—? Ichiro?" Mitsuko stopped abruptly, noting the sudden change in the other android's posture. His clear encased head lowered jerkily and he made motions as though to grab at it, but faltered half way through.

"Mitsuko…get out…of…here! Something is…wrong! Hurry!"

The dust-covered woman could feel Kikaider was struggling to keep his hold gentle and she looked up in trepidation. His eyes met hers, both alarmed.

"My body…can't…—RUN!" Jiro urged, taking note of his brother's condition.

"Ji…ro…what is happening—?" Ichiro strained to say before his eyes flashed and pulsated crimson more rapidly, silencing him before--

"Uuuaaaaaaaaaaghhhh-!"

"Brother! Mitsuko--you have to run, someone is...agh....trying to control us!"

"But how? I thought no one besides Professor Gil could—" she exclaimed, her worry increasing to almost panicky levels as Jiro carefully tried to set her down on her own feet to escape. Ichiro grew very still just then, letting go of his head as he stopped screaming.

 

"Oh, dear woman, my technology is far more effective than what that old, dead fool could come up with—unlike him, I do not need to incarcerate others to do work for me…"

 

Things went deadly silent, save for a few footsteps that emanated from the pitch-black stairwell.

"W-who are you?" Mitsuko stammered, feeling the worst was yet to come. She received a low chuckle in response.

"You're the second attractive lady to ask me that tonight…I must be a fortunate man indeed…"

"Second…? Where's Arai?" Jiro yelled, steeling all his effort into shielding Mitsuko behind him though his body responded with difficulty to his demands.

The footsteps halted and in the dim light, a man with a cold smirk stared back at them as he held onto a small remote control.

"Considering the position you are all in, I really wouldn't be concerned with her status at the moment…but fear not, I take exceptionally good care of my guests…" Shiro grinned arrogantly. Mitsuko, though afraid, angrily took a few steps towards the man. Jiro tried, but could not command his body to restrain her to a safe distance in time.

"Stop this now! I'll ask once more, who are you and what have you done with Arai?" she demanded, strengthening her posture. Shiro's grin faded and he raised an eyebrow, not expecting the frail-seeming woman to have the gall.

"Very well…I am Toshiaki Shiro, and as for the young lady, I have her detained elsewhere," he answered, slightly amused. Mitsuko, however, was not.

"You're a member of DARK, aren't you?" she interrogated further, her dark eyes narrowing bitterly at the name.

"Oh ho! Not just a member—but an important co-founder of the great society…perhaps someday the leader, if I play my cards right…but you wouldn't want to hear about that—in fact, I'm running late for an important meeting, do excuse me,' said the conceited man as he adjusted his tie and brushed some stray dust from his coat. Then, casting a wayward glance over his shoulder when he turned away, '01, if you'll please, tend to these two…"

Mitsuko gasped and turned back to find Ichiro extending both arms for her throat as Jiro had done a long time before when his Gemini was still vulnerable.

"NO! Ichiro, don't! You have a Gemini now, you can fight this!" Kikaider urged his elder brother; he prayed Ichiro could still hear him. Then to Mitsuko, he strained to reach for her, "Mitsuko, you have to run, I don't know if I can get through to him!"

"No, Jiro! Look!" she pointed back at Ichiro, while taking a few steps back. Shiro paused in making his departure and glared back icily. Much to everyone's surprise, Jiro noticed that though Ichiro had his arms out as if to wring the life from Mitsuko's body, he had stopped


 

45, 46…47…48…

"Oh good, it stopped…" Arai murmured to herself, as the last drop of blood fell from her brow before scabbing partially over. He didn't look it, but Toshiaki Shiro was capable of a weighty blow when incensed. She sighed heavily, still berating herself for not seeing the connection sooner.

'How did I not see that? How did I not make the connection after all those years? Shiro Yuri…of course mama had her name changed after she remarried! Assassins with cybernetic appendages; mama marrying a rich businessman who created prosthetics…how could I be so blind? I deserved this blow to the head...how do I…dammit!'

Gently shaking a crimson-soaked strand of hair from her eyes, she looked up towards the surveillance cameras in hopes that she could momentarily distract her self-induced tirade of mental abuse. Fortunately, something quickly caught her eye.

"…'Saru-kun? What are you—," she pondered aloud as she watched the young boys carefully lead the abducted test subjects away from their cells, '…you clever kid…" Arai grinned in spite of her situation.

She then noticed a familiar small boy return to Masaru's side, pointing up at some structure off-camera. The battered captive watched curiously as her young cousin pulled off several more jewel-disguised detonators, handing a few to his partner before running towards whatever the smaller one pointed at. Looking to the side and finding a window with an impressive view, she put two and two together.

'So that explains the boom from a while ago…and here I just thought it was my head,' she mused to herself before turning her focus to one of the other few remaining monitors that still worked. Her grin faded, only to be replaced with confusion and concern.

"…What…the…hell? Ichiro, you idiot, what's wrong with—?" her eyes widened anxiously as she watched Ichiro struggling with his internal circuitry; her new scab re-opened a fraction causing droplets to seethe from the wound.

"Well, it seems you really are quite lucky,' Karakuri surveyed coolly from the shadows. Arai's fear fell way to anger in a flash.

Arai had had enough—she forced her hands to angle up to grab the chain, and then pulled down with all her strength, ripping the chain from the plaster ceiling. Before all of her weight could be landed on her legs (due to her ankles being restricted) a familiar mechanical arm extended around her throat, shoving her head back to the wall, keeping her body weight from leaning forward and breaking her ankles.

Unfortunately, having a cold, sharp, metal hand encased around your throat was hardly more comfortable.

"Karakuri, what the hell do you want now? That son of a bitch called you 'nephew' a while ago, didn't he? Is sadism inherited in your family or something?" she growled at him, irrationally spiting him. Before she knew it, the other arm aimed straight for her face and Arai suddenly regretted not thinking out her words more carefully—

She did not perish as expected. Instead, the cybernetic digits stopped millimeters from her nose—then poised downward and struck, destroying the binding cuffs around her feet.

"…Don't get the wrong idea; it's just that I need you for the moment."

"To do what exactly?" Arai asked suspiciously while rubbing her ankles to restore normal circulation. The unusually serious Karakuri turned his full gaze on her.

"We're going to fix all the mistakes: You, for causing my pain; my uncle, for all of his sins; and myself, for ever getting involved with him. Sound fair? Not that you really have much choice—either we do this or I get rid of you now," he glared at her challengingly, daring her to protest. Instead, he found her gazing thoughtfully back at him before she acquiesced with a small nod of her head.

"I can agree to this, Karakuri; I'd like to clear my slate," Arai said quietly. The young man straightened, contemplating this interesting truce.

"...It's Yuuki now; I'm going to finish this with my proper name," he clarified. Arai smirked, imitating an introductory bow with a flourishing gesture of her hand. Yuuki ignored her, pressing the button for the lift.

"Just don't screw up; I don't intend to wait too long if you can't get your people out of here," he finally replied tersely. Arai nodded curtly, trying to brace her weakened right arm.

"So you do have something of a moral code…why did you ever join up with that asshole then…?" queried the girl carefully. Hesitantly, Yuuki felt his heart tighten ever so slightly as he remembered the first time he had met his solemn, late partner…

"…I didn't have much of a choice…and I…wanted to see if I could make her smile…just once…" Arai took his tender reply into consideration with some surprise. They passed a few more floors in silence, until—

"Say, since this is it…how about we make a more dramatic entrance?" she beamed hopefully. Yuuki gawked at her daring—

Somehow, despite himself…a devious grin reappeared on Yuuki's face.


 

"Oh, what's this, Kikaider 01?" Shiro called out, just a bare hint of impatience in his voice. Mitsuko glowered fiercely at him while he continued to walk casually towards them—he was mocking them!

"You think this is just a game! You're a complete monster, you sick—!"

Jiro was surprised to hear so much disgust and hatred in the normally gentle woman's voice. It was as though her outrage just radiated from her very being. Shiro remained indifferent to her tirade—until she raised the weapon up before her, opening it so that the bladed edges were exposed.

He lifted one thin eyebrow at her, not particularly amused, and returned his attention back to the struggling Ichiro.

"Not willing to lay hands on your friends, hm? I see that you must have an activated Gemini circuit—rather troublesome…well then, how about if your target is someone I'm told you're not quite fond of…? Let's do that, shall we?" The cold, cruel grin had returned to his pale face. Opening his jacket lapel, he spoke into it.

"Karakuri, bring out my ex's defective double—She has company eagerly waiting to see her," he chuckled into the communication receiver. Then turning back to the fuming Mitsuko, "Do wait a few moments, your young friend might be in need of some cleaning up…"

Whatever was left of Mitsuko's resolve snapped just as he started laughing.

"You bastard—" she shrieked, raising the fan to bring its edges down through the demon that stood tauntingly before her when—

"LET HER GO!" roared Jiro, finally managing to take a few steps towards the man. Shiro kept one tight grip on Mitsuko's wrist until she dropped her weapon; with the other hand, he retrieved the device that hindered the Kikaider brothers, turning the dial up a few notches higher. Ichiro's system didn't appear to adjust very well; his hands clawed at his mechanical head as his screaming grew louder. Even Jiro fell to one knee, feeling as though several tons of weight were being placed on his head.

"Foolish girl…do you really think you could kill me so easily? I suggest you stay where you are, Kikaider. While I may not be able to control you, I can still destroy you and your brother if I set this dial past a certain point," Shiro glared coldly, squeezing Mitsuko's wrist ever tighter. Tears were welling up in her furious eyes. Jiro's felt a deep, boiling rage well up within him—and it took everything he had to stand down.

"Let. Her. Go. You've already unarmed her, isn't that enough?" Jiro growled, clenching his jaw. Shiro's eyes took on a deranged gleam of being drunk with power, but he threw Mitsuko back towards 01's arms, laughing coldly.

"Oh—oof!"

Ichiro had caught her, but dropped her to the side roughly, making even steps towards Shiro.

"Ahh, yes, you want to go meet with your cowardly runaway now? Impatient I see, but nonethe-hhhggkkk!"

It was then that Toshiaki Shiro, one of the most powerful leaders of dark, found himself quite suddenly within the death grip of Kikaider 01. Just as the pallid man began to attain a bluish tint, his thumb rotated the dial ever higher; small sparks flashed within Ichiro's inner circuits painfully…

-Pyon!-

-Fwit!-

Just before the remaining lights went out, there was a small electrical eruption of the control as it fell from Shiro's right hand, and then he was dropped rather unceremoniously onto the floor. Ichiro, too, fell to his knees panting heavily.

"Brother! Are you-?" Jiro began concernedly before Ichiro's frustration cut him off.

"Aughh…What now—?" he moaned, turning his head in the dark.

There was a faint sound of movement in the dark, and as the android brothers were still regaining control of their bodies, they did not see immediately what was transpiring in the pitch-blackness engulfing them. They didn't have to.

The next light they saw came from electric sparks crackling along the rim of fan blades that lay poised dangerously near Shiro's throat.

"Arai!" Mitsuko exclaimed, flooded with relief and surprise at once. Arai just smiled, thankful that the unsteady lighting from her weapon kept her cousin from seeing the true extent of her injuries.

"Fruit Loops!" Arai almost laughed at Ichiro's happy relief—the insult sounded rather like a term of endearment.

"Naturally,' she retorted cheekily. Jiro, however, was quite concerned.

"Arai! Are you—?" Jiro exclaimed suddenly. While the other two could not fully see what was wrong with the picture, he could—and the first thing he noticed was the rivulet of scarlet trailing down Arai's limp right arm…

"This is very touching, but I really do have somewhere to be!" Shiro growled abruptly, turning to his captor's weakened side and striking down upon her wound; he ran back toward the elevator, retreating to his office.

After helping Mitsuko to her feet, Jiro made way for Arai—he had heard her stifle a cry of pain; Arai struggled to sit up and Jiro saw her deliberately avoid putting weight on her right shoulder.

