Disclaimer: I don't own The King of Fighters, though I can dream…

A/N: Greetings, fellow readers and writers. Wow, it has been a while, hasn't it? Yeah, I'm sorry for going in such complete radio silence like that, but the beat goes on. I've been working hard on this latest entry in my series, and it's definitely my most ambitious yet. There are a lot more character involvement from established fighters, and the story in general has a more expansive outlook. So, without further delay, I'll get to what I do. And here … we … go:

The King of Fighters XVI: Where the Heart Is

What It Takes

PANT… PANT…

In a darkened chamber, a young boy of only 10 was in a struggle. His raven hair was matted to his head with sweat. His small body drenched from the effort. Each breath was heavy as his clenched in pain. Yet, there was no rest for him…

FOOM! UGH!

"That's enough, Croix!" A stern, English-accented voice called out.

The boy had been knocked several feet backward from a blast of fire before an older man stepped in. The older man, his face featuring a prominent moustache and his body honed into a well-built physique, stared down the boy's attacker, clinching his own taped hands into fists. Across the room stood a large man with a rotund belly, his head adorned with shoulder length mud-brown hair, his facial features outlined by black jester make-up. Relenting to his fellow member's command, Croix pounded his gut twice, and his belly 'deflated' as he huffed smoke out of his nose, the release whistling from his nostrils like a bronze bull…

"Heh Heh… Pitiful…" Croix snorted as the boy struggled to stand.

At that moment, two women came into the room. One had her long blond hair tied into a high ponytail with a black lace band, and wore a long-sleeved black lace over shirt over a long lace dress with a flared collar and many embroider patterns throughout. The other woman had long tomato-red hair, and wore a frilled blouse under black business attire and tall lace-up boots. The English man went right for the blond woman, while the red-haired woman went right to the boy's aid.

"Juno, Genevieve, this isn't going to work. All this time, and his progress is still lacking…"

Genevieve replied as she looked the boy over, "You say that like we have another choice, Benjamin."

Benjamin continued skeptically, "The boy is not ready. It's doubtful he'll succeed if we go through with this."

Juno replied, "Our options are slim already. Do you have some other plan?"

Croix indignantly suggested, "What about the girl? At least she can take a hit."

Benjamin explained with a sigh, "Impossible. Her bloodline doesn't mix well enough with the influence for this to work."

Juno added, "Not to mention Botan is having a much harder time reining her in. She's fighting the grip on her a lot fiercer than before; she actually slipped out of it a short time ago."

Genevieve reassured the boy, "You know what that means, right? It's up to you now. But it's all right; you'll make it. We know that for sure."

Juno added sweetly as she approached the boy, "Exactly; so don't you worry. It's already been written you'll win. You … are going to be our hero."

Croix and Benjamin weren't so convinced; as soon as the women spoke, Benjamin stifled a groan in the back of his throat, while Croix stifled a laugh in his. Suddenly, one more member of the group arrived, and all the others watched as they went right to the boy…

Genevieve asked, "What do you think?"

The other member earnestly said, "I think that's enough for today. It won't do him or us any good to train him to death."

"About Shroom…" Juno asked as the other turned to leave, "How is she doing?"

"Not good… not even close…" The member said with concern as they shook their head in the negative, "You know Rimelo meant the world to her. You and Genevieve can understand; I know I can…"

"Wait…" the boy finally said, standing shakily as the others look to him, "I'm fine; I can keep going."

As Juno and Genevieve looked to each other lost, the other member turned back to him, saying, "You're sure now? We can't afford you getting hurt."

The boy nodded affirmatively, saying, "I can make it. Let's keep going."

The group went silent in consideration with the boy obviously wanting to please them. Juno and Genevieve were very uneasy and concerned about the idea. Benjamin stood stoically while watching what the other adults would do. Croix listened simply for another chance to power-up again…

The other member finally said, "Okay. Juno, Genevieve, watch them; stop it when he can't take anymore… Fight hard; we are counting on you."

