Penance
Karlinn Brave Coroporate Logo

Chapters

1. Catching Up
2. Point of Entry
3. Haven't We Been Here Before?
4. Destination Unknown
5. Timely
6. In Absentia
7. 72881D
8. Enough to Go On
9. Stranger in Name Only
10. Steps
11. The Band
12. Shatter
13. One More Thing
14. As the Day Rolls By
15. Treatise
16. Bend the Rules
17. Missing Pieces
18. Break the Rules
19. You Can Only Lose Once
20. A Measure of Finality
21. Give Me Liberty
22. Returning to Life
23. Knowing Something About Everything
24. Start of a New Trail
25. A Look Back, A Step Forward
26. Directionless
27. A Thesis on Life
28. Dreaded Word
29. Who Played Who
30. Potential
31. Everybody Watch, Everybody Wave
32. Hiding in Plain Sight
33. In the Company of Gentlemen
34. Hiding in Plain Sight
35. Coalesce
36. The Date
37. Waiting for the Other Shoe
38. Know Thine Enemy
39. Keeping Score
40. A Final Layer
41. Mistakes, Crimes and Sins
42. Reason Enough
Epilogue



News: Charges Filed in CC Theft, Kidnapping Case

With the Global Cyber-Terrorism Conference over, and the violence of its final night just days old, Cyber Connect, the Japanese and United States governments have formally filed charges against those in custody. The surviving seven members of a group of sixteen, according to a statement by Tokyo police, have been charged with three counts of data theft, two counts of kidnapping and murder, several counts of attempted murder, and conspiracy to commit these and other lesser charges.

Cyber Connect, still reeling from the discovery that their own Vice-President was directing the operations of this group, has been reluctant to make a formal statement about the affair. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one source within the company said that, “Hakamura was enraged by Takahashi’s confession… he felt deeply betrayed. Takahashi was a friend of his, and the other staff being involved just made it worse.” Cyber Connect has not identified the software targeted for theft.

The details of the crime are currently sketchy, though it has been confirmed that the incidents at the Shikima building and Park Hotel are related. Four suspects were killed during the fight inside Cyber Connect HQ and the later gun battle at a tenement building not far from the plaza, though no civilian injuries were reported.

Five of the seven suspects have made formal confessions: Takahashi admitted to directing several illicit operations, one of which involved the death of Eugene Baxter (a former Cyber Connect programmer, who developed the software – codenamed Delphi – that was used in the theft); Aldous Rosenberg, of Asara Corporation, confessed to working with Takahashi to recruit others for the theft; Rosenberg’s driver, Walter Sutton, and bodyguard, Zachary Dumont, confessed to their complicity in the affair; and Yoshiro Monroe, an internet cafe clerk who had been arrested for felony hacking, admitted to helping the thieves write and modify their hacking software.

The other two suspects – Felix Croker and Masaru “Mako” Kochiro – have said nothing. Croker, who was wounded during the shootout, remains in stable condition at the Yokohama City University Medical Center, under constant police surveillance. Officials from the US Justice and State Departments, along with American and German embassies, are currently discussing trial proceedings with the Japanese government.

US President Coleman will arrive in Tokyo next week.

-

“What do you mean, ‘nothing happened’?”

Dean shrugged. “I showed up, picked up the car, we chatted for a bit, and then I left.”

Masamoto kept pace alongside him, their footfalls echoing down the mostly barren hallway. “It couldn’t have been that simple,” he remarked. “I thought there was more going on between you two.”

“So did I.” Dean moved over a little, letting a nurse wheel an empty gurney past him. “Well… okay, I also brought over a little something to say “thanks”, whipped up a bowl of oxtail soup.”

“Never had it,” said Masamoto, “but it sounds good. Did she like it?”

“Well, yeah, but… Ryo was there, too.”

Aniki arched an eyebrow. “Sakuma? Didn’t you say she and he…” he stopped, and then raised both eyebrows. “Oh.”

Dean nodded weakly. “Yeah. I mean, they were just talking, but it kinda… y’know, the mood, and all.”

“I understand.”

They neared one of the doors, next to which sat a bored-looking police officer. “I’ll tell you the rest later,” said Dean. “Would you mind waiting here? I’d prefer to do this by myself.”

“Sure.” Masamoto nodded to the officer, saying something in Japanese. He then turned to Dean. “Go on in.”

“Thanks.”

Dean opened the door and stepped through, entering the hospital bedroom. He heard the beeping of attached machines, the humming of the air conditioning, the noise of the TV to his left, but his eyes were focused squarely on the room’s occupant.

Lying flat on his back, Felix stared blankly at Dean, his hazel eyes half-open. His arms lay at his sides above the bed, one holding the TV remote and the other tended with reddened bandages.

“Well, well,” murmured Felix, his tired voice masking some of his contempt. “I was wondering when you’d show up to gloat.”

Dean closed the door behind him, sliding his hands smoothly into his coat pockets. He felt the gun concealed in one of them, his fingers nervously playing over the trigger. “I’m not here to gloat,” he replied calmly, stone-faced as he approached the bed.

“Oh, what for then?” Felix began. “No, wait, fuck it, I don’t care. You wouldn’t come here unless you had something to say. C’mon, hero,” he managed a derisive sneer, “I can tell you’re dying to say it.”

The detective felt his blood freeze and boil at the same time. He allowed his brow to furrow. “You put me through hell, Felix. You tormented that kid. Did you really think I was going to let that slide?” In his pocket, he wrapped his hand around the gun’s plastic grip. “Why?”

Felix rolled his eyes. “Spare me. Far as the papers are concerned, I’m just another cardboard cut-out bad guy. Who cares about the why?”

“Goddamnit, Felix, we were friends, partners even,” said Dean, starting to lose his cool. “Just tell me why.”

“I told you why on the roof.” Letting his head fall to the pillow, Felix replied, “And life… has its little bonuses.”

Dean could hear the smirk in his voice. “Cute, Simon.”

Felix countered one reference with another. “Right back at you, Mr. Spade.”

The detective let out a weighty sigh. “A lifetime ago, I might’ve laughed at that.”

A long pause. “Me too,” said Felix, without any obvious malice.

“Then why the kid? Why Hiro?”

“A cautionary measure,” Felix muttered honestly. “A bargaining chip, just in case a certain someone were to show up early… take your pick, Dean. It got to you, and that’s all I needed until it was over.” With a rueful smile, he added, “Though I have to admit, you and your… friends… worked quicker than I’d anticipated. Even I don’t believe it was idiot luck, not all of it, at least.”

“Thanks,” said Dean dryly. “Makes my day so much brighter.”

“Glad to help,” Felix replied. His face contorted to a cold, hostile stare. “Is that all, ‘detective’?”

Dean slipped his index finger into the trigger guard, just barely touching the trigger itself. “Well, there was one more thing, but,” he sighed, “I think I’ve heard enough.” He turned, and started towards the door.

