Facets of Love

by Richard Lawson

---

Papa-san put the finishing touches on the equation. "So, if we take into account the co-efficient of friction, we can see that...."

Nuku Nuku tuned Papa-san out. He had insisted that she go to high school. She needed to learn human social skills, and high school was the best place to do it. Some of the schoolwork was quite boring. Science, Math, English - they all covered subjects she already had in her databanks. History was somewhat interesting, not so much the facts (she could read entire books in a few minutes) but their interpretation. The concept was a fascinating one to Nuku Nuku. Facts were facts, that's all there was to it. Somehow, though, people could take the same facts and draw different conclusions from them.

This was taken to an extreme in Literature. Some of the poems were quite beyond Nuku Nuku's ability to grasp. Her classmates had been very helpful in spelling out exactly what the poet was trying to say. Nuku Nuku listened to what they said, and tried to build a coherent set of rules for deriving meaning from literature. The problem was that the rules seemed to change from author to author, and even within different works done by the same author.

Nuku Nuku would become frustrated sometimes, but that would only make her try harder. She had a lot of friends who were more than willing to lend a hand.

The bell rang for lunch. Papa-san ground to a halt, then looked around the classroom. "Dismissed."

The routine was mostly the same. Some people left quickly, while others hung around and followed Nuku Nuku. She smiled at them. She liked having so many friends.

"Nuku Nuku." Papa-san sat at his desk and lit a cigarette. "Can I talk with you for a minute?"

"Yes, Sensei." She was supposed to call him that at school. She stood in front of his desk. So did her friends, until a dark look from Papa-san sent them on their way, muttering.

Papa-san waited for them to leave, then looked up at her. "Nuku Nuku, I've had some complaints from the other teachers. They have difficulty getting everyone's attention. Specifically, the boys are often watching you instead of watching the teacher."

Nuku Nuku nodded excitedly. "They're my friends. They make me happy!"

Papa-san sighed. "I know, Nuku Nuku. That's nice, really. The problem is that they need to pay attention to their studies. I see you responding to them, smiling and laughing when you all should be listening to me."

Nuku Nuku frowned. "I should stop smiling and laughing at them?"

"Not necessarily. First, you need to stop letting your attention wander. I know the material I cover is nothing new to you, but the other students see you stop listening and think that it's okay for them to do so as well. If you act like a good student, they will too."

Nuku Nuku thought about it. "Okay, Sensei. I will do better."

"Good." He stared at her for a moment. "The next thing is that the other teachers think you flirt with too many boys. It's not natural, they say, for you to lead them all on that way."

"Flirt?" Nuku Nuku accessed her cultural database. Flirt: To behave amorously without serious intent. Amorous: Inclined to love, especially sexual love. Sexual: having or involving sex. Sex: 1) Either of two divisions of organisms distinguished respectively as male or female; 2) Sexual intercourse. Sexual Intercourse: Ask Papa-san.

She focussed once more on Papa-san. "What is sexual intercourse?"

The cigarette fell from Papa-san's mouth. The papers in front of him began to smolder as he stared at Nuku-Nuku. Hastily, he patted the papers with his hands, cursing, before dumping the cigarette and the papers into the garbage can. He looked up at Nuku Nuku again. "Uhm. Well. Let's see. Why don't we talk about this at home?"

She smiled at him. "Okay, Sensei. May I go to lunch now?"

"Yes. Remember what we talked about."

Nuku Nuku wondered whether to tell him that the garbage can was spitting flames, but figured he'd find out soon enough. She turned and skipped out of the room, anxious to join her friends.

She entered the lunchroom and looked around. As always, there were about twenty boys waiting for her to join them. They waved at her happily. Nuku Nuku thought about what Papa-san had said, and what she had found in her database. Either of two divisions of organisms distinguished respectively as male or female. For the first time, she realized that all of her friends were boys, except for Ryunosuke's friend Yoshimi. Even Eimi was a robot. Maybe the teachers were mad because she didn't have any female friends.

Her mind made up, Nuku Nuku walked past the boys to a group of girls sitting together. Their conversation stopped as she approached. She smiled at them. "May I join you?"

The expressions of the girls were all neutral. They seemed almost hostile, which Nuku Nuku didn't understand. Finally, one of them said in a droll voice, "If you must."

Nuku Nuku took this to mean yes. "Thank you!" She sat down and began unpacking her lunch. It was fairly simple: a sardine sandwich, some rice, and milk. She actually didn't need to eat; her body simply burned the food to nothingness. However, her desire for food was as strong as it had been before... before she became as she was now. She really couldn't taste the food, either, but her brain still got excited at the sight of fish. It made her feel good to eat fish. Also, eating helped her fit in with people, both at school and at home.

She took a bite and turned to the girl sitting next to her. "I like fish!"

The girl - Mariko - raised a bored eyebrow and turned away, talking to a girl across from her. "Did you hear about Kei and Hiromi breaking up?"

"Yes!" This came from further down the table. Soon they were talking in whispered tones about the breakup and wondering if Kei was now available.

Nuku Nuku frowned. This was unusual. She was always the center of attention. Everyone would wait for her to speak, then laugh with her and ask her questions and make her feel special. At least, that was the way it was with boys. These girls seemed intent on ignoring her. Nuku Nuku wondered what the difference was.

After a few minutes, the girls got up to leave. Nuku Nuku hastily finished her lunch - for once, she'd found no joy in eating - and moved with them. She touched Mariko lightly on the arm. "May I ask you a question?"

Mariko repeated her eyebrow trick, then nodded her head as if making a formal concession.

Nuku Nuku spoke in a small, quiet voice. "Why don't you like me?"

This time, both of Mariko's eyebrows shot up her forehead. "What, if we don't fawn all over you, it means we don't like you?"

Fawn: 1) To show affection - used especially of a dog; 2) to court favor by a cringing or flattering manner. Nuku Nuku thought it over. It seemed appropriate. The boys were always complimenting her, and always expressing their undying love. At the same time, they fought with each other, making sure that no one person monopolized her time. That part puzzled her a bit. She still didn't understand, too, why it was only boys who... fawned over her.

She tried to work it out. "I don't want you to... to behave like those boys do. I don't know why they do that. Ryunosuke likes me, but he doesn't cringe. He even yells at me once in a while. Papa-san is always trying to get me to act more like a human, so he's always correcting me. But they all pay attention to me, and listen to what I have to say." She frowned, feeling sad. "No one has ever ignored me before. I don't like it. I want to know what I've done wrong."

Mariko had a puzzled look on her face. "More like a human?"

The interface program read Nuku Nuku's embarrassment, accessed the cultural databanks, and added pigmentation to the pseudoflesh of her cheeks. She blushed. She'd forgotten that her being a cyborg was supposed to be a secret. She wondered for a while what to do. She didn't want to lie - the very concept of lying was difficult for her to grasp - but she also wanted to keep Papa-san's secret. In the end, she decided to try and tell the truth in a vague way. "I've never gone to school before. I've never had classmates before - Papa-san taught me everything. He sent me to high school so that I could learn social skills." She tried a weak smile. "I like people. I want to learn more about them."

Mariko tilted her head and considered Nuku Nuku for some time. She pursed her lips, then finally spoke. "You're good at math and science and stuff like that, right?"

The question surprised Nuku Nuku. "Yes. That's easy." Especially with up to four available CPU's to process the input.

"Good. I'll make you a deal. You help me with my math and other homework, and I'll help you become more... more human. Deal?"

Nuku Nuku thought it over, and decided it sounded all right. "Deal!"

Mariko nodded. "We don't have a lot of time right now. Let's meet before school tomorrow. We can schedule some time for you to come over to my house and help me with my homework. In the meantime, your assignment for the rest of the day is to ignore all of the boys."

Nuku Nuku blinked. "That's mean. Nuku Nuku doesn't want to be mean!"

"Don't refer to yourself in the third person. It sounds sickeningly cute. Also, Nuku Nuku is a stupid nickname."

"Stupid?" Something like fear washed over Nuku Nuku. "It's my name!"

"Your name is Natsume Atsuko. Remember that."

