(A/N: ...what is there to say besides thank you? I have no doubt that I never would have finished this without your guys' patience and support. You all are awesome people and I love you all. I'm so excited to give this last chapter to all of you. I think I've kept you all guessing until the very end and that's a great accomplishment for me so I'm happy to finally give you all the answers. There is so many ways this story could have gone...but I'm happy with the direction I chose. Hopefully you all can be at peace with it too.
Stay tuned for some deleted scenes!
Onwards and upwards.)
She was sitting on the couch when the call came.
The phone buzzed on the coffee table, spinning and lighting up. She, Zane and every Surface kid who'd stuck it through with them stared at it, watching it spaz.
Cora's arm felt numb and cold as she reached for it. She loosely accepted the call, holding the holo-phone to her ear.
She almost dropped it.
"Hello?" she answered hoarsely.
"Cora." Tenma's voice was neutral, but thick with chained emotions. "Come to the Ministry."
He hung up.
This time, she did drop it. Like her hairbrush had the day Astro had appeared in her kitchen, it slipped from her hand and clattered to the ground.
She didn't pick it up.
There was a minute of silence. After it, Zane cleared his throat roughly. When he spoke it sounded as if he hadn't talked in years. "Well?" he croaked. "What did he say?"
"I have to go to the Ministry," Cora deadpanned. Her hand was still hovering and she lowered it slowly.
Zane raised an eyebrow. "That's all?"
Cora nodded disjointedly and Zane pursed his lips, rising.
"Let's go, then," he said solemnly, exactly as Cora had expected him to, but she still grimaced despite herself.
"I'd like to go alone," she blurted, squeezing her eyes shut. It was immensely blunt, but she couldn't seem to bring herself to care.
Zane shoulders drooped, but he didn't look surprised. He also didn't protest. She knew he'd understand. "Are you sure?"
She wasn't, but she nodded anyway, swallowing thickly.
Without another word, she headed for the door.
All eyes followed her and it wasn't until she slipped into her father's hovercar that she allowed herself to breathe. Her lungs killed with each breath.
Her father didn't say anything and Cora was grateful.
There also wasn't much to say.
She's slammed the car door a bit harder than intended when she got out.
The noise of the slam didn't totally register. The Ministry loomed in front of her, tall and modern and imposing. Last time she'd been here had only been hours ago, and yet it felt like an eternity.
It was as if she had served several life sentences in this dreaded building and yet here she was again.
This time was different, though. This time no sliver of hope festered. There was no more kindling to keep that pitiful fire going.
The door beeped and opened on its own accord when she approached it. Tenma must have been waiting. She entered without hesitation, but her pulse quickened tenfold as she crossed the threshold.
This was it.
Tenma was hovering by the elevator, looking solemn and twitchy with his hands clasped behind his back.
If Cora was holding onto any sort of small, remedial hope that Astro was okay and waiting for her, it died just then. She felt the tears returning, but she pushed them down.
"Dr. Tenma," she said. Her voice shook unwillingly. but her jaw was set.
Tenma smiled thinly, his eyes unfocused. "Bill, please," he rasped.
Cora swallowed. "Bill, then," she agreed, and Tenma - Bill - nodded shortly.
"This way," he got out, turning and abandoning the elevator, briskly heading down an adjacent hall. With an ugly suspicion that he was crying, Cora followed.
They passed several closed doors before Bill stopped in front of one, his finger hovering hesitantly over the entrance keypad. His hand shook as he entered the code.
He crossed the threshold and Cora followed, the door sliding shut behind them with finality.
She stood in darkness. She waited, but no lights flickered on.
After a moment, something unpleasant began to knot itself in her stomach. She'd been following blindly, almost in a daze, but the cold darkness seemed to jolt her out of the passiveness. Her years of Surface life began to ripple in her muscles.
"Um, Ten - Bill?" she croaked aloud. "Are the lights working?"
She got no response.