He stopped in mid-step. “I’ll get out, you know,” Felix said matter-of-factly. “This isn’t over.”

Dean hung his head for a second, but resumed walking, albeit slowly.

“You, and that kid,” Felix spat, the anger in his voice rising. “I’ll be back for the both of you. Prison ain’t gonna hold me, Dean, it didn’t last time and it won’t now.”

He took another step.

“And I’m gonna pay that Miku bitch a visit, too.” There was an almost desperate quality to Felix’s voice, and he was visibly red-faced now. “I’m gonna make sure you see me do it, too. Nothing fancy, no jokes, no masquerade, just one bullet right between her eyes, and then it’s your turn, my friend.”

Dean gulped down hard, silently seething. He took one more step.

“You are dead, Stollis! You hear me!” Felix shouted, the bed rattling as he sat up. “I’m coming back for you, and everyone you ever cared about, you backstabbing piece of shit! You're fuckin' dead!”

He set his right hand on the doorknob. He could quite clearly picture the malicious grin on Felix’s face.

“I won’t miss next time.”

The knob turned under his hand; the door was yanked open from outside as Dean turned, pulled the gun out of his pocket, and fired.

Felix reeled back in shock as the projectile struck him in the forehead.

“Dean!” cried Masamoto. “What’s going on?”

Dean slowly lowered the gun. A shocked and horrified expression was painted on his target’s face, a bright orange plastic suction-cup dart stuck firmly to his head, just above the bridge of his nose.

“I didn’t miss,” Dean said simply, an empty and humorless look in his deep brown eyes.

He stormed towards the side of Felix’s bed, and the auburn-haired criminal clutched at the sides of the mattress. The dart fell off his face as he gazed up at Dean, his breath held and his eyes wide.

“The next one won’t, either.”

Felix’s face was a hardened mask of anger, but his white knuckles and sweaty brow belied his fear. The machine to his left made itself heard, beeping wildly in time with his pulse. He didn’t dare to exhale until Dean had left the room, rejoining the two baffled officers in the hall.

-

He peeled a chunk of bread away from the slice and tossed it into the water, in the direction of an approaching duck. The bird nonchalantly paddled over to the soaked piece, greedily gobbling it up with its long beak.

“Heh heh. Hungry, weren’t you?” Out of habit, he let a smiley face punctuate his question. He tore off another piece and let it drop, which the duck spotted and leisurely swam towards. “Eat it all up. It’s good for you.”

Kite smiled as he fed the duck, his ungloved hands making short work of the piece of bread. The item and feature were novelties at best, minor and recent additions during the last update. Still, he found it a fitting way to pass the time.

A passing boat sent tiny ripples through the water, and he noted a very small design flaw. The waves didn’t flow around the bird, instead passing through as if it wasn’t there. Almost imperceptible, yet it was enough to remind him where he was. And where he wasn’t.

(It really is over,) he thought, (but still…)

Kite closed his eyes, dropping the rest of the bread into the water. The noise about him – the dialogue and clatter of the Aqua Capital – served as a suitable distraction from the noise within: memories of shouted voices, worried cries, gunshots and running footsteps. Several days old, they were still fresh to him, and more than once had they kept him up at night.

One in particular had been burned into his mind: the barrel of a loaded submachine gun, pointed squarely at him and ready to fire, with a malicious and desperate-looking face behind it. He could hear the repeated clicking of the bolt, the report of gunfire; enough sometimes to imagine if the gun had indeed fired.

He couldn’t finish the thought. He was having trouble doing that lately.

“Well, look who it is.”

Kite saw the shadow out the corner of his eyes, and looked up at the speaker. He smiled, sweat on his player’s palms. “Hey, Yasu.”

The massive Blademaster grunted, amused. “It’s Orca,” he said in his character’s deep voice. “How’s it going?”

Kite turned his gaze back to the duck, watching as it greedily nibbled at the piece of bread. “All right, I guess. Not much happening.” He paused, “I just logged on because the house was too quiet.”

Orca tilted his head away from Kite, his brow wrinkled. “Huh? What do you mean?” he asked, sitting down next to the Twin Blade.

“Mom’s out running errands,” said Kite. “I didn’t feel like listening to music or watching TV, but I just needed…” he gave Orca an odd look, “I need some noise.”

“I see.” Orca leaned back on his hands. “You had some thinking to do? Or you trying to avoid thinking?”

“That’s it,” he murmured quietly, gazing down at his feet. “I’m trying not to.” The swallow that followed his words suggested he wasn’t succeeding.

Orca nodded, detachedly watching the other end of the canal. “I can understand that,” he said knowingly.

“How… how did you deal with it?” asked Kite, tentative and careful.

The Blademaster half-snorted. “Heh… who says I’m dealing with it?”

Kite glanced up at him, the Blademaster's eyes hinting at a silent pain. “Then how…”

Orca didn’t let him finish. “It isn’t easy,” he quietly admitted. “You close your eyes… you can still see it, still hear it.” He puckered his lips inward, chewing lightly on them. “You’re talking with friends, laughing, and then something will remind you of ‘The World’… of that dark, empty place…”

Kite inhaled through his nose, waiting for Orca to continue. He dropped his gaze directly into the canal, into the watery reflection of the buildings on the other side.

“For me, that’s how it is sometimes.” Orca shivered; Kite got the impression it wasn’t just the character. The Blademaster then turned to his shorter companion. “I know, uh… that it was a bit… different for you,” he said carefully, clenching his jaw.

“I guess,” Kite murmured. “It… seems so unreal now. But every time I think I’m over it… that feeling comes back.” He swallowed, his voice trembling. “Like I’m… like I’m still there.” He shrugged, looking up into the artificial sky. “I guess I know what you mean, even if it wasn’t the same…”

Orca said nothing, scraping his teeth side-to-side offline, himself almost able to picture staring into a loaded gun barrel. The thought sent a unique chill down his spine; helplessness and fear, as opposed to the isolation and emptiness he had endured.

He had no idea what was in store for him. Hiro, on the other hand, knew his fate to the letter. Yasuhiko couldn’t help but grumble softly, pained even by picture in his mind.

“Do you think… it will ever get better?” Kite asked, the faintest of hopes in his weary voice.

The brown-haired swordsman broke from his semi-trance, turning to Kite. To Kite’s surprise, he smiled, just slightly. “I learned a while ago that none of this goes away quietly… but it’ll get easier.” He lifted a hand, palm up, and gestured vaguely at the canal. “I doubt we’ll ever really forget what happened, but we’ll have other things to worry about someday… things that’ll put this all in perspective.”

Kite didn’t immediately answer. Orca choked back his own inner emptiness, and reached for the first thing that came to him.

“I was terrified on my first day of school,” Orca continued. “Every time I’ve had to go to the doctor, or meet someone new… when I was even younger I was scared of imaginary things, monsters under the bed, in the closet…” he grinned weakly. “Scared of the damn boogeyman.”

Despite his downtrodden posture, Kite couldn’t help but laugh softly. “Heh… you too?”

