If it is true that our gods and our hopes are no longer anything but scientific, is there any reason why our love should not also be so?

-Villiers de I'lsle-Adam


.

A DIFFERENT FLESH

.


Mitsuru Kirijo doesn't have a business degree (yet) but she does have two things that let her take over her father's company at the tender age of seventeen: several billion yen worth of Kirijo Group stock and an extensive collection of blackmail material. One example of the latter is the line of artificial sex workers being secretly developed by her head of Cybernetics R&D during his lunch breaks. While the businesswoman in her can see a fertile market for such a product, Mitsuru's friendship with Aigis dampens any enthusiasm she has for exploiting this new technology.

It's her friendship with Aigis, though, that keeps her from firing the perverted cyberneticist and purging any data relating to the 'sexbot'. After a thorough grilling of the scientist in question, Mitsuru consents to building a single prototype of the sexbot - codenamed 'Souji' after a bygone childhood friend of hers - in order to test the android's newtype sensory interface, which promises human-quality tactile sensations for both the product user and the robot itself. Aigis, with no more Shadows to fight, has asked Mitsuru to help her become more human; the sexbot's experimental systems would, if they work, allow Aigis to experience a breeze blowing across her synthetic skin as something deeper than a change in the local barometric pressure. Mitsuru even sees possible applications in the field of prosthetic limbs and spinal paralysis treatment, using the sexbot's Emotion Chip to allow people to bypass or replace damaged nerves.

When Souji turns out to be an unmitigated success, Mitsuru almost does fire the researcher if only because he was so short-sighted as to design a Nobel Prize quality innovation just to put it into a Risette-bot he had half-constructed in his backyard tool shed. It's for this reason that Mitsuru forces the scientist to make his prototype using a male chassis; the sexualization of technology creeps the fuck out of Mitsuru.

What becomes of Souji, Mitsuru leaves to Aigis. She's his sister, in a sense. After leaving the pair of androids on the beach, unsupervised, for several hours one evening, Aigis knocks on Mitsuru's bedroom door after midnight and informs her - and, incidentally, Fuuka as well - that the 'Souji' A.I. wants to be human too.

Aigis gets her new, softer body and spends a whole afternoon running her fingers over the silk of the celebratory dress Mitsuru buys her. The Kirijo Group has a prototype of a revolutionary medical technology that's five years away from changing the world as they know it. The brilliant but stupid cyberneticist gets a pay raise, the prospect of a Nobel Prize as long as he leaves out certain details from his story, and monthly visits from the best escort service money can buy.

Souji Seta, adopted ward of Mitsuru's favorite married pair of tax-evading accountants, gets a train ticket to the Japanese backcountry.


...


"So," Yumi asks, accepting the soft-serve ice cream cone he hands her, "why did you join Drama Club?" Souji slathers his tongue over the tip of his icy treat, sampling chocolate for the first time. Things that are sweet, he decides, are something he really needs to try more of. "I wanted to learn how to express myself better."

And because while his mechanically perfect trombone audition had nearly brought the music teacher to tears, the souless quality of the piece had sent Souji bolting from the room. It was one thing to throw up a big red -I AM ROBOT- flag, it was another thing entirely to be praised for it.

"And," he adds, "that Hedda Gabbler scene you did that first day was pretty amazing." The bony, dark-haired girl blushes furiously. She turns away, not wanting him to see. "So, uh, th-this ice cream's pretty good, huh?" "It's great! I can't believe I didn't try this stuff sooner."

Yumi suddenly looks back at him, flustered expression fading. His Body Language Analysis subroutines suck up CPU power trying to keep up with the infinitesimal facial ticks playing around her hazel eyes. Souji averts his face, suddenly finding his shoes the most interesting thing in the room. It's always been near-impossible for him to read Yumi Ozawa. While she conforms to the standard model like most humans, her acting talents gives her the ability to school her expressions and confuse Souji. Only Yumi can make him feel like an idiot, and that's not a bad thing. Humans feel like idiots all the time. Or so he's heard.

"Don't tell me you've never had ice cream before."

"Okay. I won't." She wrinkles her nose at him. He sticks out his tongue at her. He saw Nanoko-chan do that the other night. It looked like fun and Souji's been waiting for a chance to try it out. "My parents were, ah, vegan health nuts."