With that, the boy nodded and the other member departed. Juno, Genevieve, and Benjamin went off to the side as the boy readied himself. Croix chuckled with a bull-like snort, and his belly expanded again as he drew in a long breath. Taking aim at the boy, he slightly opened his lips, letting sparks fly out from the energy held in his mouth…


My Girl

On the outskirts of Osaka, in a lavish mansion, three people were hard at work on the latest King of Fighters Tournament. In the large home office, it was obvious that the space once held a single stately desk and now had accommodated three smaller, more streamlined desks. To the right sat Mature, speaking Chinese into a phone as she was securing a final site in Shanghai. Sitting at the left desk was Vice, furiously typing away at a computer filling out a bracket with the RSVPs. Meanwhile, the owner of the estate, Hiroshi Amaterasu, was in the middle of a telephone interview while guiding around moving staff preparing for an upcoming gathering…

"Well, I've always been an avid fan of the King of Fighters tournaments, so having the chance to be both an investor and a participant is a dream come true. Don't get me wrong; the work's been hard, but this is definitely the most exciting project I've taken up…" Hiroshi pointed out something to his assistant Maxwell as he awaited the next question, before answering, "As you know, past tournaments have been much more serious and dire, not to mention the usual calamity that surrounds the final match. So, this year, my fellow sponsors and I decided to give the event a freer, more festive atmosphere. To that end, the field of teams has also been opened up to give the feeling reminiscent of the 'dream matches' of some time ago…

Hiroshi quickly signed a form handed to him as the next question came, "The first match is in two weeks, but before that, there are several promotional events next week including the release of the official bracket and the fan appreciation day. And the whole thing kicks off in three days at the 'Entrance Party' for all the participants that are going to be competing…" He paused briefly as he listened to the next question, chuckling briefly before responding, "Um, I think it's safe to say that's a negative. It will be a struggle to keep some of these fighters off each other without involving bystanders. There are some volatile and powerful characters coming to the soiree, and that's without any press. So, no; this is strictly invitation only… Well, you're very welcome, and thank you as well."

Just then, a pristine chime rang through the home, signaling someone at the door, and Hiroshi immediately went to answer it, not checking who it was as he usually would. To his surprise, he opened the door to a beautiful young woman carrying a cloth duffel bag. Her azure hair was tied in a mane-like ponytail, and wore black fatigue pants, military boots, and a short black tank top that exposed her midriff. Finally, she was covered in a log black trench coat just like her father's. Hiroshi smiled at the sight of her: Leona Heidern.

"Leona-chan…" Hiroshi happily expressed, "I wasn't expecting you today, sweetheart, especially with you on a mission… Did you … have them drop you off here?"

Leona gave a very slight yet sweet smile and responded, "Yeah… You're not too busy, are you?"

"I'm never too busy for you…" Hiroshi replied, his elation palpable, "Come in."

Hiroshi courteously took her bag as Leona stepped in and began untying her boots. Vice and Mature rounded the corner, coming to answer the door as well, when they were hit by something strong, a smell that quickly upset the stomach. They incredulously looked at Hiroshi in confusion, who somehow did not seem to notice…

"Hey, kid, what in the h- is that?" Vice voiced, holding her nose.

Hiroshi, honestly unaware, replied, "I don't know what you mean?"

Mature, also holding her nose, lightly slapped his shoulder and asked in disbelief, "You can't be serious. You don't smell that?"

Taking their reaction seriously despite not noticing himself, Hiroshi paused, drew in a deep breath as he concentrated, and immediately recoiled when he detected the scent as well. It was a foul yet familiar odor, a combination of sweat, mud, smoke, vegetation, and blood. Its familiarity also meant they realized where it came from easily.

Turning back to her, Hiroshi inquired, "Leona-chan… Were you sent to the jungle again?"

Leona plainly answered as she stood back up, "Vietnam, breaking up an opium den. Why do you…?"

She then saw the looks on her company's faces, especially Mature and Vice's disgust, checked herself, and began to blush.

Hiroshi swiftly defused the situation, "No matter. I'll take care of those clothes while you wash up…"


While Vice and Mature quickly went back to work, Hiroshi led Leona to her room. These visits had become a regular occurrence with Hiroshi's home now being a second for Leona, a rare place she had become comfortable and secure. The Amaterasu son strived to be even more attentive, patient, and accommodating than usual, and Leona began growing closer and opening up more to him. That was how they started, and, after what seemed like a short time especially to Hiroshi, the two had become a solid couple for nine months.

Some time later, Hiroshi discreetly entered Leona's room with her newly cleaned clothes, gently laid them on the bed and, hearing her still in the bathroom, started on his way out…

"Hiroshi…?" Leona suddenly called out.

He immediately stopped and replied, "Yes? What can I do…"

Hiroshi slowly turned to her and was stunned silent upon seeing her in the bathroom door; she stood drying her hair … clothed only in short bathroom robe. The Amaterasu son froze with his mouth slightly agape, admiring her from her exposed leg to her figure outlined by the cotton garment. Leona, however, was simply comfortable and at ease, thinking nothing of Hiroshi's presence … and also not noticing his slack-jawed admiration.

Leona casually requested, "I'm still sore from my mission. Could you help me loosen up, please?"

