In the main training hall, Masane slowly traversed the false city streets in search of the Neogene, "I can feel her." She proceeded with caution, knowing full well that this girl would be anything but weak.
From the rooftop of one of the buildings, Mio watched on as Masane walked the corridors in search of her. Finally, Masane got a lock on the Neogene and their eyes met. Neither took a step or made the first move, they merely stared the other down.
Reiji and Segawa burst into the observation room to find Irazawa seated and watching a split feed of Masane and Mio on a monitor, while he nursed a drink in his right hand. "What are you doing here, Seiji?" Takayama barked.
"Takayama, I didn't know you were using this facility today," Irazawa coyly replied.
"Of course you didn't," Reiji replied as he and Segawa ran to the control panel. Segawa brought his account up which was still collecting data, while Reiji called up Masane's monitor feed and slipped his earpiece in, "Masane, can you hear me?"
"Loud and clear," Masane quietly replied from the street, the overtones of the witchblade evident in her voice.
"I don't suppose there's anyway you can let this go, is there?"
"Well I guess that's up to her now, isn't it?" Masane quietly replied. The pleasure laden sub-tones of her voice kicked in as she continued, "It's taking every last ounce of strength in my body not to rip her apart right this second, but I can hold it."
Without drawing any attention on himself, Irazawa depressed a button on his watch, and immediately, Mio's head perked up. Without the slightest of telegraphs, Mio launched herself from the rooftop directly at Masane with both blades extended. "She's coming!" Masane shouted to Reiji as she took a defensive position. "I've got no choice!"
While Irazawa may have held great confidence in Mio, he hadn't seen Masane's recent numbers; he had no idea what he was throwing this child into. "Don't push her any harder than you have to," Reiji ordered. "If you can diffuse the fight in her, do it!"
"I'll try!" Masane replied.
Mio's blades finally crashed with Masane's and an elaborate display of parrying began. Sparks flew but physical contact was avoided as they traded swings and defensive maneuvers. As the battle progressed, the level of intensity grew, though both combatants remained supremely calm as they avoided each other's blows.
Observing the look on Mio's face, Masane wondered to herself, "She looks so calm. She's not allowing her anger to overcome her." Masane added her blade baring knees to the battle, further heightening the display of acrobatic parrying on both of their behalves. "I am stronger, and faster, but if I give her the slightest chance, she'll catch up quickly."
Masane finally saw an opportunity to non-fatally strike the little girl and seized it. The blade on Masane's right arm crashed into the armor on Mio's left, and finally the Neogene's assault ceased. She leapt back from Masane to give herself some distance to recover as she tended to her arm.
In the observation room, Irazawa jumped from his seat and shouted, "Mio!"
"Masane, are you alright?" Reiji asked over her earpiece.
She raised a finger to her ear, and calmly replied, "I'm fine."
"And the girl?" Reiji asked.
Masane observed Mio's trembling cloneblade form and replied, her voice filling the observation room, "She's fine. With strength like hers, she'll recover quickly."
Reiji approached Irazawa and commented, "I admit this version of the cloneblade is extremely powerful, but Masane's power is growing by the minute. The witchblade's strength is greater than we'd ever imagined."
"Sir!" Segawa called to Reiji, which brought him to turn to face a monitor.
In an unprecedented display, Masane approached the girl and helped her to her feet. "Why help me?" Mio asked as she took Masane's hand. "I'm weak, you should finish me off."
Masane shifted back to plain clothes in an effort to appear less threatening to the child, "You're very strong, Mio. You and I may be built for combat, but I didn't take this job to fight you and your sisters."
Just as a slight calm had passed over Mio, Irazawa again engaged the switch on his watch, and Mio's body immediately responded. Her expression was awash in anger as she shouted at Masane, "Then you are the one who is weak!"
Masane flinched back as Mio created a blade with her left arm. Before Masane's transformation could take place, Mio attempted to sever Masane's arm in an effort to obtain the witchblade. Immediately, Masane reacted, withdrawing her arm when suddenly, the witchblade emitted its familiar red glow. A violent roar erupted from Masane's lips as the witchblade appeared to defend itself. A barrage of vein-like straps burst from the jeweled gauntlet and latched onto Mio.