A type of fear she had been unfamiliar with up until this point flickered in her stomach and she backed up until she hit a wall.
She pressed against it. "Dr. Tenma?" she tried again, trying to keep her growing panic out of her voice. Perfectly logical scenarios were beginning to run through her mind and none of them were good. Not even remotely.
She was such an idiot to come alone. Astro was dead and she'd just allowed herself to enter a dark, locked lab with a deranged, grieving father. Last time he'd grieved he'd made an all-powerful robot and angered the President. God knew what he would do this ti -
There was a click and a light switched on suddenly, blinding Cora with a blue-yellow glow. She blinked rapidly to adjust as the room was finally revealed to her.
It wasn't all that different than the lab she had been in not long before. A giant, metal space with wires hanging from the ceiling, tools sprawled all around a long lab table occupying the center.
The fear quickly and thankfully fizzled away. Tenma was standing solemnly behind the lab table and if Cora had been worried about his intentions before, she wasn't now. Tenma's expression was not of a man crazed by guilt and grief, but rather a depressed state of acceptance.
Cora wasn't even sure which she would have prefered: a crazed Tenma or one taking it well. Her dread returned, her breathing had gone shallow and she approached the table without looking at it, keeping her gaze locked on Tenma instead. He didn't say a word, but his eyes said it all.
She looked down before she could talk herself out of it.
She almost vomited, bracing herself against the table with a hand.
It was instantly soaked with leaked oil.
He was everywhere. It was about ten times worse than it had been at Hamegg's. This was more than dismemberment. This...this was mutilation.
The skin-like material had been completely peeled away from his robotic frame and lay in scraps all around him, exposing his bare, metal parts to the air. His head lay precariously on the end of the table, all skin gone from his metal skull. The antenna was still in place, but parts here and there were missing. The lights for his eyes were empty, leaving sockets Cora couldn't bear to look at. Plugs were torn from their homes, his ears were gone and various gaping, jagged holes were obvious everywhere as if a giant dog had decided to make Astro into a midnight snack.
One gaping hole stabbed her in particular. The base of the antenna.
The memory chip.
The chip would have been the last hope to scavenge any part of Astro she'd known. That much Tenma had made clear and Cora could believe that he'd tried. That was obvious. This was not a dissection. This...this was a father desperately trying to save a son that was already gone.
With tears streaming down her cheeks and oil staining her shirt, Cora put her hand on the motionless chest of the bravest little robot she'd ever known...a chest that had just hours before churned with such love and life.
There was no life now. Only pain.
She collapsed then, dropping to her knees with her hand clutching Astro's shiny metal fingers, never wanting to let go. Her mind screamed to the Heavens, but the Heavens didn't answer. The world was cruel and unforgiving and it had stolen a great light she'd worked so hard to keep flickering.
It wasn't fair.
She felt Tenma place a hand on her shoulder, no doubt feeling the same pain. She didn't look at him. There was nothing left to say. As the tears came faster she dropped her hand from what was left of Astro's, wisps of memories drifting through her mind as she did. She roughly tried to clear her vision by brushing away her tears, but she only succeeded in getting oil on her face.
Tenma's hand left her shoulder and offered her a tissue.
She took it gratefully. "Thanks," she sniffed.
"You're welcome," Tenma said.
Except it wasn't Tenma's voice.
Cora felt her heart jump to her throat. She turned around so fast she could have given herself whiplash.
A boy was kneeling next to her, a box of tissues in his hand. He smiled and his chocolate brown eyes twinkled.
Cora gasped. It all began to process as if in slow motion.
He was about her age, a foot taller than her with angular, boyish and handsome features that matched a lean, toned frame. He was incredibly cute, but that's not what left Cora frozen.
No, the boy's hair was dark and styled into two spikes...and underneath his casual t-shirt and jeans poked two thin, identical red boots of slick metal.
"A-Astro?" she whispered.