Nuku Nuku blinked. Atsuko was the name Papa-san had given her when establishing a human identity for her. Nuku Nuku used it as little as possible. Her name was the one Ryunosuke had given her on the day she had been reborn. Nothing else held any significance for her.

Still, she had asked for Mariko's help in becoming more human. Mariko must know what she was doing. "Yes, Mariko-san. I will remember."

The bell rang indicating the end of lunch. Mariko began walking to class, leading Nuku Nuku. "Do that. And don't forget what I said about the boys. I'll explain later."

"Yes, Mariko-san." Nuku Nuku followed behind Mariko, beginning to wonder if she was making a horrible mistake.

***

Nuku Nuku activated her extended sensors. They would tie into all of her available processors and scan the environment, providing her with a wealth of information her eyes and ears could not. She could precisely track the speed, position, and vector of all objects around her, as well as determine very crude things about their composition. Since she no longer had any sense of taste or touch, it was the closest she could come to filling in the void left by their absence. When retracted into her head, they were still active in a very passive way, tied into her nose. It gave her an approximation of a sense of smell. That had been important to her, since smelling had been a vital part of her previous existence. Papa-san had jury-rigged the hardware and interface program to give her the ability to smell. It had worked well. Almost too well; Arisa and Kyouko had been able to use it against her by lobbing catnip bombs. The smell of catnip had caused her to behave quite... irrationally.

The sensors also served as antennae. She could send and receive data at very high speeds. It was the way Papa-san downloaded new programming to her databanks. She felt the data flooding into her, filling the empty spaces inside. It was difficult to describe this feeling to anyone else, even Papa-san. Somehow, her brain had adjusted to her external hardware to an extent that it felt like part of her.

Once the download was complete, she retracted the sensors and began analyzing the data. It was quite confusing, and she had to run through it several times before it made any sense.

She looked at Papa-san. "Yuck!"

His face was neutral, but his eyes crinkled a little bit. "Is that all you have to say? Yuck?"

"It's so... so weird. You did this with Mama-san?"

He snorted. "Yes. Many times."

She tilted her head. "I suppose it was necessary for you to do that so that Mama-san could create Ryunosuke."

Papa-san colored a little bit. "Actually, we did it before and after Ryunosuke was born. We did it because it felt good."

Nuku Nuku ran through the data again. There were several references to how certain stimuli caused reactions within the pleasure centers of the brain. "Is it like being petted?"

Papa-san laughed. "Well, yes, in a way. Very much like that, except that it's a lot more intense."

Nuku Nuku really missed being petted. It was a part of her old life that had no analogy in her new life. She considered it for a little while. "So this is why all the boys pay attention to me? They want me to stimulate their pleasure centers for them?"

Papa-san snorted. "That's one way to look at it."

Nuku Nuku beamed, happy to have solved this problem. "So if I do that for them, they'll leave me alone and pay more attention to you!"

A peculiar choking sound came from Papa-san. He spluttered for a minute. "Ahem. Well. Ahem. Um. Actually, no. Once you start - stimulating someone, they will want to have you - stimulate them on a regular basis. Plus, they won't want you to stimulate anyone else. Given the number of boys following you around, that may cause some problems."

Nuku Nuku thought about that, finally beginning to make a connection. Over the past few days, she had been ignoring the boys, under Mariko's direction. The number of boys fawning over her had begun to drop. While that had broken her heart, she began to see what Mariko was up to, perhaps. If Nuku Nuku was to choose to have sex with someone, there would be fewer people that would be very disappointed that they weren't the one.

She shook her head. It still didn't make a lot of sense. She was hurting them anyway by ignoring them. That caused her no small amount of anguish. Why couldn't she just love everyone?

It was worth asking. "Why can't I just have sex with them all?"

Papa-san was turning a very deep shade of red. "Sex, Nuku Nuku, is something you only have with someone you're in love with."

Nuku Nuku frowned. "But I love everyone!"

"No, that's not what I mean." Papa-san seemed to be struggling. "There's different kinds of love. There's love you have with your family. There's love you have with your friends. Then there's love you have with your spouse."

"Like you and Mama-san?"

Papa-san grimaced. "For the sake of argument, yes."

Nuku Nuku thought there was slightly more to it than that, but let it pass for now. There was still a lot she needed clarified. "So the kind of love you and Mama-san have allows you to stimulate each other's pleasure centers?"

Papa-san seemed to be choking a lot. "That's right. Plus, in our society, such a relationship is monogamous."

Monogamous: Relating to monogamy. Monogamy: Marriage with but one person at at time. "So you only have sex with someone you're married to?"

"Some people believe that. Others treat sex more casually. I had sex with other women before I had sex with Akiko. Once I got married, it became socially unacceptable for me to have sex with anyone else. Even if we live apart, I honor those conventions."

Nuku Nuku continued to keep herself from pressing Papa-san about his true feelings for Mama-san. It was something they had discussed before, and she'd never been able to get him to admit that he still loved Mama-san.

She thought about what he had said, trying to come up with a basis to proceed on. "So, how do you tell the difference between the love you have for a friend and the love you have for someone you're going to have sex with?"

Papa-san smiled. "That's a very good question. I wish I had an answer. I guess one reason for choosing a spouse is that you think they would make a good parent for your children. They would be a good person to have a family with."

A family. The words struck Nuku Nuku to the core of her being. Having children. Starting a family. She suddenly realized that that was something she wanted very badly. It touched something fundamental in her. The desire to... what was the word? She accessed her databanks. Procreate. That was it. The need to procreate was deeply ingrained in her.

It would be so great. She could start a family. She could have children just like Ryunosuke. She would be like Mama-san, watching over her family. Well, Mama-san did that from way far away. Nuku Nuku could do it better from close up.

She lost herself in a pleasant fantasy of being married to someone, of giving them that special love she hadn't yet discovered, the kind that would bring her children, and a family.

The fantasy made her feel very good.

"Nuku Nuku." Papa-san waited for her to focus on him. "There's something you have to realize."

She leaned forward, anxious to learn more about this new world opening up to her. "Yes, Papa-san?"

He took a moment to light a cigarette. "First of all, you can't have sex."

She blinked. "What?"

"You won't react at all to the stimuli of sex. You don't have a nervous system any more, nothing that transmits signals to the pleasure centers of your brain. You have no sexual organs at all. I suppose that a boy could use your body to stimulate himself, but it wouldn't stimulate you at all. Such one-way exchanges are ultimately frustrating to both parties."

Nuku Nuku's eyes grew wide. "No sexual organs?"

Papa-san nodded sadly. "You're mostly a machine, Nuku Nuku, don't forget. You can't ever have children. You lost that ability when your body died. I don't think you can ever get married. You're a cat. Marriage is something only humans can take part of. I've been helping you become more human, but there are limits."

Nuku Nuku spoke in a small voice. "Limits?"

Papa-san gulped, but continued. "There's a conceptual limit to your brain, Nuku Nuku. Remember how much trouble you have with literature?"

Nuku Nuku slowly nodded.

"You cat brain can only conceive of so much."

Nuku Nuku began to feel terribly afraid. "Can't... can't you upgrade my processors? Make me smarter?"

Papa-san thinned his lips. "Yes, I could. It's been over a year, and I have been planning some upgrades to a lot of your hardware. But none of them will allow you to visualize any better. They can only allow you to process information faster. Conceiving ideas comes from the brain, and your brain will never be the same as a human's."

Nuku Nuku stared down at her feet. She had been so full of hope a moment ago. Papa-san had shown her a new dream, something she'd wanted very badly. She'd just realized how important it was to her to have a family, to have her own offspring. That was the whole point of living, wasn't it, to bring new life into the world?

Then he'd taken it away from her, shown her very clearly why she would never be a mother or a wife. It tugged at her soul, filling it with a longing that would never, ever be fulfilled.

If she even had a soul.

Papa-san came up to her and hugged her. "Don't worry, Nuku Nuku. I love you just the way you are. So does Ryunosuke. So do your friends. You give so much joy to those around you. We're lucky to know you. Don't feel saddened by what you can't have. Rejoice in the love you have found with us. You'll always be a welcome member of our family."