“Yeah,” Orca chuckled. “It seems so stupid now…” he looked away again, still smiling. “But it’ll pass. We’ve been through a lot, but what about things that happen offline? Car accidents, robberies, power outages, fights… there are a lot of scary things out there, Hiro.”

The Twin Blade silently agreed, but opted for a lighter answer. “Kite,” he corrected with a small smile.

Orca rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah… but do you understand what I’m saying? It’s all right to let things like this get to you… but there will be other things.” He looked up into the sky. “How did it go… was it, ‘This too shall pass’?”

Kite smiled wider. “It works for me.” He sat up straight, clenching and relaxing one of his hands. “You’re right. There will be other things to worry about… and we got past this, didn’t we?”

Orca grinned once again and slapped Kite on the back, causing him to pitch forward and almost lose his balance. “Heh heh! That’s the spirit. Believe me, we all get back up sooner or later. And when something puts us down again…”

“…we get back up again,” Kite finished, adding a smiley face. “Thanks, Orca.”

“Hey, that’s why I’m here.” The Blademaster smirked. “Well, that and to catch up.”

Kite chuckled. “Is that why you’re on now?”

“Nah, actually I just got back from that one field with Balmung. You know, where Aura was… well, taken?”

“Oh yeah,” said Kite, “it was posted on the boards how they closed it for ‘maintenance’. They let you in?”

“Lios wanted us to visually check the area,” Orca explained, “and see if we could find her. We didn’t see anything unusual, though. He said that he and Helba ran some kind of program. Didn’t say what it was, just that it broke her out of wherever she was being kept.”

“But she’s gone now?”

Orca shrugged. “Apparently. Lios said she was supposed to go into some kind of dormant state to recover.”

Kite nodded. He took off his cap, running his other hand through the mess of teal hair. “I think she’ll be okay, too.”

“If we will, she will,” Orca said firmly.

Smiling, Kite threw his cap back on and pulled the gloves out of his pockets. “Well, you said you wanted to catch up, right?” He stood up, taking a step back from the canal as he slipped into his gloves. “I think I owe you a powerlevel or two.”

Orca rose to his feet, turning towards the stairs behind them. “Sounds like a plan,” he said. As they started towards the main broadway, he said, “Oh, hey, almost forgot to ask. How’s things with BlackRose?”

Kite tugged on the gloves, wiggling his fingers further inside. “Actually,” he said with audible casualness, “I’m going to ask her out again, for this weekend. Maybe to go see a movie or something.”

“Or something?” inquired the Blademaster, raising an eyebrow in an all-too-suggestive manner. “Planning on making your move?” he added with a grin.

Offline, Hiroshi felt himself blush. “Hey, come on,” he urged. “Th-that’s… that’s not for a while now.”

“What’s not for a while now?” Orca pushed, still grinning. “C’mon, you can tell me.”

“You know what I mean,” Kite countered, defensive and slightly flustered. “You know how I am with girls… I’m not ready to, uh… you know…”

“Make your move?”

Kite leapt at the opportunity to take the ambiguous way out. “Yeah, that,” he admitted shyly, nevertheless unable to hide his smile.

Orca laughed to himself, but let it go. “Yeah, I know… I know.”

A spark of humor and mischief laced Kite’s next words. “Third date, at least,” he said, just loud enough to be heard.

The Blademaster’s bellowed laugh echoed long and loud through the capital.

-

She gestured to the plus sign, watching with mild fascination as the number rapidly shot up from one to ninety-nine. Satisfied, she hit ‘accept’ and closed out the menu, the transaction complete and her inventory filled to the brim with Fairy Orbs.

BlackRose turned away from the item shop and started towards the nearest bridge, crossing from one island of Dun Loireag to the next. The clouds below churned violently in the wind; the sky above, crystal clear and a brilliant orange.

(Let’s see. If I start now, maybe in a couple hours…) her train of thought quickly derailed as she spotted a familiar, green-clad Wavemaster near the Chaos Gate. (Wait… is that her?) she wondered absentmindedly, approaching the blonde woman. (Yeah, I thought so. I wonder what she’s up to?)

Although BT was facing the sunset, BlackRose noticed a vacant look on her face as she got closer. The character lacked the telltale signs of an absent player; she still showed idle movement. Still, the blank expression on the Wavemaster’s face suggested she was only partly there.

Confused and curious, BlackRose cleared her throat and spoke up. “Excuse me.”

“Hmm?” BT turned her head towards the Heavy Blade. “Ah, hello there. Sorry, I didn’t see you at first.”

The tone was less than warm; she couldn’t tell if the somewhat curt greeting was in or out of character for the older woman. “Y-yes,” she hesitantly replied. “I was just curious… you looked kinda like something was wrong.”

BlackRose tensed on the inside, the words awkward to hear and say. She loosened up when BT nodded, looking away. “I suppose you could say that,” the Wavemaster said cautiously. “I was… thinking.”

“About what?” the Heavy Blade asked.

To that, BT gave a rueful smile. “It’s complicated. I’ve had a lot on my mind lately.” She quickly added, “Of course, we all have, haven’t we?”

“Heh, you can say that again.” Saying it once caused the girl's mood to darken.

BT shook her head. “Forgive me, I… I’ve been thinking about The World, and me. I forgot you had your share of problems as well.” She faced BlackRose, adopting a look of concern. “How have you been feeling lately?”

“Better, thanks.” Offline, she scratched the back of her neck, brushing aside the tag on her shirt collar. “Hiro seems to be doing better, and it looks like Aura’s going to be okay too.”

“That’s good,” said BT. She frowned. “Dean told me a little about it… I feel bad for Hiroshi. I…” her face twitched, “I know what it feels like to… be taken.”

BlackRose couldn’t quite see the haunted look in BT’s eyes, but the word ‘taken’, and how she said it, told her plenty. “Yeah,” she murmured, “I… I was,” her throat tightened, her pride intervened, if briefly. She forced out the words. “Worried about him. I mean, he, uh… he wasn’t hurt or anything, but…”

BT nodded. “Being in a room with armed men… being threatened with death,” her voice quivered, “is pain enough.”

“How… how did it happen for you?” asked the Heavy Blade, with vague timidity.

The Wavemaster closed her eyes, curling her lips back. “They took us by force… burst into my home.” She sighed. “It was… unpleasant.”

BlackRose bit her lip gently. “I’m sorry…”

BT shook her head. “It was a while ago. And… I suppose things turned out well enough in the end.” She opened her eyes, looking off at the horizon. “If he hadn’t been there, though…” she began, almost wistful. She caught herself, and turned back BlackRose. “In any case, I can… empathize with your friend.”

“Yeah,” BlackRose mumbled. “One of the guys… Hiro mentioned that one of them was about to… y’know, shoot him.” She matched BT’s gaze. “He didn’t say much about it at the time, but… well, like you said, it’s bad enough by itself.”

“Mmm.” BT folded her arms loosely over her chest. “It’s difficult to think about. Even moreso not to.”