"Sir!" Segawa shouted, as the readings they were taking grew more and more unstable. "Something is happening to the witchblade!" All three of the men in the observation room watched on as the witchblade itself began to attack Mio.
As the straps covered Mio's body, Masane was overwhelmed with fear, "What's happening? Is it finally through with me? Is she a more suitable host?" She growled in pain as she shouted to Reiji, "iWeapons; send in as many as you can!"
Takayama raised a finger to his ear as he replied, "iWeapons, why?"
"If the witchblade leaves me, she's gonna kill me! I'm going to need a distraction!" Masane shouted.
Reiji called up command orders and deployed the iWeapons per Masane's request. He turned back to Segawa and asked, "Report!"
"Masane's power is still increasing, but whatever is happening to Masane, is happening to the other one as well," Segawa replied.
"What?" Irazawa asked in a panic.
Mio shouted in extreme pain as the witchblade's straps enveloped her cloneblades. The synthetic gauntlets exploded from her wrists, and Mio's pain elevated even further, when finally a burst of energy erupted between Mio and Masane. They were both knocked back, though they both landed on their feet, prepared for battle if need be. Masane was once again covered by her red and white armor, while Mio's armor had just finished taking form. Masane's intrigue covered her face as she observed Mio's new armor, "That armor! It's the same as my dream! But how can that be?"
Reiji, Segawa and Irazawa watched on completely awestruck as the two magnificent creatures stared each other down with a horde of iWeapons approaching behind them.
Mio briefly looked her new self over before raising her eyes to meet Masane's. Masane quickly wiped her curiosity off her face, and just as her jeweled tongue passed over her hungry smile, Mio's did precisely the same thing.
"Segawa!" Reiji called.
"Masane's power levels have increased by nearly one hundred percent over what we recorded earlier today," Segawa replied.
"What of Mio?" Irazawa barked.
"Mio's power continues to grow as well," Segawa replied looking mildly unsettled.
Without word or warning, Mio raised her blade-equipped arm towards the observation room, and her pointer finger shot out like a harpoon. Frozen in fear, Irazawa simply watched as the extreme extension grew closer and closer, only to cease after shattering the glass in the observation room, and piercing his forehead.
Masane's fear covered her face as she looked to the observation room and called out in fear for Takayama's life, "REIJI?"
"We're fine," Takayama replied for him and Segawa. "She killed Irazawa."
Masane turned back to the girl to find her smiling before finally retracting the blade. "Why? Why did you do that?" Masane scolded. "Answer me!"
"He was using me; controlling my mind," Mio replied. Masane gasped at the revelation and Mio continued, "He was a liar; he was weak."
"Reiji?" Masane whispered.
Takayama and Segawa worked feverishly to obtain new readings from Mio's new form. "Have you got anything?" Takayama asked of his assistant.
"The bio feed I was picking up from Mio, it just…disappeared. It's almost as though whatever has come over her doesn't want us to know what is going on inside her," Segawa replied.
Reiji raised a finger to his ear and replied, "Masane, we've got no data on Mio's current condition; do not engage!"
Finally, the iWeapons Masane had requested joined the party. "These iWeapons, can you shut them down?" Masane asked aloud.
"I'm trying to, but they're unresponsive. With the amount of power coming from you and Mio, they must be malfunctioning," Reiji replied.
Mio and Masane's attention immediately diverted to the horde of iWeapons and perverse smiles came over both of their lips.
At Marry's Gallery, Rihoko checked the clock on the wall to find it was nearly three in the afternoon. "It's been six hours and mom or dad still haven't called. I hope everything's alright."
Within just a few moments of their arrival, Masane and Mio decimated all of the iWeapons Reiji had called. As the last of the iWeapons fell, Masane's feet met the pavement shortly after Mio. Simultaneously, they retracted their blades and returned to their human forms. Masane looked towards the witchblade and even after just turning back, she again tried her power by creating a blade, "Nothing new there. What about…"
Masane observed Mio as she looked to the new jeweled gauntlet that resided on her right wrist; twisted black metal, with a single gold jewel. "What's going on?" Masane asked herself.
Mio looked away from Masane as she spoke, "One day we'll meet again, witchblade." She looked up to meet Masane's eyes and finished her thought with a smile, "On that day, we'll see who is the strongest."
