DISCLAIMER: The characters herein are used without permission. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To thedatajunkie[at]gmail.com
SERIES: Part 4 of BGC Blues.
WARNING: Mention of rape.

By The Datajunkie


Priss stepped out of the master bedroom and onto the patio. She followed the low wall that enclosed the rooftop garden and slipped through the wrought iron gate. Wandering through the maze of plants and small trees, she found a secluded corner with a carefully tended patch of grass. Priss sank to one knee and set the black case in front of her. The catches opened with an ear pleasing click and Priss eagerly withdrew the saxophone from its resting place. She slipped the strap around her neck and connected it to the instrument. Her fingers slid over the keys and she spoke to Arashi. < How will this work? I thought you guys only knew what the others did. > Priss was growing more at ease with the nanoclusters that had taken up residence inside of her as time passed. Even the lack of privacy wasn't too bad since Arashi was a lot like her and didn't talk much.

= That's right, but we have a link to the main computer, which allows us access to anything. = Arashi was already gathering the information she would need.

< Uh huh. Does Sylia know about that? >

Arashi paused. = You know, I'm not sure. I think Taisei told her. =

"Oh great. Well if we get in trouble I'm telling her that you made me do it."

= Just shut up and sit down. =


= For pity's sake! Do you have to ask so many questions? =

"About this? Absolutely." Priss was still extremely wary about this idea and wasn't shy in expressing her reservations.

Arashi controlled her frustration and, not having ever felt the emotion before, it took some effort. = I'm not sure how you'll react to the stream of data. You might want to be sitting down. =

Priss sat down on the grass and tightened her grip on the saxophone. "Okay. Now what?"

Arashi began to imprint the raw data into Priss' memory. This was the first time that they had dumped so much information into her brain at one time and Arashi really didn't know what would happen.

Priss felt the little tingle that she had felt before when Arashi had done this, but then the feeling changed. The sensation grew rapidly and Priss grabbed her head as her brain began to feel like it was catching fire. It faded almost instantly but Priss was struggling for breath and sweating when it was over. "Damn it!"

= Oops. =

"Oops? Oops!? What the hell do you mean oops? That hurt, you demented doodad!" Her mind prickled like it had gone to sleep and she shook her head in an attempt to clear it.

Arashi was contrite. = I'm so sorry, Priss. I can block some of the pain next time. It seems that the more data there is, the more intense the transfer. = She turned thoughtful. = I'll have to be sure and warn the others. =

< No kidding. > Priss drew a deep breath and remembered the instrument that had started all of this. She held it out slightly and looked at. Suddenly her vision seemed to shift, then snap back into place. She lifted the mouthpiece to her lips and ran down the musical scale. Priss drew back and grinned broadly. "Hot damn!"

Soon the rooftop echoed with the sweet sounds that Priss could now work from the instrument.

One floor down…

Sylia studied the financial report in front of her intently. If these numbers were right… She turned to the computer console beside her and began to type furiously. The shadows of late afternoon were lengthening into the long shades of evening and a tiny part of her mind nagged that she was going to be late for dinner. She ignored it, brought up the flow charts for the last year's earnings, and compared them. A slow smile spread over her face and she leaned back and looked out the window as she considered this new development.

= Considering the addition of another piece to your game? = Taisei was thoughtful. = It does appear to be ripe for takeover, and it's small enough that the main branch of Genom wouldn't become suspicious at its loss. =

Sylia nodded as she continued to work out the details in her mind. "Yes. It will have to be through a different subsidiary this time, though. The Kousotsu has already bought out two manufacturers already. Three might make Genom curious." Taisei agreed. = What about Antou? =

"Not enough liquid assets for the purchase." She frowned slightly as an idea occurred to her. "But they would if they received the contract for the new construction boomers on Alpha 5. With that contract they could plausibly force the purchase, claiming to need the extra equipment."

= Well since you own both companies I guess it's just a matter of arranging the contract. = The humor that Sylia sensed from Taisei irritated her. "You find something amusing?"

Taisei schooled her voice to a more serious tone. = Of course not. I merely find it interesting that you choose to use people and corporations as your chess pieces. = The slight sting was not missed by Sylia and she stood up abruptly and walked to the floor to ceiling windows that lined the wall of her office. She didn't see the city that sprawled out below her like a child's discarded set of blocks. Steel and concrete piled almost haphazardly across the land and in the distance, like a thorn in the sky, stood Genom Tower. "What else can I do?" She folded her arms across her chest, feeling defensive. "I can't exactly blow up that eye-sore like Priss suggests, now can I?"

= No, that would not achieve the results you're looking for. I… = Taisei paused, unsure that she should bring this up. The knowledge that Taisei had came primarily from Sylia and her memories. There was nothing that Sylia could hide from her. = My only concern is about the others. They don't know what you've been doing and if they find out from another source… =

"I know. They might not understand and I might not be given the chance to explain."

= Wouldn't it be better to tell them on your own terms? =

"Yes, but how?" She stepped closer to the window until she could see her pale reflection in the glass. "How do I explain that I've been buying boomer manufacturers and not closing them down, but instead making them more profitable?"

Taisei didn't have an answer.

Nene popped another potato chip into her mouth and tapped the keyboard quickly to avoid a stray asteroid. She increased thrusters and set a new course for the Mumei quadrant. She'd just been alerted that there were approaching enemy fighters when Seiki spoke.

= Shouldn't you be doing something… well, police-like? =

Nene grinned and opened fire on the hapless fighters. <Not really. Everything's kind of quiet right now, but then you knew that. > She surveyed the floating remains of the enemy with gleeful satisfaction and saved her game. < If you're bored then just say so. >

= I'm bored! = Nene laughed at her exasperation and ignored the looks she drew from the other officers. = Let's look for that signature that we saw yesterday! =

Nene chomped another chip and nodded reluctantly. < Okay, I give in. > The signature that they thought they saw was very similar to the enclaves, but that should have been impossible. Nene wasn't sure she wanted to find whatever it was and had been putting off looking for it, though she wasn't sure why. She tapped into the world net and activated her search program. Programming the search parameters took time and Seiki grew impatient quickly. = Let's do this the easy way! =

< Easy way? What are you talking about? >

Seiki had been trying to think of a way to get Nene to attempt a direct link to the web system. A direct neural link. = Let's just link to the system itself. =

When she realized what Seiki was suggesting Nene froze, dropping her bag of potato chips. "That's not possible." Her hushed voice didn't carry far enough to draw attention to her.

= Sure it is. It's easy. = So saying, she accessed the signal and tied it into her and Nene's thought patterns.

Nene grabbed the arms of her chair and pushed back against the seat as her mind suddenly exploded into a riotous world that did not exist. Jumbled strands of color wove in and out of huge blocks that seemed to shimmer as white bursts of energy crackled through the strands. < It's incredible! >Nene felt like she was flying as she looked down to see a faint shadow flowing under one of the strands. Seiki was excited. = There it is! Grab it! =

Nene wondered how she was supposed to do that when she had no hands. As soon as the thought formed, Nene saw her own hand reaching out to grasp the fading line. Instantly she was propelled forward at a speed that would have killed her in the real world. < What have you done to me?! > Nene released the strand and stopped instantly. Her head whirled at the sudden lack of motion and Nene thought she might be sick. The nausea faded instantly.

= Sorry about that. Feeling better? =

Nene carefully pulled herself back together. < BETTER!? How can you even ask that?! >

Seiki knew that she probably should have warned her a little better. = I'm sorry, Nene. I just wanted so much to share this with you. =

With her heart rate slowing, Nene was beginning to calm down. < Okay, just… just warn me next time. > She looked around as the innumerable strands twisted and curled around her. The shadow had disappeared. < How do I get back? >

Seiki wanted to find the strange signal again, but knew that she had pushed Nene enough today. =Just picture yourself back in your body and you'll be there. You haven't actually left it, you see. =

To her great surprise, Nene didn't return. Instead, she began to study her surroundings and ask Seiki questions. < What are they made of? > She gestured to the multi-colored strands.

= Information. Energy. Sometimes both. It depends on what the purpose of the strand is. =

< How do you tell them apart? >

= Practice. =

And so they did. Seiki led Nene through the mass of virtual pathways and taught her how to tell them apart, how to track their paths and how to jump ahead of a strand and divert its course. = Very handy for stopping someone from going somewhere they shouldn't. = Seiki felt someone touch Nene in the out world. = We have to return. =

Nene imagined herself back at her desk and she was there. She blinked a few times as her vision readjusted to this world and turned to find Leon staring at her in concern.

"Nene? Are you all right? You were staring into space." Leon straightened and tossed a stack of files on her desk. "These need to be checked, but maybe you'd better go on home and get some rest. You look kind of pale."

Nene grinned and grabbed her things. "That's a good idea. Be sure and turn my computer off when you're through checking those files." She was gone before he could protest.

Leon looked at the files and then at the computer. "Damn."

Two days later…

Sylia secured the visor on her helmet and mounted her motorcycle. The bike was lifted out of the truck and for a brief moment, Sylia was hanging in midair over the pavement that was racing by below her. The bike dropped and tires squealed as they scrambled to catch up. Sylia quickly accelerated away from the van and saw Priss appear along side of her. "Nene?"

Nene's voice rang through their helmets. "Three minutes to target. The limo is approximately two miles ahead and is about to become stuck in traffic." Nene was hacking into the traffic control circuits as she spoke, shifting the strands of the program to fit the Knight Sabers needs. "You're green all the way."

Sylia smiled at her cheerful tone. "Roger that. Linna?"

Linna stood at the edge of a roof that happened to overlook the intersection where the limo would be caught. "In position."

"Remember: No casualties. No property damage. We grab the briefcase and we leave, understood?" Sylia resisted the urge to tell them that the person they were working for on this mission was her. Genom had taken an interest in some of the boomer designs from one of the companies that she had taken over and Sylia had been almost positive that the industrial spy who'd made off with several important schematics was working for them. They'd watched the limo pick the man up in the park and Sylia had been sure.

Priss' smirk was evident. "Yeah, yeah. We know, play nice."

Linna stared at the intersection in confusion. "Um, Nene? Where's the limo? It should have been here by now."

Nene sat motionless inside of the van, her mind swiftly working through the data, trying to locate the missing car. "I don't know. It should be there." She checked the transmitter that they had placed on the car and discovered that it was still working. "According to the scanner it should be right in front of you."

Linna studied the group of vehicles below her, but saw nothing. "It's not."

Sylia felt a trickle of unease. "Linna pull back. Nene, have Mackie bring the van to the pick up point and give me a sector scan. Look for anything unusual." She veered off and turned down the street just before the marked intersection, Priss right behind her. "I smell a rat."

As the words left her lips, a plasma burst exploded in front of her bike, blowing her and the motorcycle across the road. Metal screeched as the bike slid into and through the back wall of a factory. Priss fired three rapid shots at the boomer who had attacked them and shifted the bike to motoslave as she met it head on. The boomer swung at her, a stunning blow that the slave blocked easily and Priss jammed the barrel of the impulse cannon directly into its face. The explosion threw Priss back a few feet, but she and the motoslave were uninjured. She stood up and headed back to where Sylia had disappeared. Since the wall already had a hole in it, she had no problem in making it larger. The path of destruction continued inside for another few feet before coming to an end in a tangle of wires and crushed machinery. Priss called to Sylia. "Sylia? Answer me, Sylia."

