228 – Beta – A Place to Call Home
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Idly strolling along the sidewalk and watching people past, Beta found her mind drifting to her project.

The story telling engine. A system that could create and recreate events and lay out what could happen if different choices had been made. In short... 'What if?'

What if someone else had been chosen? What if there was a different path taken?

That was the core of her project. And the first story she tested it on... well, it was the story she knew the best and the one she always mulled over in her head.

A tiny bit of selfishness.

Beta loved her father. And her 'mother'... Well, she loved how Yue was right now at the least. And if everyone else was willing to forgive and forget, so was she. What was more important was that they were a family now.

Right. A family. That was what Beta had now. Something that she always longed to have with her father and older sister.

But...

'What if?'

That thought never left her mind.

What if her 'Aunt' Daji was the one Father chose?

A supportive mother figure who always read Beta's stories and cheered her on. A woman who believed in her father no matter what and was willing to throw everything away to just be by his side. And a woman who willingly took on the role of the Demon Empress to quell the turmoil at her father's request.

What would life be like with her as their mother?

And if not her, what of Aunt Zhaojun?

Alpha might not have recognized it, but Beta saw how her older sister already treated Aunt Zhaojun like her own mother. While Alpha called Zhaojun Aunt, they were all but mother and daughter in name. Not only that, but there was the clear resemblance due to how Beta's father had modeled Alpha after Zhaojun as well.

Like Daji, Zhaojun was a supportive mother figure. A woman who always stood by John no matter what occurred. Someone who was willing to wait a thousand lifetimes for the chance to meet him again if he failed his tribulation... and someone who would have transcended the Three Realms herself if that's what it would have taken to meet John again.

If it was her, what would life be like?

And then there was the playful and wise Aunt Xuannu as well. The teasing older sister type who tried and failed to hide how she felt about John. Who, from the beginning, had doted on Alpha and Beta even though most people thought it was weird to care so much for mere automatons. And just because John treated Alpha and Beta like his daughters.

If she was the one he chose...

Beta shook her head and let out a soft sigh. "I have too much free time on my hands..."

It was a pointless line of questioning.

Beta wouldn't give up the family she had now for anything else. Not after seeing how happy her father and sisters were. Not after seeing how her aunts had resolutely set aside their feelings and made their decisions. And especially not after seeing her cold stepmother melt and turn into a kind and soft woman who truly loved and accepted her father's family. Even if that love was still a bit awkward.

Not only that, but even if she had her answers to those questions, it would only be painful. If she knew how that life would turn out, if she saw what could be...

If there was a time where things were different. If a different choice had been made, a different path taken, then-

"You know, dwelling on what-ifs is never a good thing. Especially for smart people like ourselves."

A deep male voice. Somewhat familiar, but also different.

And unexpected.

Beta flinched and spun towards the voice, quickly raising her guard. It should have been impossible for anyone to see her or reach out to her... But when she saw the person standing there, she calmed down.

A man with slicked back black hair and a pristine white lab coat. When Beta saw him on the livestream, the guy had an arrogant smirk on his face. But now, that expression was gone, replaced by a soft and warm smile.

One that looked just like her father's.

Beta relaxed, but she kept her gaze sharp, staring at Titor. At the same time, she put away her ear buds, focusing all of her attention on the man in front of her.

Titor held up his hands and said, "Easy there. I'm not stalking you or anything, if that's what you're wondering. I just thought I'd check in since you seemed lost in thought."

Beta slowly nodded. "That is a reasonable excuse... but it does not explain how you knew what I was thinking."

Titor laughed and said, "Well, I'm a mad scientist. Reading someone's thoughts is but natural extension of brilliant deductive prowess."

Beta decided to ignore his antics and focus on something else instead that was bugging her. His demeanor, his expressions, his way of speaking...

"Just who are you, John Titor?"

Beta straightened her body and stared into Titor's eyes, trying to peer into his existence. "You are not a simple human from this world. And while Project MirAIs spun a story revolving time travel and different dimensions, you are neither from the future nor a parallel realm. My father's clone? ...No, your core of existence and soul is different, so perhaps a derivative copy? A recreation using a similar process as my father's shadow servants?"