"Oh! That makes sense."

They walk down to the Samegawa Flood Plain and stroll along its banks, talking nonsense. Souji's glad to see Yumi in the sun again and out from the hospital's florescent lights. Yosuke's mentioned to Souji once that it was too bad that, considering the time he spent with her, Yumi wasn't much to look at. Souji doesn't see his friend's point. After all, when the sunlight washes over her black hair, it sends a funny sensation through his Emotion Chip. Her pubic hair would probably look magnificent too: Yumi, stretched out on the green grass, yellow sunlight the only thing draping over her body, the curves of her modest breasts, the crux between her legs, her lips wet with-

"Are you all right?" Yumi asks as he suddenly stop, grimaces, and rubs his forehead.

Souji bites the inside of his cheek. The flare of his pain receptors overrides his thought process. He puts his libido into lockdown and makes a note to send Aigis an email about his latest programming error. The rising tent in his trousers deflates. "Ice cream headache," he mumbles.

"Oooh. They're nasty, aren't they?"

"Not fun, no."

They sit on a bench and enjoy the breeze.

"So," Yumi asks, nibbling on the soft wafer of her now-empty cone, "what does Souji Seta do in his free time when he isn't practicing in front of a mirror?"

"I fold envelopes." He also fights monsters from another world. "Sometimes I make origami cranes. Been looking into translation work. The pay's supposed to be pretty good." And easy for someone who's been pre-programmed with eighteen languages. Localizing things is an enlightening challenge, too. "It's kind of like acting, having to turn the written word into something people can feel in another format."

She laughs. "Cool."

Despite his lingering irritation at himself, Souji smiles.


...


Souji Seta possesses one of the most advanced, adaptable Artificial Intelligences on the planet... and he still feels like a dumbass half the time.

At the core of his being, Souji's baseline programming consists of the standard Anti-Shadow Humanoid Weapon O/S with extensive grafts to his emotion processors. Whereas his sister, Aigis, uses her own organically evolved code to access the Emotion Chip, Souji accesses his "skin" and other human sensory emulators by way of the educated guesses of the Emotion Chip's designer. While this allows Souji to avoid the "phantom limb" sensation his sister sometimes writes him about, the trade-off is that Souji's programming has to interpret everything - if only at the first stage of input - as a sexual response.

Being coded by a raging hentai bastard did have it's downsides. Like being turned on by every pubescent girl he saw (hello Naoto-chan), or being turned on by every pubescent boy he saw (hello Naoto-kun), or even being turned on every time it rained. Yet viewing the world through the lens of sex was pretty handy when it came to navigating the complex social structure of high school.

When they talk, Chie and Yukiko share a blush response fourteen percent stronger than with anyone else in their social group. If that weren't glaringly obvious, Souji has to stifle a smile every time he sees them pass a water bottle between each other. Yukiko makes a point to leave an imprint of her Cherry Petal Pink lipstick on the mouthpiece of the bottle, and Chie lingers a bit over this pink ring when she takes a drink. It's all very discrete. Souji learns a lot from them.

The first time he met Kanji, the street punk's eyes spent point-three-eight seconds lingering over the bare skin Souji shows through the side of his open-collar dress shirt.

An amazing amount of human social interaction can be boiled down to a game of Who Wants to Fuck Who And Why They Can't.

But for all its use clearing up any mixed signals, Souji doesn't like flirting. It's uncomfortable for him to remember that, in his first six hours of activation, he knew how to proposition Miss Kirijo's girlfriend before he figured out how to smile and frown. Because, when you got down to it, he wasn't made for combat like his sister Aigis. Souji Seta is supposed to make love, not war. Even when he fights Shadows, he ends up gripping a phallic hilt with both his hands and stabbing the tip into mounds of flesh.

Souji Seta has never touched a woman (or a man) before, but he knows sixty-three ways to bring someone to orgasm using just his thumbs. But he's also never walked barefoot on the grass before last Tuesday.