A peculiar crackling sound could be heard in the room and Priss saw little blue arcs of electricity rippling across the bike and Sylia's suit. "Damn! Mackie! Nene! Get the van here on the double. Sylia's crashed into some kind of machinery and isn't answering me. I think the suit might have shorted out."

Nene was calm as she disengaged her link with the computer. "That's not possible, Priss. The suit is fully insulated. We're on our way."

Priss began tossing debris out of her way, trying to free Sylia and the bike from the mass of metal ensnaring them. She stopped as she pulled away a large sheet of steel. A long crack ran down the side of Sylia's chest plate and there were wires touching the unprotected skin underneath. "Shit! Nene, her suit's been cracked." She ripped the wires away and carried Sylia out to meet the van. Linna dragged Sylia's bike on board and Nene met Priss in the hold. She removed her helmet as Priss returned the slave to its regular form. She knelt beside Sylia as she came to. She groaned and brought a hand to her head. "Ow."

"How do you feel?" Priss helped her open the releases on her hardsuit. The suit wasn't responding and Nene was afraid that Priss might be right; the circuits might have been fried.

"Oh, like I went through a wall. What happened to the boomer?" Sylia climbed out of the suit, wincing as her muscles protested.

"Currently decorating the sides of several buildings." Priss watched her closely as she stood up. "Any dizziness?"

Sylia shook her head. "I'm okay. Besides Taisei will take care of anything that needs fixing, right?" She waited for her enclave of nanobots to answer. Silence. "Taisei?" She looked at the others, her expression concerned. " Can Seiki and the others contact her?"

They scanned for any sign of Taisei, but there was nothing. = She's not answering. The electricity might have thrown her offline, so to speak. =

= I'm here. What happened? = Taisei sounded a little rattled, if that were possible.

Sylia laughed in relief. < We tried to fly through a generator. Got shocked when the suit cracked and breeched the insulation. >

= Ah. That explains the minor electrical burns to your chest. = Taisei wondered vaguely if she was supposed to do something about it.

Priss gripped Sylia's arm and made her sit down. "Burns?" Sylia patted her cheek and smiled. "Little burns, Priss. Ones that I don't even feel now and won't be there in a few hours. I'm okay." She turned to Nene. "Any idea what happened?"

Linna grinned and set a black briefcase on the floor in front of Sylia. "I figured out where the limo went. See, there were actually two boomers. One waylaid the limo and took the case underground which is why it was at the intersection, but not visible. I'm afraid that the driver and the passenger were killed. I found a crumbled ball that must have been the car. The other boomer had to have been there for back up."

Sylia wondered if it had been an attempt by Genom to cover their tracks. If it was then they were getting sloppy. She smiled suddenly. "Good work, Linna. Looks like we get paid after all."

Linna watched the stock quotes race past and took calls from clients wanting recommendations as people around the world made and lost small fortunes. The board under the current stock prices listed what the firm wanted to advise their customers to buy and sell. The job was somewhat mundane, but Linna found that she liked working with money, even if it wasn't her own.

= It could be more interesting. = Inji was eager to give Linna the full benefit of the nanos abilities.

Linna was almost afraid to ask. She'd agreed to let Inji slowly increase her knowledge as the need arose, but somehow she knew that wasn't what she was talking about. <Do I really want to know? >

= You wound me! You know I have your best interests at heart. =

Linna rolled her eyes and took another call. When she had finished, she returned to their conversation. < Well? >

= I've been watching the flow of the market. It moves in patterns and waves. From all of the information that I've studied in the computers it should be possible to actually 'see' and predict that flow. =

A little shiver went through Linna as she realized what she was saying. < You mean I could…? >

= Easily. =

Linna took her time in deciding. She thought about it the rest of the morning and through lunch. When she returned she had decided. < Do it. >

Inji gleefully began to not only imprint data into Linna's mind, but to also make minute changes in her brain so that she would be able to 'see' the patterns more clearly. = I probably should have told her about that. =

Feeling like she'd brushed against a live wire, Linna opened her eyes and stared at the computer screen in front of her. She immediately began to see the shifting flow within the numbers. The phone rang and she answered it automatically. "A fast earner?" She glanced at the board and then back to her screen. The company was recommending Hitoiki as the quarter's fast earner, but Linna could see that they had misjudged the Nihomi Corporation. "Nihomi Corporation should out pace everything this quarter, but we expect it to dip again in the next. I would advise purchasing it for a short term, but be prepared to sell it within three months. Uh huh. Three thousand shares?" Linna finished the call and sighed contentedly. This could be fun.

"I don't care how it happened Shaku, just make sure that it doesn't happen again." Sylia let the man sputter reassurances for a few more minutes and then interrupted. "As long as you understand that we do not work for Genom. Under no circumstances are you to allow any, and I mean any known Genom employees, ex or otherwise, in that plant or near that assembly line. Authorized personnel only, Shaku." Sylia ended the conversation with a sharp stab at the console and the man's face winked away. She closed her eyes and tried to ease some of the tension that was tightening her neck into a knot.

Priss stood in the doorway of the office and wondered what that phone call had meant. Being Priss, she cut right to the heart of the matter. "What assembly line?"

Sylia's eyes popped open and she scowled so fiercely at Priss that she took a step back automatically. "Don't you remember how to knock?"

Priss raised her hands in surrender. "Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you." She looked at Sylia in concern. "You seem a little wound up. Anything you want to talk about?"

"No." Sylia shut off her computer with more force than necessary and picked up her purse. "All right, let's go." Her tone was less than enthusiastic and Priss wondered what was bothering her. She put her hands on her shoulders and smiled encouragingly. "Are you okay?" Sylia shrugged. "Just a bit of a headache." Priss kissed her on the forehead and they headed for the elevator. As the doors slide closed the strangeness of that admission struck her. "Why hasn't Taisei taken care of it?"

Sylia shrugged again and Priss was baffled by her lackluster attitude. < Arashi? Find out what's wrong. >

= Taisei says that Sylia told her to leave her alone and that if she interfered with her in any way again, she'd find away to offline her personality. = Arashi had no answers for Sylia's behavior. Priss glanced at Sylia out of the corner of her eye. < I guess she could just be in a bad mood, but that wouldn't explain the hostility towards Taisei. > She was interrupted in her musings as Sylia tugged on her arm. "Wake up, Priss!" Priss managed a sheepish grin and followed Sylia into the apartment.

Sylia heard the door close and spun around, catching Priss' arms and pushing her back against the door. Her mouth covered Priss' before she could react. Feeling her temperature shoot through the roof, Priss let herself be devoured. < This is a pleasant surprise, > she thought, trying not to smile as she heard the distant sound of cloth ripping.

Priss gradually became aware of the hard floor beneath her and shifted in attempt to get more comfortable. After a few minutes she realized that it would be impossible and nudged Sylia. Sylia responded by curling into Priss' side with a faint sound. Priss looked down and saw that she was sound asleep. A slow smile parted her lips and Priss brushed a strand of hair away from Sylia's face. < She must be exhausted. > Her smile went straight into a grin as she recalled just how… enthusiastic Sylia had been.

= So are you going to let her sleep on the floor? =

Priss sighed and wished, not for the first time, that Arashi had an off switch. < I can't have a minute to recover? >

The snicker that whispered through her mind was taunting. =You recovered five minutes ago and are laying there hoping that if you stay on the floor, Sylia might get uncomfortable and wake up. Which would provide you with an opportunity to return the favor. =

Clenching her hands into fists and wishing desperately that she could somehow punch Arashi's lights out, Priss drew a deep breath and eased Sylia off her shoulder. She shook her gently and called her name a few times, but Sylia was down for the count. Priss knelt beside her and wasn't gentle as she picked her up. Still Sylia slept on. Priss carried her into the bedroom, struggling not to drop her.

= Hmmm. Not very strong, are you? = Priss' answer was a breathless grunt and mental barrage of curses. = Not very original either. =

Priss ground her teeth as she laid Sylia on the bed, her back muscles protesting. <You know damn well that she's got three inches on me. >

= Yes, and you have five pounds on her. =

Priss went back into the living room and picked up the remains of her and Sylia's clothing. < Did I do something to piss you off? >

Arashi thought about it. = No, not really. I just feel this strange desire to say these things that I know will irritate you. =

Priss knew that the enclaves were still having trouble understanding the new emotions they were feeling and decided to be patient. < I think you're feeling playful, but mixing it up with viciousness. Though how the hell you could mix those two up is beyond me. >

= Well, I'm only human. =

Linna closed the door behind her and leaned against it for a moment. She had had an incredible day today and felt like celebrating. She pulled off her coat and wondered if Nene would be interested in going out to dinner tonight. She found her at her computer, staring off into space. Linna smiled and touched her shoulder. "Nene?"

Traveling rapidly through the miles of data trails, Nene heard Linna as if from a great distance. <I'll be back in a few minutes, Linna. I want to find out where this goes. >

Linna stared at her still face uncertainly. < Uh, okay. >

A few seconds later Nene inhaled sharply and began to blink rapidly. She turned and looked up at Linna with a huge grin. "Hi! How long have you been home?"

"A few minutes. Nene, what were you doing?"

Nene shrugged. "I was surfing." She got up and stretched mightily. "Umph. Too much time in that chair today. I'm getting hacker's neck."

Seiki dutifully began to ease the muscular strain there. = You're really getting the hang of traveling the strands. =

Linna heard her and caught Nene's arm as she started for the kitchen. "Nene."

Nene sighed. "You're going to be mad at me, I just know it." She waved toward the computer. "I was surfing the internet. But not with a computer."

Linna looked at the machine and then back to Nene. "You were-? How?"

"Seiki can hook me directly into the net. It's incredible, Linna. Like flying! Millions and millions of data strands running everywhere and there are these stationary places called ports, where the strands originate from."

Linna held up a hand to stop the rapid-fire flow of computer-speak. "Is it safe for you?"

Seiki answered her. =Of course! I would never put Nene in danger. =

Linna nodded. "Okay. If it's safe."

Nene was surprised. "I expected to have to sell you on the idea." She was even more surprised to see Linna blush. "What is it?"

"It would be rather hypocritical of me to condemn you for what you're doing when I'm doing something similar."

Nene's eyes widened. "You? What did you do?"

"I can now see financial ebbs and waves. I made about two million today." Nene grinned and clapped her hands. "Great! You can take me to dinner."

Priss surveyed the crowd as she sang and soon spied the face she was looking for. Sylia sat at the bar, her stylish business suit standing out like a sore thumb in the club. She was watching Priss intently and so Priss sang the rest of the song to her. The next song was a wild, blood thumper and she was all over the stage as the music pounded over her. When it ended, at last Priss was exhausted and waved to the crowd as she ended the set. She came off the stage and was heading straight for Sylia when she was waylaid by a couple of young girls who begged her for her autograph. Priss forced a smile and gave them what they wanted, all the while wondering how they had managed to get past the bouncer at the door. If they were legal then she'd eat her microphone.

Finally free, she joined Sylia. "I don't know how they got past security." Sylia was frowning at her and Priss paused. "What's wrong?"