Titor blinked and then he let out a sigh. "The gig is up, huh?" He shook his head and said, "Well, I suppose going this long without being found out after John messed up so many times is a miracle already." He rubbed the back of his neck. When he did, blue pixels sparked around him before his appearance changed.

The black hair turned gold and the dark eyes turned an electric blue. While his clothes didn't change, Titor did, now looking like John's twin. But where John's hair fell down in bangs, Titor's were naturally spiked. His face also looked a bit sharper than John's... though that was probably because John had calmed down a bit since returning to Earth.

When Beta saw that, she sighed. "I had been wondering about why Father was so calm after I left the bulk of the work to him. So you are the one he made to help resolve his issues."

"Yep. That lazy bastard..." Titor grumbled and then shook his head. Looking back at Beta, he said, "Anyway, John would kill me if he found out that I left you walking around by yourself this late at night. So... mind if I escort you for a while? You're just heading back to HQ, right?"

"Yes, and I do not mind. Though..." Beta frowned and said, "What are you doing wandering the streets by yourself this late at night?"

"Oh... I've got my reasons." Titor gave an evasive answer and then waved his hand. "Don't worry about it."

Beta frowned.

"Anyway... After you, Betty."

Seeing that he wasn't going to say anything else, Beta sighed and started walking.

When she did, Titor walked beside her, hands in his pocket.

For a while, it was quiet. Nothing but the sound of their footsteps echoing, mixed in with the occasional soft chatter from people passing by.

But then Titor spoke up. "So... What's got the all-knowing Ars Nova all befuddled tonight?"

Beta rolled her eyes and said, "Rude. A lady is privy to her own secrets."

"Oh come on. I'm like the closest thing to an uncle you've got. Lay it on me. Promise I won't tell your dad. In fact, I'll troll him for you if you want me to."

"...I suddenly understand why my father never attempted any clone techniques in his cultivation."

If this was what a 'copy' of her father was like, if there was a clone who shared her father's exact personality and thoughts...

A soft poke on Beta's cheek.

She blinked and then glared at Titor.

"What?" He smiled and said, "Too much thinking isn't good, you know? You always end up running that train of thoughts into an endless spiral if you do. Now, let your uncle Titor know what's going on in that brilliant mind of yours."

Beta rolled her eyes and said, "If you are that curious... I was just reflecting about the past a bit." She shifted her gaze up at the sky and said, "It is a strange sensation. In the Three Realms, time was irrelevant. But here, I have become sensitive to the passing of time. Hours can seem to stretch forever... But at the same time, entire days can pass by in what seems to be the blink of an eye."

"Oh yeah. That's Einstein for you. Relativity is a wonky thing, here on Earth."

Beta blinked and said, "Relativity?"

"Yeah." Titor nodded and said, "It's something that kind of exists in the the Three Realms, but it's an absolute law of existence here." He tapped his head and said, "Time is all in the mind, you know? Depending on how you feel, it can disappear in the blink of an eye or stretch for an entire lifetime... Well, it can seem that way, at least."

Beta frowned. "How we feel...?" She subconsciously placed her hand over her heart and frowned.

Titor nodded. "Yep. Unlike in the Three Realms, time here is very precious, you know? In a world without immortals and in a place where time only flows one direction, every second is unique and irreplaceable. And the feelings that well up in those moments of time... well, those are even more priceless."

Beta's frown deepened and she stared at Titor. "...Are you really a copy of my father?"

Titor laughed. "Well, not quite. Your father and I are very similar, but we've also got quite different worldviews... But that's mostly because it's hard to wrap your head around what it means for someone to have an 'end' again after you've made yourself 'endless.'"

"Hm?"

Titor waved his hand. "Don't worry about it. Leave the deep thinking and scheming to the adults. But while we're on the topic of feelings... Your father won't ask you because he's too accommodating. But I'm not your father, so..." Titor came to a stop and then stared at Beta. His smile faded and then, with a serious expression, he said, "Beta. How much longer are you going to hide away behind those eyes of yours?"