“I can almost see it sometimes,” said BlackRose. “We’ll be talking, and he’ll trail off… he’ll have this look, distant.” Her throat grew dry. “Like he’s not really there.”

Offline, Akira blindly reached towards her desk, feeling for the tall plastic cup. Her fingers bumped into its icy side, condensation lining the surface and soaking into the coaster below. She gripped the drink, bringing it up to her mouth and taking a quick sip from the straw, the cool liquid flowing down her throat and soothing it.

Taking the controller with both hands again, she continued. “I just know,” she said ruefully, “I mean, like you said, it’s not something you just forget…”

“Indeed,” BT replied. A strange look crossed her eyes, a flash of memory, a spark of insight. After a beat, she added, “Then again, you’d be surprised what a boy can get through.” An intentional pause. She nodded knowingly to the girl. “If he has friends he can trust.”

“You really think so?”

To this, she smiled faintly. “I’m certain of it. In fact… you could say I’ve seen it happen.”

BlackRose shared her smile; slow, tiny, yet hopeful, optimistic even. “I’ll take your word on it, then.” She glanced left, then right. “Anyway, we’ll be better once things finally get back to normal here.”

A soft chuckle was BT’s response. “The World? Normal?” she asked, her tone implying the question was rhetorical.

“Well, I mean like how things were before all the… you know…” BlackRose idly toed the ground, hanging her head.

“I know what you meant.” The Wavemaster looked down at her feet, her voice growing quiet. “Honestly… I hope so too.”

BlackRose had a hunch she wasn’t just talking about ‘The World’. “How about you?” she asked out of curiosity. “You said you had a lot on your mind?”

BT turned and paced for a few steps, slowly and deliberately. “Hmm… it’s somewhat personal.” She gave BlackRose a guarded look, as if to dissuade her from inquiring further, though her posture and pacing said otherwise. “Though you can probably guess,” she said half-heartedly.

The pink-haired girl went with the most obvious option. “Is it about… Dean?”

BT stopped in her tracks. “Good guess,” she murmured.

“So… what’s the problem?” Feeling a little intimidated, she added, “I-if you don’t mind my asking, I mean.”

Closing her eyes, BT answered, “This isn’t the first time I’ve… been in this kind of situation.” She took a deep breath. “To tell you the truth, it’s been a while since I met someone offline. I mean, without The World involved. And even so…”

“Yeah?”

“The ones I met in the game, well…” BT grew quiet for a moment, looking away, a glimmer of longing somewhere in her eyes. “Suffice it to say sometimes things don’t work out the way you’d like them to.”

BlackRose blinked. “That seems kinda obvious, really.”

BT chuckled, looking back at the Heavy Blade. “I suppose it is. Never mind, don’t worry about it,” she said dismissively. “Like I said, it’s not the first time I’ve had to deal with something like this.” Her thin façade cracked. “I just…”

“It’s all right, you don’t have to explain. I didn’t want to pry or anything.”

“No, it’s okay,” BT said quietly, “I’m just… conflicted, I suppose. Dean, he… he helped me, and I did what I could to help him.” She stopped, inhaled deeply. “He… fought for me. Saved me, even… I’m not even sure it’s about him, so much as… something else.”

“Something else?” BlackRose asked.

BT didn’t seem to hear her. “It’s just that all the… the men I’ve met, lately it seems like the only way I can is through the game. Dean’s the first man I’ve met out of the game in a long time. I don’t feel bad about it or anything… but I feel like I ought to. Especially after Cri…” she caught herself, stopping short. “F-forget about it, I’ll… I can handle it,” she finished unsteadily.

“If you say so,” said BlackRose. Her player casually glanced at the clock on the heads-up display, and she remembered her agenda for the day. “Well, I should probably get going. I was on my way to start looking for this thing I heard about on the boards.” She smiled, breaking eye contact. “It’s some kind of contest, they said there’s a rare Twin Blade item as a prize.”

A corner of BT’s mouth crooked upwards. “Really,” she said knowingly.

BlackRose chuckled and turned partly away, feeling a faint flush to her cheeks. “I thought he might like it.”

“Hmm.” BT nodded, smiling to herself as she watched the girl approach the Gate. “It sounds as though things are going well for you… two.” That last word tumbled uncomfortably past her lips, with notable hesitation.

The Heavy Blade threw a shrewd look at the Wavemaster. In a deliberately slow and contemplative tone, she said, “Let’s just say that… sometimes things do work out the way you’d like them to.”

BT couldn’t stop her smile from growing.

-

He tore open the packet of Sweet n’ Low, dumping the contents into the steaming black liquid before him. Taking the spoon, he started to stir as the man opposite him spoke up.

“So what’s the story?” Dean asked, setting down his cup of coffee.

The clink of the spoon against the cup mingled with voices chatting and other dishes clattering. Far from busy, the coffee joint had just enough of a crowd to where no specific conversation was audible. The sun shone through the window, slowly baking the table and everything on it, including the sleeve of Max’s suit jacket.

Stopping to adjusting the sleeve, Max replied, “Rosenberg’s going down hard. They’re finally taking my claims seriously. Better Business wants a piece of him, FTC… Asara’s going to be okay, though. They start looking for his replacement in a month or so.”

“Isn’t the vice-CEO or someone… whoever’s next in line, aren’t they in charge by default?”

“Nah, there’s a formal procedure,” said Max. “Cursory investigation to make sure any attached people aren’t also involved in whatever bad things went down, rescreening of viable employees, blah, blah.” He shook his head, taking a sip of his coffee. “It’s mostly for show, it’s all about seniority.” He then looked up with a small grin. “I am getting a raise, though, so that’s kinda’ cool.”

“Heh heh. Not too shabby.”

“I’ll say.” He waved dismissively. “But enough about that. What’s going down you and what’s-her-name… Miku, wasn’t it?”

Dean shrugged. “I don’t know, haven’t seen her since I picked up my car. Haven’t seen any of the World crew, really.”

“Been busy?”

“More or less, but it’s about to get worse.” He reached into his coat pocket, removing a folded-up piece of expensive-looking paper. “I got this in the mail yesterday. They picked a place for the trial, and apparently I’m to testify.”

“Where’s it happening?”

Dean unfolded the letter, handing it to Max. “I could tell ya,” he said faux-playfully, “but it’s more fun to read it.”

Max skimmed over the letter, reading a word here or there. He mentally blocked out the legal mumbo-jumbo, the language invented to keep things explicit and obtuse. When he came to the words ‘Washington DC,’ his eyebrows jumped just shy of an inch.

“That’s the look,” said Dean. “Right there, that’s what I looked like.”

“DC?” Max looked up. “Why did they settle on Washington?”

“A guy I know got in touch with Frank at Cyber Connect,” Dean explained. “The short of it is he was one of the few who hadn’t been purged or rotated out over The World, and he was also part of their efforts to upgrade the AIs.”