Sylia shrugged nonchalantly but her eyes were hard. "I just didn't realize how close you were to your fans." The faint acid in her voice caught Priss completely off guard.

"What are you talking about? I didn't-." It struck her then and Priss smiled incredulously. "You're not jealous are you?"

Sylia straightened, her face remote. "Should I be?"

This was out of left field and Priss was scrambling to keep up. "Of course not! Sylia, why on earth would you think that?" She put her hands on Sylia's shoulders and looked her dead in the eye. "You have nothing to be jealous about, love."

Sylia finally smiled, but Priss couldn't shake a vague sense of uneasiness.

Linna couldn't bite back a small scream as they raced through the system together. <Stop! > Nene released the strand and turned to Linna in concern. < What's wrong? >

Staring at Nene incredulously, she shook her head. < What's wrong!? I think I left my stomach back there! >

Nene patted her arm and smiled reassuringly. < It's a little intense the first time, but you'll get used to it. >

Linna didn't think so. She looked at Nene's weird appearance and then down at her own normal clothing. < Why do you look like that? >

Nene twirled around with a pleased grin. The body suit was very similar to the soft suits that they wore inside their armor, but this one was hot pink and seemed to be glowing slightly. < Like it? Because parts of this place can only be interpreted through our imaginations, we can look any way we want. See, I'm not standing here and neither are you. But up here, > She tapped her forehead. < We're moving and talking like normal. >

Linna shot a quick glance at the area below their feet and saw only a vast dark void. < Actually, we're not standing anywhere. Which I don't mind telling you, is totally freaking me out. >

Nene took her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Linna felt the touch here and in the real world and shivered at the odd sense of duality. < Okay, I've had enough. Let's go home, please. > And they were. Linna felt her vision waver and took in her surroundings with a sigh of relief. She saw Nene's slightly disappointed expression and apologized. "I'm sorry Nene. I guess I'm just not cut out for that."

Nene leaned over and planted a quick kiss on her lips. "That's okay, I don't get the whole 'money is like an ocean' thing either." She stretched her arms wide and Linna knew what was coming. "Let's eat."

Nene waited until Linna had drifted off to sleep before she moved to get up and head for the computer. Seiki stopped her. =That's not necessary, Nene. You have got to stop thinking in such literal terms. =

Nene sank back down onto the bed. < What do you mean? >

Seiki laughed. = You don't need a computer for riding the strands. You don't even have to be near one either. I can connect us from anywhere. =

The slow smile that blossomed on Nene's face would probably frighten anyone who saw it. It was the look of a computer geek in the ultimate throws of technological rapture. She settled back under the covers and laced her fingers behind her head. < Let's go. >

Priss surprised the members of the band when she told them that she was going to add a saxophone to one of the songs. She had always thought that it would sound better with it, but none of the guys knew how to play. They were skeptical until she showed them just how good she could play. It raised the question of course, of why she hadn't played before but Priss gave them an answer that wouldn't surprise them. "I didn't want to until now." Delivered with a hard look that spoke volumes, the short statement was accepted and they began to rehearse.

Priss opened the door of Sylia's apartment and slipped quietly inside, not wanting to disturb her. She set the instrument cases down by the door and left them there as she tossed her jacket onto the back of the couch. Priss wandered into the kitchen and was peering into the refrigerator when Sylia spoke. "Home at last?" Priss heard the harsh grate in Sylia's voice and knew that this was not going to be pretty. She'd been so weird lately that Priss was beginning to wonder if Sylia was looking for an excuse to end it.

Priss turned around and closed the door. "Yeah." She resisted the urge to explain that the rehearsal had run late. She hadn't done anything she needed to explain.

Sylia was still dressed in one of her power suits and Priss wondered if she had been waiting up. "Where were you?"

Priss grimaced. No surprise there. "I was at rehearsal, Sylia." Knowing she was wasting her breath, she elaborated. "We were rearranging a couple of the songs for a new instrument. It took longer than I planned."

Sylia said nothing and Priss gritted her teeth. "You don't believe me."

"You weren't at the club."

"We went to get dinner after. Look, Sylia. Why don't you just accuse me of what ever it is that you think I've done and then I can deny it. Then we'll fight and go to bed or we'll fight and I'll go home, the choice is yours." She opened the door to the fridge again and grabbed a soda. Popping the tab, she took a long drink and waited.

Sylia resisted the urge to strike her and spoke calmly. "I just wonder where you are Priss. I was concerned. Things are coming to a head with Genom and I'm just worried that they might try and get to me through you."

Priss lowered the can and stared at Sylia nonplussed. "Genom? Why would they know who you are? Why would they-?" Priss suddenly remembered the conversation that she had overheard. She set the drink on the island and braced her hands against the smooth wood. "That guy you were talking to the other day. He works for you?" Sylia nodded. "What assembly line were you talking about, Sylia and why would Genom care?"

Sylia glared at her. "That doesn't concern you Priss."

"Like hell! I have the right to-." Sylia cut her off.

"You have no rights!" Her head was pounding and she struggled to rein in her temper. "You work for me too, unless you've forgotten that?"

Priss couldn't say why that comment seemed to hurt so much. "Yes I do. I am a Knight Saber and we destroy boomers and we are trying to destroy Genom." She said this as much to reaffirm it in her own mind as to answer Sylia.

Sylia's laugh was cynical. "No, Priss. The goal is not to destroy Genom, but to possess it!"

Astonished at her words. Priss could only stare at Sylia in disbelief. Possess…Genom?

"Do you really think that all of the boomers that we have destroyed have hurt Genom? The bomber rampages have done only one thing: undermine the public image of Genom and its subsidiary companies." She shook her head at Priss' naivety. "I've been purchasing the companies as we drive them bankrupt. Its then a simple matter to restructure them so that the boomers they produce are safer than Genom's."

Priss thought about their battles in this new light and the horrible truth became evident. "You? You made the boomers go nuts?" She took an involuntary step back.

Sylia dragged her hands through her hair. "Not all of them, Priss. That would be madness. Just a few that would be in the right place to cause as much damage to Genom as possible. You can't attack a monster like Genom head on, you have to weaken it from the inside."

Priss flexed the fingers of her metal hand and raised them to Sylia. "And this? Was this one of your little displays?"

Sylia came forward and gripped her hand. "No Priss! I would never place you or the others in that kind of danger for something like that. The boomer that malfunctioned did just that; malfunctioned. I only activated boomers that I knew we could handle easily."

Priss thought about all of the AD police officers that had died trying to stop the boomers. "How many cops were killed by…" her stomach turned as she spoke. "…your boomers?"

"None! You're not listening to me! I controlled them!"

Priss turned around and walked out of the apartment. Sylia was shocked at her abrupt departure. "She left? She left!?" Sylia's fist crashed into the counter, but she didn't feel the pain. "She can't leave me." Fury made her voice low and ruthless. "No one leaves me!"

Priss tossed her keys onto the table and threw herself down on the lumpy mattress. She was staring blankly at the poster over her bed when Arashi spoke, = That was quite a revelation. =

Priss snorted. "No shit." The sense of betrayal that she felt threatened to overwhelm her. "Damn her!"

= I hate to suggest this, but I'm going to any way. She has a point about it being impossible to attack Genom the way you'd like to. =

Priss sat up and swung her legs off the bed. She rested her elbows on her knees and buried her face in her hands. "I know." That would probably surprise Sylia, but Priss knew damn well that a public attack would only provoke sympathy from the population. The boomer rampages did a great deal of damage to Genom's image. People didn't trust them as much now that was for sure. "But triggering rampages on purpose!"

= Controlled rampages that she knew would hurt Genom and no one else. =

"Whose side are you on!?"

= Yours of course, but that doesn't mean that I don't see why she felt that she had to do what she did. =

Priss clenched her jaw. "What about the factories?"

Arashi sighed. = Boy are you going to get mad at me. Boomers have their uses, Priss. Who better to insure that they're as safe as possible? =

Arashi seemed unsurprised by Sylia's actions and Priss grew suspicious. "Why do I have the feeling that you've known about this for a while?"

= Like I've said before, Priss, you're smarter than you give yourself credit for. We promised Sylia that we would give her time to tell you all, but I had hoped that she'd find a better way. =

Priss climbed out of bed with a low groan as her back protested the abuse it had received from the mattress. Arashi grumbled as she went to work restoring the flexibility Priss had lost. = You should press charges against that thing for assault. =

Priss laughed as she rummaged through the empty cabinets. "Guess I'm eating out today." She ran a comb through her hair and picked up her keys. The image of herself putting her instrument cases on the floor at Sylia's popped into her mind and she groaned again. "Damn." She would have to get the cases at some point today and Priss figured that she might as well try and make up with Sylia when she did.

= How magnanimous of you. =

< Shut up. >

Priss pulled her bike into her parking slot and looked at Sylia's car. < Probably in the office. > She hoped. She wanted a little time to prepare before they got into it again.

"Hi." Priss turned around to find Linna standing behind her. "Hi yourself. What are you doing here?"

Linna's smile was hesitant. "Um, Friday night, dinner here?"

Priss closed her eyes and nodded as she recalled Sylia's invitation. "Oh yeah, I forgot all about it. Where's Nene?"

"She'll be here soon. She got held up at work." Linna looked at the shadows under Priss' eyes. "You look like hell."

Priss shrugged and climbed off the bike. "Rough night."

"I tell you Linna, she's been down right weird lately. I came home late last night and she grilled me for almost twenty minutes!" She wondered if she should tell Linna about what else Sylia had been doing. After a moment of indecision, Priss decided that she would talk to Sylia first. She drank deeply from the can of soda and then pressed it to her forehead. The afternoon shadows were beginning to lengthen and stretch their way across the roof. She'd been showing off her new musical skills to Linna, the only other person who knew what she had been doing to her memory.

"Hmm. I don't know Priss. She seemed normal enough to me yesterday. Maybe she was just in a bad mood."

Priss shook her head. "No it was more than that. I just can't put my finger on it." She picked up the sax and held it while she thought. "She's more… possessive."

Linna agreed that it didn't sound like Sylia. "You think she might know about what we've been doing?"

Priss shrugged. "Maybe."

"When were you going to tell Sylia anyway?" Linna punched Priss in the arm and grinned. "She's going to get wise you know."

"Like Nene won't notice." Priss sighed and rubbed her face. "I don't know when I'm going to tell her."

"How about right now?" Priss felt every nerve in her body go on alert as Sylia's question cut through her. She turned around to see Sylia and Nene standing behind them. Priss quickly got to her feet and started toward Sylia. "Now Sylia, don't get mad. I was going to tell you."

"Oh really?" Sylia's expression defied description. Priss winced.

"Linna and I just wanted to-." She was cut off as Sylia waved her hand in a quick, chopping motion. "I don't care what you two wanted. It's pretty obvious what you wanted, you lying bitch!"

Priss jerked back as if struck and in truth, she would have preferred a physical blow. "Sylia?"

Sylia ignored her and glared at Linna. "I'm shocked at you, Linna. I suggest you get out. Try and explain yourself to Nene."

Linna was baffled and turned to Nene. "What is she talking about?"

Actually, Nene had no idea, but Sylia spoke before she had a chance to admit that. "I said get out!"