Astro smiled impishly, showing a new set of white teeth. "Hi, Cora," he said softly, and it was his voice, Astro's voice, but a tad deeper...more mature than before.
She blinked in disbelief for a long moment, failing to process this new yet same person in front of her. As if in a dream she extended a hand and pressed it to Astro's chest as she'd done minutes before with his shell.
Astro grinned at her touched opened his chest hatch and he gently lifted his shirt, showering them both in the blue glow of the Core. He let her stare in awe for a moment, before gently taking her hand in his, his fingers now longer than hers and absent of the childish fat.
He closed his hatch quietly and cupped her hand in both of his. His touch was electrifying, telling her that this was real. "It's okay," he whispered. "I'm okay, Cora."
She sniffed and she was crying again, the dam breaking with a fresh wave of tears - this time of joy of pure, unadulterated disbelief.
"How?" she choked.
"Dad," Astro explained, grinning from ear to ear. "He was able to salvage my memory chip. My hard drive was fried. I was paralyzed and half my insides were melted. I was basically internally combusting from the damage I sustained."
He said it so casually and he grinned at the tattered remains of his old body before turning back to Cora. "Um...saving me wasn't really an option, as you can see," he said, laughing nervously. "Rebuilding me, though...that was."
His lip quivered in a sort of half smile as he waited for her response.
She didn't really have one, except a blank, shocked and relieved stare.
Someone cleared their throat behind them and Tenma gingerly approached. "I'm sorry I didn't just tell you, Cora," he apologized. "We agreed it was best to just show you."
"I did ask you to clean...this up, though," Astro muttered, gesturing vaguely at his old body, which was still leaking pitifully out on the table.
Tenma winced. "Sorry again," he said. "The Ministry of Science is still partially on lockdown and the waste reciprocals are unavailable. I didn't exactly want all those hazardous materials in some box."
Astro made a face, but he nodded in acceptance, turning back to Cora with a thin smile.
He offered her a hand. Not having even realized he'd ever dropped it, Cora accepted it and Astro hauled her to her feet. His now, slimmer and larger hands were firm and warm. Oil squished between their skin, but Cora hardly noticed as she took in his older, soft brown eyes.
It was him, her Astro. Unchanged, yet so different. Her age. Astro had been upgraded to her age.
She didn't know, but some nagging part of her told her it couldn't be a complete coincidence as Astro let go of her slowly, wiping the bit of oil off himself with a bit of disgust.
His eyes never left hers as he continued to wait for her response. Tenma hovered a tad bit behind him, also looking toward her warily, waiting to see her full reaction.
But she didn't react, not really. She just stood there with oil dripping from her hand and collecting in a pool by her right foot.
After a small, awkward and tense pause, Tenma took a cautious step forward, standing next to Astro. Astro was almost as tall as him now. "Cora?" he tried, his brow furrowing with a parental concern that made Cora's stomach churn. "Are you alright?"
She moved before they could see it coming.
Two well-aimed, furious slaps. Her palm flat and hard against their faces. Tenma recoiled, a hand flying up to cup a red, burning cheek. Astro barely flinched upon the impact and hardly looked physically afflicted, but his shell-shocked expression was plenty satisfying.
Cora's pain, as it always seemed to inevitably do, had flipped to rage.
"Who in Hell do you think you two are?" she screamed, finally letting her emotions to figure themselves out and let the dam break. And it felt damn good.
"Cora - " Astro tried, but his superpowers did not include authority. Cora plowed right over his weak attempt.
"Nuh-uh," she hissed, wagging an accusing finger at him. He backed up a step, eyes wide. "You...you don't say a word. I thought you were dead. After all that…you were dead! Again! You were gone and I...and then everything was okay and then you...I'm sick of that!"
Her words were barely coherent, but her meaning was clear. Her chest heaved with fury as she rounded on Tenma.