"Sure…" Hiroshi replied distractedly.

Leona looked up from her drying to a familiar sight and nonchalantly commented, "Your nose is bleeding again."

Finally feeling the warm liquid on his face, Hiroshi quickly wiped it away, and shook himself out of his brief trance. The couple, with Leona's request, went into position: Leona laid down on the bed face-down, resting her head on her arms, and Hiroshi, following his distant training as a masseuse, gently rolled the top of the robe down to her lower back, and, after stopping to compose himself, tenderly laid his hands on her back. Generating heat in his hands, he slowly rose their temperature until…

"That's good…" Leona softly said.

Hiroshi starting skillfully using his hands, massaging her muscles, and, in order to keep himself under control, closed his eyes to focus simply on his technique and what he was doing. Oddly enough, he actually managed to calm himself through this slight detachment.

Taking note of what he was feeling, Hiroshi commented, "You're really knotted up, sweetheart. That must have been some mission."

Leona, her voice trailing off as she was lost in the comfort Hiroshi was supplying, replied slowly, "Yes… Rough mission… Many hostiles… Large compound… Took a long time to … clear out… This … feels good though."

As was apt to happen, Hiroshi soon got engrossed the feeling as well, Leona's skin soft and enticing even with her well-developed muscle just underneath. He naturally began to enjoy the massage in his own way, but not as much as Leona though. She was soon thoroughly relaxed as Hiroshi's warm and trained hands eased away her soreness and stress. Eventually, she started letting out natural contented sighs and even pleasured moans on occasion. All of these signaled to the Amaterasu son that he was doing well, and combined with his own feelings, led him to open his eyes, admiring her evident relaxation and ease while listening to her sounds of contentment.

He continued comforting Leona, working away her aches and pains … until two drops of blood suddenly fell on her back. Shocked out of everything, Hiroshi reached up and realized he was bleeding from both nostrils now.

Hiroshi quickly wiped Leona's back clean and covered his nose, asking, "So, how are you feeling now?"

"Much better … Thank you." Leona replied softly.

Hiroshi, trying to hide his nervousness, not-so-smoothly said, "Anytime.. Well, I have to go."

Confused by the suddenness, Leona looked up as he headed for the door, wondering, "Wait; I mean, are you sure? You can … stay if you want."

Hiroshi stammered as he looked back at her, "No, I, uh… I-I have to … finish setting up for the party."

Leona offered, "In that case, maybe I can help. I'll get dressed and…"

"No, you have to do that…" Hiroshi blurted before explaining, "I mean, you don't have to pitch in. You've had a long day already; just rest and relax."

Without giving another word, Leona relented as Hiroshi exited. The Amaterasu son stopped just outside the door to settle himself; he wiped his nose again, and took several deep breaths as he tried to slow his racing heart…

"You know, you're going to pass out if you keep bleeding out like that."

Hiroshi spun around, startled by the unnoticed presence, and asked, "Mature-chan, were you waiting out here or something?"

Mature explained, "Sort of. I was looking for you, and figured you'd be with … her."

Picking up on something in her voice, Hiroshi inquired, "Why the hostility? I didn't keep waiting too long, did I?"

"No, it's not from anything you did…" She quickly moved on, "I secured that site in Shanghai."

"Good, all our stages are set then."

Hiroshi was still curious about Mature due to her non-answer, but decided to let it go anyway. Meanwhile Vice and Almeida, the caregiver of the estate, were putting the last touches on the bar.

"Hey, Meida, what do you think of that girl Hiro's seeing?" Vice asked somewhat randomly.

Almeida, suspicious at the sudden interest in her opinion, replied, "That depends, dear. What do you think of her?"

Vice responded rather quickly , "I don't like her. Don't you think she's too dangerous to keep around?"

Almeida replied, a smile emerging, "I wouldn't worry about that. If he can survive you and Mature, I'm sure he has nothing to fear from her."

Vice said skeptically, "Don't bet on it. I know what she's capable of. She's a loose cannon, and she could snap any moment… She could really hurt him."

"…" Almeida could only muster a chuckle.

"Vice asked irritatedly, "I'm not kidding. What are you laughing at?"

Almeida eventually said as her laughter trailed off, "Nothing. It's just … the same thing could be said about you two… I'll tell you what I think: I really like Leona, because Hiroshi likes her. I trust him and his sense of character, and he adores her. Besides, it doesn't take a detective to see that she's really fond of him, too."

Vice said to herself, "That's what I was afraid of."