Afraid that if she stayed she'd provoke Sylia even more, Linna gathered her things and left with Nene. Sylia turned on Priss. "Well I hope you enjoyed yourself because it ends here."

"What the hell are you talking about?!" Priss was shouting and knew that she should calm down but Sylia was being ridiculous.

"I'm talking about your affair with Linna!" Nothing she could have said would have surprised Priss more. The absurdity of her accusation hit Priss and she burst into laughter.

"Me and Linna? Sylia, that's crazy!"

Sylia radiated fury. "So now you're going to lie again?"

"I'm not lying! Damn it, Sylia I love you! I would never-." Priss halted as Sylia turned on her heel and walked away. "Sylia? Wait a second. Sylia!" The sound of the gate slamming was her only response. Priss cursed and stalked after her.

= Um, Priss? Why don't we let her cool down a little? =

< No way am I letting her think for one minute that I cheated on her! > Priss almost ripped the gate from its hinges as she flung in open and headed for the sliding doors that led to the living room.

= Well then, how about if you take a few deep breaths and calm down a little? =

Sylia stormed into the apartment, yanking the glass door closed behind her. She was heading for the bedroom when she head the door open again behind her. "How dare you!" Trembling with rage, Sylia picked up a small vase from an end table and hurled it.

Priss stood framed in the doorway and she ducked instinctively as the vase went whizzing by her head. She heard the splash as it landed in the pool. "Hey!" She shut the door and stared at Sylia in amazement, her anger cooling in the face of Sylia's strange emotional state. "What's wrong, Sylia? There's something you're not telling me."

"You betrayer!" She threw a small jade statue at Priss and this time she didn't move fast enough. It hit her in the shoulder and Priss yelped in pain. "Damn it, Sylia! Cut it out. You're acting like a child."

Sylia froze and Priss was appalled to see tears begin to run down her cheeks. A sob escaped her and she ran for the bedroom. Priss smacked herself in the head and went after her.

Sylia was sitting on the bed, her face buried in her hands when she entered. Priss felt about two inches tall as she knelt in front of Sylia. "Sylia?"

"Go away." Her voice was filled with hurt. Utter betrayal was the only was to describe the expression in Sylia's eyes when she finally raised them to Priss'.

"Oh Sylia…" Priss held out her hands in a gesture meant to offer comfort, but Sylia only smiled grimly.

In a motion almost too quick to see, she had snapped a pair of heavy manacles around Priss' wrists and secured them tightly. Priss stared blankly at her bound hands. Sylia stood up and Priss did the same. "Sylia? What are you doing?" She twisted her hands, but the metal showed no signs of weakness.

Sylia didn't answer, but locked the bedroom door and took something from the drawer beside the bed. The whisper of a blade clearing its sheath had Priss' head whipping around to stare at her lover. "Sylia?"

Sylia's face was emotionless and Priss felt herself take a step away. Sylia raised the small sword and let its tip rest at the base of Priss' throat. "Don't move." The blade moved down to hook into the fabric of her shirt and Priss shivered as the material parted under the razor edge. Memories of another night flashed into her mind and Priss knew exactly what Sylia was thinking. "Sylia, I don't-." Priss stopped as the flat of the blade was pressed against her lips. "Not. One. Word." She wasn't surprised as the blade began to make short work of her clothing and soon she was standing before Sylia completely naked. Sylia nodded in satisfaction and re-sheathed the blade. She then gripped the chain that bound Priss' hands and pulled her to the bed.

A hard shove and Priss was bouncing onto the bed. Sylia dragged her hands up to the headboard and Priss heard a distinct 'click' as the manacles securing her hands were attached to a newly installed metal ring. "Been planning this long?" Priss tried to smile like it was all a game, but she didn't like the determined gleam in Sylia's eyes

"Yes." Sylia bent over Priss and stared her dead in the eye. "And after tonight you'll never walk out on me again."

Priss automatically yanked at the restraint, but it had been designed to withstand the force of Priss' cybernetic arm. Ten minutes later Priss was breathing hard and trying to free herself as a thin layer of sweat covered her body. She hadn't realized that Sylia was completely serious. Priss bit back a scream and wrenched hard at the chains that bound her. "Okay, that's enough. Let me go now."

Sylia bit playfully at the rounded swell of her breast and tightened her grip on Priss' waist as she tried to twist away. "Oh no you don't." She moved her leg across Priss' thighs, effectively pinning her down.

The material of her slacks felt coarse to Priss' over-stimulated senses and she jerked at the contact. It made it worse somehow, that Sylia had reduced her to this state and was still fully dressed herself. Sylia's fingers tugged gently at her nipple at first then with increasing demand. Priss pulled against her restraints again in vain. She felt the scrape of Sylia's teeth against her neck and shivered as goose bumps rose across her exposed flesh. Sylia noted the reaction and began to tease her earlobe with her teeth as she lightly raked her nails down Priss' breasts.

"Sylia!" Priss' cry was both a plea and a curse. Husky laughter was her only reply and then she was pressing her lips to the hollow of Priss' throat, slowly trailing her way across to the delicate bones of her shoulder. Sylia let her hand wander down and dance random patterns across the sensitive flesh of Priss' abdomen. Lunging upwards, Priss managed to dislodge Sylia and tried to roll away. She only succeeded in turning herself onto her stomach and losing what little leverage, she'd had before. "Damn it! Let me go!"

Sylia ignored her as she appraised the new position with a pleased murmur and straddled Priss' legs. "Now this is an interesting turn." She ran her hands down her back and cupped Priss' ass with firm fingers as she bent forward to lick the base of her spine. Priss shuddered and buried her face in the pillow. She felt Sylia's hands move to her thighs, opening her to their probing advance. Cool fingers slipped into her heated core and Priss stopped breathing. Sylia knew that it would take very little for Priss to find release, but that wasn't the point of the exercise. "I believe that you're starting to realize the hazards of betraying me, aren't you?"

Priss shook her head swiftly in denial. "Sylia I didn't sleep with Linna! Please, you have to believe me." She waited tensely for Sylia's reply.

Sylia was glad that Priss couldn't see her face at this moment or else she'd be trying harder to get free. "Don't worry Priss. By the time I'm finished tonight there will be no doubts as to where your loyalty lies." Priss heard something whistle through the air and a jagged pain flashed across her back. Her cry was drowned out by Sylia's laughter and Priss looked over her shoulder to stare at her lover in shock. "S-Sylia?" The strange glint in Sylia's eyes frightened Priss and she tugged at the cuffs slightly. "Okay, you've made your point. Let me go." Sylia responded by gripping Priss' hair and pulling her head back sharply. "You will never try to leave me again!" She released Priss and picked up the belt again.

Priss tensed in disbelief.

Sylia drew her arm back to strike, a small smile playing across her lips.


Soft light filtered through the drapes, bathing the room in a warm glow. Arashi rerouted several maintenance bots to areas that needed more immediate attention and began to filter the excess lactic acid that had built up in the muscles due some of last night's more strenuous activities. Priss was going to have to get up soon and drink a lot of water. The balance of chemicals in her blood stream was way off due to mild dehydration and needed to be restored. Another group of bots were dispatched to repair the assorted welts and bruises across her back and buttocks. The laceration around her wrist was the worst and would take several hours to heal completely. Arashi continued to assess Priss' condition, but the memories from last night weren't easily forgotten. Again, she admonished herself for not stepping in, but it had been so confusing and even now, she wasn't sure that Priss hadn't been a willing participant. = Who would have thought that Sylia was capable…? =

Priss slept deeply, ignorant of the flurry of activity in her body. Arashi periodically checked her dream state to make sure she was all right, before returning to her work. As she doubled up the group working on Priss' cracked rib Arashi realized that she was angry. Setting aside the temptation to explore this new emotion, she instead chose to vent it. At Sylia. Arashi contacted Taisei and through her, Sylia.

= Well I hope you're happy. =

Sylia was seated behind her desk, sorting through a backlog of messages when Arashi spoke. "Fairly so, I suppose. Why?"

= Because it's going to take about a week for Priss to fully recover from your little games last night. =

Sylia's coffee cup halted its ascent and she set it back down with an impatient snap. "So?"

= You broke one of her ribs, you sadist! = Arashi was furious and truthfully, she was kind of enjoying it. = I think this was a little excessive considering the silly thing that started the argument in the first place. =

"I don't consider Priss' infidelity-." Arashi cut her off, sharply.

= She didn't sleep with her! Why won't you listen? =

Priss pulled the pillow over her head in what she knew was a futile gesture, but at least it blocked some of the light. Arashi's tirade was booming through her head and she managed to pull one coherent thought together. < Shut up! > Arashi stopped immediately. Priss suddenly realized whom Arashi had been yelling at. She froze, not sure what to say to Sylia after last night. It had been so far out of character for Sylia that Priss had been more than a little afraid. Echoes of the night rang through her head and she flinched. Damn it Sylia! Let me go! And when threatening hadn't stopped her. Oh God Sylia! Please stop! Stopitstopitstopitstopit STOP IT! And through it all Sylia had just kept laughing. Priss bit her lip and decided that she didn't want to see Sylia right now. She pulled the pillow away from her head and slowly turned onto her back, hissing at the pain. She managed to sit up and then carefully swung her legs off the side of the bed.

= You should take care, Priss. One of your right ribs is fractured. = Priss grimaced. < I wondered why it hurt so badly. Arashi, can you raise Taisei privately? Find out what's going on with Sylia? >

Arashi was quiet for a few minutes. = No good. Taisei won't answer me now and somehow Sylia knew that I was trying to link with her. She ordered me out and threatened to erase me if I tried it again. =

< What could be wrong with her? > Priss eased to her feet and began the laborious trip to the closet. < Is there, Ah, any way to, Ow, run a scan on her physical condition, Christ that hurts, without her knowing? >

= No. Taisei would spot it instantly as I would have to tap into her system. You might be able to perform a general scan with your arm, but it wouldn't tell us much. = Arashi considered Priss' current physical condition. = Don't take this the wrong way, but I don't think you're in any condition for a rematch with Sylia. How about a nice strategic retreat? =

< For once, I agree with you. I couldn't defend myself against a fly right now. >

A few minutes later she eased her way into the living room, her right arm pressed against her side. Priss crossed to the front door and turned the knob. It didn't budge. Priss frowned and typed in her pass code to override the lock. The red error light blinked as the display eagerly informed her that the code was no longer valid.

You'll never leave me. Sylia's promise rang through her mind.

There was a small beep and the door suddenly swung open. Sylia.

"Where were you going, Priss?" The reasonable question was delivered in low hiss and Priss felt herself begin to tremble. Priss drew the tattered remains of her pride around her and stiffened, her face assuming it's normal 'Do I look like I care?' expression.

"Out. I needed some air." Priss took a step as if to move around her. Sylia grabbed her arm, and pulled, bringing her closer. Priss gasped as the motion jarred her ribs and braced herself on the door.

"I warned you about leaving, Priss." Sylia was livid and Priss jerked her arm free, despite the pain it caused her.

"I'll go anywhere I damned well please, when I please." Priss' was furious and in truth more than a little afraid. She didn't want to do this now because she wasn't sure of Sylia anymore. She wanted time to think about what had happened. To try and come to terms with the fact that she didn't quite trust her now.