"Mio…" Just as Masane attempted to speak with her, Mio once again took her new form and fled the room.
A brief silence filled the massive hall while Masane looked to the twisted remains of the iWeapons, and raised a finger to her earpiece, "Reiji, are you there?"
"We're here," Takayama replied. "Are you alright?"
"Please; tell me you've seen something like that before," Masane replied, though Takayama's silence was all the answer she needed.
"Make your way back to the medical ward," Reiji replied. "We monitored a massive increase in power during your battle with Mio and the iWeapons. I'm not thrilled that you were forced into expelling so much energy, but the additional data should at least be put to good use."
"Right. I'm on my way," Masane replied.
"Segawa," Reiji called as he looked to the mess that Mio made of Irazawa.
"I'm going to meet Masane. Please, see to it that Seiji is taken care of," Takayama requested.
Though he knew that Irazawa's intentions this afternoon were the furthest thing from honest, Reiji had never wished any harm on him. Irazawa's place wasn't in the field, but at the head of the Doji Group, and by assuming himself capable of controlling a Neogene, he sealed his own fate.
Reiji looked to one of the screens displaying a looping replay of Masane and Mio's confrontation. He turned back to Segawa and ordered, "See to it that our recovery teams are on the lookout for Mio. If they see her, they're to follow, but not engage."
"Right away, sir," Segawa replied.
In the medical ward, Masane sat atop the table waiting for Reiji to arrive. He entered the lab just a few moments later, and at the sight of her on the table; he quickly approached her, and wrapped his arms around her. Masane closed her eyes as she placed her arms around him, and he quietly spoke, "I thought we might have lost you again today."
Masane smiled slightly, "Relax, Reiji." She pushed him away and flexed her arms, "I'm fine, see?"
He placed his hands on her shoulders and a delicate kiss on her lips as he replied, "Please be careful, Masane."
"I will," Masane replied with a warm smile that Reiji returned before heading over to the computer. She quickly lay back on the table and asked, "So what the heck happened back there?"
Reiji turned back to face her, "It's difficult to say exactly. We locked onto Mio's bio feed rather quickly, but shortly after she took her new form, we lost it."
"Do you have any idea what might have happened?"
Reiji had quite a good idea as to what had happened, but having just fought; he didn't want to worry Masane any more than he had to. "Segawa and I will be looking into it. Our concern right now is you, Masane; making sure that you are okay."
Masane smiled slightly and Reiji just barely returned the gesture. She still found it endlessly amusing how difficult it was for him to display human emotions. "C'mon, let's get this over with; our little girl is waiting for her mom and dad to come home," Masane calmly replied.
Just as the day gave way to night, Reiji pulled his car up in front of Mariko's Gallery with Masane in the seat beside him. She hopped from the car and noticed that Reiji hadn't shut the car down. "Are you coming?" Masane asked.
Reiji avoided her eyes as he spoke, "A lot happened today. Please forgive me, but we must know more about today's events and their effect on you."
Masane smiled slightly before leaning back into the car, subconsciously accentuating her assets for him, "Will we see you again tonight?"
Again he avoided looking at her, in fear that he would be unable to deny himself her company, "I can't say for sure. I'll call you if something turns up."
She stepped out of the car and closed the door behind her. She walked around to the driver's side door, and Reiji lowered the window for her. Hanging onto the windowsill, Masane leaned into the car and brought her lips to meet his. He gently brought his hand to her cheek just as she pulled away from him, "Goodnight."
She stepped away from the car and Takayama drove off back to the lab. Masane turned to Marry's and her smile grew wider at the sight of Rihoko seated at her usual table, opposite Mr. Chou.
Masane passed through the door and at the simple sound of the door sliding open, Rihoko's head perked up and she shouted in excitement, "Mom! You're back!"
Masane knelt down to meet Rihoko, "Hey Riko!" Her daughter clung to her giving her a tight hug, which Masane returned, "I missed you so much, baby."
They pulled away from one another and Rihoko asked, "Is everything alright, mom? Where's dad?"
"Everything's fine, sweetie," Masane replied. "Your dad had to work a little late tonight, but I'm sure we'll see him tomorrow."
"Oh, okay," Rihoko replied with a smile. "Come here mom!" Rihoko grabbed Masane by her wrist and dragged her to the table she was seated at. On its surface were a stack of handwritten pages, maybe five or six deep.