Almeida added with a indulgent smile, "On a side note, it's a nice change of pace to see you concerned for Hiroshi; it means you really do care about him, like a proper sister and everything. It's rather sweet, actually."

Vice instantly realized what she had revealed and tried to deflect the situation, albeit poorly, "I don't care about him; it's just that if she offs him, then all of us are out on the street."

Almeida could not help but smile at Vice's futile hand-wave…


Home Security

"DIE, NESTS TRASH!"

BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! Shotgun fire rang out through the sparse Osaka forest. The aggressor scanned the area for his enemy while his shotgun morphed back into his right arm. The attacker had short dark blue hair, and wore an orange sleeveless shirt, baggy black pants tucked into black boots, and a long blue glove on his transformable right arm: a young man known only as K9999. In actuality, he was on a personal pursuit; he had set out some time ago to destroy all remnants of NESTS ultimately including K' and company even Diana and Foxy. The only one spared would be Angel whom he abandoned in the first place for this campaign. At the moment, however, he had found and was hunting an operative he knew nothing about.

K9999 impatiently called out, "Show yourself, bug, so I can squash you and get on my way."

Suddenly, he noticed a cloaked figure dash off, and chased after him. The pursued weaved through the trees with K9999 right on his heels, the crazed clone firing wildly with his shotgun arm, splintering bark and erupting dirt everywhere. Not once did K9999 lose sight of his target's cloak: dark with a multitude of long black tatters flying off resembling vines. The raving replica closed in on his prey as they got to a campsite and, with a lunge, tackled him. Both rolled through and got up with K9999 having clear aim of his potential victim's face.

His eyes and gun trained on his enemy as he slowly stood, K9999 commanded, "Nowhere to run; you're trapped like the rodent you are. Stand up!"

The captive followed the command as his hood flew up to reveal him: he was a young man K9999's age with pitch-black hair except a white shock near his right eye. He wore a dark purple bodysuit with resistance bands down the front of his chest, and a long bluish-white on his right hand that extended over his forearm…

K9999, chuckling evilly to himself, gloated, "I hope you said your prayers. I'm going to tear you apart then burn you to dust. Don't even bother begging for mercy."

"I wouldn't be so sure if I were you," the young man said in a calmly defiant tone.

The pursued youth steeled himself when his right arm twitched then twisted until … it morphed into a drill! A bit surprised but unimpressed, K9999 went for intimidation, and morphed his arm into his own drill. That was when they both realized that they were exactly the same! K999, not to be undone, reformed his arm and generated a flame in his hand with a spark. The other youth in response pulled back his glove … and blood-red flames erupted from his arm! Now, K9999 was shocked; he only knew of K', Krizalid, and himself to have this ability within NESTS…

K9999 finally demanded with irritation, "Who the h- are you?"

"I am…" the youth said gravelly, "Nameless…"

K9999 pushed his confusion aside for intent, scoffing, "Guess I'm lucky then. No one will look for you after I roast you."

"Sadly, no…" Nameless conceded before pointing out, "If you beat me…"

With no words left to say, the two clashed, and found in many ways … it was like fighting themselves. They had the same skill set, techniques, and physical attributes. Nameless however seemed to have something extra, and began to outmatch K999 at every turn. Angered quickly, K999 swiftly went for broke: the right side of his face constricted so tight that the veins became visible. His right arm churned and undulated grotesquely. Nameless noticed all of this and focused himself.

"Power … Losing … Control…" K9999 muttered to himself before laughing maniacally, "I'll destroy you."

"Spiral…."

K9999, his arm now a gigantic malformed tentacle of flesh, wire, and metal, thrusted his mutated arm at his enemy. Nameless waited for the right moment, and responded with his own large formation, morphing his arm into a colossal white drill! The attacks deadlocked for a moment until … Nameless' drill burrowed into K9999's arm mass, and ripped and shredded it apart.

"AHHHH!"

K9999 quickly retracted his arm but it was no use. It was thoroughly gnarled and mangled beyond repair; his arm was inoperable, a complete mess…

Distraught, K9999 brought fire to his good arm, yelling, "You bastard! You'll pay for that. You'll pay!"