Sylia entered the apartment and slammed the door shut behind her. Priss cursed and was moving to open it again when Sylia caught her by the shoulders, swinging her around and shoving her back against the door. Pain burst through Priss in a red haze and she cried out sharply. Eyes clamped shut as she fought the rising nausea, Priss didn't see the look of utter delight cross Sylia's face.

Sylia gripped Priss around the throat and pushed her head back until it snapped against the door with a thud. "I said that you are staying here." Her fingers tightened slightly and she brought her lips close to Priss' ear. "I'm disappointed Priss. You became so good at following orders last night." Priss felt Sylia's teeth close around her earlobe and was unsurprised at the quick pain. Warmth trickled down her neck and Sylia drew back to watch the blood drip down into Priss' collar.

Priss saw her tongue sweep out and lick the blood from her lips. As Sylia's grip on her throat tightened, Priss did something that she never thought she would be capable of doing. The energy blade housed in her cybernetic arm slid out with a quiet hum and she brought it up to Sylia's face, hovering above her right cheek. "Let go….Now."

Sylia drew a deep breath and moved into the blade, until the skin parted under the razor tip and blood welled. Priss pulled the blade away in reflex and that was when Sylia struck. Almost faster than the eye could follow, she thrust the blade to the side, striking her under the arm with a ringing blow. Priss felt something pop and then felt the arm power down. Priss couldn't move her arm. It was completely dead. Sylia slapped her across the face and taken by surprise, Priss fell to the floor. The eerie sound of Sylia's laughter chilled Priss to the bone and she looked up to find Sylia towering over her. "You silly girl." She knelt beside Priss and gripped her arm. "Do you really think that I would build something like this and allow it to be used against me?" She pressed something near the shoulder and the arm detached. "I think I'll keep this for a while. If you're very good then I might return it to you later."

Priss watched her casually toss the arm across the room. < Arashi! >

= I'm here, Priss. =

Priss felt a great comfort in the collective's presence at that moment. < Get Linna and Nene. Tell them to… come armed. >

Sylia reached down and grasped the front of Priss' shirt, hauling her to her feet. < They won't be able to help you. > Priss realized that Sylia had been able to hear them and blanched. "How did you…?"

= It must be Taisei. = Arashi coded an urgent signal to the others, but it bounced against something and she knew that it had not been received. = She's blocking my transmissions! =

Priss knew that Linna and the others were the only hope she had. < Try to reroute through the office system! >

Sylia's eyes narrowed to slits as she studied Priss intently. < My my. You have been busy. Boosting your own intelligence by stealing from mine? > She made a tsking sound and shoved Priss toward the bedroom. < I think you need to learn who leads here. >

Suddenly Priss could see the images that were forming in Sylia's mind and she dug in her heels. No way was she going back into that room. Priss turned suddenly, her fist making contact with Sylia's jaw and sending her stumbling back. Rage blossomed on her face and Sylia charged Priss, catching her around the waist and tackling her. Priss brought her knee up into to Sylia's stomach and had the satisfaction of hearing the breath explode from her body. Sylia's elbow snapped forward and clipped Priss in the jaw. She rocked back and Sylia was on her in an instant, pinning her legs.

At an incredible disadvantage, Priss lashed out with her fist only to watch Sylia catch her hand easily. Sylia twisted Priss' arm behind her back and dragged her up again, steering her across the room. Priss tried desperately to break loose, but Sylia merely forced her arm higher until she thought the bone might snap. Still she dragged her feet, determined to fight Sylia. Sylia merely wrapped her free arm around her waist and lifted her easily. "Damn you Sylia! Why are you doing this?"

Sylia was amused. < Do you really have to ask? > In the bedroom, Sylia tossed her onto the bed and quickly secured her wrist to the headboard again.

< Isn't there anything you can do? > Priss' plea bordered hysteria.

Arashi was still trying to contact Taisei with no luck. She considered the situation and spoke with the utmost seriousness. = I could knock you out. =

Priss saw Sylia pick up the belt from the dresser and made her decision. < Do it. >

The last thing she heard was Sylia's outraged cry.

The bright light burned through her eyelids and Priss turned away from it instinctively. A slight sting in her neck made her jerk and Sylia spoke quietly. "That's it. Time to wake up, Priss." The words seemed to roll over Priss and rebound, echoing through her mind.

Priss cautiously opened her eyes and looked around. She immediately wished that she'd kept them closed. The room swirled in a sickening rush and Priss blinked rapidly, trying to clear her vision. After a moment, it cleared enough for her to see where she was. She was still on the bed but her clothes were gone. Sylia's expression was extremely displeased and Priss spoke urgently to Arashi. < Knock me out again, hurry! > Her heart was hammering in her chest and she couldn't seem to catch her breath.

Sylia laughed and shook her head. "She can't." She held up a pressure syringe. "I've jacked you so full of amphetamines that you won't sleep for a week."

Arashi could feel her own control slipping away and tried to focus on what was happening.= She's, she's right. Anything… I tried now… would kill you. = Arashi had been trying to get a signal through anyway that she could think of, but Sylia had been very thorough. Arashi felt like she was being ripped apart, as if the cohesive unit of nanobots were gradually separating.

Priss could feel the tremors running through her and cursed, asking again. "Why are you doing this?" Sylia bent down and kissed her very softly on the lips. "Because you're mine." The matter of fact statement shook Priss greatly and she didn't notice what Sylia was holding at first. The blade gleamed in the light and Priss watched Sylia suspiciously. "What are you going to do with that?"

Beaming at Priss like an eager child, Sylia waved the weapon cheerfully. "All manner of things."

Nene spoke as the elevator rose swiftly. "Any luck raising Arashi or Taisei?"

Mackie shook his head. "No."

= It wasn't a verbal message. Only images and from those I'd say that Priss is in very grave danger… from Sylia. = Setsu tried again to contact Taisei or Arashi, but whatever was blocking him was very powerful.

Inji was concerned. = But how can that be? =

Linna shifted impatiently. "We need to find Priss. If what Arashi sent is really happening then we don't have time to waste." The car stopped and the doors swished open to reveal the empty hallway.

Linna flipped the safety off and raised the pistol in a two-handed grip as she leaned against the wall next to the front door. Across the doorway, Nene did the same. Linna held a hand up and began to raise her fingers one at a time. One. Two. Three came and they burst through the door, Linna going high and right as Nene went in low and to the left. The living room was empty.

Nene jerked her head in the direction of the bedroom. Repeating the same pattern they had before, they exploded into the room. Sylia wasn't there, but Priss was.

It took a moment for their eyes to resolve the tangled mass in the middle of the bed. Mentally the words of description were there, but too simple to convey what was before them. Sheets. Priss. Blood. Nene's choked cry snapped them into motion. Linna avoided looking into Priss' vacant gaze and touched her throat, seeking a pulse and horribly afraid there wasn't one. Priss flinched at the touch and curled away, the sounds she made like those of a wounded animal. Nene felt her stomach revolt at the sight of what had been done to Priss and swallowed hard as she and Linna tried to free her from the manacle. Priss didn't react to their actions. "Priss? Can you hear us?"

There was no response. Linna saw the drying blood that covered Priss but couldn't see any fresh wounds, only half healed scars. "Has all the bleeding stopped?"

Setsu couldn't contact Arashi, but there were enough signals for him to check Priss' condition. =Yeah. But there's a massive amount of drugs in her system and the nanos have been programmed to filter that before finishing the wounds. =

"Is Priss… all right?" Nene whispered.

= She's not answering me. Neither will Arashi. =

Priss only stared at them blankly as Linna wrapped a blanket around her. They saw the dark mark that marred her cheek and wondered what else Sylia had done besides marking Priss as her own. "I wonder where Sylia is?" Priss jerked slightly at the sound of her name.

They heard a sound behind them and whirled, guns aiming.

Sylia stood behind them, her smile not quite reaching her eyes. "Don't you know how to knock?" She was dressed for work in a smart business suit and as her hand moved from behind her back the sword was a sharp contrast. Sylia never lost her smile as she charged them and Linna opened fire without hesitating.

The bullet struck Sylia in the shoulder but she never even felt it. The blade flashed as she began to swing it, repeatedly striking at each of them with a speed that was terrifying in its ferocity.

Linna fired again as Nene cried out and fell, gripping her side with both hands. This time the bullet hit Sylia in the back and she stumbled as her body began to react. Mackie felt the sword pierce his leg, but it was seeing Sylia collapse that made him cry out. He sank to his knees beside her and felt for a pulse. "She's alive."

"Big whoop." Linna was bent over Nene, trying to see how badly she was hurt.

"I'm okay, Linna. It's not very deep. It just surprised me how much it hurt." She smiled up at her lover without humor. "I don't know how you and Priss stand it."

"Incredible acting skills." < Seiki? How is she really? >

= She's all right, Linna. I've numbed the area and stopped the bleeding. =

< Hey! I am here you know. > Nene grumbled silently as Linna helped her to stand.

Mackie had grabbed a rag lying near the bed and pressed it to the wound in her shoulder. As he used another to staunch the flow of blood from her back, he realized that the pieces of cloth were the remains of Priss' shirt.

"Mackie? How are you?"

He removed the cloth and saw that the blood was slowing. "The nanos are repairing the damage." The bullet had come perilously close to Sylia's spine and he prayed that the nanos would be able to handle any nerve damage.

Linna sighed, realizing that he was not talking about himself. "Well, I guess that's good."

"I think so." Mackie raised his eyes to hers, his disappointment in her obvious. "The bullets exited the wounds, so they won't heal inside."

She rubbed her eyes wearily and could smell the gunpowder on her hands. "I'm sorry Mackie, but you saw her. She almost got us all."

Mackie nodded reluctantly, but Linna knew he was still upset with her. < Setsu? Is he all right? >

=He's fine. The wound to his leg isn't serious. He's just concerned for Sylia. =

Linna looked at the huddled mass on the bed and saw that Priss had buried herself under the blanket. She eased the corner back, wincing as she saw the tears staining her cheeks and mixing with the blood. "Priss?"

They debated briefly on where to take Priss, wanting her to be close at hand but away from Sylia. After finally settling on Mackie's apartment, they had a new problem: moving her. Priss tended to scream whenever someone tried to touch her and fought like mad when they had tried to pick her up.

Arashi was struggling to actually pull herself together. The drug had so scrambled Priss' mind that Arashi couldn't form her herself from the remains. The nanobots were working on removing it but the dose had been so large that it would have killed a normal person. Vaguely aware of the other enclaves, Arashi tried to connect with them.

Seiki felt the slight brush of Arashi's signal. = Arashi? Inji, she's trying to link with us, but her signal is so faint…=

= Let's see if we can boost her from this end and give her something to hang onto. =

It was as if they were reaching out and gathering up all of the pieces that made Arashi and holding them together for her. = Thank you. You know we really need to find a way to stabilize ourselves in case of things like this. =

Seiki laughed in relief. = You think? How is Priss? =

= As well as can be expected under the circumstances. =

Linna watched Priss jerk away from her touch again and ran a hand through her hair in frustration. < Arashi can't you do anything? >

= Priss is still suffering from the effects of the drug that Sylia used. She gave her such a large dose that she's still hallucinating. I'm trying to filter the drug from her system, but it takes time. I'm afraid that if I tried to subdue her in anyway it might place more strain on her system. = Arashi considered what Priss was seeing and suggested that Mackie try to approach her.