The words did absolutely nothing to fill the emptiness inside her. She broke out of Papa-san's grasp. "I have to go to Mariko's apartment. I'm going to help her with her homework."

Papa-san said nothing as she picked up her book bag. As she turned to leave the workshop, he called out to her, "Are you going to be all right, Nuku Nuku?"

Nuku Nuku looked at him, at the man who had saved her life and taken away her future all in one stroke. He looked anxious and worried. She loved him, and didn't want to see him hurting like this.

She had a bit of a breakthrough. She had to fight with her interface program. It didn't want her to smile when she wasn't feeling happy. She used her processors to recode a part of the interface and load it into memory. It was a crude bypass, something she'd have to improve on later. For now, it was adequate.

It allowed her, for the first time in her life, to lie.

"I'll be fine, Papa-san." She gave him a reassuring smile, then turned and left.

***

Nuku Nuku knocked on the apartment door. It opened quickly, to show a smiling Mariko. "Come in, Atsuko!"

Nuku Nuku smiled back, genuinely happy. Mariko had softened over the past week, and now seemed actually glad to see her. They were friends, and it was different than it was with the boys. Mariko listened to Nuku Nuku, but did her fair share of talking. More than her fair share; she seemed to enjoy teaching Nuku Nuku the finer aspects of being human and how to treat boys. Boys, it seemed, were people you kept at a distance, at the same time maintaining their interest using understated methods. It was all very confusing, and accomplished no purpose Nuku Nuku could fathom.

Until today. When they were in Mariko's room getting out their physics textbooks, Nuku Nuku posed a question. "How do you decide which boys to have sex with?"

Mariko dropped her book on the floor. She stared at Nuku Nuku, her eyes wide. "What... Who... Why do you ask such a question?"

Nuku Nuku sighed. "I had a talk with Papa-san about sexual intercourse. It was all very confusing. He said the boys were after me hoping I would have sex with them. He also said that you only have sex with one boy at a time. I just realized that what you've been teaching me is how to get certain boys to have sex with you."

Mariko flushed. "I've been teaching you no such thing!"

Nuku Nuku frowned. All of her theories were wrong, then. "So why do you have a boyfriend, then?"

Mariko turned an even brighter shade of red. "There are... other things you can do with boys other than have sex with them."

Nuku Nuku tilted her head. "Like what?"

Mariko peered at Nuku Nuku. "What did your father teach you?"

Nuku Nuku accessed the files she'd downloaded. "Sexual intercourse occurs when the male inserts his...."

"Stop!" Mariko covered Nuku Nuku's mouth. She held it there for a moment, then lowered it while shaking her head. "I should have realized that Natsume-sensei would get it all wrong."

"Wrong?" Papa-san wrong? The very concept was alien to her. "Why is it wrong?"

"Oh, technically he's right. He's treating it like a... a lab experiment. There's lots of things that happen before sex."

"Really? Like what?"

"Well..." Mariko dragged out the word, apparently organizing her thoughts. "We can start with a simple kiss."

Nuku Nuku had seen people kissing and had never quite understood it. "Kissing stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain?"

Mariko chuckled. "Sometimes you talk like your father, and sometimes you talk like your brother. Yes, kissing is fun to do. That's only the first step."

For the next hour, Mariko explained in great detail all the things that went on between kissing and sex. Nuku Nuku paid close attention, recording the details and cross-linking it with the information Papa-san had given her. Mariko was right; Papa-san *had* left a lot out.

After Mariko had described a couple of different ways to actually have sex, she paused for a while, allowing Nuku Nuku to assimilate it all. It took a Nuku Nuku a couple of minutes. Finally, she asked, "Have you done all these things, Mariko?"

Mariko flushed. "Certainly not! You only allow boys to go so far."

Nuku Nuku blinked. "How far?"

Mariko considered. "Well, it depends on the boy and how much you like him. Certainly kissing and necking are okay if you have a mild interest. You can move on to petting if you're fairly serious."

Nuku Nuku had been somewhat startled to learn about a new meaning for 'petting'. "And sex?"

Mariko pressed her lips together. "Well, I think sex is something you only have with the man you're going to marry."

That more-or-less agreed with what Papa-san had said. "But, Mariko, how do you know? How can you tell which one you'll allow to pet you, and which boy you're going to marry?"

Mariko smiled. "That why you go out with boys. To find out how much you like them. I can't tell you exactly what it is that will let you know if you've found the right one. For me, I realized that I was somewhat serious about Kaneto when my knees went all rubbery every time I saw him."

Nuku Nuku looked down at her legs, and realized that Mariko's method wasn't likely to work for her. She sighed. "Love is so complicated."

Mariko chuckled. "I know. Tell you what; I'll help you out. I'll fix you up with a nice boy - not one of those perverts who'll try to get under your blouse on the first date. We'll make it a double date. How about Saturday?"

Nuku Nuku tilted her head. She thought about it for a long time, remembering the conversation she'd had with Papa-san. "Mariko, do you go out on dates hoping to find the man you're going to marry?"

"We're only in high school," Mariko chided. "We're just out to have fun."

"That's it? You and Kaneto won't be getting married?"

That brought Mariko up short. "It's possible," she admitted. "Not for a long time, but it might happen. You're right, in a sense. The ultimate purpose of dating is to find the guy you'll marry. For now, though, you don't worry about anything like that. You concentrate on having fun and making sure you know where his hands are at all times."

Nuku Nuku heard echoes in her mind. Marriage is something only humans could take part of. She would never be human. There were limits to how much she could conceive. Love was so complicated to her. She couldn't understand all of what was being taught her by Papa-san and Mariko. Even with upgrades, she never would.

She looked at Mariko, and made a decision. "I have to tell you something."

Mariko raised her eyebrow, this time in interest. "Oh?"

Nuku Nuku licked her lips nervously. "I'm not human."

Mariko laughed. "I know. You told me. That's why I'm helping you."

Nuku Nuku shook her head. "You don't understand. I didn't tell you everything."

The lower eyebrow joined the upper one. "Okay, what else?"

"I am a cyborg, model NK 1124. Built by Papa-san - Natsume Kyusaku - while he was employed by Mishima Heavy Industries. My body is that of an android. I was born a cat. I was a year old when my body was mortally wounded, and Papa-san transferred my brain into the NK 1124. Enhancements built into the NK 1124 have given me greater intelligence and tremendous processing power. But I'm not human. I can't have children. And I'll never know what love really is."

Mariko stared at her. She snorted. Then she began laughing. "Wow, Atsuko." She giggled for a while, then controlled herself. "You tell that so convincingly, like you really believe it. It explains so much - why you're so good at math but terrible at literature. Where'd you come up with that?"

Nuku Nuku blinked in surprise. Being called a liar had never occurred to her. "But I am a cyborg. Look." She popped out her extended sensors.

Mariko screeched and took a step back. She stood there for a moment, then slowly came forward to stare at Nuku Nuku's head. "That's... that's a neat trick." She sounded somewhat afraid. "It sure looks like they came from inside your head. Is that something your father invented?"

"It's not a trick." Nuku Nuku looked around. She picked a pencil. "See?" She stabbed her hand with the pencil. It broke in half, leaving her hand unmarked. She frowned, looked once more at the desk, and picked up a pair of scissors. She stabbed her hand repeatedly, failing to do so much as scratch herself. She'd forgotten how tough her pseudoflesh was. In the end, all she managed to do was bend the scissors in half.

She looked up at Mariko, intending to ask her if she had any power tools. Seeing Mariko's reaction, she realized she'd already made her point. Mariko had her hands over her mouth and her eyes opened wide. She was trembling slightly, staring at Nuku Nuku's hand.

Nuku Nuku watched her closely. "I thought you should know before you set me up with anyone."

Mariko moved her eyes up to Nuku Nuku's. Her trembling increased slightly.

Nuku Nuku frowned and reached out to clasp her friend's shoulder.

Mariko took a step back. "Don't touch me!"