He also saw the trickle of red evolve into a steady stream, running over her fingers.

"You're—!"

"—Jiro, you gotta get everyone out of here now," Arai interrupted, shoving his hands away from her shoulders as she settled on her knee. Ichiro turned, advancing on her.

"What?! We came here to get you, you jackass! I told you not to go on your own, but you had to be—" he lectured. Arai grimaced, shaking her head.

"—There's no time for this! Jiro, you need to take these two and help the children escape!" Arai interjected once more. Jiro was taken aback in confusion.

"Children…? Do you mean Masaru…?"

"Shiro has been abducting children to experiment on—he replaces their body parts with cybernetic technology, then parades them around to potential business partners! Get the kids away from this place—I'll handle him and be out soon, ok? NOW MOVE!" Arai pleaded in frustration, getting to her feet and following her target.

"Arai…" murmured Mitsuko worriedly. Jiro stood with Mitsuko once again, watching the young girl ascend rapidly up the many floors. Ichiro positively boiled.

"I can't believe we just let her run again! I'm gonna—"

"No, Ichiro, wait!"

"What?"

"There are children that need to be taken away from here; we're going to have to trust her to come back later, but for now we have to help them!"

The look in Ichiro's eye implied mutiny, but he resignedly nodded.

Jiro took Mitsuko up and ran for the large hole Ichiro had made earlier, while Ichiro hesitated before following.

He could have sworn he saw something red on the floor where Arai had fallen…


 

"Damn it, boy! If you can't at least give me accurate information on my enemies, the least you can do is protect me when I need you! Now get up, you have to help me escape!" Shiro raged at his nephew, hauling him roughly up off the floor. Yuuki said nothing, but looked furtively at the elevator…

"Karakuri! What the hell are you waiting for? We move NOW! Forget the meeting, we'll attain more test subjects later, but we escape for the time being! Are you listen-?'

-Ping!- sounded the elevator bell.

'Son of a—you distract the little bitch, I'll finish her off. I swear if I had time, I would weep on how much of my technology was wasted on your body—all that advanced weaponry built into your very body and you can't handle one injured girl? Ridiculous!"

Yuuki continued to stand facing the elevator, ignoring every insult his uncle threw at him. Just as the door opened, Arai leapt out and promptly made motions to knee the young man in the diaphragm.

"I have no time for you," she said coldly, stepping over Yuuki's winded frame. Shiro rolled his eyes, but put his hands up as a sign of defeat, edging out from behind his desk.

"Ho hum,' he sighed, '—it's a shame you broke my chains. Looking at you...ignoring those ugly common brown irises, it was almost nostalgic of my wedding ni—"

A large fragment of glass blew past his hair as it shattered on the wall behind him; the taunting expression on Shiro's face receded to a mere smirk.

"Very well…so you've finally cornered me. What now? Wait for the police to come arrest me? Those brats have already escaped and no one has any proof of my connection with DARK since I disposed of your parents. That bumbling photographer has already made a laughingstock of himself in this country and considering my finances, I may as well own the courts. What will you do? In the end, it'll be a child's words against mine."

Shiro watched steadily as Arai lowered her head, shoulders convulsing. His eyes narrowed in triumph.

"…Hehehehehahahahahahahahahaha…!"

So much for that—Shiro backed away as she took a few steps forward, allowing the moonlight to bathe her ragged form.

"I guess you are rather funny…you talk as though you are leaving tonight alive. Hehahahahahahhahahahaha,' she paused to wipe a hysterical tear from her eye, '...you've kept Hell waiting long enough!"

Just before she lunged forward with one lame arm, she glanced back over her shoulder…Shiro dodged the electrifying blades by millimeters, shifting to the opposite side of his desk from Arai. He watched her turn the switch almost upside down before he got an idea. Placing both hands on his desk, Shiro shoved as hard as he could. With a surge of intense feral glee, Shiro sneered malevolently as the desk collided with Arai's stomach, forcing the tattered girl through the window…

A mechanical arm extended through the opening, latching onto her belt. As Yuuki halted her descent, they looked at each other; they exchanged conspiratorial nods as Arai lifted the latch and fell away…



...

"Masaru! Masaru, are you—? Akira-kun? What are you doing—oh never mind, come on, we need to help some captives escape!" Mitsuko called, surprised to see the pair of boys looking back at her, startled.

Masaru turned to his elder sister with a triumphant grin before nodding to his partner. Akira gave a short nod in response, smiled, and then called back into the dense forestry.

"It's ok, these are good people. You can come out, everyone!" he called put reassuringly. Jiro, Mitsuko and Ichiro all blinked in surprise as five more heads popped out curiously from behind various hiding places.

"Well, I'll be damned…do brats grow on trees or something?"

"B-brother…" Jiro attempted to admonish his elder brother, though his smile betrayed him.

"I was just kidding…' Ichiro shrugged with a lopsided smirk. Walking over to dishevel both Masaru and Akira's hair, he congratulated them.

'Nice work, boys. You saved us from wasting more time," Ichiro grinned mischievously at both of them. Masaru shoved his hand off, but returned with his own toothy smile while Akira merely beamed. Mitsuko giggled softly.

"Come on, we should get them to Mr. Hattori, they're probably already here!" she said, gathering up one small girl in her arms. Jiro nodded and likewise, picked up the next two smallest, following her. The remaining group of boys looked to Ichiro for instructions.

"Well don't expect me to go hauling your butts around, get moving!"

Just as soon as they had run ten yards, Masaru yelped in surprise before he realized his phone was ringing. Digging deep into his pockets, he extracted it and answered hurriedly.

"Arai-chan! Are you--?"

"'Saru-kun? Quick question: is everyone away from the cliff side?"

Masaru was surprised at her knowledge, but responded quickly.

"Yeah, we're running back to meet with Dad and Hattori! Where are—"

"Did you get rid of all the charges on the belt I left you?"

'How does she do that…?' the young boy baffled himself with the thought. He could almost see her grinning on the other line, though for some reason, there appeared to be a lot of disturbance in the reception…

"Yeah, but we didn't have time to set them all off and—…how did you even—?"

"Saw it on camera, figured what you were doing from there—don't worry though. You've got ten seconds to get as far away from the building as possible, got it?" She seemed so succinct and serious…Masaru swallowed nervously.

"Yeah—got it."

"Good…and Masaru?"

"Huh?"

"Thanks…I'm out. Run fast!"

"Wait, where are—?"

But Masaru could only grimace in frustration. She'd hung up…


 

...

Glad that she'd remembered to slip her cell phone into her missing fan's holster, Arai closed it shut and let it fall from her fingers.

"Looks like my work is finished," she whispered, pressing in the ruby brooch strapped over her chest. It shimmered for a moment, and then began to glow so bright that it illuminated the air around her as she rushed past.

"Bye bye…"


 

Yuuki stood solemnly at the window as his uncle laughed triumphantly behind him.

"HAH! Two years of planning for revenge, only to fall to your end! All that raw anger and pure hatred, yet none of the power to use it effectively!" he gloated, stepping closer to the opening with a malevolent grin. The wind tore through the room, wildly disheveling light debris everywhere. Yuuki turned his head ever so slightly to glare at Shiro, who continued to follow the rapidly descending body with an arrogant smile.

"You may have defeated Ayatsuri, but you were just as pointless. She hated you as you hated me, and it only led to your deaths...how pitiful. Hilarious! The both of you thought yourselves to be so much more, and all your efforts amounted to being my playthings--!"

At this point, Yuuki had finished retracting his arm and was now holding the belt very close as Shiro continued to boast to himself, not caring that he was there.

"I suppose you might make for an entertaining chapter in the story of my glorious ascent, but the ending is the same: everyone will become proof of my perfect genius and this world will be MINE—and no one, be it Man or Machine, will ever doubt or question my vision again," Shiro finished, breathing deeply to regain his composure. A sarcastic chuckle interrupted him, and he looked up, finally noticing that his nephew was still in the room with him.

"You have something to add, Nephew?" he queried, growing irritated with the sound. Yuuki narrowed his eyes and cocked his head at Shiro.

"I was just thinking, Uncle—someone as powerful as you? It must mean the only way you could ever die is by accident," Yuuki mused, running a metal hand through his hair. Shiro frowned irritably; he was in no mood for his bastard nephew's compensating sense of humor.

"What in the world are you babbling about now, you—" Shiro cut off as he found Yuuki's arm slung casually around his shoulders...and a thick belt draped over his torso like a sash. Shiro raised an eyebrow as Yuuki smiled wistfully.

"She may have been a toy to you...but she was the only precious thing left in this world to me—"

Shiro was thrown against the wall and pinned there by his throat, the impact loosening dust from the walls.

Explosions began to rumble at the base of the tower, shaking more of the plaster from the walls and ceiling.

"What are you doing...?" Shiro began to feel panic rising in the back of his throat: his nephew's normally clownish demeanour had been replaced with his own all-too-familiar predatory gaze.

"They always called me a mistake—an accident. I'd just thought I'd live up to that."

...


 

"Kid, what was that?" Ichiro questioned irately, noting that Masaru had dropped in pace while answering the last phone call.

"It was Arai," Masaru snapped back. Ichiro stopped suddenly, turning around. Masaru grabbed him by the arm, tugging him forward.

"Come on, we have to keep moving!"

"Where is she?"

"I didn't get a chance to ask, but I think she was outside. Arai said to run, so keep moving!"

"Masaru, look!" interjected Akira suddenly, causing the other two to look at him while the last two stragglers went ahead. Masaru followed Akira's finger to a falling point in the sky.

"Is that…a falling star…?" Akira asked timidly while watching the red light descend from the heavens. Ichiro pondered it for a second, but realized something was off.

It was far too close—he could see the silhouette of a body.

"NO!" he yelled, bracing to transform again when the area behind him trembled.

…Everyone suddenly dropped to the ground for cover as a number of explosions went off like firecrackers; one huge explosion went off somewhere higher in altitude. When Ichiro looked up again, the red light was obscured from view by flying debris…

Chapter Text

The air thundered and lit up around them; Mieko held Rei up firmly, waiting for him to recover from his unexplained bout of paralytic shock. He clung to her shoulder weakly, as Mieko stared at the bright sky with apprehension.

"Rei, are you going to be ok now?" she asked with a quick glance.

Rei tried to shake off the fog that had consumed his mind. He could not understand what exactly had happened, but recalled having fierce urges to cause destruction to any living thing in the vicinity; additionally, he noted a complete lack of control over his limbs.

"I am fine now, but I do not understand what caused my body to shut down like that. I did note, however, that while I was unable to control most of my thoughts, you were hardly affected…how is that?" he queried, looking over at her. Mieko continued to survey the sky—rather, a falling red light to be precise.

"Sorry, but you'll have to save the questions for later…I think—it is!"

A split-second later, Bijinder took to the air, weaving through the falling debris towards the scarlet glow that was starting to fade. With a quick swoop, she managed to scoop up a badly injured body of a young girl.

"Are we too late…?" whispered the female android anxiously to herself, glancing at the numerous, bleeding wounds.

"BIJINDER!"

She just barely managed to dodge several chunks of rock and metal the size of small boulders. Due to being weighted down with an unconscious body, Bijinder was unable to dodge a few other decent-sized bits of debris; she winced as the larger pieces collided with her back.

'Dammit, I can't keep going like this!' she grimaced while dodging more jagged pieces of what was the enemy's stronghold.

Just as she turned and braced herself for another blow to the back—

"Bijinder, head for the ground!"

"—Rei!"

"GO!'--demanded the android just as he flew past her. He steadied himself in the air,'—BLOW UP!"

Just as Bijinder touched the ground, she felt a shower of pebbles pelting her shoulders as she knelt over the unconscious body. A few moments later, her partner joined her on the ground.