Max nodded slowly. “Yeah, you said something about this guy a while back. Tanaka, wasn’t it?”

“He’ll be there, too; the CIA was involved in the Echelon protocols that helped screw with Morganna’s programming in the first place. He knows a few guys at Langley who can corroborate his testimony.”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Max with a grin, handing back the letter. “It looks like you’re standing at ground zero for the trial of the century.”

“Yep.” He sighed. “And that’s part of the problem, man. I’m heading back this Saturday, and God only knows how long this will all take.”

Max took a long sip from his coffee, the drink now cool enough not to scald. “Maybe a year, maybe two… who knows.” He watched Dean plant his chin in his hand, staring through the window at the street outside. “You look less than happy about this,” Max remarked.

Dean sat up straight. “Yeah. Take a guess.”

“Miku hasn’t heard yet?”

"Nah," the detective grumbled, “There’s always something… it figures, doesn’t it. Haven’t so much as had a meal with a woman since Claire. Met Miku by chance, somehow manage not to piss her off. She finally warmed up to me, or so I gather, and just when I think it’s done I gotta be there to help clean up.”

“Cheer up, man, you’ll see her again,” said Max.

“Yeah, that I know, but it might be too late when I do.” Feeling a minor kink in his neck, Dean tilted his head and rubbed at the sore spot. “Mm… damn it. I just thought all the bullshit was over with, y’know? And, well, hell if I know how she really feels. There’s still Ryo, and he even said she had her eye on some guy from The World.” He released his neck, taking another sip of coffee. “I don’t know, man. There’s a couple of ways this is bugging me, I can’t settle on one.”

The blond agent looked away from the window, at the vacant table next to them. He drummed his fingers against the side of his cup, Dean’s frustrated face still visible out the corner of his eye.

“Mind if I level with you?” said Max, breaking the brief silence between them.

“Go ahead.”

Max met his eyes. “A while back, I met Hiro offline, after he’d deciphered the message you sent him.” He smiled. “Smart kid. Anyway, he asked me something then, something I didn’t get to answer. Namely, why I named my character TamonAdillo.”

“After the Poe story, right?”

“Yeah.” He laughed again. “Ah, well I told him at the time it was complicated, but, uh,” he fiddled idly with the spoon, “since you were there, you’d probably have a better idea what I mean.”

“How so?”

“Well, Rosenberg and I didn’t see eye to eye all the time, but there was always respect. There was always… maybe not trust, but a degree of honor. To be totally honest, he was actually considering me for an advisory position.”

“I take it things didn’t stay that way?”

“Nope. I don’t recall exactly when, but sometime back in 2009 – I’d been with the company for about four years by then – we started competing more heavily with Cyber Connect. He started…” Max frowned, “it’s like he became obsessed with beating them at their own game. Worked our dev teams some long hours; our OS guys were clocking some serious overtime. Beating Altimit suddenly became the new bottom line.”

Dean nodded, sipping at his coffee. “Go on.”

Sighing, Max continued. “The rest you can probably figure out. When he learned, I don’t know how, but when he found out about the AIs in ‘The World,’ and some of the stuff CC and Harald did, that was… well, not to wax dramatic, but that’s when he started going criminal.”

“I had a hunch he wasn’t telling us the whole story with Delphi, but I wasn’t sure.” He leaned back, taking a huge gulp from his cup. “The whole thing… I mean, I was kind of a Poe fan from way back, but this was the only time I’d been able to empathize with any of them.” His words and expression grew darker. “It came to a head the night before we left, we got into a bit of a shouting match over the phone. He, uh…” one of his fingers twitched, just barely, “…he said if I screwed up, that I shouldn’t bother returning.”

“Felt like that guy who thought he was going for wine, wound up getting walled in. Also felt like the guy doing the walling; the guy who felt betrayed by someone he thought he knew.” He chuckled weakly. “I guess that’s where it came from. M-more or less.” Forcing a meek smile, he added, “Also, Fortunado was taken.”

Dean held back his comments, save for a single, muted, “Damn, man.”

“Heh,” Max grunted. “I know, right? Anyway, I tell you that to tell you this. You look back, you think what we’ve gone through here.” He leaned forward, planting his elbows on the table. “Company goons, CIA, hired thugs, killer AI programs… against all odds, you, of all people, hung in there and did the right thing. From what I hear, you could’ve just as easily taken Felix out back and blown his head off, and nobody would’ve blamed you, but you brought him in. You did all that, and yet you’re afraid to speak up.”

“Appreciate the vote of confidence,” Dean said dryly.

“Listen, my point is that you gotta be clear about these things – ah, screw euphemisms, you gotta be clear when it comes to love, man.” Max gestured to Dean. “I know, you two got along well so far, but from what you’ve told me a lot has gone unsaid. Tell her you’d like to see her again, tell her you can’t stop thinking about her, tell her something. She’ll remember you when you get back, and I mean that in the best way possible.”

“You really think so?” Dean asked, a hint of timidity in his voice.

“Hey, if I’m wrong, I’ll buy you a falafel,” Max said jokingly, grinning for emphasis.

Dean couldn’t help but laugh. “Awesome, so it’s win-win for me.”

“Exactly,” Max nodded. “Trust me, it’s that simple. Just tell her. I know you’re busy and all, but call her, mail her, however you do it – just tell her.”

“Heh heh…” Dean smiled slowly. “Well… what the hell. I’ll do it. Thanks, man.”

“Thank me later, preferably with details,” said Max, a vaguely lecherous smile on his lips.

The detective snickered. “Yeah, right.”

-

“Kite! Over here!”

The voice was close enough to prompt a text box, which appeared just inside his field of view. Turning towards the voice, he scampered across the sunny, grassy field, towards the pink-haired speaker.

Sitting next to a tree, BlackRose ceased waving at the approaching Twin Blade. “Right on time!” she called cheerfully, patting the ground next to her.

Kite sheathed his weapons and sat down beside his thorny comrade. With a smiley face, he replied, “I’ve been told it’s not nice to keep a lady waiting.”

“Heh heh… good. Glad to see you’ve been listening.” She shot back a winking emote, giving both a good laugh.

Kite smiled at her, taking just a moment to admire her digital form. “So,” he asked, “what’s this surprise you emailed me about?”

“I’m glad you asked.” Her ruby eyes shifted, glancing at an unseen inventory menu. “I was up late last night trying to win it. Took me six tries, but I got it.” Her eyes twitched, scanning each individual item. “Let’s see, where is it… ah-ha!” She beamed. “Look away for a second.”

Nonplussed, Kite humored her and cocked his head away, closing his eyes. Lightheartedly, he asked, “It’s not a bomb or something, is it?”

“Not a live one,” she answered, also joking. “Okay, have a look!”

He turned back and opened his eyes. After a second of analyzing the objects she held, his eyes bugged out. Clutched firmly in her hands, the two blades shone brilliantly in the sun, their design orthodox yet ornate: hilt and hand guard of polished gold, with several colored jewels set in the pommel; the blade itself well over two feet long, edges filed to impossible sharpness. A few obscure characters marred the surface of the blade, though he recognized three of them; his name, Kite, in katakana.