Nuku Nuku saw the fear. She realized for the first time the wisdom of Papa-san's warnings to keep her nature a secret. The only way Nuku Nuku would have any friends was to lie to them. As soon as they knew the truth about her, they would pull away.

Nuku Nuku lowered her hand. Slowly, she packed up her book bag and moved to the door. Mariko moved quickly out of the way, practically cowering against the wall.

Nuku Nuku left the apartment, and her only female friend. As she walked home, the world got smaller and smaller.

***

Nuku Nuku lay on her futon, staring at the ceiling. Mostly, she was cursing her tiny brain. It just couldn't conceive of the things she needed it to conceive. For all that she wanted to be human, it would never come to pass.

What was wrong with her life as it was now? She was having fun. She had two - no, three family members she loved with all her heart. She had an existence she could not have dreamed about a year before. Couldn't she just go on like this forever?

"Nuku Nuku!" Ryunosuke burst into the room. "Oh, there you are. Do you want to come out and play with me and Yoshi-chan?"

Nuku Nuku looked at Ryunosuke's eager, excited face. He always looked that way when Yoshimi came over. Papa-san was convinced that they were going to be married some day. He liked to tease Ryunosuke about it.

Nuku Nuku had a new understanding of what that was all about, now. "Ryunosuke, when are you going to start your own family?"

"Huh?" Ryunosuke stared at her incredulously. "I'm eleven and three-quarters. I'm not getting married for ages and ages."

She looked at him. The future was usually a hazy concept to her, but for some reason she could see it with a particular clarity right now. "And when you do get married? Will I live with you?"

"I don't know." Ryunosuke sounded impatient. "We don't have to worry about that right now. Maybe you'll live with Daddy. Or in Mother's mansion. We'll find a place for you, Nuku Nuku, don't worry!"

Yoshimi wandered in, looking at Ryunosuke. "Where have you been, Ryu-chan? Let's go outside."

Nuku Nuku saw Ryunosuke look at Yoshimi. His face softened, and for a moment, there was no one else in his world but Yoshimi. Nuku Nuku was able to see this as a portent for the future. Eventually it would be just him and Yoshimi. Nuku Nuku might be someone he loved as family, but once he started his own family, she would be nothing more than a visitor in his life.

And in all of the possible scenarios that had crossed Ryunosuke's mind, not once had he mentioned the possibility of Nuku Nuku starting her own family.

Nuku Nuku activated the bypass again. "You go and play with Yoshi-chan, Ryunosuke. I have some homework to do." She smiled happily.

Ryunosuke glanced at her. "Okay. Let's go, Yoshi-chan." He grabbed her hand and ran out of the room.

Nuku Nuku deactivated the bypass. She was glad that she couldn't cry. She had a feeling she'd be bawling right now.

She got up and went into the workshop. She started the computers and called up some diagrams on her databanks and neural interface. She put up a code display in a separate window. After studying everything for several minutes, she opened up a new file. She typed in a new program, one that was actually quite simple. She put a new EEPROM chip into a slot, and downloaded the code into it. From there it was a simple matter to put it on a circuit board with a small transmitter and a nine-volt battery. She also found the largest button she could in Papa-san's workshop, and put it on the outside of a small casing, with the circuit board inside. She carefully labeled it. When she was done, she had a small, hand-held remote with one button and some words on it.

She examined the diagrams again, making sure they were recorded accurately in her databanks. Then she flipped through all of her schematics. She stopped at one diagram, enhancing a section and studying it intently. She put her hand on her left side, wondering how she could get through the pseudoflesh.

Papa-san must have a way. She opened more of his files before finding the right information. The preferred method was to immerse herself in a vat of hydrofluoric acid. That would strip all of her pseudoflesh away. Another method was to use a diamond-edged cutting tool.

Nuku Nuku looked carefully around the workshop. Papa-san had it in a mild state of disarray. She activated her extended sensors and used them to catalog every item she could see. She didn't find anything that seemed to apply. He did, however, have a cabinet that was locked. She went over to it and ripped the door open. There were several things inside, but she ignored them, focussing on a scalpel. It had an edge that glittered. Perfect.

She picked it up. She lifted up her T-shirt and cut away a three-inch square section of her pseudoflesh. Her dull gray inner construction was revealed. She put her fingers around a small box welded to a support frame. She ripped it off easily. It sparked, and smoke drifted briefly from the exposed area. Nuku Nuku examined the box curiously, then placed it on the bench.

One more thing to do here. She found a pad of paper and ripped off a clean sheet. She wrote a note. She wanted to say more, but her little brain could not conceive of anything more eloquent, so she left it as it was.

She picked up the remote and put it in the pocket of her shorts. She went outside, careful to avoid Ryunosuke and Yoshimi. She ran towards the center of Tokyo, not wanting to take the bicycle.

She ran and ran. The scenery flew by her, people exclaimed, and cars honked. Nuku Nuku ignored them all, concentrating on getting away from Nerima.

After a while she slowed down and started looking around her more carefully. She came to an alley, one that ran behind several businesses. Not the alley where she'd first met Ryunosuke, but one very like it. She walked down it slowly, looking intently into the shadows.

She soon found what she was looking for. A cat stared at her, lying on its side and breathing heavily. It looked to be in some pain, although it didn't have any obvious injuries. Nuku Nuku knelt down and petted it. It flinched a little at first, but didn't try to run away.

Nuku Nuku took one more look around. This was a good place, a little off the street, with plenty of refuse bins. There looked to be a couple of restaurants among the businesses that used this alley, which was excellent. There were very likely more cats that lived here. Nuku Nuku could be happy here.

She decided. She wrote another program in her databanks and uploaded it into memory. Obeying the instructions, the interface program cut off most of the processors, shut down the cultural databanks, and terminated the intelligence enhancement machinery.

And Nuku Nuku... couldn't... think

***

Kyusaku pulled the car up to the apartment. He felt privileged; he had a car again. Another Land Rover. He'd been reluctant to buy one, for fear that it would meet the same fate as its predecessors. After the incident with the orbital laser, Akiko's attacks had been reduced considerably in intensity and frequency. Mostly a couple of buzzings with a hoverjet, that was all. Just to let Kyusaku know that she still cared.

He grabbed the groceries out of the back. He was heartened to see Yoshimi and Ryunosuke playing together. They seemed to get along very well. Yoshimi was a nice, bright girl. She would make a wonderful wife for Ryunosuke. Maybe Kyu should contact her family and propose a formal engagement. Arranged marriages always worked out and never gave anyone any trouble.

He stepped into the house. He didn't immediately see Nuku Nuku, which bothered him just a little. She'd been very upset during their earlier discussion. There were several points he needed to clarify now that he had had some time to think about it. Still, he wasn't too worried. Nuku Nuku was such a joyous creature; nothing could keep her down for long.

As he put away the groceries, he called out to her. "Nuku Nuku!"

It usually took an average of 2 to 5 seconds for Nuku Nuku to respond. She almost always dropped whatever she was doing to rush into his presence. It gave him a boost to see someone so devoted to him. This time, he got no response.

He stopped putting the groceries away, frowning. Maybe she was asleep. She sometimes took a nap when she was particularly stressed out. Still, it would be good to make sure. He walked to her room, and found it empty. Maybe she was outside playing with his son. He had just missed her, that's all.

On his way to the front door, he spotted something in the workshop. The cover to one of his cabinets was lying on the floor. He entered the workshop, looking around. Everything else was in order. The computer was on, and was showing a schematic of one of Nuku Nuku's systems. Over on the bench, a note in Nuku Nuku's flowing and somewhat erratic handwriting was weighed down by what looked to be one of her components.

A terrible foreboding came over Kyusaku. He picked up the note and read:

Papa-san and Ryunosuke,

I have learned that I cannot be a human being, to you or to anyone else. I also cannot remain as I am, since all it does is fill me with fear of the future and a longing for what I can never have. So I have decided to return to what I was before. Please don't look for me. I have removed the transmitter Papa-san built into me.

I love you forever and ever.

Nuku Nuku

"Oh my God." The note fell from Kyu's nerveless fingers. What had Nuku Nuku done? Where had she gone? Why had she left?