"And you," she spat, taking a step toward the doctor. Tenma flinched. "Don't even get me started. You kill him countless times and then you go and pull a stunt like this without telling me and...and -"
"Cora!" Astro shouted, stepping between her and his father with his new, long arms held up in surrender. Cora looked as if she'd been about the pounce. "Look, I know. I'm sorry you had to go through all that."
Her grabbed her shaking wrists and steadied them - steadied her. "I'm okay," he whispered again, his brown eyes intense and mature, his voice low. "It's over. It's all over. Dad isn't going to hurt me, I'm not dead, Stone is back in custody, Hamegg's release is already being conducted and I'm fine. I'm better than fine, Cora. I'm a new me."
He smiled and the warmth traveled to his eyes, but Cora only felt more tears rise. "But I didn't want you to change," she croaked, her voice wavering and anger dissipating. "I liked you the way you were."
Astro smirked lightly, looking pleased. "I know," he said. "But that was never really me. That was Toby. Now...now we're different. In mind and body."
Cora blinked, looking at the seriousness in his eyes. Now they were different, she realized, and she also realized what a wonderful feeling that must be for him - to finally be his own person outwardly. Now, he wasn't Toby. Now, she and him were the same age...well, sort of.
And he was attractive. Very attractive.
That was a plus.
And suddenly, everything was okay. The pieces all began to tumble into place. Everything began to make sense again. Her breathing began to even, her shoulders slumped. Something like relief began to wash over her, although she wasn't sure she knew what relief felt like anymore.
Despite herself, she began to smile. Then she laughed, long and loud.
Astro laughed too. "What?" he asked.
"It's just…" Cora giggled, freeing her wrists from Astro's hands and taking them in hers instead. "God, just all of this, I can't...it's a lot to take in. And...you look older than him now. Toby."
Astro blinked, taking this in as well, before shrugging. "I guess," he said, like it was no big deal.
"Although technically speaking he's only about seven and a half days old," an almost-identical and incredibly familiar voice said.
They both turned as one to see Toby hanging leisurely off the lab entrance door, still looking the spitting image of Astro's old self, but now sporting a crisp new Ministry of Science hat.
Holding his left hand tightly was a girl with thick blonde hair and large, curious green eyes. She smiled at the two of them as Toby peeled himself from the door and approached.
"Looking good, brother," he told Astro, giving him a friendly slap on the back with the hand not already occupied. The normality of his demeanour was staggering to the still-recovering Cora. "I take a bit of credit, although I believe Tilly should take most of it."
The blonde girl - Tilly - went red. "Matilda," she introduced herself shyly and she looked Astro's form over with careful eyes. "Do you like it?"
Astro's eyes went wide and he put a hand to his newly designed chest. "Do you mean…" he trailed, gesturing to himself as a whole. "Do you mean to say you designed all this?"
"Tilly is an artist," Toby answered for her proudly, puffing out his chest a little. "Moment I saw how damaged you were I immediately thought of her. Before, in school, I'd seen the intricacies of her designs. Her schematics were incredible and she was lightning fast at is so I, um…"
He trailed for the first time, swinging his and her arms wordlessly as he looked at her. She offered him a warm smile.
"Recruited her," he finished, finding the word.
Astro beamed. "I love all of it," he expressed, demonstrating with a quick flex of his new, sleek form. "Thank you. I owe you a great deal of gratitude."
Tilly looked down humbly, but Cora could tell she was beaming with pride. "I didn't do much," she muttered, sending an elbow in Toby's direction. "It was all Toby's idea."
"Both of you, then," Astro decided, and he quirked his head in Toby's direction. "And here you thought no one in school liked you."
Toby went immediately red. "I never said that," he blubbered.
"No, but you thought it," Astro pointed out, tapping his own head with knowing smile and Toby paled.
"Only me," he muttered overdramatically. "Only I would have a robot brother who is younger than but older than me with access to half my memories."
"Least we aren't identical now," Astro said, giving a shrug.
