A lone guitar chord echoed through the streaming studio. As it did, a beautiful woman with silky black hair and crimson eyes stood with her hand in mid-air, waiting for the sounds to fade. Her eyes were half-lidded, as if lost in the sound.
When the notes finally faded away, Wang Zhaojun lowered her hand and let out a faint smile. Staring at the three young women seated in front of her, Zhaojun's smile widened just a bit more and she said, "And that is how you evoke emotions with your voice and a single instrument."
"Wow!" Rin stood up and applauded, a bright smile on her face. "Miss Zhaojun is super talented!"
Alpha smiled as well and said, "Of course! Auntie Zhaojun is the best at singing and performing!"
Zhaojun laughed and unstrapped her guitar, gently setting it off to the side. "Thank you, Alphy. But I still have far to go in order to reach the level of Senior Brother."
"Auntie Zhaojun is too humble. I'm sure even Papa would say that you're better than him now!"
Zhaojun let out a wry smile at her niece's response.
She appreciated the support and was glad that Alphy was praising her... but if her niece thought that, it was clear that she hadn't heard about the time her father snuck into the Peach Blossom Pavilion. Considering that Senior Brother managed to not only outperform the most famous courtesans but even copied their musical and performance techniques in order to teach Zhaojun...
Asako stared at Zhaojun, a contemplative look on her face.
Zhaojun noticed and said, "Is something the matter, Miss Asako?"
"No, just..." Asako sighed and said, "I'm just thinking about how John keeps getting more and more mysterious. Not to mention his family..."
Seeing the exasperation on the young woman's face, Zhaojun smiled, remembering similar expressions on people that met her Senior Brother in the past.
"Anyway," Asako said. "...We should probably get going." She stood up and glanced at Rin. "Ready to go, Sis?"
"Eh?" Rin frowned and said, "Already?"
Asako pulled out her phone and glanced at the screen. "Yeah. It's already around 6 PM." She looked at Alpha and said, "And you've got a stream soon, right?"
Alpha nodded. "I do, but-"
Asako waved her hand. "No need to be polite." She looked at Zhaojun and then back at Alpha before saying, "Besides, wouldn't want to get in the way of your family time with your... aunt."
Alpha blinked and tilted her head. "Thank you...?"
Rin frowned. "Family time? But..." She looked at Alpha and then at Zhaojun. And then her eyes widened. "Oh! So Miss Zhaojun is-"
Asako slumped an arm around Rin's shoulder and then started dragging her off. "We'll be heading off for the night. Gotta bring Rin back home, you know? Sakura onee-chan will be mad if I don't get her back before nine."
Rin giggled and then waved at Alpha and Zhaojun. "Thanks for letting us hang out, Onee-chan! And nice meeting you, Miss Zhaojun!"
"Yeah," Asako said. "Catch you tomorrow for practice. Night!"
With that, the two sisters left, heading into the elevator. After a soft chime, the two were gone, leaving just Alpha and Zhaojun in the streaming studio.
Alpha frowned, staring at the elevator where the two left, and then said, "Weird... Asako and Rin usually aren't in such a rush to leave."
Zhaojun frowned as well. "You know them best, Alphy. But I also believe they were acting strange... and they seemed to have misunderstood something."
She didn't miss the way Asako had hesitated or the flicker of realization in Rin's eyes.
Alpha shook her head. "Well, it's fine." She looked up at Zhaojun and smiled. "It just means I get to spend more time with Auntie Zhaojun."
Zhaojun smiled back and then walked over to a chair. After lightly brushing it off, she sat down and said, "It *has* been quite some time since we have seen each other."
Alpha sat next to Zhaojun and then turned towards her, nodding. "It has!" She frowned and said, "Just where have you been, Auntie? Betty and I thought we would see you at Papa's wedding, but Papa said you only showed up for a little while before leaving."
"Ah. That..." Zhaojun hesitated and then said, "I was working on a song."
Zhaojun nodded and said, "I had quite a lot on my mind at the time, so I took some time to roam the Three Realms."
Visiting her hometown, the place where she and Senior Brother first met... after that wedding, Zhaojun traced out their steps and focused on the past, trying to recall those bright memories and ensure they wouldn't fade.
In fact, she had planned to disappear completely... but then she heard how everyone had started to disrespect and slander her Senior Brother during her travels and couldn't help but return.
Remembering that fact and how selfish she had been in leaving Alpha behind, Zhaojun felt a pang of guilt. "...I am sorry I did not tell you."
Alpha shook her head and smiled. "It's fine, Auntie. You're here now, and that's all that matters."
Seeing that smile, Zhaojun subconsciously found her breath catching in her throat.
Soft black hair, glittering crimson eyes, and a gentle expression.
From the time that Zhaojun met John and Alpha, she had always believed that Alpha was adorable. Although just an automaton, John had put enough care into crafting her that she had seemed a young girl instead of a lifeless tool. And as time went on and John continued to upgrade Alpha, she became even more humanlike.
But Zhaojun hadn't realized it until now. Since Alpha had always been cold and expressionless, while Zhaojun knew they shared similar hair and eye colors, she didn't think they looked too similar. But when seeing Alpha like this...
The way Alpha's hair fell was just like Senior Brother's. Her bangs were the same, and the shape of her eyes were similar to John's as well.
Yet, her nose, her smile, her cheekbones and her ears... When Alpha had that gentle expression upon her face, Zhaojun felt like she was looking at an old mirror and seeing her past self. No, like herself, but with a bit of her Senior Brother mixed in.