His chest tightened at the thought that he would never see Nuku Nuku again. He hadn't realized the depth of his love for her. She was his daughter. And she had just run away from home.

He looked frantically around the shop. Nuku Nuku had removed the homing device, but she couldn't help giving off certain energy signatures. Kyu could track those. The range was not so great - he'd have to be very close to her - but it was a place to start. He grabbed a meter and ran outside.

He skidded to a halt as he saw his son. He couldn't leave him alone, and he had no time to take him over to Akiko's. Besides, Ryunosuke would want to be in on this. "Ryu-san!"

Ryunosuke and Yoshimi came running up. "Hi, Daddy!"

Kyu turned to Yoshimi. "Please forgive my rude manners, but I must take Ryunosuke with me right now. I will explain later. For now, please go home and I will let Ryunosuke call you later."

Yoshimi looked at him uncertainly. "Okay." She and Ryunosuke shared a quick, worried look, then she walked slowly away.

Kyu grabbed Ryunosuke and began pulling him to the car. Ryunosuke pulled his arm away. "What's this about, Daddy?"

Kyo opened the door. "Nuku Nuku's in trouble."

"Nuku Nuku!" Ryunosuke jumped into the car. "Hurry up, Daddy."

Kyu blew out a breath and rushed to the driver's side. He had to find Nuku Nuku before something awful had happened to her. If she hadn't already done something awful to herself.

***

Akiko paced in front of her desk. She had allowed Ryunosuke to stay with Kyusaku mostly because she realized that Kyu had more time to spend with his son than she had. Ryunosuke seemed happy, too. That was all that mattered to Akiko. She hoped a day would come when she could live with him again. She wasn't so sure she was willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve that goal - among them, living with Kyu. Still, things could change. People could change.

Today, she had gotten a call from Ryunosuke's school. Ryunosuke had not shown up for class, and no one had answered at his house. Akiko had called the high school where Kyu taught, and Kyu had not shown up for work, either. Akiko inquired further and had discovered that Nuku Nuku was absent as well. This worried Akiko a lot.

She'd double-checked with Arisa and Kyouko. They had denied any unauthorized activity involving the NK 1124. Akiko could read them pretty well, and found that she believed them.

She'd tried the apartment several times, and had used her special transmitter to take over Kyu's computer monitor. The apartment appeared to be empty. Her son was missing.

She paced even more furiously. If she could only make sure that Ryunosuke was safe, she wouldn't even get mad. Please, let him be all right.

Stopping in front of her desk, Akiko took over Kyusaku's monitor again. This time, she was rewarded by the sight of her husband leaning on the table, holding his head in his hands.

Akiko's resolution was instantly forgotten. "Kyusaku! Where is Ryunosuke! Where is my son! What have you done with him?"

Kyusaku looked up wearily. He was often tired - it was not unusual for him to go days without sleep - but this time, something else colored his face. Fear. She'd never seen that on him before, and it sent a stake through her heart.

"Ryunosuke's fine. He's in his room, sleeping. We were out all last night and part of today."

Akiko closed her eyes and let out a huge sigh of relief. "Thank goodness." She opened her eyes again and gave Kyu a hard look. "What were you doing to him? He's a growing boy who needs his sleep! He's much too young to be adopting the same idiosyncrasies you possess!"

Kyu drew deeply on his cigarette. "We were out looking for Nuku Nuku. She's run away from home."

Akiko blinked. "She has? Why?"

Kyu shook his head. "I'd rather not go into that right now, I'm too tired. Ryunosuke is worried sick about her. I need to go back out and look for her."

"Don't let me stop you." Akiko reached out and shut down the connection.

She turned in her chair and stared out the window. It was dusk, and the daylight was fading rapidly. The news of Nuku Nuku's disappearance disturbed her profoundly. She was glad that Ryunosuke was all right, but felt almost as worried for Nuku Nuku as she had been for her own son. She wondered why. She supposed it was some sort of obligatory, honorable worry - after all, the android had saved her life twice.

It was more than that, she was forced to admit. The catgirl's concern for her welfare and her desire to make everyone feel happy and loved had touched Akiko deeply. It had been a long time since anyone had shown her such caring, except for her son. Akiko had brought to a halt all efforts to capture or destroy the NK 1124. The write-off had been enormous, but Kyusaku's other inventions more than made up the difference.

Akiko sat and brooded for a while. Finally, she turned to her display and activated the vocal interface. "Computer. Display current location of cyborg NK 1124."

During the research into ways to destroy the android, they had found that it emitted electromagnetic waves at very specific and unique frequency. Very likely, Kyu was using that same data to try and track down Nuku Nuku. What he didn't have was one of the satellites Mishima Heavy Industries had in orbit. Akiko had ordered that tracking information be uploaded to the satellite so that the NK 1124 could be located at will.

It took several minutes for the satellite to orient itself and track the android. Then a street map of downtown Tokyo was displayed, with a dot showing the android's location. It seemed to be staying more or less in once place.

Akiko memorized the location. It actually wasn't too far. She could walk there easily. If she wanted to.

Akiko stared at the map for several more minutes. Going after the cyborg was not her responsibility. As the CEO of Mishima Heavy Industries, she had an enormous number of responsibilities. She was under a lot of pressure, too. Problems with the NK 1124, the SNK 98, and the fiasco with the orbital laser had stockholders clamoring for her removal. Fortunately, Grandfather had the Board of Directors well in hand. She was also able to point to a lot of other successes that had made more money for MHI than had been lost in the failed projects. Still, her actions were being watched very closely. She probably couldn't afford any more disasters.

Damn the cyborg. Kyusaku could take care of it. Akiko needed to purge herself of these extraneous concerns.

"I hate it when you act this way!"

The memory of Ryunosuke's words shot through her like a bullet. When Akiko and Kyusaku had finally separated, Ryunosuke had chosen his father over Akiko. That had hurt her terribly. She had been able to drown herself in her work, ignoring the rest of the world and the pain it caused her.

Her love for her son always resurfaced, finding ways through the barriers she had erected. She wanted her son to love her, to want her. She needed to become worthy of her son.

One person had done her best to help Akiko become worthy. One person whose love was able to build bridges between Akiko and her family. To turn her back on that person would be the first step towards tearing those bridges down and forever losing Ryunosuke. And Kyusaku.

Akiko lifted her eyes from the map and decided that she did want to walk to the location of the blinking dot. She got up, put on a light jacket, entered the elevator, and made her way out of the building.

She walked the small distance, feeling the evening wind on her face, cool but not cold. It was nice to get out of the office; she needed to do this more often.

She came to the closest intersection and began walking slowly down the street. She wasn't sure what state she would find the catgirl in. Hopefully not deranged. Nuku Nuku had not yet attacked anyone without first being attacked herself. Even then, she had refused to fight Akiko. So Akiko should be safe. Should be.

Akiko came to an alley and paused. This might be the right place. The alley was dark. Akiko peered into it, full of the knowledge of what might happen to her in the depths of the alley. Still, Nuku Nuku would protect her. She was a good girl.

Akiko stepped slowly into the alley, trying to adjust her eyesight. Halfway down the alley, she stopped, seeing a shape by a garbage can. The shape seemed to have an awful lot of hair, but it could be Akiko's wishful thinking.

After another minute, her eyesight improved significantly. Enough to definitely make out Nuku Nuku. She was standing slightly hunched over a garbage can. Akiko had evidently interrupted her while she had been digging through it. Nuku Nuku was staring at her, but Akiko couldn't make out her face.

"Nuku Nuku?" Akiko's voice sounded a bit too scared for her tastes, and she added some force to it. "Nuku Nuku. Tell me what's wrong. My son and husband miss you and want you to go home."

Nuku Nuku didn't move. A by-product of her android body appeared to be that she could stand rock-still if she wanted to. She was doing that now.

Akiko frowned and took a couple of cautious steps toward Nuku Nuku. The catgirl leaned back, the first indication Akiko had that she was still functioning.

Akiko stopped and decided to wait her out. She did her own impression of a statue.