“What do you think?” she asked. “They're rolling out more special class-based items, I got them to customize it for you.” She offered them to Kite, and it took the boy a few seconds to notice the open trade menu. “Go on, try ‘em out!”

“They’re… they’re really nice,” he murmured, gingerly accepting the blades. A few buttons pushed, and he had them equipped. Like magic, they popped into his sheaths, replacing his current weapon as he stood up. He gave an offhand glance toward his stats, and started to grin when he saw the numbers climb, even despite his already high level.

The teal-haired fighter drew the blades, taking a few practice swings with them. He heard grass crunching under boots as BlackRose stood up, watching him test his new toys. As his attacks grew more enthusiastic and intense – skillfully incorporating spins, thrusts and a series of jumping slashes – she got the hint that he was pleased.

“Well?” she asked, waiting for him to confirm her hunch. “What do you think?”

Hearing her question, he came to rest and put the blades away. He turned and rejoined her, smiling broadly. “They’re perfect,” he said. “Thank you, thank you very much.”

“I thought you might like ‘em,” said BlackRose confidently. “I mean, anybody can level up, but you gotta have the stuff to go with it too.” She smiled merrily. “Don’t you agree?”

“Oh, of course,” he replied. Offline, he took his hands off the controller, overriding the chat function as he spoke. “After all, j00 n33d t3h ph4t l3wt!” he exclaimed, doing his best not to laugh.

BlackRose shook her head, chuckling to herself. “Just promise me that’s the last time you’re going to speak like that and we’ll call it even.”

“First, last and only.” He picked up his controller again, emoting a smiley. “Thank you, BlackRose. You didn’t have to do all that, but it means a lot to me.”

She kept smiling, but the humor seemed to vanish from her face. “I know, but I wanted to. With everything we’ve been through, we haven’t had much time to just relax and enjoy the game… I wanted to get you something for just that.” She looked away, idly toeing the ground. “And… I wanted to thank you, for everything you’ve done for me.”

Kite blushed. “Well… then, thank you again, and… heh, you’re welcome. Even though I think I should be thanking you just the same,” he added at the end, laughing just to loosen himself up.

She laughed back, though the two quickly fell silent. They stared at each other awkwardly, shyly, as if still unwilling to say or do what was really on their minds.

“I can’t believe,” he began. “I mean, it always seemed like every time I thought it was over, something else would happen.” He sighed wearily. “I was… afraid to even think it this time.”

She angled her head skyward, her lips falling to a flat line. “I know what you mean,” she said. “It felt like whenever we thought we were close to the end, we found out there was more to it than that. You said a while ago that it was just beginning, but somehow I can tell this wasn’t what you had in mind.”

“Even now,” said Kite, “I don’t know if I really believe it. Like I’ll wake up tomorrow, and something else is wrong with the game,” he flinched, “or someone else is… is af-after Dean… or me.” He shifted one of his feet uneasily, looking down at the ground. “I just… I mean, when you think about it all…”

“All we’ve been through,” she finished for him, her voice taking on melancholy tones. “Like waiting to hear what else is next… like there’s one last boss we gotta fight or something.”

Hiroshi swallowed, soothing his parched throat. “Yasu said we’d feel better later… we’d find other things to deal with, worry about…” A quiet sniff punctuated the statement.

“I think we’ve had enough of that already,” Akira replied, turning her gaze to him, her character’s ruby eyes shimmering as if from tears. She smiled weakly, speaking with uncommon softness. “You really had us all worried, you know…”

“I know… I-I know,” Hiroshi mumbled. “I… it… it scared the hell out of me.” He sniffed again.

She shook her head sadly. “A… a part of me wondered if I’d… ever, y’know… s-see you a-again,” she shakily confessed; the girl visibly shuddered, perhaps intentionally.

Hiro felt a lump well up in his throat, a disturbingly familiar sensation. “M-m-me too,” he said in a tiny voice, wanting desperately to hide his face, unable to look away from his companion.

BlackRose parted her lips tentatively. “Hiro,” she whispered, slowly drawing closer.

“Akira…” He tried, vainly, to stifle his tears as he matched her move, taking a step towards her.

He wasn’t sure when he decided it, or if he decided it first. Slowly, almost without realizing it, BlackRose and he drew closer to each other, shuffling into arm’s reach. His hands snaked around her waist; he was quite aware of her arms sliding over his shoulders, her hands linking behind his back.

Online, their embrace tightened, their heads found their way to each other’s shoulders. Offline, the players were only barely conscious of the controllers still clenched in their sweaty hands.

Out of nowhere, a quiet sob rippled through Hiro’s body, his fingers involuntarily nudging a few buttons. The maneuver translated to his character, Kite’s sorrowful visage slowly filling with tears. Akira let a soft whimper escape her lips, her own digital self starting to shake.

The floodgates opened, their cries followed soon by more, each encouraged by the other. Still clinging to each other, they bawled and wailed, their faces flushed and stained as the two online warriors shared their pain.

“I-I’m sorry!” Hiro blubbered. “I’m sorry, for everything… Akira, I’m sorry!”

“Me too, Hiro… I… this is all so screwed up…” Akira sniffed, “I’m sorry…”

“I’m sorry,” he whined between breaths, slowly exhausting his tears. “I’m sorry…”

“It’s really over,” she croaked, gulping air, “It’s over.”

“It’s over,” he repeated, his character loosening his hold on hers.

Their breaths slowly deepened, their sobs ceasing; purged of the poison that had been building within them. Each loosened their grip on the other, reclining just far enough to see each other’s face. The silence between them grew thicker, more tangible, as their eyes met once more.

(It’s over,) he thought, (even if it is just the beginning.)

He saw her lips purse shut briefly, saw her throat constrict as she swallowed. “On… on the blades,” she said in a dry voice, breaking the silence, “did you notice the characters?”

“Y-yeah,” he replied timidly. He could taste his own tears. “It was my name, right?”

She smiled, so very slowly. “Yeah… that, and the word ‘hero.’” There was a slight pause around “hero”, as if the word itself carried a sort of reverence.

With proper presence of mind, he might have blushed even more. “Hero…” he whispered, his heart pounding, a bashful smile climbing onto his lips.

Her confidence returning to her, BlackRose brushed back a lock of Kite’s hair. “Mm-hmm. I mean it, Hiro… thank you for everything,” she said, her fake eyes filled with genuine warmth.

“Akira… I…” he began, trailing off as he ‘felt’ her tugging him a little closer. He reciprocated, sliding his hands further around her lower back as he instinctively leaned his head in.

A last bastion of his bashful nature seized control, and he froze; his hesitation did not go unnoticed. “What is it?” she asked, her soft voice alien even to her.

“Do you… don’t you think we should… maybe we ought to wait?” he finally managed to say, his voice almost a squeak. “I mean… if y-you want to, that is…” he mumbled, not sure which particular insecurity was holding him back.