"Are you all right?" the normally stoic voice queried with a touch of worry. Bijinder reverted back into Mieko, ignoring the question and examining Arai's wounds until—

"Rei, it's—she…she's not breathing…?" she turned to him with confusion. Rei made quick strides forward to check—indeed, her serene-expression belied her current condition, for her chest made no motions of respiration. Gently placing a hand on her carotid artery, Rei inspected for a pulse…

When he stepped back a few moments later, Mieko's eyes widened in horror. She leaned in close to the body and frantically scanned her mind for instructions on how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

'One breath for every thirty compressions, first check for foreign objects in the mouth, then tilt head back, pinch nose and breathe into victim for a full two seconds. Compress directly on the sternum approximately 1 ½ to 2 inches…'

After the fourth round, Mieko felt a hand fall on her shoulder. When Rei laid his jacket over the girl's face, Mieko felt her hope sinking within her.

"Come…we should join the others," Rei suggested quietly. Reluctantly, Mieko stood and led the way as Rei gathered up the lifeless body…

...


 

'…I'm so tired…'

A dull pang struck the girl's chest as she continued to float inside the darkness. Arai paid no mind to it however, finding her thoughts drifting to her fallen foe.

"Shiro may have given her the bomb…but it was mostly intended to get rid of me…but why…why would she take it? She knew—yet…," she pondered aloud when the memory resurfaced.

"It was a gift…from…Shiro-sama."

Arai tried to concentrate about that exact moment. The way she'd said the foul man's name…

"…I can't see how it's possible for anyone to love a man like that…and to that extent…it's ludicrous!" she murmured to herself, shutting her eyes to drift once more.

'…But Dad always did say that love had nothing to do with reason…still…'

Arai shook her head; the confusion overwhelming her already weakened state.

"…I don't understand myself…I talk about Ayatsuri being a fool for throwing away her life so carelessly…yet I just did the same so that Shiro didn't go after Mitsuko and the others because I got them involved…I succeeded; I succeeded…but why don't I feel any comfort from this?"

"Do you have any idea how much Masaru would wail if I brought back your dead body? Or how upset Mitsuko would get? Or how shitty the rest of us would feel! What's with you?"

Arai shut her eyes tighter while the space around her echoed with anger and frustration; her eyes felt hot as her guilt seeped from her tear ducts. She clutched at her ears, though she knew nothing would block out Ichiro's voice; her aching body began to shake with frustration.

"I was just trying to make up for my mistakes! I had no right to interfere with their lives—Mitsuko still has her family and friends…I'm just an orphan…don't the ends justify the means in this case? What the hell was I supposed to do?"

The desperate, shrill question went unanswered as it echoed in the hollow abyss. She curled up as if just noticing how small she felt inside the cold nothingness. Arai continued to float through the emptiness in fetal position with only her tears to accompany her.

Until a warmth surrounded and stilled her.

Though she could not see, she recognized that presence.

"…Dad…?"


 

Once the explosions and the gravel rain stopped falling, Ichiro was back on his feet, grabbing both Masaru and Akira as he sped towards his brother.

"Watch these two—that stupid girl—!" Ichiro ordered while quickening his pace towards the direction he last saw the strange light fall. Jiro grabbed his arm before he could pass.

"Ichiro, wait, explain! I'll go with—"

"There's no time! She probably fell into the ground already, now just do what I—"

"Ichiro, you saw her? Are you sure?" Mitsuko rushed forward, fear evident in her eyes. The android grew frustrated and shook his head, trying to rid himself of their interruptions.

"I DON'T HAVE TIME TO ANSWER, JUST LET ME—"

"Rei-niisan! Mieko-neechan! What's…?" Akira called out; initially, he was glad to have something to interrupt the arguing between the other three elder people—but he saw Rei was carrying something that had been covered up with his yellow jacket; Akira grew anxious. Rei only gave him a short glance before turning to Mieko, who looked up sadly; a somber expression overtook her delicate features.

"Akira…Masaru…why don't you go check on those children over there, make sure they don't wander too far—"

"—They're gonna be fine, Mieko! But what are you doing here? Have you seen…?" Masaru trailed off, also noticing the strange, shadow-hidden figure in Rei's arms. Ichiro faced his youngest brother darkly.

"Rei, what is that?" he demanded. Shifting his amber-flecked eyes, Rei glanced hesitantly at the limp body before letting out a long sigh. He knelt down, laying the form out before him carefully—then he lifted the jacket…

Jiro felt the same tightness in his chest that he felt upon discovering Toru's lifeless corpse so long ago; he winced at Mitsuko's sudden intake of breath. Akira looked to his friend carefully and found Masaru tightly clenching his jaw, struggling to keep his emotions bottled in. After doing it so long himself, Akira knew though—for he could easily see the pain that washed over Masaru's eyes as his fists shook. Ichiro broke the stunned silence just as Mitsuko rushed towards the bloodied heap.

"What the hell happened?!" he interrogated his brother brusquely; Mieko's eyes flashed, clearly upset. Rei placed his hands on Ichiro's shoulders in a steadying manner.

"Mieko caught her while she was falling, but the girl had stopped breathing already. We are not sure how long, but there is also no pulse; we were unable to resuscitate her successfully. She is dead…I am sorry," Rei stated firmly, disregarding the slight awkwardness he felt over apologizing for something beyond his control.

It was as though every thought that ran through Ichiro's mind was fighting to be expressed on his face. It was a curious sight for Rei, as he saw signs of confusion, frustration, anger, fear and disbelief all at once and was surprised at how all could be shown at the same time. Even more disturbing, Ichiro made motion as if to retort, but kept silencing himself as he continued to look at the body. Ichiro roughly shrugged Rei's hands of his shoulders, stumbling weakly towards the body.

"…Fruit Loops…?" his voice cracked uncertainly.

Masaru's reserve broke, and he rushed at the body in desperation.

"I don't understand, she can't—?"

The distant whirring of a motor grew louder and louder; as the sound increased in volume, a few excited yells could be heard along with it when suddenly—

"GYAAAAAAAAAA—OOF! OH—OW-AH-ACK—!"

A young, wind-swept officer found himself thrown on his rump, looking up at the dismal crowd. Shaken from her misery, Mitsuko looked up and recognized him instantly.

"Officer…Ikeda?" The ruffled rookie stood up, rubbing his rear to ease the pain.

"Aa—you'll never believe this, but this vehicle started driving itself!' he explained, gesturing offhandedly at the aforementioned motorbike before continuing, '—since the chief already had the map, I decided to jump on and try to steer it to the right location…I'd like to say I succeeded, but it wasn't my doing…"

Footsteps were then heard making their way through the brush when Hanpei Hattori and Etsuko Sarutobi finally emerged.

"Honestly, boss, are you sure we're getting any closer to—oh!" Etsuko abruptly broke off when she found that her boss's hunch had paid off. Hanpei gave a quick grin before he jogged up to the rookie.

"Oi, Ikeda, I don't think the girl is gonna appreciate that you were joyriding when—,' he began to tease the young rookie; Hanpei glanced to the side and saw what looked to be a body obscured from view by the Komyouji children—but he could probably guess who it was that lay on the ground.

'…Mitsuko, Jiro, somebody—what happened?!" Hanpei asked, highly alarmed and pale in the face. Ikeda, having yet to discover anything, turned to see what had agitated the private investigator.

The young officer then paled noticeably and began fumbling around his waist for the radio.

"Ikeda here, I need an ambulance immediately at—GAHHH!"

The odd vehicle had sprung to life once again, rolling forward into Ikeda's turned back and sending him tumbling over into the sidecar. Continuing to move along, it stopped only to activate its headlight.

"H-how is it doing this…?" Akira mumbled to Masaru—but Masaru wasn't paying attention. His eyes were fixed on the movement of the spotlight, looking for a clue—

"That's it—!" exclaimed Masaru as the light settled on his sister's coat pocket, flickering rapidly. Mitsuko's brows furrowed as she pulled the fan out of her pocket—until she remembered something. Looking at her younger brother, she grew anxious as she felt hope resurface in her.

"Masaru, what else can this thing do?" The boy grinned, knowing that his sister had come to the same conclusion as he had.

"Arai told me this thing has a taser mode for non-lethal and close range combat. She told me normal tasers usually have about 7-18 watts of power, but the ones in these are amplified since she didn't usually fight with humans—look at the edge closely! There are little bead-like prongs at the end that collect most of the electricity so that she doesn't get shocked—so long as she has her riding gloves on," he explained rapidly as though he would forget the information soon.

"JUST TELL HER HOW TO SET IT!" Ichiro exploded, grabbing Masaru up roughly by the collar. Masaru shoved Ichiro's head aside to look at his sister.

"Turn the switch to the left at—at—um…what do we set it to?" he squeaked out, realizing he didn't know. Mitsuko smiled thankfully and turned back, sweat collecting on her brow.

"Don't worry, I know," she assured him. Etsuko was surprised by the sudden confidence, but wasted no time in hurrying over to Akira and the other children, preparing to calm them in case things didn't work out. Jiro then extracted Masaru from his brother's hands, setting him back down on the ground to watch Mitsuko.

'I'm so glad the doctors made us buy a defibrillator for father before we returned home—I just hope this works…' Mitsuko prayed silently as she read the adjustment settings marked by the notches…


 

"Dad…?" Arai asked again, willing her eyes to open in vain; she couldn't see it, but she could sense the darkness ebbing; growing brighter and warmer around her. A familiar chuckling began to reverberate in the white-space.

"That's my girl."

The tension uncoiled in her heart, though her limbs felt like stone as she tried to move them.

"Dad!' she cried, 'why can't I move? I can't see anyth—!"

"Hush,' the voice soothed, 'I can see you've gotten yourself into trouble just like your old man; You've done me proud!" Arai cringed at the warm, boisterous laughter as the guilt pricked at her like nettles.

"…But dad…I did a lot of stupid things; I hurt a lot of people. And Uncle—"The laughter quieted, receding into a thoughtful humming.

"True; you hurt a lot of people, and saved plenty of innocents. You lied to your family…but you gave it all you got to keep them safe. That's not easy, kiddo—so why aren't you satisfied?"

Arai felt her heart tremble as more tears seeped from her closed eyes.

"I used my only remaining family…I put them in danger…,' she paused, quavering, '…I hated mom without knowing the truth…I got a girl my age killed-!" Arai choked on a sob. A comforting glow welled up around her in proportion to her anxiety.

"Arai…"

"—I haven't visited your graves—!" The air rumbled with a throaty chuckle.

"Shush, Ume-chan; My older brother won't keep a grudge against you, and if the others intended to do so, they would never have come for you tonight. As for that girl, as harsh as it is, she chose her fate when she gave her life to that twisted snake of a man—regarding your mother…"

The air shifted; someone else had entered the space. Arai felt a curious tingle along her spine.

"…Mom…?" she called out tentatively. A calming, cooling sensation ran over Arai's eyes and cheekbones, quelling her tears.

"I'm here…" Arai fidgeted, reaching out.

"Mom, I—I'm sorry, I didn't…"

"Don't; I was just as guilty,' interrupted a light, feminine voice. Arai felt her tongue swell in her mouth as the newcomer confessed, 'Did I pay attention to your wants? Did I stop to notice your pain at my careless words? I spent years in denial of my depression instead of getting the help I needed…it wasn't until we were apart that I could see how much I hurt you and your father…"

"…Mama…"

"—We all made mistakes, my loves,' the gruff male voice interjected, placating, 'but what's done is done; what matters now is that you need to go back and face it."

"But Dad, I...how?" Arai asked meekly. The voice of Ryo Komyouji hummed thoughtfully.

"Well, kiddo, you took a hell of a beating, but you're not dead—at least, not yet," he answered. Arai considered the response carefully, realizing that her father must be correct; the pain in her body felt muted, but nonetheless present.

A shock jolted Arai, and she made to clutch at her chest. Her muted pain was suddenly a little louder.