After several long minutes, Nuku Nuku looked down and began sifting through the garbage again. She came across some thrown-out cartons of food. She picked through them carefully, removing the slivers of meat and holding them in one hand.

She looked up at Akiko again, then turned and began to walk down the alley. Just as Akiko was about to go after her, Nuku Nuku stopped. She turned around, looked at Akiko for a second, then walked up to her.

Akiko finally got a look at her face. It was completely without expression. That surprised Akiko; she realized that she had never seen Nuku Nuku this way. Nuku Nuku always let you know what she was feeling. Usually, she had a big smile plastered on her face. Akiko wondered what this neutral expression meant.

Nuku Nuku looked at her for a moment, then turned and walked down the alley a few steps. She stopped and looked at Akiko over her shoulder.

Akiko decided that Nuku Nuku wanted her to follow. She stepped towards Nuku Nuku. After Akiko had taken a couple of steps, Nuku Nuku continued down the alley, occasionally glancing over her shoulder to see that Akiko was following.

They arrived at a relatively sheltered area at the corner of the alley. Nuku Nuku bent down and placed the slivers of food on the ground. Light from a neon display lit this area of the alley in pale blue, and Akiko was able to examine Nuku Nuku. She looked okay, if a little dirty. Her face was still expressionless.

At her feet, a cat was nursing several kittens. The kittens were obviously newborns, their eyes shut tight and blindly suckling. The mother sat up and sniffed at the food Nuku Nuku had brought, dislodging some of the kittens and causing them to complain. This evidently caused Nuku Nuku some concern; she reached her hands out to the kittens. The mother cat hissed, and Nuku Nuku quickly withdrew her hands. After giving Nuku Nuku a hard look, the mother cat bent down to the food again, sniffing it and then eating it while purring loudly.

Akiko watched carefully, but Nuku Nuku's expression didn't change. She just focussed all of her attention on the mother cat. After the cat finished the food, it sniffed the area where the food at been, then sniffed in Nuku Nuku's direction before lying on its side again and allowing the mewling kittens to reattach themselves.

Nuku Nuku looked up at Akiko. Akiko crouched down with her so that their eyes were level. Akiko still had no idea what was going on. Nuku Nuku was acting very strangely. Akiko should have insisted that Kyu fill her in on some of the details.

Nuku Nuku reached out and - there was no other word for it - pawed Akiko's leg. Akiko drew her head back in surprise. "Nuku Nuku, what is it?"

Nuku Nuku only looked at her with that blank look, and pawed her again.

Akiko suddenly made the connection. "Oh my poor dear, you've turned yourself into a cat again, haven't you?"

Nuku Nuku looked down at the cat and her kittens, and looked up at Akiko again, pawing her with greater force.

Akiko's heart wrenched. She hadn't realize how affectionately she'd come to regard Nuku Nuku. To see her in this condition made her sad, while at the same time activated some of the mothering instincts that were usually slumbering deep within her.

Akiko reached out and stroked Nuku Nuku's hair. "Dear, I don't know what you want. Can you turn yourself back on?"

Nuku Nuku stood up and did a quick circuit of the alley corner before crouching in front of Akiko and pawing her repeatedly and rapidly.

Akiko grimaced. Nuku Nuku was obviously quite agitated, and needed something from her. Akiko had no idea what to do. She wished Kyusaku was here. He'd be able to do something useful. Akiko was afraid to leave Nuku Nuku for even a second for fear that she would run off. She cursed the fact that she had not thought to bring her phone with her.

Akiko slowly reached out and cusped Nuku Nuku's head in her hands. "My darling child, I don't know what you need. I want to help you. Can you let me know what it is I can do for you?"

Nuku Nuku moved her head over and licked Akiko's cheek. It was not the first time she'd done that, but somehow Akiko found it much less repellent this time. Nuku Nuku kept her head close to Akiko's, staring into her eyes.

When Akiko did nothing, Nuku Nuku leaned back and fell onto her seat. Although her face was still expressionless, her posture seemed to be one of despair.

Akiko felt bitter failure rising in her throat. Nuku Nuku had asked for her help, and she'd been unable to provide any. She should have just told Kyu where his damn cyborg was; he would have gotten it right.

Akiko began to lower her eyes when something caught her attention. There was a box of some sort sticking partway out of Nuku Nuku's pocket. Akiko frowned, then slowly reached over and took the box. Nuku Nuku watched but made no move to stop her. Akiko examined it carefully. It was a simple box with a large, recessed button. Nuku Nuku had written something on it. It was a little difficult to make out in the dim blue light, and Akiko had to spell it out letter by letter.

Nuku Nuku Reset.

Akiko glanced over at Nuku Nuku. Her face was stone, but she was watching Akiko closely. She was quivering slightly. Apparently this box excited her.

Akiko pointed the box at Nuku Nuku and pressed the button.

Instantly, Nuku Nuku's extended sensors popped out of her head. Her eyes lost focus, and she swayed slightly.

After a few seconds, the sensors folded themselves away. Nuku Nuku looked at Akiko again, and her lip began to tremble. She flung herself into Akiko's arms with enough force to knock Akiko on her seat. Akiko said something like "Whouf", and hugged Nuku Nuku.

"Oh, Mama-san, I was so scared!" Nuku Nuku's voice was tremulous. "I couldn't think, I wanted to think but I couldn't. I thought it would be better this way, I thought if I couldn't think like a human, I wouldn't want to *be* a human, that I could go back to being a cat and everything would be all better. But it didn't work, I could remember being smarter and I wanted to be smarter again but I couldn't remember how to be smarter. I thought it would be so simple, that all I'd have to remember is to press the button, but I couldn't even conceive of the button. My thoughts were so confused. Then I saw you and I knew you and you were someone I loved and you would make it better. You did, and I thank you, I thank you, oh Mama-san, thank you for finding me and giving me back my mind."

Akiko found that she was crying. "Hush, my child. You're fine now. You're all right now. Everything's better."

They held each other for a while. After a couple of minutes, Akiko trusted her voice enough to attempt speech. "Let's get you home now, dear. Ryunosuke and... and Papa-san are very worried about you."

"No!" Nuku Nuku disentangled herself and scooted a couple of feet away. "I can't go back home. It hurts too much."

Akiko's eyebrows shot up. "Tell me."

Nuku Nuku wiped her eyes, very likely a programmed response since she didn't cry. "Papa-san told me that I would never have children." Nuku Nuku looked at the mother cat again. "When my body died my ability to have children died with it. I'll never know what that cat is feeling right now.

"And that's not all. He told me I would never be married. That I would never be able to conceive of all the things marriage could be. I'm only a cat, he reminded me. He's tried to make me more human, and just when I almost thought of myself as human, he tells me that it's all just pretend. I'll be able to fool people from a distance, but up close...."

Nuku Nuku wiped her nose - another affectation - and continued. "And then my new friend Mariko. She was beginning to like me, not like those boys who fawn all over me, only wanting me so that I can stimulate their pleasure centers. She was beginning to like me for *me*. And then I told her who I was - *what* I was. It scared her, and she told me not to touch her, and I realized that anyone who truly knows me will never accept me as a human. Not even Papa-san and Ryunosuke."

Nuku Nuku looked away from the cat and down at her feet. "I'm not a cat, not anymore. And I'm not a human. I never will be. I'm a catgirl, and that's nothing, not even a word."

Akiko's anger had been building for some time. She tried to keep it contained, but some of it spilled out. "Damn fool."

Nuku Nuku cringed. "I know. I'm sorry, Mama-san."

"Not you, dear. My idiot husband. He likes to think of himself as the greatest genius in the world. He thinks that he's an expert on every subject. That's not so bad, but he's got you and Ryunosuke believing it too. That is inexcusable."

Nuku Nuku looked at Akiko, startled. "What do you mean, Mama-san?"

Akiko couldn't help spitting out the words. "I mean that if my husband is such an expert on what love is, why are we separated?"

Nuku Nuku blinked. "Because you're a maniacal overzealous obsessed businessperson with no ability to balance your family life and your business life."