K9999 was livid, and clearly not thinking, charged. Nameless again saw all of this, and prepared by unbuckling his glove, just as K9999 leapt into the air at him. What came next would be the coup-de-grace: Nameless raised his arm as his glove flew off, and let out a roar of effort and pain as an eruption of blood-red flames engulfed him and K9999! The mad replica was propelled upward as Nameless disappeared behind the fire. Incredibly, a white ethereal image of the upper body of a woman appeared in the flames as the attack ended. The flames died down as Nameless' glove snapped back onto his arm just as K9999's body fell to the ground in a smoking heap. Nameless dropped to his knees, clutching his arm from anguish and strain, as he started to waver. As he collapsed, the young man managed to weakly let out one word on his mind…

"Isolde…"


Hiroshi abruptly awoke as an intense heat washed over him, a sense of dread gripping him as he was forced into awareness late at night. All the signs signaled something he unfortunately use to: there was a battle nearby. With urgency, Hiroshi leapt out of bed and bounded into the hallway. He quickly went through the house until he ran into Leona in only a short white tank top and light blue briefs…

Leona asked, also running from her room and aware of something, "Did you feel that too, Hiroshi?"

"Uh, I… I, um…" Hiroshi stammered, distracted by Leona in a state of undress, before quickly snapping back into the urgency, "I mean, yeah. What do you think it was?"

Leona, in full 'mission mode', relayed, "I'm not sure, but odds are it's nothing good. We should proceed with caution; we could be under attack."

Hiroshi resolutely responded, "Right. In that case, we should at least see what we're up against."

Leona nodded in agreement, and they both rushed off. Eventually, they arrived at the front, with the heavily-drowsy Vice and Mature arriving soon after, threw open the front door, and were greeted by the sight of a plume of smoke rising from the nearby forest…

Mature asked, barely awake, "Hey, you two, where's the fire?"

Leona plainly replied, "Out there…"

Cranky from being shaken awake, Vice asked, "Well, s-t! What could that be this late?"

Without a second thought, Hiroshi sprinted toward the site, and Leona quickly followed behind them…

"Wait, what are you…?" Vice yelled after them, "Ugh!"

Mature mused as the two traveled toward the trouble, "Wow; maybe those two are more compatible than we thought."

Vice groaned in protest, "Do we have to go after them?"

Mature let out a yawn and conceded, "I think we can trust the girl just this one time."

Not caring to be troubled further, Vice and Mature simply retired to sleep again, heading back to bed. Hiroshi meanwhile sprinted toward the trouble, when he noticed Leona running behind him.

"Leona-chan, you … followed?" Hiroshi asked, slightly surprised, "You don't think this is a bit reckless?"

Leona replied matter-of-factly, "It is reckless. I still don't let people I care for face danger alone, especially, reckless or not."

The pair continued on, when Leona's skills took over…

The Ikari Amazon relayed, "I can smell smoke in the wind now. I'd say it's coming from just northwest of us."

"I'm only slightly picking up anything, so you lead the way, Leona-chan." Hiroshi conceded.

Analyzing as they went, Leona conveyed, "I can't hear any battle noises or detect any on-going conflict. I think it's safe to say whatever happened has passed. It also suggests we weren't the intended target."

"That's good to know. Are you sure though?"

"Almost completely… The distance from the house also suggests an isolated incident. Do you know of anything in this direction?"

Hiroshi thought for a moment and realized aloud, "Yes. Our old family campground is this way, a getaway close to home. I haven't used it in years though."

Finally, the couple arrived at the campsite and the aftermath. They immediately noticed one young man slumped on the ground while clutching his gloved right arm, and another a short distance away with a mangled right arm, his body still slightly smoking. Hiroshi naturally went to the first one, and Leona went for the other.

Hiroshi checked the first man's neck, announcing, "Good; a pulse. This guy's still breathing."

Having her own realization, Leona said in disbelief as she knelt over the second man, "No; this isn't … right. He can't be."

Hiroshi picked up on her incredulity, and asked, "Leona-chan, what's wrong? What do you see?"

Leona answered as Hiroshi ran over to her, "I know this man. We've been looking for him for years."

"Really…? Who is..." Hiroshi, a little lost, started to ask before he got a better look, "No way! It isn't…"

"It is … K9999, clone of K'." Leona confirmed, "Ikari has been wondering what happened to him after NESTS' fall. Who would have thought I'd find out here of all places?"

Hiroshi knelt next to Leona by K9999, and like the other one, checked the man's neck. He pressed lightly at first, and then harder. He soon began feeling other spots close, but he didn't find what he was looking for. The realization became as evident on the outside as it was on the inside. The color drained from his face as his body ran cold. The shock caused his facial features to subtly widen and freeze there. After a moment, Hiroshi managed to choke out his comment.

"Well, we found him too late. He's … gone."

Leona, unmoved by such a sight, went on, "Hmm… And what about the other one…?"

Disturbed and shaken by the finding, Hiroshi responded as he averted his eyes, "The … other guy is, uh… He's still alive, but he's pretty beat up too."