"Mom…Dad…that girl, she—she knew that man was trying to kill her. I don't understand; why would she—"

"Shiro had a gift for saying whatever it is you want to hear,' Arai's mother explained in a clipped tone, '—that girl, she was missing a lot of things in her life—things that Shiro promised her."

Considering this, Arai grew pensive. Her father's gravelly baritone broke into her thoughts.

"He won't be making anymore false promises, courtesy of you and that boy—"Arai stirred.

"That boy—Yuuki, did he make it?" The atmosphere rippled and once more, and Arai felt another presence.

"Of course he didn't--wasn't part of the plan, was it?" There was no mistaking the snide tone—Arai never thought she'd feel happy to hear it again.

"Ayatsuri…" she breathed. There was a pause, and the air prickled a bit. There was now a steady beat within the whitespace.

"…I think I'm Shizuku again…" she muttered quietly. Arai felt the corner of her lips turn up.

"Shi—Shizuku...about Yuuki, he—"

"I know, girl…I…I collected him already…' the former assassin interrupted, still quiet. The pulse grew louder around them; Arai winced, noticing her wounds more acutely. Her company must have noticed this, for Arai felt her parents' soothing presence around her most tender injuries. Arai could sense this purgatory coming to an end, and she turned to her old enemy.

"You know, it's going to be weird without you in my life anymore," she said soberly. Arai received a snort of laughter in reply.

"It's just as well—I never thought I'd say this, but I'd rather not have you interrupting my death," Shizuku rasped. There was an abrupt pause before both girls broke down mirthfully laughing; in that moment, both knew without saying that, had the circumstances been different, they might have been friends.

The thought struck a pang within Arai's chest—then there was a pang outside her chest. She squeaked in discomfort, confused.

There was another flash of pain, and Arai instinctively threw her arms over her chest.

"Oh…my…" Arai heard her mother's voice murmur disbelievingly. A hard clap landed on Arai's left shoulder.

"You'd better get back, girl—looks like some idiot decided not to wait for your body to get cold," Shizuku advised flatly. Arai nodded, her cheeks flaring ruby embarrassment. The warmth began to fade, but the light grew brighter.

"When you get back, give him one from your old man, Ume-chan," Ryo called after his daughter, his voice growing distant.

There was another sting of pain, and Arai's eyes finally popped open.

"I'm coming, dammit!" she snapped.


 

"ICHIRO--?!" Three voices shrieked in outrage as the android poked and kneaded obliviously.

"What—her heart's in here somewhere, ain't it?" Ichiro shouted back, irritated at being interrupted while he attempted to feel the girl's heartbeat for himself. He was completely unaware of the horrified, astounded or confused expressions on the faces of the men around him. Hanpei was the first to scramble off and continue ushering the children away when—

-SLAP- "How could you?" Mitsuko protested, administering a swift slap to his left cheek.

-SMACK—"There are children present for crying out loud!" Etsuko scolded, smacking him on the right cheek.

"FOOL!" Mieko sniffed as her fist flew to the back of his head. Ichiro snarled as he was about to turn to verbally assault all three of his assailants—when an uppercut collided with his jaw so hard, he rolled backwards.

Forgetting his anger, he lay on his back with his own expression of relief.

"Welcome back, Fruit Loops!" he sneered at her. Mitsuko and Etsuko supported her into a sitting position, from which Arai glowered at him.

"…Jackass…" she muttered before falling back into blissful unconscious slumber.

The group stood silently for a few moments until Ichiro got back on his feet. Officer Ikeda coughed and carried a coat over to cover Arai, fairly pink in the face. Mitsuko and Etsuko received the jacket with murmured thanks and proceeded to bundle her up in it just as Ichiro took a few steps forward.

"Hey, waita—I thought she was ok? Did she just—mmph?" Mieko stuffed her hand into his mouth and used her other finger to indicate he be silent for once.

"Ichiro, she just revived into a heavily damaged body. Arai must be quite exhausted," Rei said calmly to ease Ichiro's impetuosity, holding him back by the upper arm. Ikeda breathed a sigh of relief and nodded to the youngest android.

"Don't worry, the ambulance should be here pretty soon—but I'm going to meet with my commanding officer and lead him here. I should bring Dr. Komyouji as well…excuse me—" he reassured, following the tire tracks back through the foliage. Hanpei cast a few wary glances over his shoulder at Ichiro, finding that with Mitsuko, Etsuko and Mieko guarding Arai—there was no way he was getting another feel tonight, and he determined it safe for the kids to rejoin the adults.

Not that they hadn't seen what was going on. Akira kept silent as his eyes shifted between everyone else uncertainly; Masaru, on the other hand, ran up and aimed a kick at Ichiro's backside.

"Stupid Ichiro! I can't believe you'd do that to my cousin—when she's out cold, no less! You really are a pervert!" Masaru scolded, unable to keep himself from grinning at the sputtering android. Ichiro was about to come back with something particularly scathing when an unusual sound caught him off guard.

Jiro was laughing. Not just a little laugh either; the normally innocent and reserved of the three was covering his mouth in a futile attempt to quiet his mirth.

"Brother, you can't be serious—her heartbeat,' he said in between gasps of laughter, 'I would think after being knocked into a river, you would know better," finished Jiro, tempering his laughter with a merry smile.

Ichiro balked at the reaction as he had another epiphany.

"Hey, but then—you were watching?!" he exploded before he realized what he'd just said. He gave a quick glance around to see if any of his fellow men would come to his aid—but alas, even Rei seemed to be trying to hide his face, shaking his head pitifully.

"Guess that solves how he knew about the scar…" whispered Hanpei, knowing what was to come.

-BAM!-

"OWW!" -Whomp!

"Shameless letch!" Mieko snapped just as Ichiro removed his head from the dirt.

"I. AM. NOT. A. PERVERT!" he wailed in frustration.

"Etsuko…remind me to call my brother after all this is over," Hanpei said while trying to mask his chuckling as a fit of coughing.

'What?' Etsuko's wondered; she tried to look at his face to see if she could figure out what prompted his decision to break the feud Hanpei had held with his brother for years—only to find him glancing wistfully at Den who had finally arrived, rushing to check on his unconscious, but now breathing niece. The old doctor took in the extent of her bloody wounds and moved to cradle her protectively; The detective had a hunch he knew to whom prayers were being sent as Den bowed his head, clutching Arai gently.

Hanpei then turned and walked over to speak with Ikeda's commanding officer as they all caught up—and his assistant watched him go with a content smile on her face.

'All in all, I'd say this mess turned out pretty ok!'  Etsuko smirked before hearing the ambulance sirens approaching…


 

A few days passed quietly.

Mitsuko entered the room with the usual tray of medical supplies and bandages. She was surprised to see Arai awake and staring at the ceiling.

"Arai!" Mitsuko gasped, hurrying over. Arai barely stirred; her eyes drifted over to land on Mitsuko once she came into view.

"…Mitsuko…?" she rasped hoarsely, her voice dry from lack of use. Mitsuko smiled in relief as she moved to change the IV bag.

"You had us worried; it's been three days since you were last awake," she said, wiping a cool cloth over Arai's face before she pulled up a chair to begin changing out the various bandages. Arai cleared her throat, wincing as she tried to take a deep breath; her ribs ached. Mitsuko noticed her discomfort.

"You'll have to take it easy—you were in pretty bad shape. Your ribs took a lot of heavy blows," explained Mitsuko.

"I'm sorry," Arai murmured—Mitsuko's hand paused over the old gauze before she removed it.

"What for?" she replied easily. Mitsuko watched Arai as her brows furrowed. After a silent moment passed, Arai turned to face her elder cousin.

"Everything."

Mitsuko replaced the compresses over the large gashes in Arai's thigh, and then sat back; Arai turned her eyes back to the ceiling, but Mitsuko was surprised to see the beginnings of a tear collecting at the corner.

"Arai, I…,' Mitsuko began only to falter; she contemplated for a moment before trying again, 'I think I understand part of where you were coming from. I...I've never been inclined to fight…after my mother left, I just wanted to keep the family I had safe and happy. Strangely enough, Masaru seemed to empathize with you the most; it was he who made us really think about your situation...because it's his greatest fear: to lose everyone."

Arai swallowed thickly, turning her head a few degrees back toward Mitsuko. Mitsuko took up the scissors and began snipping away at the old bindings over the younger girl's arms, busying herself as she continued to speak.

"Arai, can I tell you about my mother?" Confusion furrowed her brow, but Arai nodded, curious to see where this train of thought would go. Mitsuko took a steadying breath before the words came.

"My mother left without explanation, just after Masaru was born—it was years later when I found her again,'—Arai kept silent, but her interest was piqued.

'…when I sought her out, it was because I knew she had some connection to the reason behind my father's abduction. As it turned out…she was a spy for Gil Helbert, the leader of DARK at that time."

Arai blanched at that, swallowing her gasp. Mitsuko finished dabbing the antiseptic ointment over the cuts and covered them.

"Just before my mother turned a gun at me, she explained that the reason for mine and Masaru's birth was out of duty in fulfilling her role as my father's wife...'—Mitsuko paused, noticing the appalled glare in her cousin's face. Mitsuko found herself smiling lightly, briefly appreciative of the empathy.

"I can see rebellion in your eyes, Arai; we're different in that way, I suppose—but I digress. The most bizarre thing about that situation was finding out that my mother actually left because she grew too attached to us,' she took a moment to let this sink in; Arai seemed thoroughly confused.

Mitsuko took a steadying breath, anxiously reliving the memories.

"'I knew it would end this way; A spy should never fall in love with her target'—those were the last words my mother ever said just before she turned the gun on herself."

Mitsuko felt her tears surfacing, and she knew she had reached her limit. Arai was horrified, finding out that her cousin wasn't as sheltered as she had originally believed. Mitsuko collected herself before bringing things to the point.

"Arai, the reason I'm telling you this is because I want you to understand where I was coming from when the truth about you was discovered. I was horrified at the thought of, once again, being a convenient alibi so that someone I love could be used and manipulated for terrible purposes."

Arai hesitated before nodding. Mitsuko exhaled slowly.

"I understand your reasons for coming to us. I even understand why you lied…but I have to know: when I revealed my true relationship with Jiro to you, did you try to work that to your advantage?"

Their eyes met, searching each other before Arai broke away.

"…I get why you were so upset…as much as I hate to admit it, I'm more like your mother than you thought,' she muttered quietly. Mitsuko's heart stopped.

"I came to get reinforcements—but I thought I was just going to have to convince your father to let me lead his androids into my fight under the guise of protecting the family. I thought I could do that by appealing to our blood, but…once I found out that Jiro wasn't merely a soldier that he had created…I knew—even then, I knew that my plans were shot." Arai's voice was still hoarse, so she cleared her throat to continue. Mitsuko's heart had gradually begun beating again, furiously.

"But then, why did you go so far to help me if not to have access to Jiro?" Mitsuko asked her. In that moment, as Arai stared back up at her in wide-eyed desperation, Mitsuko could see her for the lost child she really was.

"Because you cried,' she whispered, 'because you cried in a way I couldn't; in that moment, you and I were the same—but you were in a position to get it back. You had a chance to recover what you lost, and I couldn't stop myself from helping you."

Mitsuko felt an unexpected tenderness bubbling up within her chest. Arai struggled to sit up, and Mitsuko steadied her, fretting over the IV needle being jostled about.

"Arai, be careful! Your ribs!"—Arai agreed that her ribs were tender, as she held a pillow in front of her.

"Mitsuko, I planned to take on a corrupt syndicate with mechanical soldiers—but listening to Fuuten, Mieko, and most of all, you…I realized they were so much more than that. Then, when I met them…that was when I knew my plans were doomed to fail; I could no more sacrifice them than I could my family."