Beta's heart skipped a beat. At the same time, her eyes flickered, changing from the usual bright orange to a deep red before changing back. She averted her gaze and then said, "I do not know what you mean."

Titor stared at her and then said, "The seven colored treasure eyes, forged from the three daoist treasures, the three jewels of Buddhism, and then your father's lifeblood. Since they became a part of you and created a perfect harmony, it's fine for you to use them. But... Constantly activating 'Shen' to force your spirit and your morale up isn't healthy, you know?"

Beta's eyes flickered again, turning from orange to red. At the same time, her usually calm expression cracked, turning vulnerable. "That's..."

A deep pit in her stomach. Familiar whispers about how she wasn't good enough, about what could go wrong because she wasn't. A dark cloud of deeply entrenched negative emotions slowly rising up.

Before they could overwhelm her, Beta blinked. Her crimson eyes turned bright orange again and the negative emotions vanished. And when they did, she realized that Titor was standing right in front of her, his eyes close and peering into her own.

Beta flinched and stepped back.

Titor sighed and patted her shoulder, smiling. "It's fine. You don't have to face it now. But you should be honest with yourself and a bit selfish. Your dad might seem busy right now, but he'll always make time for you if you ask. At least, I know I would... and if he won't, I can promise you that Uncle Titor will smack him around the head and drag him over to apologize."

Beta smiled. "...Thank you."

"No need to thank me, Betty." Titor grinned and said, "We're family, and that's what family does. Besides, I know that I wish I had a cool uncle to talk to when I was younger. Since I never got one, the least I could do is to be one myself, right?" He paused and said, "Though I guess I'm technically not your uncle... But I guess if we did DNA testing, it should come up that I am? Eh, close enough, right?"

Beta giggled.

Titor laughed. "There we go. A genuine laugh. Looks like my job here is done."

Beta shook her head and said, "You are far too immature for a supposed adult, 'Uncle.'"

Titor gasped and placed his hand on his chest. "*I'm* too immature? Did you even watch the concert?"

"It is one thing to cross-dress. It is another thing entirely to play up the role of a mad scientist that has time traveled from the future and speak in the haughty tone of a king of heroes."

Titor blinked and then raised an eyebrow. "Those are some oddly specific references..."

Beta cleared her throat. And then she realized something. Staring at Titor, she said, "Speaking of the concert... I would have thought you would be with the other members of Project MirAIs celebrating the successful concert. What brings you out to these streets alone at night?"

Titor coughed. "Well, that's-"

"JOHN TITOR, YOU BASTARD!" A beautiful but furious female voice cut through the air. "Don't you DARE think you can run away after embarrassing me like that!"

"Gah!" Titor looked back and then laughed. "Looks like she found me. Anyway, catch you later, Betty!" Titor waved and said, "Don't linger around too long before heading home. Ciao!"

With that, Titor ran off. The moment he did, a red and white blur raced after him. A beautiful woman with crimson hair and a face that was almost just as red from either fury or embarrassment... or both.

Beta blinked and then shook her head. "It seems that even if a copy, my father is prone to women problems... and cliched events." She smiled and then turned towards the direction of Myth Inc.

The walk with Titor took Betty a bit into the commercial district, but there was still a decent walk left to go-

A soft chime echoed. A notification on Beta's phone.

She paused and then pulled it out to check.

"Eldest Sister...?"

It was a text from Alphy. But not just a text, a photo. In it, Alphy was posing with Rin and Asako, smiling into the camera while raising rootbeer floats.

[Wish you were here, Betty! I hope your project is going well!]

Seeing that, Beta felt a pang of guilt. She couldn't just go home emptyhanded like this...

Beta lowered her phone and then took a look around. At the least she could bring a cake. But was there a place still open this late on a Sunday?

Most of the stores nearby were dark. Already locked up for the night. But in the distance, Beta noticed a bakery that was still lit up.

Through the windows, Beta could see two women inside.