...Like how their child would appear.
"A-Auntie?!" Alpha's eyes widened and she started to panic. "What's wrong? Why are you crying?"
"...Crying?" Zhaojun blinked and then realized that Alpha was right. Without her realizing it, tears had formed in her eyes and already ran down her cheeks.
"H-Here." Alpha quickly reached over and brushed away Zhaojun's tears. "Don't cry, okay Auntie? It doesn't suit someone as beautiful as you."
Zhaojun's heart trembled. As she stared into Alpha's face, so close to her own, memories and emotions that she thought she had settled came back to her.
A young girl like a beautifully crafted doll, following after John wherever he went and saving him from his reckless acts. Zhaojun, taking care of them both after some crazy stunt. Spending time with the young girl and practicing her music whenever John was busy crafting his latest artifacts or revising his latest techniques. Seeing that young girl rapidly grow up whenever John upgraded her body...
And now that young girl had become a young woman. Not only that, but a beautiful and kind young woman that looked so much like Zhaojun and the one she loved the most...
With that realization, Zhaojun reached over and pulled Alpha into a tight hug.
Zhaojun shook her head and just held Alpha close.
...How stupid was she?
Leaving so suddenly and deciding to vanish by herself... If she had done so, how sad would Alpha have become? Not only that...
She thought that Senior Brother didn't care about her at all. That their relationship was at best a formality and that he only cared about her as a close acquaintance.
"...I am sorry, Alphy."
"Um..." Alpha shifted and hugged Zhaojun back. "I'm not sure why you're apologizing, Auntie. But I forgive you. So... don't cry, okay?"
Hearing that, Zhaojun trembled and hugged Alpha tighter.
She didn't realize it. Even if John didn't see her as a woman to fall in love with didn't mean that he didn't love her.
Zhaojun had left on her journey to retrace the past and find proof that those days weren't meaningless, but it had been in front of her eyes the entire time.
A child that was Senior Brother's without a doubt, but one that also looked like her.
Zhaojun could never become John's true flesh and blood sister, but with Alpha's strong resemblance to herself, there was no denying their connection. And even though it would be troublesome to him and lead to misunderstandings, the fact that he continued with it...
Zhaojun hugged Alpha tighter and quietly said, "Senior Brother is stupid."
Zhaojun shook her head and said, "Sorry. But... please, let me be like this for a little longer, Alphy."
Alpha wasn't her daughter. No matter how much she wished otherwise or how much Alpha looked like Zhaojun, that fact wouldn't change.
But that was fine.
...Yes. That was fine. Because even if Alpha wasn't her daughter, that didn't mean that Zhaojun didn't or couldn't love her like one. And even if Senior Brother's heart belonged to another, Alpha's appearance showed that, at least somewhere, Zhaojun had claimed one tiny part of it for herself.
Zhaojun released Alpha and leaned back. "...I apologize, Alphy. It seems like I missed you more than I thought."
And that her heart hadn't been as firmed as she believed it was.
Alpha shook her head. "It's fine, Auntie." She smiled and then shyly looked away. "...I missed Auntie too."
Zhaojun flinched and grabbed her chest. After that, she blinked and looked at with wide eyes. "Alphy?"
Alpha tilted her head. "Yes, Auntie?"
Zhaojun stared at Alphy and then nodded. "For once, Senior Brother made a wise decision. To think that my niece would not only become this adorable but even have learned my techniques subconsciously..."
Zhaojun smiled. "It is nothing, Alphy. Now-"
A chime echoed in the distance and then a cheerful female voice called out. "Zhaozhao, Alphy! I bought us some snacks!"
Daji walked over from the elevator with a bright smile on her face. "Xuanni took Meggie out to play, so it's just us now, like old times! Oh!" She held up a pair of plastic bags, filled with bentos and said, "I bought some food too!"
Alpha smiled and then ran up to give Daji a hug. "Thank you, Auntie Daji! I love you!"
Daji froze, her bright orange eyes widening in surprise. And then she let out a happy squeal and fainted, dropping the bags on the floor.
Zhaojun sighed. "Just where did Alphy even learn how to act like that...?"
A wooden porch on the other side of an onsen in Hokkaido, overlooking a scenic mountain landscape.
Yue set down her cup of tea and looked over at John. "Did you catch cold, Husband?"
John sniffed and wiped his nose, frowning. "No. Somebody's probably just talking about me."
Yue raised an eyebrow. "You sneeze when people talk about you? Since when?"
"Since I've gotten back to Earth apparently Well that or we really shouldn't have spent so much time in the hot spring."
Yue blushed and quickly hid her face with her cup of tea, taking a long sip from it.
John rolled his eyes. "Oh, *now* you're shy. Didn't you ask to come out here so that we could-"
John laughed and then pulled Yue in for a kiss.
"Not- Mm~! W-Wait... Nn~! H-Hus- Ahn!"
Back in his lab, Titor suddenly crushed a can of Dk Pep. Staring at the dripping soda staining the carpet, he sighed and walked over to the kitchen, pulling out some paper towels.
"Damn bastard." Titor grumbled and then walked back to the spilled soda to clean it up. "...The least he could do is cut the connection. Does he even know how hard it is to concentrate while constantly hearing that in the back of your head?"
Titor sighed and then said, "Ok Googol. Play 'Slowly' by Louis Fonzee."
Nothing better to get out of the mood than meme music, right, hahaha?