"Mackie? Why would-?" Nene stopped, understanding what Arashi was saying. In other circumstances a male presence would be unwelcome, but in this case…

Looking a lot like an animal caught in the glare of an oncoming car, Mackie swallowed loudly. "Okay. I'll try." He stood beside Priss and spoke softly as he placed his hand on her shoulder. "Priss? It's me, Mackie. Can you hear me?"

In the nightmare progression of images that filled Priss' mind, she suddenly pictured the young man and didn't jump at his touch. He continued to speak to her, telling her what he was going to do. "Priss, I'm going to pick you up and take you somewhere safe, alright?" Mackie slid his arm under her knees and another behind her back. "I'm going to pick you up now, okay?" He strained under her weight and lifted her from the bed, ignoring the pain in his leg. Priss curled into his chest and stopped moving. Mackie felt her muscles go lax and questioned Arashi. < Is she all right? >

= She passed out. There's been a lot of damage, physically and mentally. I'm going to need some raw materials, so to speak. Linna? =

Linna held the door open for Mackie and watched as he and Nene took Priss from the apartment. She went back to the unmoving figure on the floor of the bedroom and answered Arashi. < What will you need? > Arashi told her and Linna nodded absently as she picked up the pressure syringe that had fallen during the struggle. They had originally intended to tranquilize Sylia, but that had not been possible. She knelt beside Sylia and gave her a dose, ignoring Inji's warnings about the amount. < I'm not taking any chances, Inji. She's too dangerous. > Linna hefted Sylia over her shoulders in a fireman's carry and took her to the lab.

After she strapped Sylia to one of the gurneys, Linna rummaged through the lab until she found the vitamin supplements that Arashi had requested. < Why does Sylia keep so much medical stuff around?> She wondered absently as she filled another syringe. Linna picked up a small medical kit and tucked it under her arm as she left the lab.

Inji answered her. = Taisei said that it's because she exists in a constant state of worry about you and the others. She wants to feel like she's prepared for any emergency that might come up. =

At any other time, this would have made Linna feel good, but today it just made her very sad.

Nene wrung the bloody cloth out in the bowl of water beside Mackie's bed and continued to wipe away the blood from Priss' body. Arashi had done as much as she could with the wounds, but there had been more urgent damage that needed attention. Half-healed scars covered her and Nene wondered what had happened to Sylia to make her do this. There had to be a reason. Mackie had gone to the lab to take care of Sylia so when the door opened, Nene knew that it was Linna. "She's so pale." Indeed, Priss' lips were tinged a faint blue and if it weren't for the rise and fall of her chest then Nene would think that she was dead.

Linna knelt beside her and pressed the syringe into the side of Priss' throat as Arashi instructed. "The blood loss maybe?" Inji quietly informed them that it was one of the effects of the drug. She took the cloth from Nene and opened the medical kit. "Take off your, shirt Nene."

Nene did as she asked and watched her clean the rapidly healing wound in silence. Linna spread the area with a liberal coating of antibiotic ointment and taped two large gauze pads over the cut. "It's probably all right without it, but I need to fuss." She didn't look at Nene as she spoke, but her meaning was clear.

"I'm okay, Linna." Nene laughed suddenly. "Now you know how I felt after you tangled with that boomer." She put her shirt back on and leaned forward to place a tender kiss against Linna's cheek. "I love you."

"I love you too, Nene." She handed her another tube of ointment and gestured to Priss' unconscious form. "Shall we?"

Nene grimaced as they began to clean and coat some of the more serious cuts. "What could make Sylia do this?"

Linna smoothed the thick gel onto Priss' cheek and fought back the nausea that was trying to overtake her. "I don't know."

Mackie set the IV in place and shook his head at Linna's callousness. "She could have at least covered her with a blanket." He bandaged Sylia's wounds and began to run the medical scans. The computers showed that the nanobots were still functioning, but that the distinctive signal that was Taisei was missing. He proceeded in order down the list of available scans with the medical unit until he reached the one he'd been avoiding. Perhaps he'd known in some part of his mind that the source of this problem lay within Sylia's brain because he was unsurprised to see the large mass lying under the dura layer like a ticking bomb.

Mackie pointed to the white blur on the screen. "It's a subdural hematoma. "

"What the hell is that?" Linna looked at the multicolored image of Sylia's brain in confusion. Suddenly the image seemed to refocus and she knew what she was looking at. The large mass that was over cerebral convexity in the parietal region was a subdural hematoma, also known as a blood clot. "Thank you Inji, I see what it is now."

Nene looked at the screen blankly and then to Linna. "Great, explain it to me." She paused, considering. "Wait a minute. How do you know-?" Seiki spoke quietly. = Inji imprinted the knowledge directly into Linna's memory. = Nene threw up her hands, exasperated. "And when was somebody going to tell me this?"

Linna ignored her and spoke to Mackie. "This is what caused her weird behavior, isn't it?" She drew on her new knowledge. "Personality changes, impaired judgment, hell, even sexually deviant behavior, they're all symptoms."

Mackie nodded. "What I don't understand is why didn't Taisei repair it?"

Nene chimed in. "I think the more important thing to ask, is why doesn't Taisei answer any of us?"

= We can no longer detect Taisei. = The worry in Setsu's words was evident.

Nene tapped her lips with her finger as she thought. "Okay. The enclaves draw their personalities from us, right? Well, what would happen to them if the host personality became… fractured? The changes in a person's personality as a result from this type of injury are really varied. Suspicion and paranoia, dependency or anti-social behavior. How could you even begin to find a stable personality to draw on?"

Linna raised an eyebrow in silent question at her sudden knowledge and Nene shrugged. "Come on, do really think I wouldn't have Seiki do the same thing to me? It makes the conversation a little easier to be sure."

Mackie agreed with Nene's assessment. "It would make sense. Without a cohesive character to mirror, then the nanobots might revert back to performing reflex actions only. Taisei is probably in the same state Arashi was."

"But isn't one of their reflex actions to heal the host?" No one had an answer to Linna's question. There was still so much unknown about how the nanos were working now that it was impossible to even guess at what might be wrong.

"How do we repair the damage?"

= I go in and do it myself. = Setsu spoke calmly, but his suggestion drew some outraged replies.

= Are you nuts? =

= That would be a very bad idea. =

= You do realize that the nanobots might see you as an invader and try to terminate you? = Inji was surprised by his suggestion but in truth, he might be right. It might be their only hope.

= And if you fight back you might do more damage to Sylia than what you're trying to repair. = Arashi interjected. = Stop boosting my signal and try to bring Taisei together. =

= No. You need to help Priss. There has to be another way. =

Linna rubbed her forehead wearily and looked at the others. "Can I ask a silly question? Why do the nanos have to repair the damage? Aren't there any number of hospitals in the greater MegaTokyo area?"

Silence greeted her suggestion and Linna snorted in disbelief. "Didn't think of that, did you?" She waved a hand toward the screen. "According to Inji this can be treated rather easily and with little risk. So why don't we let the doctors on Sylia's payroll earn their wages?"

It was the clatter of the breakfast tray rolling past that woke Sylia. She blinked at her surroundings and tried to remember how she had come to be there. Dull pain throbbed through her head and Sylia raised a cautious hand to find a wide strip of bandage wrapped around her head. < Taisei? >

= I'm here, Sylia. How are you feeling? =

"Confused. What happened?"

= Actually I'm not sure. Our memories are strangely jumbled and I can't seem to recall some very large patches of time. = Taisei reviewed the physical readings that she had been taking for the last few hours. = I can tell you that some kind of surgery was performed on you roughly ten hours ago. =

"Can you do anything to recover the lost memories?"

"You might not want to do that." Nene spoke from the doorway. She carried a large bouquet of roses and she set them on the table next to Sylia before turning to study her. "You look better than the last time I saw you."

Sylia had so many questions that she wasn't sure where to begin. "What happened?"

Nene sighed deeply and pulled up a chair. "I should have known it'd fall to me to tell you. Remember that boomer fight a couple of weeks ago?" Sylia nodded. "Well apparently when you got shocked and the nanos were knocked offline you also thumped your head. When the nanos came back online, for some reason we haven't figured out yet, they didn't detect the beginnings of a blood clot."

Sylia raised her hand to her head again.

Nene nodded. "So it grew worse over time and began to effect your behavior until we finally realized that something was wrong."

"Why didn't Taisei see it after it began to grow? And why am I in the hospital? Couldn't Taisei repair it?"

Nene shook her head. "Taisei was as affected by the hematoma as you were. We didn't have any other choice, but to bring you here."

Sylia digested this and then asked, "Why wouldn't I want to remember the last few weeks?"

Nene felt like crying. How on earth was she supposed to tell her what she had done? "You… weren't yourself."

Sylia didn't like the way Nene was avoiding her eyes and suddenly she thought of something. "Where's Priss?"

Nene swallowed hard. "Uh, she's at Mackie's."

"Mackie's? Why?" The look on Nene's face made Sylia tense. "I take it that she's not going to be coming to visit me?" The slight tremor in her voice annoyed Sylia and she schooled her features into a mask, one that she had unknowingly stopped wearing when she and Priss had started seeing each other.

"No. Probably not."

< Taisei, find those memories and restore them. > Sylia had to know what she had done. "Tell me Nene. I have to know. What happened between me and Priss?"

"Damn it, Sylia. I don't know what happened exactly." Sylia waited patiently and Nene plunged on. "I only know how Priss was when we found her."

"Found her? Please Nene just tell me what happened." Sylia was growing more afraid with every passing moment that Nene hedged. "Is Priss all right?"

Nene looked Sylia in the eyes for the first time since entering the room and Sylia was disturbed by what she saw there. "I don't know. Physically, yes I guess so. But up here," She tapped her forehead. "I just don't know." She looked back down at the floor. "You started to act very odd about a week ago. You were forgetting stuff and you would blow up over anything no matter how small. You started to hound Priss, not letting her go anywhere without you and getting jealous for no reason. Anyway, a few days ago you and Priss fought rather violently."

"I didn't hurt her, did I?" Sylia was visibly upset at the thought and Nene winced.

"No, not… not then." Sylia felt her heart clench tightly and wanted to cry. "Go on."

"I'm not sure what happened after Linna and I left, but the next afternoon we got a strange message from Arashi, just images really, but they were enough. We got Mackie and broke into your apartment." She didn't mention the fact that they had been armed and that the images were going to be in their nightmares for a long time to come. Nor was she going to tell Sylia that she had tried to kill them. If they kept making her be the bearer of news then she was going to choose what she was bearing.

Sylia buried her face in her hands and murmured softly. "What happened?"

"We went into the apartment and found Priss in the bedroom…damn it Sylia, it wasn't you!! It wasn't your fault!"

"Damn you Nene! Tell me what I did!"

Not wanting to say and knowing she must, Nene spoke harsher than she had intended. "You raped her."

Sylia could actually feel her soul tear at her words and she clutched at her chest. No.