Leona soon surmised that Hiroshi wouldn't be used to this situation and offered, "Okay, I'll take the body, so you can carry the survivor."

Moving away from the fallen rather quickly, Hiroshi went back to the first guy, and lifted the survivor onto his back. Leona simply and unceremoniously hoisted K9999's body onto her shoulders fireman-style, and the two started back to the house, Hiroshi being careful not to disturb his passenger while Leona was not with no need to be. Eventually, they got all the way to Hiroshi's office, waking Vice and Mature again, and all four ended up looking over the unconscious youth as he lay on the office couch…

"Still bringing home strays, eh, kid?" Mature asked as she looked over both young men.

Focusing on K9999's remains, Vice added, "I think your taste is slipping too. This one looks completely broken up already; you can't even help him."

"Yes, what we felt was apparently the aftermath…" Hiroshi solemnly admitted before moving on to the other new person in the room, "Still, we already know who he is; the mystery is … who is this guy?"

Leona said, as she noticed the insignia on his chest, "Wait… I've seen that sign before. It's from NESTS."

Vice reacted in confusion, "NESTS? Who the h- is NESTS?"

Hiroshi wondered aloud, "The terrorist cartel, NESTS? I thought they were all gone."

Leona expressed, "They are, or so I thought. But that symbol is only worn by NESTS agents."

Mature asked, even more confused, "Agents? Terrorist cartel? How big was this thing?"

Hiroshi relayed, "Genetic engineering, space travel; you name it, NESTS seemed into it. They engineered K' and his crew. They rose to power after '97, while you both were comatose, and stayed there for years.

"Affirmative…" Leona confirmed before noticing something next to the insignia, "Now what is this symbol here?"

Mature took one look before casually saying, "That's a Cyrillic character. It translates to 'Zhe Prime'."

Hiroshi asked out of surprise, "Cyrillic? You speak ancient Greek?"

Vice added, "Yeah; Cyrillic is the Orochi language after all."

"Right; Hakkeshu…" Hiroshi said as he remembered.

Leona continued on, "But if he's a NESTS agent, then that's even stranger. I've studied every one of their operatives, but this one is completely new to me. I've never seen or heard anything about him."

Finally, the youth began to stir, and Vice commented, "Looks like sleeping beauty's coming around…"

In his lapse of unconsciousness, Nameless was vaguely aware of the drastic shift in his surroundings. The atmosphere had gone from cold air to warmth. The hard ground under him was now soft cushions. Physically, his head was screaming and his right arm tingled intensely; that was at least familiar, as it was par for the course after his 'Chilling Joy' attack. Holding his head, his eyes flickered open, and he saw that he was on a couch in someone's house with four people standing over him. The guy of the four knelt next to him to offer help, noticing he was awake, but Nameless quickly motioned him to stay back, not wanting to unintentionally hurt the guy.

As Nameless slowly sat up, Hiroshi voiced concern, "Whoa, take it easy. Are you okay?"

His head still in a fog, Nameless could only looked at Hiroshi in puzzlement and continued to run the back of his head, trying to shake the cobwebs in his mind…

Hiroshi continued, "Okay… Well, my name is Hiroshi Amaterasu. Who are you?"

Nameless started to respond, but he quickly decided against it. He didn't want to risk the possible reaction if they found out who he was and he certainly was not going to stay there for long. With that decision made, Nameless only gave Hiroshi another look and shook his head in the negative.

Just reaching for any connection at this point, Hiroshi persisted, "Alright, uh… How did you get here? Were you and that guy fighting? Do you know what happened to him?"

He looked past the others to see his enemy, K9999, lifeless on other side of the room, and grimaced at the sight. Nameless knew he was in trouble now, and his only option was to get out of there. Quickly, he started to look for a way out, nervously rubbing his white glove out of habit, and searched for an escape route until he noticed the blue-haired woman staring right at him…

After a third non-answer, Mature sarcastically commented, "Wow, big talker on our hands here."

Hiroshi replied in the man's defense, "He's obviously had a long night. He can probably hear you, though."

Vice jeeringly said, "Are you sure? He doesn't seem to react to words much. Or maybe he's not that bright."

Hiroshi flinched at the verbal jab, reacted, "You two are in rare form, aren't you?"

Mature explained in slight irritation, "We've been working non-stop for weeks. It's three o'clock in the morning; courtesy stops at midnight."

Vice added, "Besides, if he doesn't want to talk, let him stew for all we care. After all, he makes your girlfriend seem like a motor mouth."

"Hey, be nice." Hiroshi quickly said in defense.