Akiko sputtered. Her head felt like it wanted to expand three sizes. Suddenly, she let it all out with a laugh. The laugh went on and on, but it felt good, and her anger drained away. Nuku Nuku looked at her curiously during its length.

Akiko finally ground to a halt. She composed herself. "That is all true. It just isn't the whole story. Kyusaku is obsessive about his work as well, quite liable to go days without sleep while working on a project. He becomes quite irrational, sometimes dangerously so. He is so convinced that he is always right that he will not even admit to the possibility that he could be wrong. And he *is* wrong, quite often. He is terribly selfish, and often believes that his needs outweigh everyone else's."

Nuku Nuku's eyes lost focus. Akiko waited her out, wondering if she would be capable of admitting the truth of what had just been said. She was Kyusaku's creation after all. After a few seconds, Nuku Nuku looked at Akiko again. "Is it possible he didn't tell me the whole story about getting married and starting a family?"

Akiko let out a sigh of relief. "Very good reasoning, dear. He didn't tell you all of your options. Have you ever heard of adoption?"

"Adoption: The act of adopting. Adopt...." Nuku Nuku's voice trailed off as she evidently considered the many possible meanings for the word. Her eyes lit up and she spoke in an excited rush. "To take voluntarily a child of other parents as one's own child?"

Akiko smiled. "Yes. Exactly right."

Nuku Nuku leaned forward. "Can I have one now?"

Akiko suppressed a chuckle. "No, for two reasons. One, you really should be married first. Children are happier in households with two parents." Akiko flushed and quickly moved on. "Also, I don't think you're quite ready, dear. You still have a lot to learn about being human. Remember, you'll be expected to teach your child how to be human, too."

Nuku Nuku sat back, disappointed. "But there's so much I don't know. I'll never understand love."

Akiko was flabbergasted. "Why do you say that? You're the most loving person I know. I've seen you lavish love on Ryunosuke and Kyusaku, and they've flourished under it."

Nuku Nuku nodded. "I give them the kind of love a pet gives its masters."

The words knocked Akiko back on her heels. She deliberately paused and gave herself time to think. She ran the issue over in her mind for a long while.

Finally she looked Nuku Nuku in the eye again. "I don't think that's quite right. I'd say, instead, that you give simple love. The love of a child. It's as we get older that we start complicating love, adding conditions and expectations and thoroughly screwing up what really should be a simple thing. I still love my husband, and I think he still loves me. We've just made a complete mess of it, to the point that we can't stand living together. I wish our love was as simple as yours. We'd be much happier."

Akiko bore her gaze into Nuku Nuku's eyes, trying to make her understand. "Don't ever lose the ability to give simple, unconditional love. It's what makes you so special. It doesn't make you less human. Instead, you set an example of what humans should be like."

Nuku Nuku frowned and looked over at the mother cat. She stared at it for a while, then turned and looked back at Akiko, a big smile on her face. "Thank you, Mama-san. You are very wise."

Akiko felt a warm glow inside her. No one had ever called her wise before. Even if the wisdom was built on bitter experience, it still felt good. "Now can we go home?"

"We?" Nuku Nuku looked excited again. "Does that mean you're going to live with us, Mama-san?"

Akiko winced. "Have you ever heard of a Freudian slip?"

"Freudian: Of, relating to, or according with - "

"Never mind. No, I don't think I'll be moving in with Papa-san. Maybe not for a long while."

"And maybe sooner than you think."

They both turned, startled. Kyusaku stepped from the shadows behind Nuku Nuku. He had a peculiar expression on his face, and was staring at Akiko.

Akiko began to get angry. "How long have you been standing there? How did you find us?"

"I've been here quite a while. Since right after you two stopped hugging. When you broke our connection on the computer so abruptly, I realized that you probably had a way to track Nuku Nuku. So I hacked into the MHI network, and found the location at the same time you did. It took me a while to get here. I feared I would be too late. I now realize that any sooner and I might have spoiled things."

Akiko blinked, her anger dissolving. It was the closest she had ever seen Kyusaku come to admitting he was wrong about something.

He surprised her even further. Kyusaku knelt in front of Nuku Nuku and took her hands. "Nuku Nuku, I'm sorry. Everything Mama-san said was absolutely correct. I realized a terrible truth about myself. I wanted you to be completely dependent on me. It made me feel good to have someone worshipping me, needing me as badly as you did. Even as I encouraged you to be human, I tried to limit how far you could go. Tried to tell you your brain wasn't capable of grasping the entire spectrum of human existence. That was mean and selfish of me. The truth is, no one's brain is capable of that. We all have strengths and weaknesses, neither one making us more or less human. From now on, we will work on getting you to a point where you can lead your own life. Marry someone, if you want. Raise a family, if you want. There's no limit to what you can accomplish so long as you know what you want and can take positive strides towards achieving it."

Nuku Nuku had been staring at Kyusaku warily. It continued past the end of his oration. Finally, her face melted and her lower lip began trembling. "Papa-san." She jumped into his arms, and Akiko smiled as a familiar "Whouf" escaped his lips as he fell backwards onto his rear.

Akiko decided this was a good time to make a graceful exit. She stood up. "Well, enough fun for tonight." She looked over at the kittens. "With your permission, Atsuko, I'll have my servants come by and pick these darlings up. They'll take them to my mansion and take care of them. They'll eat better and be healthier and live longer than they would in this alley. If that's all right?"

Nuku Nuku lifted her head from Kyusaku's shoulders and smiled at Akiko. "I would like that very much, Mama-san."

Akiko smiled back and nodded.

Kyusaku turned his head as well and looked at her steadily. "We should talk, Akiko. Seriously talk. And soon."

Akiko's heart skipped a beat. "I - I would like that. Call my office and make an appointment."

Kyusaku scowled.

Akiko smiled teasingly at him. "Or stop by the mansion tomorrow for dinner. The kids can look at the kittens and we can have a little chat."

Kyusaku's face cleared. He snorted and chuckled. "Okay. Sounds good."

She stared into his eyes for a moment, smiling warmly, then began to turn away.

"Mama-san!"

Akiko turned back.

Nuku Nuku smiled, a warm smile unlike any other Akiko had ever seen from her. With a slight start, Akiko realized the Nuku Nuku must have copied it from her. "Thanks again, Mama-san. I love you."

Akiko had to pause a moment to keep from breaking out in sobs. "I love you too, Atsuko."

She turned down the alleyway and made her way back to the street. There she paused, trying to fix the location in her mind so that she could give her servants good directions.

Voices floated on the evening breeze. "Why did she call you Atsuko?"

"Because she understands."

"Should I - "

"No, you and Ryunosuke should keep calling me Nuku Nuku."

"Why?"

"I'll explain it to you someday when you're able to understand."

Laughing, Akiko walked down the street on the way back to her office.

***

Atsuko frowned at the computer screen. "Will it be okay, Papa-san? It won't hurt, will it?"

Papa-san clucked his tongue. "It shouldn't. The brain has no nerves itself. You already have similar connections to other parts of your brain that allow you to speak, move, see, hear, and all that."

Atsuko couldn't help feeling a little worried. "Are we ready?"

Papa-san called up a few more displays and examined them. Then he sighed. "As ready as ever. This reminds me a little of when I first put you into your body. That was a lot more rushed and a lot scarier, of course."

"Hmm." That particular subject held little interest for Atsuko. "Let's start, then."

"Right." Papa-san pushed a button. On the screen, a metal rod gently began pushing its way into the gray mass before it. Atsuko felt for something, but nothing was there. The only indication she had that anything was happening was the console they were both intently watching.

The rod stopped at the precise location. Papa-san locked it down and ran a few diagnostics. "Everything looks okay. Go ahead and fire up the interface."

Atsuko took the code she'd downloaded earlier and loaded it into memory. She immediately felt a buzzing from her lips. It died down after a second. She lifted her fingers to her lips and pressed. She felt - something. She wasn't sure what. It was quite mild.

She turned to Papa-san, disappointed. "Is that all?"