The Heavy Blade eyed him quizzically, studying his face. A secret smile played on her lips. “You said it yourself… it’s just beginning… right?” The blush on her face betrayed her own shyness.

“Yeah… it is,” he whispered, in as soothing a tone as he could manage. “It’s something bigger than us… and we may never be able to just leave this behind…”

“I know.”

“Until it’s safe… until it’s over for good.”

“For good.”

“You and me? Partner?”

“You… and me…”

He reached a hand up and stroked her pink hair; she let out a small, appreciative noise and moved in closer.

“A-are you sure?”

One last barrier.

“Yes…”

Effortlessly passed.

Her gaze jumped from his eyes to his lips, and back again, and she returned the gesture, dipping her head towards him and tilting to one side. Their lips met, shyly and anxiously, and both let out a soft sigh as they started to kiss.

-

From: DStollis

To: nolettuce

Subj: Duty calls

Heya Miku.

I tried calling, but got the machine. Figured this may take awhile to say, so I wanted to take the time to say it. The short version is that I’m headed back to the States. The trial starts soon, and I have to testify. I don’t know how long I’m going to be gone, it depends how long everything takes. I leave this Saturday.

It looks like, if you’ll pardon the language, the shit has hit the proverbial fan, and I’m somewhere in the center of it all. I wish I had a choice in the matter; the whole thing scares the hell out of me. The last time I was in a courtroom was under drastically different circumstances, and I’m not looking forward to going back.

Now comes the really hard to say stuff, the kind of stuff I don’t know if I could say face-to-face. The real reason I don’t wanna go is because… Jesus, I just spent twenty minutes sitting here, staring, trying to type it out. I must’ve deleted something I wrote at least ten times, trying to put it to words. Even now, I’m not sure I can; maybe I don’t know myself.

Who am I kidding? I keep thinking about you, Miku, all the time, and you’re the reason I don’t want to go. I can’t force myself to say it aloud – maybe I’m scared, maybe I just don’t want you to wait for me, maybe a lot of things, hell if I know which – but that’s how I feel. No… more than that.

I love you.

It took me half an hour to work up the guts to type that out. I wish I could’ve seen you at least once more before I left, but maybe it’s for the best that we didn’t. As I said before, I don’t want to make you wait for who knows how long. That’s not fair to you, and I’ll understand if… if things just don’t work out the way I want them to.

I owe you more than you know. If and when I make it back, I hope to make it up to you. Until then, take care.

Yours,

Dean

-

It was nothing like he had dreamed.

He sat alone, flanked by empty chairs and surrounded only by strangers. Voices echoed through the airport terminal, in Japanese, then English, then Spanish and German. To his left, a steady crowd of would-be and former passengers filed in and out of the airport gates, their chatter adding to the background noise. He didn’t take much notice of the gate itself, save that its gray, metallic walls and clean blue carpeting did little to distinguish it from every other airport gate he had visited.

Dean had vague illusions of a more dramatic farewell: boarding someone’s private jet (occasionally as grand as Air Force One), waving a tearful goodbye to friends and comrades, getting to kiss The Girl one last time before taking off and flying into the sunset. End scene, cue credits.

Another recurring image was of an escaped Felix, or some other surviving conspirator, rushing him with a smuggled-in knife or pistol, or even just clubbing him with whatever blunt object was at hand.

Not sitting in an airport like any other passenger, and not about to board a jet like every other time he had flown.

(It just seems so… ordinary,) he pondered. (Well, at least the State Department’s springing for the ticket. Free trip back to LA… what was it, 14 hours? 16? Maybe I’ll actually get to sleep this time…) He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, his green windbreaker bunching up as he moved.

He sent token farewell letters and emails to everyone he felt would care; Hiro, Masa, Max, and a rather special one to Miku. No replies. He reminded himself for the thirtieth time that day that he should have sent them earlier.

Sighing in frustration, he sloppily folded the newspaper he’d been holding. It barely registered to him that the Cyber Connect-Asara scandal was on the front page.

(I’ve dealt with enough of that for two lifetimes, thank you very much.) He rubbed his temples. (And then I get on another plane NEXT week to DC. Whoop-dee-Goddamn-doo.)

Sitting up straight, Dean stretched his legs and arched his back, hearing a few odd, but satisfying pops and snaps come from his tired bones. An itchy scar on his abdomen – the lingering remains of a rifle bullet wound – was the only remaining physical evidence of abuse.

Satisfied, Dean leaned back and gazed up into the nearest light, then closed his eyes. The chatter around him called his mind to another time, at roughly the same place; to a man driven by a more selfish, not to mention illegal, purpose.

(Wonder what would’ve happened if I’d told Rosenberg “no”,) he thought simply, smirking blindly.

“Yo, Dean!”

His ears followed the calling of his name. Opening one eye, he saw the tiny group of men push through the foot traffic, towards him. Max walked at the front, followed closely by Masamoto and Hiroshi. The lieutenant carried a big white plastic bag, suspiciously thin and with a hangar sticking out the top.

Dean opened the other eye and broke into a wide grin. “Ha ha! What is this?” He stood up, turning towards the approaching entourage. “Who let you guys in here?”

“You didn’t really think we were gonna just let you go, did you?” Masamoto asked rhetorically, a smile gracing his aged features. “Max got a hold of us, I cleared us through the checkpoint. We figured you deserve a send-off.”

“Aww, isn’t that sweet of you,” said Dean. “Seriously, that just gets me right here,” he patted his fist over his heart, “warm fuzzies and everything.”

Max chuckled. “I thought it might.” With obvious sarcasm, he added, “Hope we weren’t interrupting anything, you looked awfully busy, just sitting there and all.”

“Heh heh. Damn, I’m glad to see you guys.” Dean slid his hands into his pockets, smiling casually. “I was starting to think I was gonna leave as quietly as I got here.”

“They said you’re going to testify at the trial,” said Hiro. “What’s going to happen?”

Dean cocked his head at the boy. “To us? Nothing much. I’m hoping all I have to do is tell my side of the story, and then I can skedaddle. As for everything else, though…” he sighed deeply, “I don’t know, Hiro man. I’d like to believe our part’s done, but… hell, who knows.”

A loudspeaker crackled to life, followed by a woman saying something in Japanese, and then in English: “United flight #247 to Los Angeles, California will begin boarding in five minutes.”

Dean glanced back at the counter, watching as some of the passengers formed a line outside the gate. “Well, I guess this is it, huh,” he said, a touch of depression in his voice.

“For now,” said Masamoto, “which is why I brought you this.” He held up the bag and worked the hangar through the hole. “After all you did for us, we couldn’t let you go home empty-handed,” he explained, “so us and some of the guys at the precinct chipped in and picked up a little something. Hope you like it.”

The detective blinked as he spotted leather. He quietly gasped as Masamoto pulled the bag completely off, revealing a brown leather jacket that looked remarkably like his old one, sans wear and tear.