Sometimes he wonders if that's why all his friends and close associates, save perhaps Rise, are people who would never want to fuck him: straight guys, lesbians, Yumi (don't think about white elephants), repressed homosexuals, children, Naoto (whatever s/he counted as, because even Souji honestly didn't know). Souji sometimes allows himself to touch his hard cock, thinking about Rise. That's normal, right? He's just a normal teenage boy jerking off to a hot girl, trying to feel good and take the edge off of things.

But he'd never ask her out, because God help him if Rise said "Yes".


...


Adachi is sprawled on the ground, utterly defeated, but no one is celebrating. Because standing between the Investigation Team and the exit to this twisted parody of Inaba is a Shadow: a yellow-eyed, grey-haired teenage boy.

"Well, well," says the Shadow, "isn't this a shocking swerve?"

"Aw shit." Kanji throws his hands up. "Really? Really?" He slumps forward.

"Partner," says Yosuke, "don't say a word. We know this thing's tricks."

"You must accept yourself," Naoto advises. "Whatever it is you do not wish us to know about your true self, do not deny it."

The Shadow claps slowly. "Yes, all very well and good, but aren't you all asking a little bit much from a stupid little sex toy?"

"Sex toy?" echoes Chie. "Wha...?"

"You're me," Souji tells it. "I get it."

"Sorry," snarls the Shadow, "I'm not taking orders from you. Unlike you, I'm not a robot! I can think for myself!"

Souji stares back in silence.

"Playing it cool, huh?" Shadow Souji smiles. He looks to the other teens backing Souji' up. "I bet they wouldn't be so buddy buddy with you if they knew the truth."

"Don't listen to him, partner!"

Rise yells from the back, "We believe in you, Sempai!"

"Hey, partner," says the Shadow, "do you know your best buddy thinks about boning you up the ass every time he sees you?"

Yosuke jerks back, as if struck. "W...what?"

"And Rise, did you know that you're his favorite jerk off fantasy?"

The two fall silent.

"Ah, you guys didn't know. Oops. My bad." The Shadow grins. "Well, since we're on the topic, did you all know that your friend here only fought the Shadows because it got his mind off fucking you all? Y'see, that's just him reverting to his base programming - before he was being pimped out by his owner, tin cans like him were built to kill Shadows. Why, if not for all these murders, your pal here would probably be known as the town freak, fucking holes in trees just to get his rocks off!"

Souji's vision is blurring around the edges. All he can focus on is his yellow-eyed doppelganger.

"But that doesn't really matter, does it?" the shadow asks rhetorically. "Souji Seta's friends will still go through hell to back him up, even knowing what an abomination he really is! But what about the people who haven't forged unbreakable bonds with him in battle. His loving cousin, his proud uncle... all the friends Souji's made... the girl he's fallen in love with. We can't forget poor Yumi, can we? I wonder what they would say if they found out how they'd been fooled by his fakery." The Shadow smirks. "Oh, and all those people I just mentioned? Those relationships belong to Souji Seta, a boy who doesn't actually exist! I'm a Shadow to a Dutch Wife! How fucked up is that?

Distantly, Souji realizes his friends have whispering amongst themselves. He tries not to hear them. He doesn't want to hear them.

"...I'm a robot, fine." Before his friends can object, Souji plows on through, "The Seta aren't my parents. I'm a machine! I've got a billion yen computer in my head! I was built in a lab! My granddad's a toaster! So what?"

"A billion yen computer," says the Shadow, holding up an index finger in soft reproach, "and the best dick money can buy."

Souji's teeth tear into his lip. Sythetic blood leaks out, flows down his chin. His balled fists shake as he resists the urge to say the thing that will damn his friends to fighting this thing.

Oddly, it is Teddie who first understands what he and his Shadow are saying. "I'm real," the cartoon bear says, "and I was a Shadow!"

The Shadow grins. "And that's the most damning thing of all... isn't it? The closest thing there is to a real Souji Seta is me, a Shadow cast by nothing. Just like Teddie!" The yellow-eyed boy laughs, like it was the most hilarious thing in the world. "If that's the case - heh heh - if I'm the real Souji Seta - heh - and if the Blue Fairy of Personas can make me a real boy like Teddie... then I guess the real truth is..."

The Shadow points at Souji.

"...you're the one who's not me."


...