"She… she had been cut up pretty bad." Sylia's low moan made her pause and not under pain of torture would Nene tell her how Priss had been cut or that Sylia had taken her arm from her. "We untied her," Another soft cry. Sylia was rocking back and forth, tears streaming down her face as a silent litany ran through her mind. No no no no no no no no.

Nene sat on the edge of the bed and gripped Sylia's shoulders. "It wasn't your fault! You weren't in control of your actions, Sylia!" Sylia looked at her blankly. "I hurt her. I…oh god."

"It wasn't your fault!"

Sylia shook her off. "Tell that to Priss!"

Nene hesitated. = She might as well know it all, Nene. She'll find out eventually. = Seiki didn't want to tell her anymore than Nene did, but sometimes there was no choice. "I can't tell her yet. She's still unconscious."

"What?" The word was barely audible, but Nene heard.

"You… drugged her. Arashi says that the exhaustion and long sleep is a normal reaction to the drug. She should be awake in a few hours." Which was why she had to leave soon. She and Linna had decided that when Priss woke up she wasn't going to be alone.

Sylia laughed shortly, the sound like brittle glass. "And you think she'll forgive me?"

Nene couldn't answer and Sylia resisted the urge to throw back her head and scream from the pain that was ripping her apart. "How can I ever face her again?"

Her whispered words brought Nene's head up with a snap. "You face her with your love. And with patience and right now, distance." Sylia was shaking her head and Nene scowled fiercely as she moved to the bed and perched on the edge. "This isn't about you right now. It's about Priss. This is going to be the worst thing that you've ever had to go through together, but you will get through it because we're going to help you both." So saying she wrapped her arms around Sylia and just held her.

Priss curled into the pillow and ignored the faint ache in her shoulder. <'Rashi! Fix that, will you?> Having taken care of her immediate discomfort she settled back into slumber, only to be roused again by the nagging sense that something was wrong. She let herself drift back toward consciousness and wondered what was bugging her. The pillowcase around her pillow had just been laundered according to her scanners, but the faint trace of aftershave was still present. Priss thought about that for a while. The chemical makeup matched that of one she had picked up before and she realized that it was Mackie's. Priss opened one eye and stared at the unfamiliar navy colored sheets. She opened the other eye and focused on the framed motorcycle poster that hung over the bed. While part of her mind approved of his choice, another was wondering what the hell she was doing in Mackie's bed. Sylia would kill-.

The cold sweat that broke out over her skin made Priss begin to shiver, but she was not aware of it. With the thought of Sylia, the floodgates of her memory burst open and Priss knew that she was drowning.

Linna heard the strangled cry from Priss a second before the terrified young woman bolted upright and struck out with her artificial arm. The energy saber barely missed Linna as she ducked, but managed to graze Nene across her left bicep. Priss froze at Nene's cry of pain and stared at her blankly. Linna stayed out of range as she moved into her line of vision. "Priss it's okay! It's all right. You're safe now. Priss?"

Nene awkwardly bandaged her arm and watched as Linna carefully approached Priss. < Seiki? Remind me to be happy with my role as the team's brain… often. >

Seiki numbed the area around the small cut. = Will do. =

Priss was vaguely aware that Sylia was not in the room, just Nene and Linna. The memories were still returning and she retracted the blade and hurled herself into Linna's arms. The sobs that escaped their usually hard mannered friend were painful to hear and Nene joined them on the bed, wrapping her arms around Priss as well, offering what comfort she could.

When her tears began to lessen, they could hear what she was whispering over and over again. "Why? Why? Why?" Linna rocked her slowly and smoothed the hair away from Priss' face. "She was sick Priss. She wasn't herself."

Nene nodded, rubbing Priss' back in long, firm strokes. "She was hurt when she went through the wall. She didn't know what she was doing."

On some level deep within herself, Priss heard them. But she was nowhere near ready to accept.

Pain filled every corner of her being and Priss thought that she might go mad at any moment as Sylia continued to wield the blade on her. Blood covered her skin and soaked into the sheets. The metallic sting filled Priss' nostrils and she felt her stomach turn. It was the smile that was the worst. That happy little grin as she carved one word over and over into Priss' flesh. She chanted it in rhythm as she worked, almost singing. "Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine." Priss screamed at her to shut up and Sylia paused long enough to slap her. "That's not what you're supposed to say, Priss. You belong to me." She waited expectantly and Priss spit at her. Sylia laid the blade against her face and moved it swiftly. "You ARE mine!" Priss cried out as the blade continued to slice into her. Sylia was growing frustrated by her resistance and dropped the blade down to Priss' shoulder. She pushed the tip into her flesh, just under the collarbone and twisted. "You belong to me!" Priss screamed, "YES! Stop! Please stop! Please!" Sylia withdrew the blade and smiled down at her. "Now was that so difficult?" She brushed the hair back from her face and Priss shrank away with a whimper. "Shhh." Sylia pressed a bloody finger to Priss' lips. "I don't want to hurt you, Priss. But you have to stop fighting me. Now tell me again." Priss felt part of herself break away as she surrendered. "Yours. I-I'm yours." Her words were the barest whisper, but Sylia was satisfied. She rested the blade against Priss' already bloody stomach. Sylia frowned at the sob that escaped Priss as she admired her work. "Lovely. Now we can play." She sheathed the sword and Priss had a single moment to feel relief before Sylia shattered it, holding the weapon aloft. "You'll never guess what else I can do with this."

Priss screamed again.

And woke up screaming as the nightmare continued to play in her mind. Priss clamped her hand over her mouth and held her cries down to whimpers as the dream faded. Forcing herself to take deep breaths, Priss gradually regained control. The red glare of the clock beside her bed told her that she'd be greeting the dawn soon, but that did little to comfort her.

Linna and Nene had protested her returning to her trailer alone, but Priss had been adamant. She needed to get away and it wasn't like she was really alone. Arashi could contact them in an emergency, but she needed some space from everybody.

Priss climbed out of bed and into the shower, letting the water pound away the last remnants of the nightmare. At that moment, she missed Sylia fiercely, longing to have her wrap her arms around Priss and comfort her. She had come to rely on Sylia being there when her fears chased her in the night and now that wasn't possible. If there were tears mixed with the water swirling down the drain then no one knew it but her. And Arashi.

< Arashi? >

= Yes, Priss? = Arashi had shared Priss' nightmare, but had been unable to stop it. She wished that there were something more she could do.

< Could you talk to Seiki without letting Nene know? > Priss wasn't sure why she didn't want anyone to know that she was finally asking about Sylia. < See how Sylia's doing? >

= Of course. = Arashi contacted Seiki and let Priss hear them. = How is Sylia? =

= She came through the surgery fine and went home yesterday. Taisei had to slow down her healing until she was released so that no one would suspect anything. But she says that after they got home she was back to normal in a few hours. =

< Has…has she asked…? > Priss wasn't sure she wanted to know but Seiki answered her anyway.

= Nene told her everything that she knew. =

Priss rested her head against the cool tile. < Oh. >

= Sylia was horrified at what she had done, of course. I think that's she's also terrified. =

Priss straightened. < Terrified? Of what? >

= That she's irrevocably separated you two. From what I've heard from Taisei, she's sure that you'll never want to see her again. =

Priss stepped from the shower and reached for a towel. < She might be right. >

Arashi wasn't pleased. =Priss, I know you're frightened and with good reason. But remember, the person who hurt you is gone. Sylia, the true Sylia would willingly die before she would hurt you. =

< Logically I know that's true, but emotionally…the thought of seeing her again scares me silly. >

To that there was nothing Arashi could say.

Sylia sat on the couch in her living room and stared at the bedroom door. She had been home for two days now and she had yet to set foot across the threshold. This morning she had managed to open the door but she had quickly slammed it shut as soon as she saw Priss' boots tossed into the corner. So now she sat, knowing that she would be sleeping on the couch again. Knowing that she was a coward. Sylia knew that she could sleep in the guest room, but it seemed too easy an answer and she was aware that she was looking for ways, no matter how small, to punish herself.

= Aren't you being a little hard on yourself? = The low murmur of Taisei's words smoothed over Sylia's raw nerves and she shook her head in response.

= You need to get through this and face the more important issue here; Priss' well being. =

"I hardly think that I'm going to be much help in that area. Besides I don't think that she'll consider it my concern now."

Taisei thought about that for a moment. When she did reply she was terse. =That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard you say. Unless I'm in the wrong body, you're still in love with Priss, which makes her health and happiness very much your concern. And it works both ways. I seriously doubt that Priss wants you to punish yourself in this manner. =

Sylia ignored this and went to the small desk in the corner and punched in the number for the decorators that she had used in the redesign of the Silky Doll. "Hello Hitomi? I was wondering if you might be interested in a small job."

Music pounded through Priss' chest and she gripped the microphone like it was a lifeline. Never had she needed the charge that she got from performing more. She was disturbed to find that she had to force images out of her mind as she sang. They slipped into her consciousness now whenever she let her mind wander and Priss struggled to ignore them.

After her last set, Priss left the stage, changed and went to the bar instead of taking off like she usually did. Tonight she didn't want to go home and killing a few hours here would help prolong that. She ignored a come on from the guy seated next to her and ordered a straight whiskey. He left in search of more willing prey. She told the bartender to leave the bottle and began the slow process of getting drunk. Priss didn't really enjoy getting drunk, mainly because it took so much to do it. She could and would down this entire bottle of whiskey, but would still be sober. The number of bottles it would take to get truly drunk wasn't worth the expense and so Priss usually didn't bother trying to drink to excess.

But tonight she'd drink everything they had in stock if that's what it took to be able to forget for a while. She poured another shot and downed it without a flicker of reaction. The bartender let her go, knowing how much it took to make her drunk and just smiled as she refilled her glass.

The crowd hadn't thinned much, even though the music now came from a jukebox instead of the stage and Priss was just another body in the mass and very happy to be so. It had been a week since Sylia's surgery. Priss promptly shoved the thought into the back of her mind and lifted her glass again.

= Do you have any idea how much extra work you're making for me? = Arashi was teasing, but Priss simply ignored her. = Your liver is going to hate you in the morning. =

"Shut up." The bartender looked up from wiping the counter to see whom she was talking to. There was no one sitting near her and she was staring into the mirror behind the bar. He shrugged and moved away to fill someone's glass.

= People are going to think you're loopy if you keep that up. =

< I don't care. >

= Hmmph. You will when-oh hell. = Arashi broke off as a familiar presence entered the club.

< What is it? > Arashi was saved having to answer when Sylia appeared in the mirror behind Priss. The shot glass skittered across the bar and crashed to the floor on the other side. Priss felt the blood drain from her face and if she had been looking she would have been surprised at how ghostly she appeared in that moment.

Sylia met her shadow-filled eyes and wanted to turn around and run as fast as she could. Instead, she slid onto the stool next to Priss and tried not to let it hurt too much when she flinched. The bartender brought Priss another glass and asked Sylia what she wanted. Sylia ordered a glass of white wine and watched Priss in the mirror.

They sat in silence for a time, neither wanting to be the first to speak. Sylia sipped from her glass and glanced at Priss in the mirror. Priss was staring at her as if she was trying to read her soul and Sylia wished that she could. "I miss you." The words fell unbidden from Priss lips and she wished she could call them back. She watched the tears well in Sylia's eyes at her words.

Sylia dashed them away with a quick hand. "I miss you, too."

