Disclaimer: I don't own The King of Fighters…

A/N: Welcome all. I know it's been a while especially when I left you on a cliffhanger, but the next part of the story is here, so let's not hold this off any longer. And here … we … go:

The King of Fighters XVI: Where the Heart Is

Trepidation

"Am I …? N-No… Too much pain…"

Completely wrapped in something, he awoke with his body racked with inhuman soreness and pain. His face stung incredibly while the plastic mask over his nose and mouth forced oxygen into him. His chest felt as if it were riddled with rusted nails with sharp shooting pain coming from many points with his every breath. It hurt for him to even move. Slowly, he opened his eyes to find he was in a medical room…

"Look who's awake, and 15 years early at that…"

The Amaterasu Son looked around to see Mature and Vice sitting beside her bed… Taking stock of his condition, he observed the copious gauze and bandages wrapped around his chest; he felt the numerous stitches on either side of his mouth, ignoring the inclination to run his tongue along them; he then endured a minor ordeal just to remove his mask. Hiroshi tried to speak, but it proved particularly difficult with his voice hoarse and scratchy, his words muted and sporadic due to his pained breathing, and his expression restrained from his lips being partially sewn shut…

Vice jokingly said, "We leave you alone for 15 minutes and you almost get yourself killed."

Hiroshi replied with difficulty, "I'm sorry… Guess I'm not … as strong as I … should be."

Mature added, "You gave us a good scar, and, you know, we aren't good at this whole 'sitting-waiting-by-the-bed' thing."

Hiroshi asked only half-joking, "So... do I look as bad as I feel?"

Vice responded in kind, "Considering how bad you looked before…? You look like you've been put through a meat grinder."

"Yeah that sounds about right… It hurts to open my eyes."

Mature pointed out, turning slightly somber, "It could've been worse, obviously. But, you're still in really bad shape, and for what?"

Hiroshi diverted the direction of the conversation, asking, "The real question … is what … what happened? Did you feel anything?"

Vice relayed, "Yeah… Yeah, it feels like … whatever it was they broke the first time… They fixed it."

Unable to properly express his dread, Hiroshi asked, "Oh, no… Does that mean … we're too late…?"

Mature figured, "No, but they're ready to do just about anything they want now."

Hiroshi lamented, "And now we're out of the running, so… we can't intervene directly… And you… is it… Is it calling?"

The women both paused before Vice finally said, "No… No, there's no call."

Their response could not have been further from the truth. There was indeed a call; in fact, it was a dire distress signal, a frantic request for defense. Both of had an overwhelming inclination to sprint from the room and rush to answer it. However, they had just as strong an urge to stay as well. Rather acknowledge what they were using all their power to keep down, they opted not to reveal the conflict tearing at them to their pulverized younger partner…

Hiroshi let a stunted sigh, and said, "All we can hope now … is one of the other teams gets there."

Mature attempted to redirect the conversation, saying, "This is very serious… You should probably wipe that smile off your face."

"I tried…" Hiroshi responded, letting out a slight chuckle, "The smile is kind of permanent now."

All three laughed briefly before Vice conceded, "We'll let you rest now."

Hiroshi stopped them, sincerely saying, "Mature-chan… Vice-chan… Shimai… Thank you … for coming back for me."

They both smiled as Mature spoke with slight jeering, "We're just making sure we don't go homeless."

With that, Vice and Mature stood and started for the door… KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK! A soft, steady rap on the door got the attention of the all three parties. The door gently opened to Ralf and Clark entering the room…

"What are you two doing here?" Vice spat out with some hostility.

Clark relayed, "We just want to talk to the kid. We won't be long; you don't even have to stay for it."

Mature bristled, "That's okay; we'll stay right here if you don't mind."

Hiroshi cordially said, "Colonel Jones… Sergeant Still… What brings you to see me?"

Far from his usual animation, Ralf said with marked somberness, "We wanted to thank you… Thank you for helping her. Without you, we probably wouldn't have made it. For that, we owe you."

Vice angrily chuckled, and expressed, "That's rich! He almost died because you two muscleheads couldn't get the job done right!"

"Vice-chan.. It's alright." Hiroshi tried to calm his sister, before switching subjects, "Gentlemen, there's no need … to thank me… I'm sure you … would've done the same thing."

"More like should've done…" Mature added gruffly.

"You're not wrong…" Clark admitted before adding, "But, it's not just that. You've done a lot for her, and she's changed. She's been a lot better with you, so we wanted to thank you for that as well."

Taking no prisoners, Mature ordered, "Yeah, but she's still not good enough obviously… We need to leave so he can sleep; that goes double for you two."

Hiroshi started to speak, but in too much pain to protest heavily, he could only sink back into bed. Mature, Vice, Ralf, and Clark exited with one more person waiting: Leona, looking out at the grey sky around them. She almost timidly looked toward the exiting group; Vice and Mature immediately closed the door behind them…

Vice said with incredible enmity, "You have a lot of nerve being here! You come to finish him off?!"

Leona nervously stammered, "N-No… I just… Is he awake?"

Mature defiantly opposed her, "It doesn't matter. You're not going in there."

Leona pleaded with them, "Please… I just want to apologize and tell him goodbye."

Vice replied with outright hatred, "Almost killing him was goodbye enough, so f—k you and your apologies!"

Ralf started forward, but Leona held him back, continuing, "I know what I've done; I know I deserve it… I promise; two minutes and you'll never have to deal with me again."

Vice replied with no give and no mercy, "Forget it! You're not getting to him."

Leona continued to beseech them, "Please… Just think; what would he want?"