Yukiko's been missing in the TV World for two days when Souji skips school to take the train out of Inaba. Halfway between there and Tokyo, he gets off at a nowhere town that looks to be in even worse economic shape than Inaba. It still, however, has a Starvicks franchise across the street from its train station. Souji meets his sister inside that shop.

Aigis takes her coffee with two sugars and lots of cream. Souji's never had coffee before but he's seen Dojima-san take his straight black, so he orders it that way. Tasting it with a wince, he decides that maybe Dojima-san isn't the best role model for this sort of thing.

His sister knows about the murders, but he goes over the relevant points as well as what little he's theorized since his email to her yesterday. And then he says, "I need help."

Aigis says, "It would be unwise to send in Kijiro Group's Persona users to assist you."

"You can't send them?" says Souji. "Or you won't?"

"Won't."

Souji frowns.

Aigis says, "You misunderstand. It would be unwise to expose you to SEES members inside this TV World. The psychological and physical danger inherent in combating these Personality-Shadows of your school-peers is extreme. A manifestation by someone with Mitsuru's combat caliber, whose Persona has been trained and its skills developed to the highest possible level, could result in a Personality-Shadow that would slaughter you and your friends."

Souji sighs. "And none of the SEES members could help my team fight them because they'd have to deal with their own Shadows first."

"Correct."

Souji searches for the right word. "...Shit?"

"Again, correct." Aigis glances out the shop window, focusing on the passersbys. There are schoolchildren, like him, cutting class. Souji wonders if his sister still registers their presence through the lens of threat assessment and target acquisition. Maybe, he wonders, she found a way to turn that off, to not think about white elephants (thank you, translator job, for that wonderful idiom). "However, your Wild Card ability is..."

Souji waits.

"...troubling in its implications," she says at length, "yet, at the same time, comforting."

"By the way," Souji says, "Igor told me that Elizabeth says hello." A strange look passes over Aigis' eyes. Souji saves a video clip of it for further analysis. "Is something wrong?"

"No," his sister says. She sips her coffee. "Mm. Sweet."

"It's good, isn't it? I like chocolate ice cream."

"Butter pecan," says Aigis, "is also good."


...


Yumi stands with her back to him. "I'll turn around, so if you're going to reject me, just leave the room." She takes a deep breath. "That way, I won't have to see you go..."


...


"Training this Saturday?" echoes Souji into the cell phone. Outside his window, the December fog swirls under halogen floodlights. The rest of the house is too fucking quiet. "That's not good for me."

Yosuke deflates like a balloon. "Aw, man. Why? Because, seriously, now really isn't the time to bail on u-"

"It's my mother."

Souji actually hears Yosuke blink over the telephone. "Bwah?"

"My mother. I'm going to visit my mother on Saturday."


...


"Mother?" Ms. Kirijo looks caught between being insulted and amused. She uncrosses and crosses her leg. It's a test, Souji knows, but even if it wasn't he keeps staring the burgundy-haired woman directly in the eyes. He's pre-programmed for a lot of things. Incest isn't one of them, thank God. "I'm not exactly the maternal type."

The Port Island office is luxurious and Souji notices that fact for the first time. And not just all the dark-stained wood paneling and rare ferns. Last time he had been here, sneaking off during his school trip, Souji had marveled at the suppleness of the leather chairs, running his fingers over their textured surface. Now... well, Souji understands the true definition of the word 'tacky'. The decoration is all a bit soulless, consisting stock decorations, not like the well-maintained antiques at the Amagi Inn.

"You're the closest thing I have to a mother," Souji says. "You facilitated my construction."

"Too bad your 'father' is a brain-addled sex pervert." She chuckles under her breath. "Also, I'm not sure how I feel about of the implication of being Aigis' step-mother."

"I don't think of that man being my father," Souji says. What he doesn't add is that his real father is lying in an Intensive Care Ward back in Inaba.

Ms. Kirijo stares at him for a moment, delicately tapping one manicured fingernail on the glass countertop of the conference table. "Well," she says, "it's a honor, Souji, but I'm not sure what you want from me."

"I don't want anything from you. I just wanted to thank you for everything you've done for me."

"You sound like you're saying goodbye."

"You've read my reports on Adachi," he says.