All the while, Leona looked and studied the mysterious youth, and noticed what looked like a fight-or-flight response from him. In that moment, she decided to try something that Hiroshi would do…

Leona spoke lightly, trying to emulate her significant other, "Listen, I bet you're concerned and suspecting; I know because I've been there. You're probably wondering what we want from you, what we're capable of, how you can get out of this… I want to assure you: we just want to help you. If nothing else, you can trust Hiroshi; I know from experience that he'll do anything he can to help you, in any way he can. But he can't help you unless you talk to him."

Nameless was struck by Leona's words especially as Hiroshi visibly concurred. Both of them seemed genuine, but Nameless still was not sure where to begin. Meanwhile, Hiroshi gave his girlfriend a look of awe and delight at her uncommon aptness, Leona reciprocating a slight smile at his nonverbal praise.

"Nameless…"

"I'm sorry?" Hiroshi asked, more for confirmation than confusion.

The mysterious young man reiterated, "You asked my name. My name is … Nameless."

Vice sarcastically reacted, "Nameless, huh? Real creative geniuses at NESTS, obviously."

Hiroshi continued courteously, "Anyway, Nameless… What happened to you? Did it have anything to do with that other guy?"

Nameless, still gently rubbing his gloved arm, confirmed with a nod, "Yes. I was minding my own business when that guy attacked. I tried to lose him, but he wouldn't give up. He's been chasing me for days, and he finally caught me. I guess I got the best of him though."

"I'll say…" Mature concurred as she looked back at K9999.

Leona rather bluntly asked, "Are you an agent of NESTS like him?"

Nameless paused as he took a long look at his glove, and replied, "Not anymore obviously. But, I wasn't an agent so much as a slave. They're the one who did this to me … to us."

"You and … Isolde?" Hiroshi asked, noticing a name inscribed on his white glove.

Nameless could only respond with a solemn nod…

Vice asked, pushing further, "Okay, but if it was so horrible, why'd you stay with them?"

Mature inquired even more, "And, if there guys have been gone for years, what have you been doing all this time?"

Nameless expressed with pain and difficulty, "I stayed because they were the only ones … who could bring her back. But, everyone who could've helped me is gone. I've looked all over, in every place they were or could be, and there's nothing left. Now, there's no hope; Isolde meant everything to me, and … I've lost her."

Grave silence descended upon the group when Hiroshi thought of something, saying, "Actually… don't be so sure. There might be a chance."

Mature asked in mystification, "What are you talking about, kid?"

The Amaterasu son elucidated, "He said he needs help from people who use to work for NESTS, right? It just so happens I remembered two former NESTS executives who are competing this year, and I know they'll be here for the party in three days. They could probably do exactly what needs to be done."

Leona wondered, "Do you think they'll actually try to help him?"

Hiroshi answered as he deduced, "I don't know, especially with me asking the favor. Nevertheless, it's his best shot, so it's at least worth a shot. He can stay here until the party, so he can meet them."

"Hold on a second…" Nameless interjected in astonishment, "Why… Why are you doing this for me?"

Vice quickly quipped, "He can't help it. It's like an altruistic muscle spasm."

Hiroshi expressed, "There's that, but most importantly I've lost people who meant so much to me, and there are people I would be devastated to lose now. No one should have to go through that especially if something can be done about it… Of course, that is if you'll accept the opportunity."

Nameless quickly agreed, "Yeah, of course… Thanks. I really owe you."

Hiroshi reacted with a smile, "Anytime. Now, let me get you a room."


The wild early morning situation resolved, Hiroshi and Leona walked back together toward her room…

"So… you have to leave first thing tomorrow, huh?" Hiroshi asked in confirmation.

Leona relayed, "Yes, I have to turn K9999's body into headquarters."

Hiroshi then asked for a possibility, "Okay, but at least say you'll be back for the party."

Leona shed a sweet smile, and gave a slight nod. Finally, coming to their destination, they stopped as they reached her door, but didn't part right away…

Hiroshi affectionately lauded her, "You know, I've never seen you in a mission state before. I have to say I'm impressed."

Leona responded with a slight blush, "It's all training, really. I just reacted the only way I knew how."

Hiroshi tenderly continued, "You did make it look easy, and you certainly looked good doing it too."

Trying to stay composed despite her blush growing, Leona reciprocated, "You were very impressive too. It's … amazing how you work through these situations."

Hiroshi chuckled and continued, "I do my best, but I usually have help. I definitely couldn't have made it through tonight with you, especially you getting Nameless to open up. You … were amazing."

Leona, her smile emerging, again returned the feeling, "Really, I was only imitating you that time, so … I couldn't have made it without you either."