Mitsuko was overwhelmed; she leaned forward, taking Arai's face in her hands and placing a soft kiss on her bruised forehead. Seconds later, Mitsuko felt hot tears threading through her fingers. As she wiped them away, Mitsuko turned her attention to the large stab wound in Arai's shoulder blade. When she finished wrapping it, Mitsuko cleaned the wounds on Arai's neck while she winced at the stinging.

"Arai…what would you have done had you not been found out?" Mitsuko asked tentatively. Arai pursed her lips in thought.

"I…probably would have disappeared the way your mother did. Maybe lay low until I could figure out another way to get revenge—I don't know…" she admitted. Mitsuko traced her cousin's hairline, directing some of the strands behind her ear.

"Well, I'm glad you didn't disappear,' she chimed softly, receiving an uncertain glance, '…you've earned your place in this family, Arai. We'll fight to get you back too, so please don't think of yourself as expendable…our family is so small as it is."

Arai flushed, unsure of what to say. When Mitsuko finished patching her up, she explained that she would have to administer a sedative to keep Arai calm so as not to damage her fractured ribs any further.

"Mitsuko,' she hesitated—'…could I please go to the bathroom first?"

Mitsuko laughed softly and helped her.

Jiro stood patiently outside the bedroom door, waiting for Mitsuko to come out. When she finally exited, Mitsuko turned to wrap her arms around Jiro's neck, pulling him close. He hesitated, but returned the embrace enthusiastically.

"You were right, Jiro. How is it you always know the best in people?" Mitsuko asked, planting soft kisses on his cheek and neck. Jiro resisted the unexpected, pleasant urge to shiver; he opted instead to lean closer to his beloved's ear.

"Because I know you."



A few more days passed; Arai slept more soundly than before; Mitsuko hoped this was due to the effects of catharsis.

Every day, Jiro waited in the hallway for Mitsuko's report, certain that he would be repeating it for his brother soon enough.

Yet, that day, Ichiro had yet to be spotted since sunrise—but Jiro had an idea as to where he was. Ichiro had taken to the roof for hours at a time after Mitsuko reported Arai's healing progress—otherwise, he'd kept out of sight for most of the time since they'd returned.

Meanwhile; Fuuten suggested that Jiro, Mitsuko and Ichiro should escort Arai back to Den's home while Rei and Mieko took Akira, Masaru and the released captive children back to the orphanage. The rest of the group, including Ikeda and his partner, Officer Kuri, flocked to the police department where they were currently searching through Arai's belongings for clues as to the hidden evidence that was more than likely left behind with her.

Masaru and, to everyone's surprise, Akira both protested returning to the orphanage instead of going home with Mitsuko to keep watch over Arai; Fortunately, Rei had been clever enough to point out that Masaru and Akira were both needed at the orphanage, for the five children they released from Shiro's stronghold were not very comfortable otherwise. One girl in particular, Hibiki, had the habit of nervously brushing, covering or tugging at her ears—and didn't appear to like separation from Masaru. The girl was so nervous around everyone else that she spoke only in whispers to the young Komyouji boy. After that, it wasn't hard to convince Masaru and Akira that it would be better to remain with their charges and get them gradually comfortable enough to testify in court.

Then the phone rang from downstairs. Jiro quietly proceeded to answer it when he noted the phone stopped ringing after the second tone. Stepping into the room, he found Ichiro muttering quietly and nodding a few moments before he hung up.

"Who was that?" Jiro queried gently. Ichiro turned around with his trademark smirk.

"It was that detective lady, Etsuko—she called to say they found a computer chip hidden inside one of the fans. Apparently if you turned the tassel ring on the fan she kept on her shoulder a certain way, you could remove a small piece that was only made to look like it was part of the handle. They're pulling up the files on the chip right now, so she said she'll call back if they find out anything more," Ichiro answered, mildly impressed with the discovery. Jiro felt relief wash over him.

"Mitsuko will be happy to hear it and so will Arai when she wakes up," Jiro surmised happily. Ichiro shifted his eyes in another direction for a second before he jerked his head up again.

"Oh, I almost forgot. The lady said Rei and Mieko are bringing the brats over since Masaru's all antsy," he said, feigning irritation. Jiro smiled and nodded.

"I don't blame him—he helped save her life, it's only natural he'd be worried for not hearing much after several days. Mitsuko is confident that Arai is healing well, so it won't be long before she's up and walking again," he reassured in a calming tone. Ichiro scoffed but let it go…then observed his brother silently for a moment.

"'Brother…not to be rude or anything, but you've been acting a bit odd lately…what's on your mind?" Jiro asked, genuinely concerned for his elder brother. Ichiro's eyes shifted to the floor for a moment before he responded in a tone that could only be described as somewhat…hurt.

"Jiro…when we first met up, I remember there was a lot going on at the time—but I thought I knew you. Then I find some girl in the woods crying on you and I discover you had this whole other life before us and—well…I mean, were you ever gonna say anything to me or Rei about this? I mean, if there had been more time and we hadn't been fighting anyone?"

Jiro was taken aback at seeing the innocent confusion on his brother's normally cynical, teasing face. He ran a hand through his hair nervously.

"Well…like you said, there had been other things to deal with at the time…so you never really asked—"

"But you still could have mentioned—"

"—I probably could have…' Jiro sighed, stepping out from the room to look back up the stairway, '…but it was painful to remember at the time. So long as there was a chance I could attract danger, Gil was right; I couldn't live happily with Mitsuko—no matter how much I loved her. Still…one day I thought I would ask Mr. Hattori to try to check on the Komyouji family for me, just to see if they were well—but on the way, I saw a girl running away from robots with a little boy in her arms…"

"Rieko…and then after that, you found the rest of us, right?" Ichiro finished for him. Jiro nodded with a small, apologetic smile. Letting out a sigh, Ichiro found himself feeling lighter.

"It's just been a tough break all around, hasn't it?' Ichiro chuckled, shaking his head.

The quiet moment was interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell just then…


 

Looking up from watching Ikeda and Kuri search the files on the computer monitor, Etsuko watched her boss walk quietly back into the room, an exasperation written all over his face. She walked over to him with a cup of coffee, which he accepted greatly.

"So…how did it go?" she murmured after he swallowed a gulp. Hanpei removed his hat and rubbed his temple.

"He's still as pompous as ever…but I'm glad I called him," he grinned; Etsuko giggled behind her hand. Hanpei watched her affectionately, running a hand over his head slowly. Etsuko sensed something was amiss and looked up expectantly. He closed his eyes in a smile, knowing she was paying attention.

"Yes…there's more. Turns out I'm gonna be an uncle pretty soon—how d'ya like that?" Etsuko's eyes widened in surprise, and she clasped her hands happily.

"Oh, how wonderful! Congratulations, sir!" she exclaimed as loudly as she could without disrupting the rookie officers' concentrations. Fuuten and Den had accompanied Gunta down to the interrogation room for documentation on what exactly had happened little over a week ago and would not return for a little while. A few more moments passed in silence, save for Kuri's rapid typing.

"Say…Etsuko—I was just thinking, I mean…we've been working together a long time and all—and you've always kept me from losing my head and…well…"

Etsuko's smile vanished and was replaced by a curious head tilt, along with a noticeable pink tinge to the apples of her cheeks.

"…Sir?" Hanpei loosened his collar before looking down at his assistant.

"…How'd you like to be an aunt?" –Etsuko's cheeks flared as she gaped at Hanpei, who chuckled nervously.

"Found it!" exclaimed Kuri, startling the pair of detectives thoroughly. Ikeda let out a victorious whoop and clapped his partner on the shoulder as he printed off the various pieces of the long lost evidence.

"You serious? I'll get the Chief over right—huh?" Hanpei started before Etsuko's hand wrenched around his collar and forced him to come down a few inches. She planted a quick kiss on his cheek.

"—I'll think about it…now go!" she said, shoving him out of the room.


 

Mieko looked down from the bedroom window at the yard where Jiro and Ichiro took up the task of amusing the children while she and Rei checked in on Arai, giving Mitsuko a much deserved break.

"I can't believe how sneaky that little Rieko is! First she convinces Akira to sneak another ride into a dangerous situation, and then she refuses to stay behind when we take Masaru home. I'm actually surprised at how gutsy Akira has gotten…he wouldn't stay behind either," Mieko mused softly, reluctantly smirking down at Rieko and Masaru as they teamed up on the eldest Kikaider brother. Rei looked up from his seat by the girl's bedside and gave a small smile.

"It was not without gain—if not for Akira and his hidden ability, we may not have been able to recover those abducted children." Mieko broke her gaze away from Masaru as he tried to coach the meek Hibiki into some sort of game they were now all involved in.

"About that…that's another thing I don't get—why didn't he mention it earlier?"

Rei then extracted the polished harmonica from his pocket, contemplating.

"Perhaps he considered it a reminder of a past he wanted to move on from." They sat in silence for a few moments when there was a stirring from the bed.

"…Hnngghh…ah-ah-oww...I feel like shi—"

"Arai! You're awake—how are your wounds?" Mieko asked, placing a hand on the girl's throbbing head. Wincing, Arai tentatively popped her back, slouching afterwards.

"I think I'll live…where is everyone? Did something—?" she began, a sudden look of panic crossing the parts of her face that weren't hidden by gauze.

"Everyone else is fine. We were all concerned with your health though—Mitsuko said it had been a few days since you last awoke," Rei assured her, bringing the covers up to shield her mostly bandaged chest from view. The disoriented girl smiled appreciatively, rubbing the cold skin around the IV needle in her right hand.

"Few days, huh…? Well, that explains why I feel so gross, hehe—ooh!" she broke from her chortling when her bruised ribs protested. Mieko gently massaged the lower ribs through the blanket, taking her seat by the girl on the bed. Rei then extracted something else from his pocket.

"Fuuten managed to retrieve this from the police department that investigated your parents' murders…they meant to give this to you some time ago, but they did not know how to contact you," he explained, carefully taking the girl's hand.

He deposited a pair of matching gold bands.

Arai kept her head down and smiled mutely for a few moments—then tears began to flow down her cheeks. Mieko, though somewhat confused, withheld her questions and chose to gently wrap an arm around the girl's shoulders comfortingly.

"Oi, pretty girls like us shouldn't weep when we get jewelry from handsome men, right?" Mieko lightly teased, hoping her little diversion would work—the respiratory movements made by crying wouldn't be too pleasant on Arai's healing ribcage. She sniffed appreciatively, wiping at her downcast eyes.

"Oh yes, I'm a real knockout right now…" Arai murmured sarcastically. Mieko sighed—then pinched the girl's ear.

"In your condition, do you really intend to argue with me about it?" she said, leaning in with a challenging smirk, much akin to Ichiro's.

"Besides…' she went on, '…I've looked worse. At least you still have all your limbs attached, hm?" Mieko grinned—Rei flinched unexpectedly at the hidden implication in the lady android's all-too-casual quip…he shook his head and looked back at the pair to find the girl leaning into Mieko's embrace with a deep sigh. Rei decided to take his seat on her other side.

He wasn't sure what prompted him to do so, but he just felt it needed to be done. Laying a gentle hand on Mieko's over the girl's good shoulder, Rei leaned in so he could whisper.

"I'm not going to pretend that I can fully understand the pain of losing a family—but I will tell you that it is wiser to live for the family you still have…" he spoke softly, relieved to see the gradual beaming smile he was answered with.

"Yeah…I kind of came to that conclusion during my nap…thank you,' Arai admitted gently, carefully brushing back a dulled strand of plum behind her ear before wobbling into a standing position. They watched her curiously when she then turned around and placed her IV needle on the bedside table.

"What are you doing? You shouldn't strain yourself—" Mieko admonished, standing up to check on the girl's hand. Arai peeled off one of the thick gauze pads on her right cheek and used the clean side to wipe up the dribble of blood that escaped from the puncture wound inflicted by the needle.

"You shouldn't stand too close to me, I smell terrible. I'm going to shower now," she snickered before staggering towards the bathroom. Mieko 'hmph'-ed in annoyance and flopped back down on the bed beside Rei, who suddenly began to smile a few moments after the water started in the adjacent room.