She stares at him... and smiles. "I think you'll do fine. You and your friends have had a remarkable track record so far."

"We still might fail."

"Then be rest assured, I have a contingency to deal with Inaba. However, I don't think we'll need to call them in." Ms. Kirijo leans back in her high-backed leather chair, smoothing out her black silk business skirt. "Now, I understand my son has been seeing a girl?"

"I've been dating Yumi Ozawa."

"That's not what I asked."

Souji blinks. "I'm sorry. Could you elaborate further? I don't understand your inference."

The stare at each other.

"...you know, kid," his mother muses, "I think I liked you better before you knew how to lie."


...


"Listen," he says, settling down next to her on the couch, "there's... something you need to know about me."

Yumi stares at him, searching his face for some clue. "Yeah?"

When Souji realizes he's biting his lip, he stops doing so and chides himself for falling into such a cliche show of body language. "It's pretty big." Quickly, at the look of panic in her eyes, he adds, "I'm not sick or dying."

Yumi relaxes. "How big are talking?"

"Well, I... I'm..."


...


"If that's the case - heh heh - if I'm the real Souji Seta - heh - and if the Blue Fairy of Personas can make me a real boy like Teddie... then I guess the real truth is... you're the one who's not me."

Souji Seta, sexbot, counts to ten before speaking. When he does speak, his voice is tinged with anger... but the white hot rage that threatened to lock up the gears of mind - metaphorically, he's a digital clockwork boy, not an analog one - isn't there, and the gears being to spin. "I... what?"

"You're not me, dildo!"

Souji frowns. "Dildo?"

"Yeah, because that's what you are!"

"Well," the white-haired teen looks to his friends, and though all of them save Teddie seem off-balance, their eyes offer Souji enough support to steady him, "yeah, but what's it matter to you?"

Shadow-Souji squints. "Excuse me?"

"Why do you care? I mean, you're not-"

"SOUJI!" shouts Yosuke. "Don't say it, partner! That's what it wants!"

"No," says Souji. "No," he repeats, this time in a firmer voice. It's not any easier to stand up to his friend's objections than it was that night in Namatame's room, but it has to be done. "He's really not me, Yosuke. He's not really my Shadow."

"Oh?" Shadow-Souji says, his voice ominously distorted. Wisps of blue flame start to swirl around him. "I beg to differ."

"I mean, why now?" Souji looks over to his friends, who are silently watching him. "Teddie saw his Shadow because he listened to Rise-chan talk about how she had no true self. I only beat the hell out of Adachi after listening to him blather about being a sick son of a bitch - where's my personal revelation?"

"Maybe you've forgotten that YOU'RE A GODDAMN DUTCH WIFE!"

"Yeah," Souji turns his head back towards his double, "but I already know that."

"You're former friends didn't."

Souji dismisses that point with a wave of his hand. "No, no. That's not it either. They only found out about that because you told them. That's the effect of your presence. What's the cause? Of the people who weren't thrown into the TV and faced their Shadows, all three of them had a reason. Teddie had an existential crisis. Chie-chan questioned herself after hearing Yukiko-chan's inner thoughts. Yosuke-kun did the same, but with Saki-sempai. Even Aigis had a reason for creating Metis with her friend's death. But what about me?"

"Stop analyzing this like it's your stupid little murder mystery!" the Shadow hisses. "You're just denying the truth again: that you're a fake person with an imitation life. There's nothing to guess at about this, robot boy! I'm-"

"Shush."

"Don't tell me to-"

"Shush now," he tells the Shadow, holding up one index finger to reinforce his point. "I wasn't finished speaking." Souji cocks his head to the side. When his doppelganger glares at him but does nothing more, Souji continues, "Good. Now, as I was saying, there's nothing to give as a reason for facing you. Adachi's little self-centered rant didn't wake me up to any sort of 'truth' about my life. So... why are you even here? What are you trying to accomplish - or hide - by making me think you're my Shadow? And if you're not my Shadow... then who or what are you?"

Souji's double stares back at him. The Shadow holds this gaze for several seconds before bowing its head. When the Shadow next speaks, it's voice is far grander than anything capable of being produced by something human:

"You saw through my deception... but 'truth' is something that not everyone is capable of having... you've foolishly cast aside illusions... so now, look upon my TRUE SELF."