She then took a brief look around, a defense reflex of checking for others. Hiroshi took this as a positive signal, rightfully so … since Leona was weary of affectionate displays in front of others and so was checking if anyone was watching. Fortunately, the coast was clear. Hiroshi slowly leaned in, and the couple kissed for a brief moment before separating with a barely audible pop. This was a signal from Hiroshi for Leona, backing up ever-so-slightly and letting her initiate whether they continued or not. On this occasion, however, she was much faster than usual, and the two immediately resumed in a deep, passionate kiss, Hiroshi putting his arms around her and Leona pulling him even closer.

The two became lost in each other as Leona let herself go and Hiroshi drifted with her as their romance could be felt through the hallway. All the while, Leona's enjoyment grew, so much so that she did not notice what was happening. Her hear racing and her body growing warmer, her muscles were strengthening, her senses sharpening, her hair turning purple… Eventually, she opened her eyes, and saw her nails had grown long and sharp! Immediately, she stopped, and Hiroshi let her go as soon as she pulled back…

Slightly confused and concerned, "Are you alright? Did I go too fast or something?"

Leona looked again immediately after, only to see her hand completely normal after. Realizing Hiroshi had asked something, she simply shook her head in the negative.

Still unsure, Hiroshi checked again, "Okay; now, are you sure you're alright?"

Leona thought for a moment, feeling herself coming back down and under control, slowly nodded as she reached for her door…

Hiroshi finally offered, "Well, as long as you're okay… Good night, uh, morning, Leona-chan."

Leona gave him one last smile, and disappeared in her room. Hiroshi, after the intense romantic encounter, took a deep breath, sighed in amazement, and his knees almost buckled when he started to move. He quickly got his feet, walked down, and turned the corner right into a drowsy Vice leaning against the wall.

Hiroshi jumped from surprise, and asked, "Vice-chan… what are you still doing up?"

"Don't know…" Vice replied before quipping while still half-asleep, "Still haven't closed the deal, have you, Hiro?"

"I'm sorry?" Hiroshi reacted with confusion.

Vice explained further, "You and the girl… you two haven't 'consummated' yet?"

Hiroshi, a bit mortified, replied, "N-No… Leona-chan and I haven't been intimate."

Vice asked, starting to nod off, "That's too bad. She get cold feet?"

"I don't know … but ultimately it's a good thing though. I'm not allowed to anyway."

Vice woke up a little, asked for clarification, "Time out; what do you mean you're not allowed?"

Hiroshi explained, "Men of the Amaterasu clan are not allowed to have relations before marriage or a union of equal meaning."

"Really? I'm sorry." Vice said, her disbelief quelled by her fatigue, "And here I thought you had it made."

Hiroshi resigned matter-of-factly, "That's the rule; I have to follow it."

Starting to nod off again, Vice commented, "That's a shame. I thought that might loosen you two up."

"Well, it's okay," Hiroshi shrugged off.

Vice cynically reacted, "Yeah, keep telling yourself that."

Hiroshi quickly and genuinely commented, "No, really. I admit it's hard sometimes … really hard, but it does help you realize when someone is really special."

"Is this girl special to you?" Vice asked, sleeping catching up to her fast.

"Definitely." Hiroshi admitted right away.

Vice only replied with mumbles, Hiroshi catching on to her exhaustion. Caring for his 'sister', he simply took her by the arm and led her back to her room… Leona laid awake in her bed, flexing her hand and thinking about what had just happened. It was a jarring reminder of a heavy concern, a concern that started out as a simple issue in the back of her mind, only to grow larger as she grew closer to Hiroshi. Now, with Hiroshi being the receiver of her affection, it had grown to a full-blown fear. In truth, it was a lifelong anxiety about losing control; the very thought alone chilled and saddened her to the core. The idea was devastating before, but now that she was involved with him… To keep some remnant of peace of mind, Leona decided to cease thinking about the possibility for the time.

Before anyone woke up, Leona got up to turn in K9999's remains. She silently entered Hiroshi's room, where he was in a deep sleep, and laid a briefly scribbled note on his night stand. Leona started to exit as swiftly as she had come in, when she came to a halt, gripped by her feelings. Wanting to give some form of punctuation, Leona quietly went to him, and lightly kissed his cheek, one last gift of tenderness for good measure.

End Chapter

A/N: Well, there you have it. Starting off with a mouthful I know, but thank you for staying with it. The story's backbone will be laid out next time, so please come back. I hope you enjoyed it, thank you again for reading (and sticking with it), and I really hope you come back to read more. Please R&R, and as always, Rant, Rave, and Review.