"Well, remember the factors we programmed in. It'll feel better when you're pressing your lips against someone else's. The more you like the other person, the more your pleasure center gets stimulated. Also, even the most passionate kiss will only stimulate you so far. We have to leave room for you to feel more pleasure in response to other stimuli."

Atsuko touched her lips again. "Are you sure it's enough?"

"I've been experimenting."

Atsuko blinked. "Experimenting?"

"Yes. Two test subjects had electrodes attached as they experienced the full range of sexual stimuli. This experiment was run over the course of several days so that we would have an adequate amount of data to extrapolate from."

Atsuko raised an eyebrow. "You and Mama-san?"

Papa-san looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "Two test subjects."

Atsuko smiled. The whole family had spent much of the week at the Mishima mansion. To hear Ryunosuke speak, there was a good chance they would be moving there permanently very soon. For today, they still lived in the apartment.

Papa-san looked at the data. "This seems okay. We'll need to make much more extensive modifications if the sensors in your lips continue to work well. Those sensors will need to be implanted all over your body. We'll be able to give you back your sense of touch, something I hadn't thought possible a year ago. Certain areas we'll connect to this new electrode. We'll have to rewrite a lot of your code as well. But these are just tasks, even if they promise to be time-consuming. The basic problem has been solved."

Atsuko smiled. "You're a genius, Papa-san!"

Papa-san snorted. "Sometimes."

Ryunosuke shouted from the living room. "Nuku Nuku! There are people at the door for you!"

Atsuko raised her eyebrows. Who could it be? She looked over at Papa-san.

Papa-san made a shooing motion with his hands. "We're done here. Go play with your friends."

Atsuko smiled at him. As she walked down the hall, though, she felt some trepidation.

She went up to the open front door. Three of her classmates were there. She ignored the boys to gape at the girl. "Mariko?"

"What? You're not even dressed!" Mariko tsked and turned to the boys. "Wait here." She stepped inside and closed the door. She grabbed Atsuko's hand and looked around. "Where's your bedroom?"

Numbly, Atsuko pointed to a door.

Mariko pulled her into the bedroom, shut the door and began rummaging through Atsuko's clothes. "Let me guess. Your father buys your clothes, right?"

Atsuko could do no more than nod.

Mariko tsked again. "We need to go on a shopping trip real soon." She began throwing selected articles of clothing on the bed.

Atsuko finally found her voice. "Mariko, what are you doing here?"

Mariko did her eyebrow thing that Atsuko had begun to emulate. "What, you've forgotten our double date?"

"But Mariko, that was before... before...."

"Before I treated you so rudely?" Mariko looked at her steadily for a moment, then began rummaging through her drawers. "Don't you have any accessories?"

"Mariko." This was difficult for her to say. "I'm not human."

"You mean you weren't born human." Mariko gave up her search and began picking up the clothes and holding them against Atsuko. "Natsume-sensei is a brilliant man. He took your brain and gave it something that made you human. Or close enough to make no difference. I liked you, Atsuko. I still do. You're the same person you were before you revealed your little secret. The only thing that changed was me."

Mariko paused, then looked Nuku Nuku in the eye. "Atsuko, you're happy, friendly, outgoing, and respectful. I didn't think I could like you, but I couldn't help myself. Even if you've got a machine for a body and your intelligence has been artificially enhanced, it doesn't change what a nice person you are."

Atsuko's cultural interface caused her eyes to blink in surprise. "You... you think I'm nice?"

"Yeah. I don't know why I was so repelled." Mariko looked down. "Actually, I do. It's a little frightening to realize that a cat's brain is in charge of some very advanced machinery. I couldn't help being afraid that you would lose control and hurt me somehow. Then I realized that you're just as likely to lose control as any human being is. We all have the ability to hurt each other at any time. When it comes right down to it, you have to extend a certain amount of trust to everyone around you."

Mariko looked up again. "I trust you, Atsuko. It took me a while to realize that. When I did, it forced me to come to terms with what 'human' really means."

Atsuko did a quick lookup. "Human: 1) Of, relating to, or characteristic of homo sapiens. 2) Having human form or attributes." Atsuko blinked. She'd never expected to find absolution in the dictionary.

Mariko chuckled. "Yeah, that's right. You *are* human, Atsuko. A little young, perhaps, with a lot of learning left to do. You need our help, not our fear. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think you were a good person. A good *person*." Her smile faded. "I hope you can forgive me, Atsuko-san, for the way I acted earlier."

Atsuko didn't know how to react. "Mariko-san, I... Yes, I forgive you. I love you; how can I not forgive you?"

Mariko blushed a little bit. "Atsuko, go a little easy on the expressions of love. People might get the wrong idea." She thrust a skirt and a blouse at her. "These are barely adequate. Of course, truth be told, you'd look good in just about anything. Guys rarely lift their eyes from a girl's chest anyway, especially one as... impressive as yours."

Atsuko took the clothes, continuing to stare at Mariko. "I'm sorry, I didn't even notice who my date is."

Mariko smiled proudly. "Kei. He's about the best guy at school - other than Kaneto, of course."

"Does he know?"

Mariko nodded. "I told him. I might even have gotten him to believe it, a little. You may be called upon to prove it. If you don't mind."

Atsuko smiled. "Thank you, Mariko. You're a good friend. Maybe the first real friend I've ever had."

Mariko bowed to her. "You're welcome. Now, hurry up and get dressed. It's good to keep guys waiting, but we mustn't overdo it."

Atsuko quickly got into the clothes Mariko had selected. Mariko despaired at the lack of makeup in the apartment, and had Atsuko use some of hers. When Atsuko was deemed presentable, she looked in on Papa-san.

"Papa-san, I'm going out on a date. I'll be home in a few hours."

Papa-san looked up at her. His jaw dropped open and his cigarette fell onto his keyboard. "Nuku Nuku! You look so... so...."

Atsuko smiled. "So human?"

"Yes!" He stared at her for a few seconds, then closed his eyes and shook his head. "Next time, I think I'll be a little more circumspect in my design."

Atsuko wondered whether she should tell him that his keyboard was on fire, but figured he'd find out about it soon enough. She was beginning to understand how dangerous smoking really was. "Bye, Papa-san!"

He still had his eyes closed. "Have fun, Nuku Nuku."

She bounced down the hall and out the front door, waving merrily at a gaping Ryunosuke. When she got outside, the boys reacted similarly, which earned Kaneto a none-too-gentle elbow in his ribs from Mariko.

Kei managed to regain his composure. "You look beautiful, Nuku Nuku."

She frowned slightly. "If you would please, call me Atsuko. Nuku Nuku is a name you give your cat. Atsuko is a human name."

This seemed to penetrate his daze. "Is what Mariko says true?"

Atsuko nodded solemnly. "I'm a cyborg. An android body with the brain of a cat. I can think, talk, love, and all that, but I can't bear children. That doesn't mean I can't adopt a child, though."

"Whoa! Slow down, Atsuko." Mariko spoke in a teasing voice with a serious undertone. "This is just a first date."

Kei stared thoughtfully at her for a moment, then smiled. "I guess it all comes down to the soul. It's the only part of you that can't be cut away or adapted or improved upon or replaced. You have a good soul, Nuk... Atsuko. I think that's what I've always liked about you best."

Atsuko beamed, happy. "Really? Even more than my impressive chest?"

Kei's eyes bugged out. Kaneto did his best to keep from laughing and mostly failed. Mariko merely groaned and covered her face. "Atsuko, we have got to talk about appropriate topics of conversation in a social gathering."

Atsuko nodded. "Okay." She looked up at Kei. "Where are we going?"

Kei pointed to his car and they all began walking towards the stairs to the ground floor. Kei halfway reached out his hand, and then stopped, looking embarrassed. Atsuko drew her eyebrows together and looked at Kaneto and Mariko. They here holding each other's hands. Her brow clearing with understanding, Atsuko took Kei's hand, careful not to squeeze it too hard.

Kei gave her a warm look. It reminded her of the way Ryunosuke had looked at Yoshimi. It felt nice to have it directed at her.

For the first time, she began to grasp this particular facet of love.

She began to laugh for the sheer joy of it, sharing it with those around her.

~*~

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