"What's all this, Riko?" Masane asked with a light tone as she took a seat beside her daughter.
"These are your chores!" Rihoko cheerfully replied.
Masane loved her daughter. She loved her more than anything in this world. However, at hearing that Rihoko had written up a list of chores for her, she immediately lost her cool, "My what?"
"When I go back to school, I'm not going to have the time to go shopping and clean the apartment, so you're going to have to, that is when you're not too busy with work," Rihoko replied.
"Don't worry," Rihoko interrupted. "I wrote everything down, and even spread things throughout the week for you so you don't get overwhelmed."
Masane couldn't resist her little girl's smile. It was infectious and immediately she regained her calm, "Whatever you say princess Rihoko."
"Criminy, that kid's sure got you on a leash, Melony," Mariko commented as she lit a cigarette.
While Masane looked a bit angry at Mariko's comment, Rihoko continued calming her mother down, "While you were at work, I also wrote down a list of all the supplies I'm going to need for school."
"School, wow is it really that time already?" Masane asked.
"Uh huh!" Rihoko happily replied.
"That's my great girl," Masane replied. She looked up to the clock in the gallery and looked back to Rihoko just as she yawned. Again she couldn't help but smile at how adorable Rihoko was.
They left the café to return to their apartment, and Masane put Rihoko down for the night. As she brought the sheet to her daughter's neck, Rihoko asked, "Are you sure everything's alright, mom?"
Everyday, Rihoko constantly reminded Masane just how badly she didn't want to lose her again. A thin sheet of glass appeared in Masane's eyes as she replied, "Everything's fine, baby; I promise. I'm not going anywhere."
She placed a kiss on her daughter's forehead and by the time she had pushed herself up, Rihoko was already fast asleep. "Reiji and Segawa seem pretty confident that I'm doing much better this time." She looked down to the witchblade, "Please, I'm begging you; don't make me a liar."
Back in the medical ward, Reiji and Segawa sat back-to-back, each of them at a computer. While Segawa was working on Masane's numbers, Takayama was processing Mio's, as well as looking back through archives of witchblade research. Bored by the silence, Segawa made light conversation, "There are already rumors circulating that the board members are going to elect you to succeed Irazawa as Doji's new head."
"I kept that company above water once before, if they ask; I'll do it again, but it'll be on my own terms," Reiji replied.
Suddenly Takayama flinched bringing Segawa to turn and ask, "What is it?"
"In the mid-90's there was record of an incident in which the witchblade became unstable and a piece of it physically broke away from its host," Reiji replied. He turned to Segawa and spoke, "Your results from Masane's latest scan…"
Segawa turned back to his computer and remarked, "Two percent left to process, what am I looking for?"
"If it's there, you'll know it when you see it," Reiji replied.
The bar on Segawa's screen completed its process, and immediately he sorted through the logs. After just a few moments of searching, Segawa's expression shifted; he'd found what they were looking for, "But that's impossible."
"The advent of the witchblade leads me to believe that nothing is impossible," Reiji replied as he observed the numbers.
"But according to this-"
"Masane is no longer aging," Reiji finished for him. "The witchblade has strengthened her body and is now apparently preserving it as well."
As she lay beside Rihoko in her pajamas, Masane heard the vibration of her phone on the kitchen table. She carefully got out of bed as to not disturb Rihoko and checked the ID on the phone: Takayama Reiji.
She smiled and put the phone to her ear, "Hey, are you-" Masane's eyes widened as Reiji interrupted her on the other end. She turned to face Rihoko and replied, "I see…No I'm fine…" Again she paused as Reiji spoke, "So will we see you tomorrow?" A smile came across her lips and she replied, "You're not so bad yourself…" Her eyes again widened slightly as she absorbed his words for a minute. Finally, she replied, "…Love you too."
She pulled the phone from her ear and clicked end. As she placed it on the table, her eyes locked onto the witchblade and she quietly spoke, "Thank you."
And that's that. If you made it this far I hope you enjoyed it :)
I've been going full-bore on this project for ten days straight, and in writing this, I had many more ideas for continuing what I've started here. Maybe a day or two for recovery/reflection and then back to work :)
Thanks very much for reading,