“Figured you could use a new one after yours got cut up,” said Max. “Even Hiro threw in a few bucks.”

“Guys, this…” Dean took the jacket off the hangar, running one of his hands over the smooth, soft surface. “This… this is… aw, geez, this is too much,” he stammered, giving Max a stern look. “What’d you pay for this, 200?”

“Lower, much lower,” Masamoto assured him. “Don’t worry, it was on sale. Go on, try it on.”

Dean hurriedly shrugged off his windbreaker, placing it on his chair near his duffel bag. “My God, this is too nice, you guys,” he mumbled as he slid one of his arms into the jacket, and then the other. He pulled the collar up around his neck and gave it a quick tug, causing the jacket to settle stiffly.

“Well?” asked Hiroshi. “What do you think?”

Turning back to his three companions, Dean said, “Damn, guys, this is too much. I… I’m touched.” He smiled. “I’m genuinely touched, you didn’t have to do this.” He experimentally moved his arms around, checking out his new jacket. “Needs to be broken in a little, but I like it.”

“Told you he’d like it,” Max boasted.

Dean chuckled, shaking his head. “Thanks… thanks, you guys. You guys rock, you know that?” He laughed again. “Anybody says otherwise, you send ‘em my way.”

“We get it, we get it,” said Masamoto, smiling back. “It’s the least we owe you for everything you did.”

“Hey, c’mon now,” Dean replied, holding up his hands, “that was a group effort. Like I said, you guys are all right. Couldn’t have done it without you all.” He thought for a moment, then said, with deliberate silliness, “I have no problem accepting the credit for it all in public, though. On the record, especially where monetary rewards are concerned.”

“Ha!” shouted Max, causing a few turned heads from nearby passengers. “That’s so wrong I don’t know where to begin,” he shot back between laughs. “‘Monetary rewards,’ yeah, and then maybe you can buy that bridge I’m selling.”

“United flight #247 to Los Angeles, California is now boarding. Section 1 may begin boarding.”

Dean threw a look in the direction of the gate. “Guess that’s my cue,” he said. He turned to Max, extending his hand. “Maxey, take it easy, will ya? And tell Rachel I said hi.”

Max shook his hand. “Will do, man. Stay in touch.”

“You got it.” He then turned to Masamoto, again offering his hand. “Masa, it was a pleasure working with you.”

The lieutenant accepted, giving the hand a firm shake and its owner a warm smile. “Sayonara, Dean. Don’t be a stranger. Far as I’m concerned, you’re one of us.”

Dean smiled. “Adios, amigo.” Finally, he turned to Hiroshi. “Well, Hiro man, it’s goodbye for now,” he said with tangible regret.

“Yeah,” Hiro mumbled, looking down at his feet. “I, uh… are you going to come back?” he asked timidly. “I mean, if you won’t be too…”

Dean cut him off. “Don’t worry, man, I’ll be back.” He reached down, patting the boy on the shoulder. His voice briefly lost all gravity. “C’mon, you know I don’t have that much to do. I’d get bored if this kinda’ stuff wasn’t happening all the time.”

Hiroshi looked up at him, smiling, though there were hints of tears in his eyes. Unbidden, a lump began to well up inside Dean’s throat. He swallowed, and said, “It was nice to meet you, Hiro. You gave a guy like me more slack than I’ve earned, and I can’t thank you enough.”

Hiro said nothing, still watching Dean carefully. “I mean that, you know. Not many people could show that kind of compassion.” Dean half-smiled and cleared his throat. “If not for you, I don’t think I would’ve wound up doing the right thing.”

The boy nodded. “I think you would have,” he said after a beat, quietly and genuinely. “I think you wanted to all along.”

Dean hesitated for a moment, unease in his eyes. “Maybe.”

Hiroshi smiled at him. “That’s because you’re still one of the good guys.”

“He’s right.”

Dean turned his head to find Max staring at him, seriousness stitched into his expression. “Dean…” he paused, “you don’t need a shield to be a good guy.”

The detective smiled in full, his eyes alight with hope. “Thanks,” he murmured under his breath. “Thanks, guys.”

The boy watched as Dean turned back to him, and bent down to him with his arms wide, giving him a quick, but firm hug. Hiro reciprocated, wrapping his arms tightly around Dean.

“Thank you, Hiro,” he said, patting Hiro on the back. “Take care of yourself. You… and her,” he added, almost an afterthought.

“You too,” murmured Hiro, lightly clinging to Dean’s jacket. “Th-thanks, Dean…” he sniffed, “thanks for everything.”

“’s all right.” Seeming to remember his locale, he released Hiro and stood up straight. “I’m gonna miss ya, Hiro man. You keep in touch too, right?” He smiled once more, turning back to Masamoto and Max. “All of you, I mean that.”

“Sections 1 and 2, now boarding.”

Dean bent down and picked up his windbreaker and duffel bag. Giving one last glance towards his friends, he waved and said, “Bye, guys!”

A trio of goodbyes found their way to Dean’s ears as he strode towards the gate, ticket in hand. He got in line, grimacing as he felt the lump in his throat persist. Another swallow, this one more painful and uncomfortable than the last, and he knew why.

He stared into the gate, one from which a different man had emerged, seemingly a lifetime ago. He could almost envision that other man coming out, leather jacket and all.

(It began here,) he thought. (Funny how that works out sometimes.)

He handed his ticket to the smiling attendant, who tore it at the perforation and handed back the stub. He stepped towards the gate, his heart starting to pound. He took a deep breath, clearing his head for one single thought – the one piece of anxiety left on his mind. A thought of a certain Japanese woman, one he hoped would be here when he returned. He knew a part of him wasn’t getting on that plane, a part he’d have to come back to collect.

(Here’s looking at you, Miku.)

-

Her fingers glided gracefully over the keys, effortlessly typing out the few words she required. The name, a truism, and several lines of empty space. A single cryptic statement, a title, and finally her name. Two minutes of typing, two hours of planning.

She hit “print”, and the printer came to life. The device hastily churned out the sheet of paper, branding it with black ink. She picked up the letter, reading it silently:

“Dean

Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.

For your letter: a mystery just for you, detective.

Miku”

Smiling, she picked up a pen and deftly signed the letter. She then set the pen down, and reached for the small black tube. She gave it a twist, causing the hidden, ruby-red lipstick to emerge. Her other hand picked up a nearby hand mirror, and she took great care in applying the lipstick, mischief melding with a vaguely girlish giddiness.

She set aside the tube and mirror, and leaned forward over the letter. Centering herself between the lines of text, she dipped down and pressed her lips to the empty spot of paper.

She sat up, picked up the letter and admired her handiwork: a pair of lips, outlined proudly in red, stood out amidst the black and white.

(Until then, my dear detective,) she thought with a slow smile, reaching for an envelope. (Until then.)

-

“We pay for what others call mistakes, and from this we learn of the world. We suffer for what we call sins, and from this we learn of ourselves.”

- Anonymous