Toby rolled his eyes. "Geez, yeah, that's an improvement alright."
Cora was looking between the two of them with a gaping mouth. "My God," she got out. "You guys really do look like brothers now."
Toby made a face. "C'mon, Cora, we are brothers, of course we do," he said in what she'd come to know as typical Toby fashion, like duh-why-wouldn't-we-look-like-blood-brothers-it-wasn't-like-he-didn't-exist-until-a-week-ago. "Only having talked with one another three times doesn't change that."
"The memory thing kinda helps that," Astro added helpfully.
Toby grimaced. "Let's drop the memory thing, yeah?"
Tilly giggled, sending a knowing look to Cora. "I think we're going to have our hands full in the future," she said.
Cora sniffed at the understatement. "Won't we, though," she agreed, and the truth in that statement hit her full on then. In the future. Huh, yeah, that was a nice concept. A future.
And who would have thought she would have been here a week ago.
As if to cap it all off, Tenma laughed, coming forward and placing his arms around his two sons with the beaming smile of a relieved, proud father. "I'll have my hands full with all of you, it seems," he chuckled. "Although I am hardly complaining. In fact, I have nothing to complain about. I'm a lucky man to have all you little geniuses."
"Actually, Dad, sorry to break it to you, but Astro is no longer little," Toby pointed out and Astro raised an eyebrow, checking out the very little difference in height between him and his father - and how much higher Tenma's arm was on Astro's shoulders than Toby's.
Tenma observed it too. "Yes, that will take some getting used to, now, won't it?"
"I think it all will," Cora breathed weakly, still trying to wrap her mind around it all. Everything felt as if it were happening very fast and she wasn't sure how her heart was taking it. By now she ought to be used to that.
Astro turned to her then and they must have shared some sort of obviously meaningful look, because Toby cleared his throat and began to steer his father and Tilly away from them.
"Weellllll," he drawled. "I know I'd best be going to let Zane in on all this good news and to -ah - see this awesome hoverboard of his, because I think Tilly and I are going to build one, are you in, Dad?"
If Tenma hadn't realized Toby's intention up until that point, he got it now. "Ah! Yes, I think I'll come," he said quickly. "I'll snag Elefun. Maybe we'll all grab lunch. On me?"
"That sounds wonderful, be seeing you two then!" Toby declared with a knowing nod and a cheerful wink, before galloping off with Tilly on one arm and his father on the other.
Cora watched them go with a grin. By God, did Toby know the two of them well now.
"Quite the wingman you got there," she muttered to Astro, and Astro shared her grin.
"I think he's going to be a great brother," he agreed. "And I like the idea of lunch. But first…"
He moved toward her slowly. Despite this new confidence in his new voice, he still moved like the old Astro - kind of clunky and shy, like he wasn't totally accustomed to his own limbs, which was probably fair.
She didn't move, letting him come close enough that they were toe to toe.
Astro bit at his lip as if he were wrestling with what words he wanted to say.
"Do you remember," he said finally. "That night on the balcony?"
"I don't think I could forget it," Cora admitted, her heart fluttering as she suddenly felt she knew where this was going.
Astro chuckled, rubbing at his neck in such an Astro way Cora couldn't take it. "Me neither. So...I was thinking...more wondering, really...if…"
Before he could stumble the words out, Cora wrapped her arms around his neck. She had to stretch to do it. That was new.
"You never need to ask," she said.
Astro's nervous smile cracked into a beam. She heard a small click and her cheeks grew suddenly hot - and not totally from blushing. Looking down, she saw that Astro's shoes had converted into new, slick rocket boots and the two of them were rising gently into the air on cheery rocket fire.
She looked back to him with such a smile of relief she felt like she didn't even need him to fly. "I missed you," she breathed.
"I missed you, too," he whispered back. "And I have something to show you."
"Bigger than your new look?" she asked suspiciously. She'd sort of had enough surprises for one day.
Luckily, he shook his head. "No," he assured. "But...it's good."