"So…Mieko…you think me 'handsome'?" he questioned with a faint smirk in his voice, turning to her. She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow at him.

"Real cute," she sulked, before sauntering from the bedroom with a playful grin.


 

Mitsuko hung up the phone and let out a relieved sigh before she ran towards the door to her front yard.

Leaping down from the steps, she looked around until she found the little group in the midst of a game of hide-and-seek. Turning to the left, she just saw a tuft of dark, wayward hair disappear behind a nearby tree into the shrubbery. Crouching down on all fours, she stalked silently towards him like a cat—and pounced on a very wide-eyed, unsuspecting mouse.

"Mitsuko…?" Jiro squeaked while the lovely woman fought back fits of giggles, leaning over him.

"Ugh, come on; if you're going to do that, get away from my tree, please—" teased Ichiro from the overhanging limb. It wasn't long before the children were attracted to the commotion. Masaru flushed at his sister, but coughed into his hand to hide his embarrassment.

"Sis, you ruined the game!" he complained, keeping his eyes shut. Finally quieting herself, Mitsuko waved apologetically.

"I'm sorry, Masaru, but it's important! They found the evidence needed—the police are now in the process of going out to arrest the other associates of DARK that were seen in Mr. Gunta's pictures! Father and the others will be returning shortly—we need to get ready! Jiro, would you please go tell Rei and Mieko? I'm going to go order something so we can all celebrate!"—And suddenly she was off, grabbing up the shy Hibiki who was also smiling timidly and reaching for her. Masaru grinned while Rieko cheered loudly, grabbing up Akira's hand and running off behind the house towards the storage shed…

Jiro smiled brightly and set off for the house, calling back for Ichiro to watch the children while he climbed the steps; he met Mieko on the way.

"What's the hurry?" she asked, steadying herself with the railing. Rei had just appeared at the top of the staircase and looked down curiously, waiting for his brother's explanation.

"The police can now start going after whatever remains of DARK…it's like finally being freed from a curse," Jiro answered with a glowing smile, for he looked forward to living without combat every other day. Mieko looked behind her and hid a smile.

"You'd better go tell that stubborn girl up there," Mieko said teasingly before she passed by Jiro and went down to find Akira and Rieko in hopes of staving off one of Rieko's standard celebrations of rampant noise and trouble.

"You mean she woke up?" Jiro asked, eyes widening in proportion to his smile. Rei nodded as Jiro climbed the rest of the steps, moving toward the room.

"You will have to wait a moment, she is finishing a bath," Rei warned in an offhanded tone, halting his older brother by the shoulder. Jiro nodded and contented himself with waiting just outside the door.

"Why don't you go tell Ichiro she's up? He doesn't really say it, but I think he's been worried—" Jiro suggested before he was halted by a motion from Rei, indicating quiet. Cautiously, Rei gave a quick glance around to see who was within earshot.

"I will—in approximately ten more minutes. I doubt very much that Ichiro would wait outside politely if I told him now," he explained, the corners of his mouth upturned slightly. Jiro chuckled and nodded, prompting Rei to descend the staircase to join Mieko. Turning his attention back to the door after a few moments, Jiro heard shuffling within the room and he knocked quietly.

"Come in!"

Cautiously, Jiro slowly opened the door and, seeing she was decently attired in a light cotton lavender dress of Mitsuko's, entered and shut the door behind him.

"I'm relieved—everyone will be glad to see you awake,' he sighed contentedly, suddenly brightening, '—hey! I have good news! The police—"

"I-I know…I was listening," Arai answered calmly, trying to pull the skirt down further. Jiro raised a curious eyebrow.

"But I thought you'd be happy…?" he said in confusion. Arai shook her head and smiled gently.

"Don't misunderstand—It's just…it's a bittersweet victory, you know? Most of the damage has been done already—still…I know it could have been much worse…' she trailed off, turning to gaze down from the window just as Rieko and Akira returned with something which was quickly taken up and scrutinized by Masaru. Arai suddenly sighed and Jiro waited patiently, not sure what to say.

"Listen, Jiro...can we talk for a minute?"

Curious, Jiro pulled up the nearest chair to sit down. Arai sat back on the bed across from him, readying herself.

"Jiro, I…I apologize for dragging you into my fight. I mean, that was my plan before, but after listening to Mitsuko…and then actually meeting you, I…,' she sighed, trying not to stammer. Sensing her honesty, Jiro began to smile.

"It's all right—"

"No, it isn't!' Arai tersely interrupted; she covered her eyes with a hand momentarily, '…sorry, it's…Jiro, I know we don't have a lot of history, but even I can tell you're the peaceful type. My personal grudge brought you back into the battlefield, and it wasn't fair of me to do that—not to you. Not to my family."

The room was silent before Arai began to mutter to herself.

"…If anyone had been hurt or worse…I definitely wouldn't forgive myself…"

Before Arai had noticed it, Jiro had reseated himself next to her, placing a steady hand on her shoulder.

"Arai, I understand what you're saying, but in a way, I'm very glad things happened as they did,'—Jiro's eyes twinkled at her look of disbelief.

'I mean it—if it hadn't been for you, I may not have ever been able to return to Mitsuko. Not only that, you helped my brothers after I—,' Jiro broke off, hesitating, '…you helped in giving back my brothers' lives. You managed to bring my whole family together—for that, I am beyond grateful."

Arai looked away, sighing incredulously.

"You make it sound like I'm a heroine of some sort," she scoffed, slightly embarrassed. Jiro regarded her seriously.

"You nearly lost your life trying to save all of ours; technically, you are." Arai rolled her eyes, to which Jiro merely laughed. After a moment, Arai began to fidget with her hands.

"I wasn't expecting it, but…thanks for coming to get me," she murmured, barely above a whisper. Nonetheless, Jiro caught her gratitude, extending his arm gently around her shoulders.

"Hey, don't mention it—no matter what you did, there was no way we were going to let them take you from us," he replied kindly. Arai returned an uneasy smile that faded quickly; her anxiety couldn't seem to be stilled.

"Jiro...don't you ever get mad?" The question, so meekly asked, managed to catch Jiro off guard; unconsciously, his hand gripped the bed, and he nodded.

"Furious—it's part of what kept me away for so long…' he answered quietly. Arai leaned closer, her interest roused. Jiro glanced at her, taking a deep breath before continuing.

"They told you what happened—what Gil did to me; to us." Arai nodded slowly.

"The submission circuit?" Jiro nodded, closing his eyes shamefully.

"Because of that…thing…I can lie. I can kill anyone—even my own family,' his hands clenched, fighting down the tremulous emotions within him, '…I was so afraid of what might happen to Mitsuko and Masaru with the submission circuit in me…and after what I did to my brothers…I was devastated," Jiro stopped, feeling a hand on his shoulder. He turned to see Arai smiling sympathetically; his hands loosened their grip on the linens beneath him.

"Being human really isn't all it's cracked up to be, I'm afraid,' Arai commiserated; curiously, she spoke up '…so how do you tame it?"

Jiro let out a breath, finding his smile once more.

"It's not easy; at times, it was a constant struggle…but having everyone with me—it helps a lot," he answered. The girl next to him sat quietly, contemplating his conclusion.

"I see…your love for the others keeps you anchored, huh?' Arai mused; her eyes tensed, '…I wonder if it will be like that for me as well…I've already done a lot of…a lot of terrible things. I honestly can't be sure I wouldn't do them again if pushed—"

"It'll be different from now on; I'm sure of it," Jiro cut her off, sure in his conviction. Arai seemed dubious, but found herself unable to resist returning his smile.

"You're certain, huh?" Jiro nodded, standing up.

"Absolutely—we're here now, so the situation won't be that desperate again," Jiro assured confidently. Arai gulped as Jiro offered her his hand, trying to keep from being overwhelmed. As she climbed to her feet, Arai kept hold of his hand and caught his gaze.

"Thank you, Jiro. I'll do the same for you." Jiro detected a hidden meaning in the solemnity of her expression, raising his eyebrow.

"If for some reason you feel your control slipping, I promise I'll stop you from going too far," Arai explained without malice; a surge of relief welled within Jiro, for he knew this was no threat, but rather an oath. Jiro closed his eyes, brimming with gratitude.

"No need to get emotional, Jiro—I doubt that day will ever come; I saw how you were with Mitsuko back there...I think you would sooner tear apart Heaven and Earth before you ever laid hands on her," Arai grinned, feeling her good humor return as she reached to pat Jiro's hair.

"I'm afraid my track record is against me on that…though that was some time ago," Jiro straightened, flustered. Arai smiled as she moved toward the bedside table, extracting something from the drawer.

"Exactly—you're much stronger now," she replied, polishing something within the hem of her dress. Jiro smiled softly, though a question nagged at him.

"Arai…just why was Shiro trying to kill you?"

Arai paused, looking up with an unmistakable wince.

"Well…I devoted at least two years to ruining Shiro's plans where I could,' she explained as they entered the hallway at the top of the staircase, 'without getting into graphic detail, let's just say I cost him a substantial amount of money, stole back most of his potential test subjects and scared off his supply of grunts for hire." Jiro found the glib answer amusingly familiar.

"So you were a professional troublemaker, then?" he joked; she deliberately avoided eye contact, but flushed guiltily and feigned a cough.

"That might be putting it lightly—I suspect it may come back to bite me in the ass someday," Arai admitted, rubbing her arm.

"Remember: we're here—don't worry. Besides, if you can stand up to my brother, I think you can face any trouble," Jiro teased, grinning; he couldn't seem to help but enjoy this aspect of having family. Arai failed to hide her laughter.

"That's a good way to look at it," she mused. Arai stopped, turned to Jiro and placed a pair of rings in his palm. He regarded the jewelry with significance.

"It goes on this one,' Arai explained, pointing to his ring finger, '—the other is for Mitsuko, when you're ready to make it official."

...

She turned and headed back to her room. Jiro watched her inquisitively, but Arai only nodded, urging him to continue without her. When he looked back, he found Mitsuko at the bottom of the staircase just as she exited the kitchen; her cheeks were flushed prettily and she sighed in contentment.

Mitsuko's eyes then fell on Jiro as he walked down the last step to her. In that moment, they were alone and at peace. They wasted no time in closing the distance between them; Jiro let his hands travel up Mitsuko's back as she explored his front, finally settling her arms around his neck.

"I can't believe it's finally over,' Mitsuko breathed, nuzzling Jiro's neck. Jiro savored her warmth, resuming his favored position as he leaned his lips toward her ear.

"I understand completely,' he murmured, '…our lives can finally start."

Mitsuko's ear tingled pleasantly; she looked up into Jiro's eyes.

"I know; Jiro, there is so much I want to show you—there are so many places I want to take you," she declared, her enthusiasm mounting. Jiro couldn't fight down his grin—he had never seen her look so happy.

"Mitsuko, I will go anywhere with you—but can we also be like this? Together?" Mitsuko inhaled sharply, looking back into Jiro's eyes; they almost burned with intensity and Mitsuko found herself flushing for an entirely different reason.

"Jiro…"

Before she even realized it, Mitsuko had curled her fingers through his soft hair, pulling him down; Jiro was only too happy to comply as their lips touched and melded together.

Eventually, they broke apart, beaming.

"Always, Jiro…that has always been my wish," Mitsuko confessed, eyes shimmering with unshed elation. Feeling almost overwhelmed by relief, Jiro made no attempt to hide his joy as he seized upon the moment.

"I'm glad you said that, Mitsuko…" he breathed softly, taking her left hand…



...

"…In hindsight, I probably should have run ahead of him,' Arai muttered to herself, eyeing the large tree outside her bedroom window; she opened the window, gauging the distance, '…mm, fifty-fifty chance I can make the branch."

She crouched on the windowsill, swaying gently to build up momentum when—

"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!"

"KYAAAH!"