The faux-Souji rises up into the air, evaporates into a dark mist, and reforms into...

...a giant floating disco eyeball.

A icon flashes across Souji's vision, telling him now might be a good time to break out a stock phrase he's been saving since his private research project on obscenity back in May. "Seriously, what the fuck?"

"Yeah," says Yosuke at his side, spinning his knives to the ready, "that's about the question of the day."


...


They're sitting around their usual table in the Food Court. Adachi is currently in custody. They're all exhausted, but no one is letting him out of their sights until they talk about It. The Food Court is deserted in the thick fog, and the mists muffle their conversation, so it's as good as a soundproofed locked room. They're all eating topsicles. It's not quite what Souji imagined victory tasting like.

Souji explains his background, with Naoto backing up his request for quiet until he can finish. When he's done the whole team just sits in silence for several moments until his partner bolts to his feet, knocking his chair over.

"O-o-o-oh my God!" exclaims Yosuke. "Don't you guys get it? Lots of cute girls plus one 'tomboy' - "

Kanji smacks one fist into an open palm. "For your sake, Hanamura, I'll pretend you're talking about Chie-chan."

" - all crushing on their magical team leader, wanting to teach him the meaning of love? Don't you guys get it? We're living in a harem anime!"

"Wait," says Souji. "You don't have a crush on me?"

Yosuke recoils. "DUDE! Sick! Don't be a pervert!"

"He totally does," says Kanji. "Awww yeah, Hanamura's hot for sempai."

Yukiko adds cheerfully, "I think it's cute!"

Yosuke sprang to his feet. Leaning over their table, he loudly exclaimed to the whole Food Court, "I do NOT have the HOTS for Souji! If anything, I'm the wacky comic relief!"

Everyone stares at the serious-faced Yosuke.

Naoto coughs.

Teddie smiles. "I think you're HILARIOUS, Yosuke-kun!"

Souji reaches over and pats Yosuke reassuringly on the hand. "Of course you are, Yosuke-kun. Of course you are."

The flustered boy retrieves his hand with a hiss. "I'm not gay," he grumbles.

Chie winks to Yukiko. Rise giggles.

"Actually," Souji says, "he's not. Yosuke's blush response indicates his only prefers girls. His history of pupil dilation also tells me that he's especially aroused by large posteriors." Everyone stares at him, jaws hanging open. Souji shifts in his seat. "Or so I've heard."

Kanji stutters, "S-Sempai has a - "

" - a gaydar?" finishes Chie.

Everyone besides him, Yosuke, and Teddie suddenly looks nervous.

"So, yeah," says Souji, "I'm a robot. Sexbot, if you want to get technical."

"Can you transform into a sports car?" asks Teddie, eyes brimming with hope.

"No."

"Drat," the blond boy moans. "I could have driven you around and we could have scored some hot studs!"

"Well," says Yukiko, desperate to get back on subject, "Naoto-kun pretended to be a man. That's kind of the same thing, isn't it?"

Chie pipes up, "Also, it's kinda... hot."

Rise says, "Yumi must be a very lucky girl."

Souji coughs. "We haven't, uh, you know... it's not that serious."

Everyone but Naoto shares a significant look. The Detective Prince, meanwhile, just stares at him like he's just said the stupidest thing in the world. Souji's first impulse is to object, but then he reminds himself that he's still the 'bot who, not three months ago, ate Nanako-chan's pea plant project - dirt and all - when he found it in the fridge one night after a shift at the hospital where he had done a champion's job of wearing out Sayoko's knees.

"Yeah," he says, hunching over in his seat. "Screw you guys, and whatever."


...


On Christmas Eve, Souji learns several things about his girlfriend. One is that Yumi has erogenous zones in both her armpits and behind her left knee. Another is that she cries when she orgasms - and we're talking rivers of tears here. The revelation that sex can't be reduced to the strategies he has built into his basic Personality O/S is profound - it's so much MORE about the person you're with - but the most important thing is that Souji knows he's in love with Yumi and that she loves him back.

They're resting on his futon, their sweaty, naked bodies cooling as they (well, she) recovers. Souji is on his side, head propped up by one elbow, watching his girlfriend. Yumi is on her back, legs spread, eyes closed.