She cocked her head. "Well, you've got my interest," she said. "Let's go."
His eyes glinted and with a fluid ease, he held her in place while he swiveled around, successfully transferring her to his back. Prepared for takeoff.
She was pretty sure she was dreaming. When Astro turned his head around to check on her, if felt so unreal she could have believed it was. "You ready?" he asked.
She hugged him tighter. "Born ready," she said.
"Onwards and upwards, then!" Astro yelled, and with that he blasted off at full speed.
Cora screamed, but not out of fear - just joy. This time, there was no falling, no upward climb, just speeding out of the lab doors like they'd shot out of a circus cannon. They swiveled around the corners, dodging stunned scientists and clean up crews, rushing over equipment and barging through the front doors into the fresh open air.
It never tasted so sweet. The moment they entered prime flying space Astro bent his back in a graceful arch, pulling them up into a gentle transition. He leveled and cruised through the air, a cool breeze brushing over his metal head and through Cora's hair.
They didn't speak. There was nothing to say. Both of them just enjoyed the view, the moment and the peace.
They deserved that much. The city spanned out before them, basking in the midday glow of the sun that glinted off the sleek white and blue buildings. Hovercars and Metro Expresses bustled around, citizens scattered around the squares and streets enjoying a lunch out in the sun. For once Cora didn't even pine to join them or partake in their routine peace. She had her own now, finally, and she was never letting it get away from her again.
They were nearing the edge of the city and the Tenma penthouse. Cora thought Astro would turn and swoop there, bringing them in dramatically through the window or something, but he didn't.
Instead, he dived.
She didn't scream, but she did clutch his neck a bit hard. If he were human, she'd have probably crushed his windpipe, but he only chuckled. They flew off the side of the grounded city with a gust of self-created wind and leveled off just above the surface of the Surface, gliding around the mounds of trash.
Something stilled further in her then. Her new home may be in Metro City, but her first home was on the Surface and she had a feeling Astro knew it.
She also knew where they were headed.
It came up quicker than she expected though, the trash giving way to the small slab of green in startling contrast, a valley of nature and beauty still struggling to remain amongst all the rubbish.
Her heart skipped a beat when ZOG's little head creaked up to look at them as they came to a hovering stop above him, sitting in the same warpaint they'd given him and lodged in the very same spot he'd been for all those years before Astro had sparked him back into the world of the living.
He was holding something in his a large, golden hands and Astro swivelled his head to look at her again.
"Remember what you told me when I first saw ZOG?" he said. "You said that you and the others used to have picnics in him."
"Yeah," Cora choked. "Yeah, we did."
"Well, I thought…" Astro murmured. "Why don't we have a picnic with him? You know..catch up a little? And we can...we can maybe stay and watch the sun set and then stargaze...like we did that one time. Would you like that?"
If Cora really, truly didn't think she had any tears left to cry at this point, she was again wrong.
"Astro," she choked. "I would love that."
Astro looked back at her, taking in the breeze sifting through her highlighted hair and the sun hanging in the sky behind her, giving her a sort of halo.
Suddenly, it felt like nothing bad had ever happened between them. As they touched down in the valley - Astro towering over her, both sheltering and drowning her in his shadow, the grass brushing against their feet - he felt as if he'd just seen ZOG for the first time and he and Cora had only met the night before. This was be like their first day together. A time to get to know each other properly. No Hamegg. No Robot Games. No RRF. No secrets. No interruptions.
The right way. The way it could have been.
Should have been.
"Good," he breathed to her, reaching down to wipe a tear from her cheek with a newly created finger.
"Because I love you."
And with that, he kissed her.
The only regret he held now was that he hadn't done it sooner.
But then again, he had a whole future he'd never imagined ahead of him now. An unknown, exciting and glorious future for the both of them, alike in body and spirit. There was nothing to fear in that.
And as his Dad was always saying...
Onward and upwards.