With the rhythm broken, Arai found herself fumbling her leap for the overhanging tree limb and barely catching hold. She hugged the branch tightly, despite the protests of her sore body. Looking down, she found Ichiro's eyes glaring disbelievingly at her…and wavering elsewhere; Arai suddenly remembered why she detested wearing dresses.

"Either help me down or stop staring!" she hissed venomously while Ichiro sneered up at her.

"Where would the fun be in—?"

-SNAP –

The branch gave way, promising Arai another trip to the hospital—until Ichiro caught her; Arai held her midsection guardedly, causing Ichiro mild concern despite his earlier obstinacy.

"Did something break…?" Ichiro asked, extending his fingers as though to probe her ribcage. However, thinking he intended something else, Arai stopped his hand and swatted it away.

"I'm fine," she reassured, taking his hand as he stood up. After brushing herself off, Arai meant to walk around to the front of the house; instead, she found herself held back by Ichiro's sobering expression.

"Why'd you do it…?" he interrogated, unusually quiet. The bandaged girl raised an eyebrow mildly, and then shrugged with an offhand wave at the tree.

"I thought I'd give Mitsuko and your brother a little private—"

"Not the tree!' snapped Ichiro, 'Why'd you go off on your own into that suicide mission! You lied—you had no intention of coming back, did you?"

Arai, momentarily taken aback, lowered her eyes in resignation.

"…No…I wasn't expecting to make it out of there alive; not the first plan to go awry, I guess—"

"Why?! Did you even care what your family would feel, knowing that you went and got yourself killed?" Ichiro exploded angrily.

There was shame in her dark eyes; an embarrassed flush danced lightly over the bridge of her nose.

"I was counting on them to hate me enough to get over it—" Arai reluctantly admitted; Ichiro's glare gradually began to override his confusion.

"And me?" His blank stare belied the tension in his voice; there was a biting challenge in the question. Arai watched him tentatively.

"I was under the impression you hated me already."

Ichiro advanced on her steadily; suddenly, Arai found herself very near to the wall.

"If you think that's funny, it's not,' he glowered; Arai kept his gaze, unflinching. Ichiro slapped the wall behind her in frustration, 'Dammit, you're not that stupid, so stop playing dumb! I wouldn't spend a whole night tracking down people I hate! I sure as hell don't waste my time comforting them—I didn't storm a fortress, trying to rescue someone I despise. I should hate you for throwing my efforts back in my face the way you did but even now, I just want to know why!"

Arai felt herself at a loss for words, realizing that Ichiro was genuinely wounded. Still, she owed him an answer. Inhaling deeply, she braced herself.

"Because I wanted to disappear."

The air stilled; Ichiro stared pensively, waiting for elaboration. Arai let her breath out in a slow sigh.

"I devoted the last two years of my life hunting down a vague enemy—not even a name, just some shady organization; I find out later that the death of my parents could have been avoided had I just swallowed my pride and visited my mother once in a while?"

Ichiro balked, confused.

"…What are you saying? Are you seriously blaming yourself?" Arai kept her face down; her eyes grew hard.

"In a way, it is true; my mother never would have needed pictures of me if I had just agreed to see her occasionally,' she reasoned, '—with that in mind, in addition to everything I did wrong up to that point, I panicked. At the time, dying and taking down Shiro with me seemed like the best thing I could do for the family—"

"But that's completely—!"

"Stupid?' Arai finished for Ichiro, facing him once again. Ichiro fell quiet as she sighed, 'Yeah…I know that now. Even if I died, the things I did wouldn't magically disappear. I would just become a confusing and unpleasant memory before I was eventually forgotten…"

The expression on Ichiro's face was unsettled at best. Arai took note and shook her head.

"Believe it or not, I actually do care what my family thinks of me, and that's not how I want to go out," she reassured. Ichiro shook his head as if warding off something irritating as he pushed off the wall behind Arai, giving them some space.

"I just don't get how you can think any of this is your fault—say you did see your mom once in a while; who's to say she wouldn't have wanted pictures anyway? Do you really think she would have been any safer with that sicko? D'you think you would have been safe as a little girl? We already have 5 reasons to the contrary in case you forgot—"

Ichiro broke off as he turned back to Arai, catching sight of her face as the color drained from it. He cocked his head at her curiously before he walked back to her, grabbing her face with his hands.

"Fruit loops? You in there?" Arai seemed to come back to herself with a slight shudder.

"Yea, I just…ugh, you're probably right. That bastard implied as much when he said—..."Arai broke off abruptly, her face contorted in revulsion. Ichiro frowned, concerned.

"What'd he say?" Ichiro asked; his voice was low as he bent closer to her. Arai removed his hands from her face, shaking her head vigorously.

"…It was that bad, huh?" Their eyes met, and Ichiro saw a savage glint that he was glad to not have directed at him.

"If I hadn't been chained up, I would have torn his throat out."

Her tone was like cold fury; Ichiro leaned back to fully take in Arai's appearance, his eyes lingering on the various bruises and cuts. His thumb brushed over her healing lip unconsciously, causing her to just barely flinch. Ichiro nodded in understanding, feeling his own anger lapping at the surface of his mind.

"I can sympathize with that—that asshole sure loved the sound of his own voice," Ichiro agreed, grinning darkly.

It was an offhanded remark, but it was enough to break Arai from the tension of her darker thoughts. She snorted, anger giving way to humor as she laughed in spite of her tender ribcage. Ichiro allowed himself to chuckle, his initial frustration ebbing as relief took over.

Quieting herself, Arai clapped her hands on Ichiro's shoulders, and she smiled gratefully.

"Listen, Ichiro—I'm sorry. You were there for me when I needed you, and I repaid that kindness with a taser-induced nap to keep you out of the action,' Arai paused at Ichiro's sour look; smiling apologetically, she tapped his nose with her finger, '—it was a very backhanded way to try and keep you safe, I admit. But I am very glad you came for me; so thank you…'

Ichiro was speechless at the sincerity; reluctantly, he let a smile cross his face. Then he felt fingers sliding up his jawline, into his hair; his eyes snapped open at the contact and he suddenly felt very uncomfortable.

Until her fingers hooked around his ear lobe and yanked roughly.

"—but if you ever lay hands on my tits without my permission again, I'll rearrange you entirely. We clear?" Grimacing, Ichiro nodded and her grip loosened. Rubbing his ear, they both turned to join the others at the front of the house. Before they turned the corner, Ichiro couldn't stop himself from asking another question.

"I don't get it—why does everyone make a big deal out of this? And let me tell you, it's damn near impossible to find your heartbeat in those things—" Ichiro cut off shortly, catching Arai's gaping incredulity at his query. It was a full minute where Ichiro found himself under her scrutiny before she pinched the bridge of her nose, as though a headache were approaching. Straightening decisively, Arai marched over to Ichiro.

"Okay, first off, if you wanna find a pulse, you place your fingers here on the throat,' Arai explained, guiding Ichiro's index and middle fingers to her carotid artery. Feeling the gentle rhythm, he made an 'oh' of recognition. Arai then took a deep breath, gesturing for Ichiro to lean down so she could whisper into his ear.

A few minutes later, Ichiro's jaw dropped in a horrified stupor. Arai shrugged, her face rather pinkish.

"So then if only lovers get to—then my brother…Jiro and Mitsuko are…they're gonna…?" Ichiro blurted out, hissing in an attempt to be discreet. Arai squinted back in pure disbelief.

"I tell you what the big deal is and that's all you take away from it?" she shot back, exasperated. Ichiro didn't seem to hear her as his brain refused to leave the scenario he had conjured up.

"My innocent little saintly brother is gonna feel up Mitsuko?"

-SMACK-

"This conversation is over! No—it never happened! I'm not discussing this!"

Ichiro nursed the back of his head and chased after Arai as she tore around the corner, toward the flowing melody of a guitar.



"Arai!" Masaru turned, greeting his cousin.

"Yo!" she replied with a wave, setting down gently beside him. Akira smiled politely at her, and then resumed goggling at Rieko while she enthusiastically clasped her hands together during the more playful notes of the song. Hibiki silently giggled and relaxed into a sitting position on Masaru's other side.

"Geez, Jiro--first you didn't tell your big brother about your girlfriend, now I find you were hiding musical talent as well?" scolded Ichiro jokingly. Masaru grinned and stuck out his tongue.

"Ah, give him a break—he just got it back!" Mitsuko leaned over Jiro's back as he sat, gently encircling her arms around his neck.

"This song—it's different from the one I remember, isn't it?" she queried softly into his ear. Jiro nodded and cast a glance around him and back at the gate just as a car entered the driveway, no doubt containing Dr. Komyouji, Gunta and the detectives.

"It's a different song because I'm not sad or lonely anymore," he admitted, tilting his head back toward her cheek. Mieko smiled, crossing her arms while Rei chose to greet the approaching company. Fuuten was the first to emerge from the car.

"Well if this isn't a lovely gathering…good to see you awake, my dear," Fuuten noted upon greeting. Arai smiled up at him and her uncle, who sighed in relief.

"Everything will be all right now," Den breathed, patting Masaru on the head as he received a hug from his son and was about to receive another from Mitsuko.

"Ikeda and his force are going out to make the drop on the other members of the DARK syndicate thanks to Gunta's pictures and Dr. Komyouji's ingenuity. In the meantime, Officer Kuri is alerting the media!" Etsuko said excitedly. Hanpei gave his trademark grin and nodded; Arai watched Gunta curiously as he winked at her and set up his camera in the background.

"Yep—looks like it's finally over for DARK. Congratulations, everyone!" the detective said, giving a thumbs up to the group. Then to Arai, he tossed her fans back to her.

"I doubt you'll ever need to use it again, but it might make a nice mantelpiece," he said with a wink. Arai smiled, thanking him with a quick bow of the head; her eyes lingered on something shiny on his left hand. Apparently Hibiki noticed too...when she leaned back from Masaru's ear…

"Hey, Etsuko? Hibiki says that's a pretty ring you have—is there something you're not telling us?" the boy insinuated in a mischievous tone, making the assistant blush while her fiancé loosened his collar.

"What a lovely shade of red, Miss Sarutobi—Oh, I mean 'Mrs. Hattori', hm?" Mieko teased playfully while Rei looked around expectantly for someone to explain the importance. Ichiro also noticed the exchanged, significant glances between Jiro and Mitsuko.

"This is quite the day for celebration; I'm going to go change into some clean clothes, if you'll excuse me—" Den announced happily, entering the house.

"Oi, Mitsuko-neechan has a pretty ring on too!" exclaimed Rieko, examining the band. Akira noticed an odd bump under the glove on Jiro's left hand and pointed to it with a meaningful glance toward Masaru.

"...WHAT?!" Den popped his head back out of the entrance.

-Click-

"Just the shot I was waiting for," Gunta chuckled, appearing from behind the lens. Arai hid a smile behind her hand, winking at the photographer in a conspiring manner; she'd figured he would be the first one to notice the subtle details.

"Well, this is wonderful! It seems I might be performing a double ceremony then?" chuckled the monk lightly, making Arai wince through another round of giggles.


 

Stretching out lazily from a long nap, the cat nimbly crept down from his groove in the bed and nuzzled around the ankles of his lovely nursemaid.

"Oh, Kitty, were you always this affectionate?" the woman purred back at the feline as she picked him up. He made no move to resist, and even sniffed at the flower as the woman carried him over to the window.

"This city…I'm debating something, Mr. Cat," she talked aloud as though the cat could converse with her. Perhaps he could, for he perked his ears and tilted his head up at her, getting a good view of her usual wistful smile.

"Mreow?"

"This city…it's so depressing, isn't it? I…I promised someone that I would wait here for him always…" she confessed, taking a seat at her table. The cat flicked his tail thoughtfully and looked back up at her.

"Oh—what's with that look? It's almost as though you look sorry, Kitty!" she chuckled softly, scratching the cat between the ears. The odd expression remained fixed on the felines visage.