The first was overweight and pudgy. Even so, she had a cute face, someone who would be really pretty if she slimmed down. The other was the opposite, extremely thin and bony, as if a wind could blow her away. But she was beautiful too, though with her appearance it was a haunting beauty.

But Beta didn't pay too much attention to their appearance. Instead, what caught her eye was the display of cakes sitting beneath the glass countertop.

"...That should be fine, right?" Muttering to herself, Beta walked over to the bakery and entered. When she did, a soft Japanese ballad played from a speaker in the store.

[Play Plastic Love - Mariya Takeuchi]

The two women didn't notice Beta enter. Seeing that, Beta spoke up and said, "Sorry to intrude, but are you open?"

The thin beauty flinched and immediately ducked behind the overweight woman.

The overweight woman laughed and said, "You don't need to be so scared, Sumi. It's just a customer."

The thin beauty... Sumi, peeked out from behind the overweight woman and then slowly nodded. "Oh. You're right. Um..." She stepped to the side and then bowed her head. "I'm sorry."

Beta shook her head. "There is no need for that. I am the one who startled you."

The overweight woman brushed her hands on her apron and then said, "So what can I get you?" She eyed Beta's clothes and said, "Coming back from a long day at work, right? Then... Some donuts? Bread? Something heartier?"

"That sounds lovely, but..." Beta looked at the cakes and said, "I noticed that you had some cakes. I was hoping to get one to surprise my family. Would it be too much trouble to ask you two to bake a fresh one?"

Sumi's eyes widened. "A fresh cake? To surprise your family?" She looked to the overweight woman and said, "Can we, Yura? Um... We'll have to clean up again, but-"

The overweight woman, Yura, laughed and said, "Don't worry, Sumi. It's not like we were planning on doing anything anyway... Oppa's being responsible for once and watching his kid, so we're free tonight."

"Right! Then..." Sumi looked at Beta and said, "Please make yourself comfortable! We'll do our best to make the best cake for you to surprise your family!"

Yura rolled up her sleeves and said, "Just one cake? No way. If we're doing a surprise, we've gotta have at least three. Chocolate, red velvet, and then vanilla."

Beta blinked. "Um... There is no need to-"

"Oi!" Yura pointed at Beta and said, "A busy woman like you should just accept goodwill when it's given!"

Beta blinked again.

...Did she give off that much of an office lady aura?

Sumi smiled and then beckoned towards some chairs in the corner of the bakery. "Please make yourself comfortable. There should be some magazines there if you're bored."

"She'll figure it out, Sumi! Come on! We'll need to work hard and fast to not keep her family waiting." After saying that, Yura walked into the back.

Sumi laughed, covering her mouth with her hand. After that, she waved at Beta and said, "We'll try not to keep you waiting long, Miss." After that, Sumi went into the back as well.

And then Beta was alone in the front of the bakery. She blinked and then sat down in one of the chairs. "...Perhaps I inherited more from Father than I thought?"

It was a series of convenient and fortunate events. Not that she minded, but it was weird having them occur to her instead of her father.

Beta shrugged and then looked for the magazines that Sumi pointed out.

There was a small woven basket on the floor with a stack of said magazines.

Picking it up, Beta started flipping through. As she did, she saw that most of them were recent, featuring pieces about Project MirAIs. Other than that though, they seemed to be pop culture magazines focused on idols and entertainment... with one magazine on the bottom completely worn out from use. A piece talking about the debut of a rising multicultural idol group called Mystic Bouquet.

"Hm." Beta set the magazines back down and then picked up the most recent one. "Might as well see what the tabloids are writing about them..."

With that, Beta settled in and started to read, idly flipping through the pages.

-----AI|IA-----

"Thank you, Miss Betty!" Sumi waved, letting out a serene smile.

"Don't forget to tell us what they thought!" Yura waved as well.

Beta smiled and waved back. "I should be thanking the two of you... And worry not. I will definitely come back soon."

With one last farewell, Beta turned away from the bakery and headed back out to the streets. But this time, she carried a bag with three cake boxes.

After she was out of sight from the bakery, Beta ducked into a side alley and concealed her presence. After that, she warped into the lobby of Myth Inc. HQ.