Mature pointed out, "Doing what he wanted is what got him in this in the first place…" Both of them looked inside, and gave the slightest concession, Mature continuing, "You got one minute, and we'll be listening to everything. The slightest mistake and you're out of there; one second longer, and we're coming in."

Leona gingerly walked into the room, and immediately saw why Vice and Mature let her in: Hiroshi was fast asleep. She sat down next to him; she very gently felt the stitches in his face; she could barely look at the large dressing over his heart. Saddened and discouraged, Leona had gone through this three times, but this was definitely the most-wrenching, from her experience and her progress fighting it to the damage done and especially her victim. Finally, she kissed him on the forehead, and started to rise … when Hiroshi grabbed her hand.

"You're not leaving already, are you?" Hiroshi asked, his breathing better but his voice still a whisper.

Leona stumbled over her words in surprise, "H-Hiroshi… You're not asleep?"

Hiroshi revealed, "I didn't plan on it … but the door isn't soundproof. I was hoping to see you; how are you feeling?"

"I should be asking you that." Leona somberly replied.

Hiroshi smiled as much as he could, and said, "I'm pretty beat up, but I'll survive. Now, how are you holding up?"

"Not good…" Leona softly said before mournfully taking his hand, saying, "Hiroshi, I… I just wanted to… I'm so sorry. I couldn't keep control. I'm so sorry for hurting you and… And thank you … for being so good to me. I've … never been happier."

Getting nervous, Hiroshi tried to lighten the near-strangling tension, "I know I look bad, Leona-chan, but I don't think I'm going anywhere."

Leona gave the briefest of smiles but turned back to dour instantly, continuing, "No… No, Hiroshi… I … have to go away. We have … to stop.

Hiroshi protested, "We don't… not over this. I'm going to be fine."

"You shouldn't be hurt in the first place." Leona relayed despondently, "What happened… I was always afraid of it, but I thought I could handle it. I was wrong … and it was worse than any of my nightmares."

Hiroshi tenderly said, trying to reassure her, "It wasn't your fault; everything seems against us… I knew this was possible from the beginning, but you are worth it… Please don't leave me like this."

Fighting back tears, Leona said, "Hiroshi… I couldn't forgive myself if… I don't want anything to happen to you, even if I … have to stay away from you."

Hoping to avert the decision, Hiroshi composed himself and used the only option left to him, sincerely confessing, "Leona-chan, let me… Can I tell you something? My life … is easy. I lead a company that I couldn't mess up if I tried. I am set for life, and I want for nothing. It's all of that … and it's worth very little. When I lost my family, it felt like I had no worth at all… But, I still had Maxwell and Almeida. Then, I found Mature and Vice. Those two… They'd hit me if I ever told them, but the truth is … I lived for them all those years. They helped me as much as I helped them, even though they weren't trying or even wanted to… Now, you are here. With you, I feel … like I found a piece of me that I lost … like everything will no matter what we face … like I can't wait to see where we'll go next…" In that moment, a pair of tears escaped Leona; Hiroshi tenderly wiped them away and asked, "Do you … really want to leave?"

"Of course not…" Leona replied, her voice shaking.

"Then don't…" Hiroshi said lovingly, "I know you have to fight, and I know the risks, but I want to be by your side and face them with you more than anything. Would you … mind that?" Leona lightly shook her head, completely conflicted, and lightly touched his facial wounds. Hiroshi simply pointed to his chest, saying, "Don't worry about these. They'll heal, and you know what… All it means is that when someone asks, I can just point and say 'I love her this much'."

Picking up on the word, Leona asked, "You … love me?"

Realizing what he said, Hiroshi was slightly surprised he actually spoke it aloud, but simply continued, "Of course … and I have the smile to prove it."

Leona paused momentarily before finally conceding, "I … want to be with you."

"I'm glad…" Hiroshi said before trying to break the tension, "Now, I would kiss you, but these stitches… They taste horrible."

Leona managed a small smile and laugh, and sealed the decision with a slight kiss to his forehead… Finally, Leona exited the room to find Vice and Mature waiting, Ralf and Clark nowhere in sight.

Speaking vaguely, Leona simply said, "It's done."

Vice bluntly responded, "Cut the crap! We know he forgave you."

Leona, taken off-guard, stammered, "Y-You… You do?"

Mature relayed, "Of course, he did. It's like a syndrome with him."

Leona meekly said, "I know you probably don't want to hear this but… I want to keep him safe as much as you do, I really do."

Vice pointed out, "Maybe, but you still almost killed him, didn't you?"

Leona sincerely conceded, "I promise you: I will cripple myself before I let this happen again."

Mature let out a slight spiteful chuckle and replied, "As much as we'd like to see that… We're not about to leave it to you again; you need a little more incentive."

Both approached her, Vice said with much more menace, "This is the way we see it: We can't keep him from you, and you may be untouchable … but your dad and your partners aren't. So, if you put another cut or scratch on him, then we're going to pay Heidern, Ralf, and Clark a very personal visit."

Mature added, her tone just as malicious, "We're not going through this again, so we promise you: you better keep yourself in check, otherwise… if you thought what Rugal did to your squad was bad, then you won't believe the mess we'll make."

Their message delivered, Mature and Vice left down the hallway, but Leona stayed frozen where she was, the chilling threat still ringing in her ears…

End Chapter

A/N: There you have it. Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed. This chapter may be a little awkward, but the action is coming to a head in the next chapter. I do apologize for taking so long, and I hope to have the next one up much sooner. Thanks again for reading, I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope you come back to read more. Please R&R, and as always, Rant, Rave, and Review.