"In any case…it's been a long time now…I don't think he's here anymore. I think perhaps…perhaps I might have a better chance of running across him out there, where the sun shines, y'know? After all…I can't take care of my flower if I stay here, right?"

Gesturing to the slightly wilting lily, the cat laid his front paws on the lady's collarbone and gave a few quick licks to Miyuki's cheek, tickling her.

"I'm glad you agree, you handsome thing!' she giggled, stroking his fur softly, '—And even if I never find him—I still have you, don't I?" winked Miyuki before a radiant smile shone on her face. The cat meowed enthusiastically and nuzzled her chin.

"Hm, I suppose I'd better give you a real name then, huh? How about…Toru? It's a good, strong name, what do you think?" Miyuki chimed, getting up to retrieve some food for her old companion.

'Not nearly as strong as Miyuki…' he thought humbly, sweeping the floor with his tail. Miyuki blinked as she set the food bowl down.

"Oi, Toru-kun, you sure do make a lot of weird faces for a cat—" she teased.

"Meow?" Miyuki stood back up and stretched before relaxing into a sigh.

"—but I adore you anyway. Eat up, we're going to be moving soon!"

The lone sunbeam that shimmered over the flower grew just a little brighter…



(Approximately two weeks later…)

...

Crossing his arms, Ichiro irately shook the rice that Rieko snuck into the wedding ceremony from his hair, though he was thankful that it was at least dry this time. He was thankful still when Mieko went chasing the troublesome little imp for pelting everyone besides the newly wedded couples. He didn't understand why Mieko kept throwing accusing looks at a particular orphanage matron every time she and Rei were pelted with the grains though…

Shrugging the last of the white specks from his head, Ichiro turned his attention back to his brothers; namely the attire Jiro was wearing for the ceremony. Rei chose to inspect the band around Jiro's left finger.

"Humans are quite strange, placing such meaning behind something so simple-looking…intriguing, nonetheless," observed Rei. Ichiro just shook his head, glad that Jiro wouldn't be in his wedding outfit for long—he couldn't get used to it.

Much like he couldn't get used to wearing the annoying suit for the occasion—Ichiro still wasn't sure how he got talked into it. All he could remember was something about 'bruises' and a lot of badgering from the brats. Oh, there was also an occasional 'Would you like to be disassembled and dressed piece by piece and then put back together'—though from Mieko or Arai, he didn't care to remember.

"Jiro, why a human?" Ichiro asked, snapping both brothers to attention; confusion settled on Jiro's furrowed brows, though Rei considered the question thoughtfully.

"Brother…what do you mean?" Jiro asked quietly.

"I've got nothing against Mitsuko—she's actually pretty impressive as far as humans go—just…why did you fall for a human? I mean, isn't this just a set up for trouble later…? Humans are…I mean…they're just so fragile—what are you going to do when all of them bite the dust as they eventually will?" Ichiro queried, eyes shifting uneasily between the bridegroom brother and the bride across the yard.

"Ichiro…humans are not as frail as you think. And there is no telling when any of us will pass on, to be honest—not one of us is really immortal, you know…" Jiro replied, trailing off with trace of guilt darkening his eyes. The eldest of the trio took a step closer.

"One big difference—we can be rebuilt," Ichiro said solemnly.

"That may not hold true anymore, Ichiro,' Rei interrupted, gaining their attention, 'we were fortunate the first time, but now that we have Gemini circuits…we have grown. If we were to be destroyed again, the chances of us being rebuilt to precise accuracy of our current statuses are minimal. Essentially, we will have 'died'…"

Rei stared at his hands, contemplating what mortality meant for him.

"Rei is right—and besides…there is another reason…something that I noticed pretty recently that's really strange,' Jiro added, absently adjusting the ring on his finger. Both brothers leaned in, awaiting explanation.

"I notice that with each day, my body and my skin…they feel a little warmer than before. Not only that—my sense of touch is noticing more subtleties that I didn't recognize before. I'm not sure if I can explain it, but I know that my body is changing…who knows? Maybe someday I won't even be able to transform anymore." A contented smile crossed the middle brother's lips, confusing the eldest thoroughly.

"And that doesn't bother you?!" Ichiro hissed quietly to avoid alerting others to the conversation. Jiro's face was practically glowing serenely.

"No…not really. If DARK is truly gone, then there is no reason for me to transform anymore," he said with a small grin. He turned and found Mitsuko making her way towards them, laughing gaily as the hem of her opalescent dress, exchanged for the formal kimono, danced behind her.

"I wonder, Ichiro…did that girl's recent brush with death have anything to do with your sudden concern for human mortality?" Rei mused, baiting, as he walked off to aid Mieko in heading off another one of Rieko's 'celebrations'—which, this time, included all the present children, though Akira made motions to sneak away to someplace hidden. Ichiro was left sputtering for a few moments after Jiro had discarded his haori, gathered up his lovely bride and resumed in rejoicing with the others.

"Excuse me, but WHAT?! Rei, get back here! This minute! I mea-mffhgghh!" Ichiro suddenly found his mouth full of frosting and his lips held closed. Arai smirked at him teasingly.

"Behave; save your fight for after the reception. You can behave that long, can't you?" Ichiro glared, but noticed that Arai had shed her formal attire for more practical traveling gear.

More importantly, Ichiro discovered that he could taste the sweetness of the cake frosting and hurried away, spitting it out frantically. Arai watched him go, curious at the lack of retort.

"Arai, are you leaving so soon?" Mitsuko asked in disappointment. Etsuko, too, swung around in her own cloud-white reception gown, reluctant to have anyone leave the reception early. Gunta paused in reloading his camera with film to pay attention as everyone else was. Putting on a kind smile, Arai adjusted the pins keeping her elegant twist in place.

"Um, it's just a quick trip, something I need to take care of…then I'll come back to get all the court matters settled," she reassured the brides and bridegrooms with a meek smile. Den got up from the table and walked over to his niece, staring at her thoughtfully before he wrapped her in a warm hug.

"Very well, but make sure it is soon—you are always welcome here, my dear niece," offered the old doctor sincerely, causing Arai to eventually soften into the embrace.

"Th-thank you…" was all she could muster before she quickly pulled the goggles over her eyes. Ichiro wasn't quite ready to let her leave just yet as he finished wiping his mouth.

"…Don't make me come after you, Fruit Loops," he muttered. Arai favored him with an incredulous snort.

"Ichiro—you keep that up and I'll start thinking you'll miss me," she retorted, earning a huffy sulk from Ichiro.

"Well, I better make haste. Ms. Mizunoe, I heard from a little nymph what you're up to—good luck with that!' she called over her shoulder at the old woman who was conveniently next to the monk, looking decidedly innocent. Rei raised an eyebrow curiously as Mieko uttered a betrayed 'hmph!' and turned away…with a reluctant smile.

'—As for the rest of you: don't worry! I'll be back long before anyone gets pregnant!"

Etsuko snickered blushingly, but Mitsuko was no longer laughing. In fact, Jiro grew alarmed at the rate of his wife's reddening face.

-CLICK-

"Make at least two copies, please? I want one!"

"Done!" Gunta promised, stuffing his fist into his mouth to muffle his laughter.

"A-Arai! Don't even—It's not…I mean—I don't think—!" Mitsuko stammered uncontrollably. Arai leaned forward, patiently resting her cheek on her hand with a grin.

"And androids can't cry, right? I think we know better than to put limits where they've been consistently broken," Arai lifted her goggles to eye the flustered bride and the groom, who seemed to be quietly pondering this thought before a blank look crossed his face.

"…I wonder what…maybe I should have asked…" Jiro innocently fretted, mumbling to himself. Mitsuko heard him and suddenly blinked, simultaneously paling as she was reddening.

-CLICK-

"That one too!"

Gunta failed to reply because he was already bent over in roaring laughter as if to make up for the pain of previous years. Rei leaned back from Den's ear after whispering a question—though it took a moment for the shock to wear off.

"Hm—oh? Well…he's already progressed so far past what I expected…and the Gemini is based on a DNA program, so the possibility isn't out of—oh...oh my…" muttered the doctor mostly to himself before he went to retrieve his old notes from within the house.

Before Mitsuko could find a suitably scathing retort, Arai had already sped off cackling the entire way…and when Mitsuko turned back around, she found her new husband concerned over Ichiro, who appeared to be torn between awkward discomfort and reluctant amusement.

"Ah, geez—Jiro, are you really coming to me for advice? Well, I guess…since I am your big brother, but…er. Well…I hear that you probably won't get punched now if you touch her—"Ichiro began, cupping his hands over his chest to try and make his point.

"NO!" Mitsuko interrupted, frantically pulling the bewildered Jiro away; the last thing she wanted was ANY explanations given to her newlywed husband from a clueless pervert.


 

...

So the day went on happily until the reception came to an end. The detective newlyweds first departed cheerfully, promising to call when they returned from a long-earned vacation. Gunta Momochi made a call to a number he took extensive measures to find; soon after, his old partner showed up. After a brief, emotional reunion, they set off to rebuild their lives.

Old Ms. Mizunoe had the brilliant idea of taking all the children to the orphanage for a sleep over with a trip to the zoo in the morning, to which Masaru eagerly looked forward to as he described various animals to Hibiki and Akira. Dr. Komyouji also agreed to join them so that he could share his knowledge with the children and spend some free time with his son.

Rei announced his decision to stay with Mieko at the orphanage to further his studies of the humans to better understand the development of his Gemini. Mieko was especially pleased with the decision—until she was pelted with another handful of rice.

Jiro and Mitsuko returned to the house, exhausted but elated. They would pack and head to the airport the next day to enjoy their honeymoon. Jiro was excited at the prospect, having never flown on any aircraft before, and Mitsuko couldn't wait to show her new husband the world now that he had no reason to hide from it.

Additionally, Jiro found himself enamored with Mitsuko's unbridled zeal, never having the opportunity to experience it before; he relished the concept of discovering other facets of Mitsuko's personality that she had otherwise hidden away.

As for Ichiro…


 

A lone figure dismounted a scarlet motorcycle in the city cemetery; the sunset on the horizon cast a silhouette upon a pair of students that argued as they walked home from school.

"Sabu-chan, you're so spaced out—didn't you hear my question just now?" a young girl scolded shrilly. Her male companion continued to walk by.

"Shhh—come on, Miyoppe! We're passing a gravesite, keep it down!" The male student responded in kind, lowering his voice. His companion grew flustered, taking note of the visitor down in the graveyard.

"Aah! I'm sorry, please excuse us!" Miyoppe shouted, bowing profusely. The rider waved the pair off calmly, amused by their banter as they hurried home.

Arai then exhaled steadily, surveying the new addition at her father's headstone. She was relieved to find that her mother's transfer had been completed without complication; now Ryo and Yuri Komyouji (nee' Ichiharu) lay side by side, evoking a sense of bittersweet closure for their young daughter.

As Arai set about cleaning the gravestones, she had a strong suspicion that she had experienced something ethereal as she had drifted between life and death—Arai was frustrated to realize she couldn't remember anything particularly well, other than the presence of her parents…possibly others?

She shook her head, clearing her mind as she prayed.

"Dad…Mom…I decided to bring you back together, so I hope nobody minds," whispered Arai, meekly. Licking her lips, she let herself utter a small wish, '…I miss you every day…but I'm going to try and move forward. Wish me luck…and if you see her, tell Ayatsu—no, Shizuku; if you see Shizuku, tell her that for me, please?"

A small breeze flowed through the air; Arai stood up quietly, dusting her knees off.

"You know, if you took the effort to follow me all this way, you can at least come out and greet my parents properly,' she reprimanded halfheartedly. There was a rustling of shrubbery before Ichiro emerged, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. Arai only chortled, waving him over.

After all, it was no surprise that Ichiro had followed; despite his curiosity, Ichiro did not want to find out what his brother and sister-in-law would or would not be doing on their wedding night.