It was 7 PM now. Later than she planned on returning. It was also completely dark out now, night kept at bay only by Roppongi's city lights.

Despite that, Beta could still sense everyone's presence in a lounge upstairs. Her family along with Asako, Rin, and Sakura.

When she realized that, Beta hesitated. Coming back so late while they were in the middle of celebrating...

She thought about leaving and coming back in the morning. But before she could act on that thought, she felt a familiar gaze. Her father's.

Realizing that, Beta took a deep breath and walked towards the elevator.

A soft chime echoed.

Beta walked in.

She pressed the button to the lounge where everyone was... and then she waited.

And as she waited, she felt... strangely nervous.

She shouldn't be, and yet... Was it because of the conversations she had recently?

Instinctively, she activated her eyes to keep the nerves away... but then she paused, remembering Titor's words.

The elevator came to a halt, arriving at its destination.

Beta took a deep breath and focused on the bag in her hands.

...It was fine. They wouldn't judge her for coming late. And she brought cake. So-

The elevator doors opened, immediately confronting Beta with a burst of noise and activity.

Meggie in one corner of the lounge, playing Smash with Rin and Asako.

Zhaojun, Daji, Xuannu, and Yue sitting together off to the side, chatting and laughing.

And then, in the middle of the room and facing the elevator was her father.

John.

For a split second, Beta saw another time. Her father standing behind a desk with cold jade green eyes, contemplating about the fates of countless worlds and cosmos while reading the report she presented.

But then her father let out a warm smile and stepped forward to hug her. "Welcome home, Betty."

Beta tensed.

Home.

It was a simple word that she knew. No, that she thought she knew. But hearing it from her father and seeing the warm atmosphere with everyone around...

John patted Beta's back and then stepped away.

Beta's crimson eyes watered, but she brushed them off. After that, she let out a bright smile and said, "I brought some cake, Father."

"Did someone say cake?" Rin spun around and then gasped. "Eldest Sister!"

Meggie blinked. "Eldest Sister? But Alphy nee-chan is the eldest sister..."

Asako sighed. "Don't think about it too much, Meggie."

Rin got up and started to run over to hug Beta.

But before she could, a black and white blur crossed the distance.

Alphy.

She pulled Beta into a tight hug and said, "I missed you, Betty. Thanks for coming."

Beta tensed, caught off guard. But then she smiled and hugged Alphy back. "...I missed you too, Big Sister."

Alphy gasped and leaned back, staring at Beta's crimson eyes. And then she let out a happy squeak and hugged Beta again.

"B-Big- I mean, Eldest Sister! This is not the place for-"

"I love you, Betty!"

Beta's ears turned red and she squirmed out of Alphy's hug.

The moment she did, and imperial female voice called out. Daji's. "Is that my cute niece? Come! Let your aunt welcome you- gah!"

"Stop being selfish and let them share the moment, Sister Daji." Zhaojun lowered her hand and then smiled at Beta, bowing her head.

Xuannu rolled her eyes.

John laughed and then walked back over to Beta.

Alphy stepped back.

Beta looked up.

John stared at Beta. Specifically, he stared into her eyes. As he did, he let out a soft smile and then patted Beta's head. "Welcome back, Betty."

"...Thank you, Father."

"Here, let me help you with that." John took the bag from Beta and then looked over to the side. "I think that my wayward daughter has quite a few people to catch up with, so I hope you're prepared."

As if waiting for those exact words, Daji dashed over. "Betty! Give Auntie a hug!"

Beta laughed and then held her arms out. The moment she did, Daji pulled her into a tight hug. After that, Daji stepped back, holding Beta's shoulders. Peering into her face, Daji said, "Have you been eating well? You haven't been eating just sweets, have you? And are you sleeping properly? You *know* that it's bad for your beauty to stay up late, right? Right. And even if you like writing, it's important to get some rest. I mean, I really, really, *really* like your books, but even then, Auntie wants Betty to be happy and healthy first!"

A rapidfire series of questions. Even so...

This is nice.

...It was everything that Beta could have wished for.

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