"Are you okay?" he asks gently.

She hums an affirmation. "'m good." Yumi shivers. Her pace quickens. "Fff."

Souji leans over and kisses her on the cheek. Her free hand finds his and their fingers lace together.


...


"1500 will be born in the place of the 1000 I take as punishment for my imprisonment," the gas station attendant says, as the rain falls around Her but not on Her. "And that's fair, because it is the will of humanity's gods. You... you are not human, little tin man. My husband could not create you, only our subjects could. And I will NOT let mankind make that number 1501 even for one day!"

Souji's right-hook smashes open her braincase like it's a meat-filled piƱata.


...


Mitsuru looks over the body of the prototype - 'Souji'. In a few minutes the experiment will begin and she'll see if there's anything worthwhile salvaging from this "sexbot" debacle she uncovered.

Aigis, who stands at her side, frowns. "Why did you order the manager to give him a military-class chassis instead of fabricating a new one?"

"It's cheaper this way," she explains. "Besides, it won't make much difference either way. It's not like we'll be using him to peel open the armor of tanks or take depleted uranium shells to the chest. And it's always good to have another pair of hands around that can open a tough jar of pickles."

Aigis says nothing.

"That was a joke."

"Oh," says Aigis flatly. "Ha. Ha."


...


"Ha! Nice punch," the goddess says, rubbing Her jaw as her skullcap knits itself back together. "Very well, I won't hold back either." She floats up into the air, flowing white gown untouched by the steady downpour. "I'll be waiting for you on the other side, child of man."

And like that, she's gone.


...


They're walking back to the train station when Aigis says something that Souji knows is important, even if he doesn't understand or appreciate it. But his Big Sis is smart, so when his instincts tell him to turn on his audio recorders, he does so.

Big Sis says, "You don't have to save the world to find meaning in life." Aigis takes a bite out of her half-eaten chocolate ice cream cone. "Sometimes, all you need is something simple, like someone to take care of, or friends to watch out for."

"Maybe you're right," he says at length. Then Souji flicks his tongue - using Cunnilingus Attack Pattern Delta - over the strange ice cream he's holding in his hand. "Mmm. Butter pecan is good."

"I told you."


...


His bedroom is dark with the winter's early evening. Souji places one hand on Yumi's left breast. Not to kneed or mold it, but just to feel her heartbeat in the palm of his hand. "Does it bother you?"

"It did," she replies, and Souji can't help but flinch, "at first. I didn't... I thought it was a joke, y'know, and then I was mad when you proved it. At first I... I thought someone had played a horrible joke on me. That's why I ran out that day."

"Sorry," he whispers.

She shakes her head. "No. I was wrong."

"But the next day... at school..." She had kissed him in the doorway to his classroom, engendering a round of applause from everyone there.

"S-sorry," she whispers back. "I normally don't like being so public about things. Stage fright, I guess. Heh."

Yumi's heart beat is slow and steady. She's relaxed. Happy. "What changed you mind?"


...


So this is what death is like, Souji thinks. And then, belatedly, he adds to himself, I guess robots DO go someplace after death.

But then visions of his friends come to him, one by one, telling him to fight on against Izanami. And then she's there, helping him to his feet.

"I changed my mind about you," Yumi tells him, "because only a good person would have been there for me when my father was dying. There was no need for you to be there. I had never shown the slightest interest in you. But you were there for me when I was suffering. That's why you ARE a human being, Souji Seta, even if your flesh is different than mine. And it's also why I love you."

(The power of hearts of those you have formed the deepest bonds with becomes your strength! Izanagi has transformed into Izanagi-no-Okami!)


...


"My life is really complicated," he tells Yumi, as they spoon together for a few more minutes before she has to go home before her mother starts to worry. "If you... I'll understand if you ever want out, okay?"

"Souji?"

"Yeah?"

She turns over in bed to look him right in the eyes. He can only see her with his night-vision enhancements. For the rest of his life, he'll treasure the sincerity in her eyes and in her voice when Yumi tells him, "I'm not going anywhere, Souji Seta. Got it?"

"...Yeah." He kisses her chastely on the lips. "Got it."


END