Silence descended again and they continued to watch each other in the mirror. It was easier somehow, to see Sylia like this. As if the glass filtered some of the fear. "How are you?"

"I'm better. I feel a little disconnected, but I'm better." Sylia wanted to ask how Priss was, but was afraid of the answer. "I… I'm sorry, Priss."

Priss made a sharp motion with her hand. "It wasn't your fault." But she would only look at Sylia in the mirror.

"Logically I know that, but…"

Priss made a harsh sound deep in her throat. "It wasn't your fault, Sylia. I know that, I accept that." Sort of. "You should too."

Sylia shook her head. "How can I when we're like this?" She waved at the mirror. "How can I when it's driving us apart?" She put her hand on Priss shoulder without thinking and was unprepared for her reaction.

Priss leapt away from her, knocking the stool over and staring at Sylia with frightened eyes. She was breathing heavily and the fear that radiated from her twist like a knife in Sylia's gut. Priss forced herself to calm down. She threw a few crumpled bills onto the bar and spoke softly. "I do love you, you know." She turned to leave and spoke over her shoulder. "I just can't make myself trust you again. Not yet."

Sylia watched her walked out of the club and out of her life.

Priss saw the neon sign and tapped the cab driver. "Pull over here." She paid him and stepped onto the sidewalk, ignoring the slight way that the world was wobbling. She had finally managed to consume enough alcohol to effect her and had left her bike at the last bar she had gone to.

Arashi had continued to grumble about the damage she was doing to her brain cells, but had let Priss go, knowing that to argue would be useless. As Priss stared at the collection of pictures taped to the business's window, Arashi tried to talk some sense into her. = Do you really think this is a good idea? =

< Sure is. See that? It's perfect. I think that clearly defines my whole situation, don't you? >

= Priss, you're drunk. Clear is the last thing that could be used to describe anything about you right now. = Actually, it couldn't really be used to describe Arashi at that moment and she wondered fuzzily if she was being effected by the alcohol as well.

She snorted and tapped the glass. "Nope. That's it, Arashi." Priss opened the door and stepped inside.

In the next few weeks, Sylia under went a dramatic change in behavior. She began to aggressively and methodically acquire companies, foregoing her usual caution. She dismantled business and split their assets between her more solid companies, restructuring them each time so that they would become a stronger competitor with Genom. She made reckless decisions and was forced to move quickly to repair the damage. On two occasions she actually had to break into some smaller Genom subsidiaries and remove data that might trace back to her.

But that was minor in comparison to the Knight Saber side of business. She began to take jobs and ran them solo, save for Mackie who she would only let drive the van. Any job that came up was taken, regardless of the risk and most of the times because of it. She was driving herself hard and Taisei was working franticly to keep her from crashing.

In desperation, Taisei contacted Priss. = I need your help. =

Priss continued to work on her bike and ignored the intruder. The tip of the cigarette hanging from her lips flared brightly as she inhaled and Taisei questioned Arashi privately. = When did that start? =

= The night Sylia came to the club. = Arashi had argued, nagged and pleaded with Priss to not pick up her old habit again, but had to admit that the minor addiction calmed Priss' nerves greatly. She'd stopped jumping at shadows and had even had a few dreamless nights of sleep. = I'm hoping she'll let it go when she doesn't need it anymore. =

= Sylia's trying to kill herself = Priss shrugged. Linna and Nene had already told her what was happening with Sylia. She was still trying to decide how she felt about it.

= Don't you care? = Taisei understood that Priss was upset, but surely she still cared enough to be interested?

Priss stopped and thought about her question. Did she? Maybe deep within the ice that was protecting her she might still feel something. In truth, she'd been afraid to look. Because if she did… if she did then she would have to see Sylia again and she didn't feel ready for that yet.

Taisei tried for a while longer and then gave up. Whatever happened to Sylia, Priss seemed indifferent.

Sylia sat in the kitchen drinking her morning coffee and trying to muster up enough energy to go to work. A sliced bagel lay open and untouched in front of her but that was as far as she had gotten in the way of breakfast. Watching Priss walk away that night was probably one of the most painful things that she'd ever felt, but now she felt nothing. The absence of emotion seemed to be complete, as she didn't seem to care about anything, feel about anything. It was probably something she should be concerned about but she wasn't. Sylia wondered if she had died inside and was now only breathing because of the nanos. She supposed that they'd tell her if she were dead.

She heard the electronic page from the next room and sighed. Maybe it would be another job. She cheered a little at the thought and even managed a smile as she saw the coded message from her Genom mole. She accepted the link and saw with amusement that the screen was nothing but static. "You're paranoid. You can't be traced through this link and you know it."

"Aye, you're probably right, but I'm not one for taking chances." The softly accented voice was distorted slightly, but Sylia didn't have the heart to tell her that she needed to hide her way of speaking more than the sound. "I wish I could say the same for you. Have you gone daft? There's a hornet's nest stirring through Genom right now and you don't look too innocent standing there holding the stick!"

"Don't worry. Things are calming down now. The acquisitions are over for the moment and in a few weeks Genom will wonder what all the fuss was over."

"You're not listening to me girl. Quincy's got his dander up! He's got orders out to find the buyers who've been snapping up Genom's leftovers. I've been blowing smoke, but I'm running out of it."

Sylia rubbed her forehead and cursed silently. To go off on a tangent that put herself in danger was one thing. To endanger her contacts was another. "I'm sorry. I'll get started on covering my tracks better. Do you want to pull out, just in case?"

There was a brief silence and Sylia was afraid that she had hung up. Finally, she answered. "Now there's a daffy thing to suggest! We aren't finished yet, are we?" With that, she terminated the link.

Sylia stared at the blank screen and wondered when this… she searched for a word before settling on the truth, this pain would leave her. She got to her feet and went to repair the damage that she had done.

Linna had thought that Nene was asleep the first time she found her. Eyes closed, hands folded across her stomach, she had looked utterly peaceful and Linna had been hesitant to wake her. She had knelt beside her chair and touched Nene's arm. "Nene? Time to wake up."

Nene had been flying through the system, tracing strand after strand, searching for the shadow that she had seen. She heard Linna and bit back a groan. Nene didn't break the link, but spoke to Linna. "I'm not asleep Linna. I want to check a few more data strands and then I'll stop, okay?"

Not quite knowing how to respond, Linna had agreed and sat down on the chair opposite to Nene. She looked at the blank screen of Nene's computer and back to her lover. She was doing this without a computer. Seiki must be directly linking her to the system. < Is that dangerous? >

= I don't think so. But then I don't think this has ever been done before. = Inji asked Seiki who seemed unconcerned.

= We're just playing, Inji. I won't let her get into trouble. =

Linna had waited for two hours. Then she had demanded that Nene break her connection. They had had their first real fight that night and Linna had been disturbed by Nene's fierce defense of what she was doing.

"It's completely safe, Linna and I'm not going to stop!" She'd tossed her hair back and glared up at the taller woman who had been at a loss as how to deal with her. They had wound up not speaking to each other the rest of the night.

Linna shut the door behind her and leaned back against it, wishing that the trembling in her limbs would go away. She saw that Nene was surfing again and felt a surge of anger. Linna strode across the room and yanked Nene up from her chair. "Damn it Nene! Come back to me!"

Nene was furious at the interruption as she had finally found one of the dark strands and had been in the process of tracing it back. "Linna! Why did you do that?!"

"Because I wanted to speak to you, not the God Damn System!" Linna released her hold on Nene, knowing that she was too angry to be that close to her. She stepped away and turned back to face her lover. "I don't like this, Nene. You spend too much time in that place. I'm afraid that you're losing track of reality."

Nene shook her head quickly. "Come on, Linna! That's crazy! I know the difference between cyberspace and reality."

"Oh really? Then tell me, when was the last time we made love?" Her voice was low, but Nene could still hear the pain threaded through it.

She scrambled to recall, but to her embarrassment, she couldn't. Linna watched her face closely, her suspicions confirmed. "You see? You've been living in there," she waved at the computer. "Not out here. I need you out here, Nene."

"You don't need me. You're too busy making money and wining and dining your clients. When was the last time that you took me out to dinner?" It was Linna's turn to flush. She had been meeting clients more and more for after hour business meetings, but the sudden rise in her production had caused problems… big ones. Linna remembered why she had been so upset when she'd gotten home and looked at Nene helplessly. "Nene, I've been fired."

Nene blinked and stared at her in confusion. "What? Why? You've been making money hand over fist, why would they fire you?"

Linna sank onto the couch and buried her face in her hands. "Because I've been making money hand over fist. No one has a three hundred percent increase in production that quickly without something nefarious going on. They audited my accounts, both personal and business, but they couldn't find anything wrong. That didn't convince them that I wasn't doing something illegal though and they said that they couldn't take the chance. So I was laid off." She straightened and glanced at Nene. "I suppose I'm lucky that they didn't have me arrested for insider trading."

Nene sat down beside Linna and hugged her fiercely. "Screw them!" That startled a laugh from Linna and she kissed the top of Nene's head. Nene grinned up at her. "You can just get a job somewhere else, or better yet, go into business for yourself."

Linna had considered these options on the drive home, but she knew that it would be impossible. This kind of thing left a taint that would follow her and she knew that her time as a broker was over. "No. I think that I'll take a vacation before I decide on what to do next. I might just decide to retire and make money for myself." She buried her face in Nene's hair and inhaled deeply. The familiar desire swirled to life and she pressed her lips against Nene's throat, her hands sliding down to grip her waist and pull her closer. Linna let her teeth scrape along the skin of Nene's neck, waiting for the shiver that she always gave at that particular caress. It never came. Linna pulled back and was stunned to see Nene staring blankly at the wall behind them. "Nene!" She had linked to the system again. Linna felt incredibly hurt and she shook Nene forcefully.

Nene returned and scowled at her. "Stop it, Linna! I was just-."

"Just pushing me aside when I needed you." She held up a hand to stop Nene's protests. "I don't care, Nene. You… you hurt me. I think I better find somewhere else to stay tonight." She went into the bedroom and began to throw some things into an overnight bag.

Nene followed her. "Linna I was only trying to see what the company files said about you. I thought that maybe I could do something."

Linna shook her head. "That's not the point Nene. I don't care what your intentions were. I was kissing you and you left me to climb back into that virtual playground of yours." She could feel the press of tears behind her eyes and refused to give in to them. "I had been wondering where we stood lately and I guess now I know."

Nene was flabbergasted. "Linna!"

"I won't play second fiddle to an invisible world, Nene and you shouldn't ask me to." She zipped the bag closed and brushed past Nene. "I'll be back tomorrow, but if you're linked then I'm going away again and this time I won't come back." She opened the door and turned to stare at Nene. "Choose Nene, because I don't share."

"Who asked you to? Linna you can't just leave. We need to talk."

"I can't right now. We wouldn't be talking we'd be arguing."

"That's better than you leaving! Please, Linna. Stay here. Or better yet, we'll go out and have dinner and talk."

Linna closed her eyes and gripped her bag tightly. "Nene, this is the most selfish thing I've ever done, but I am going to do it. For once I am not going to give in to someone else's wishes, I'm going to do what I want to do. And I want to leave this apartment, slamming the door behind me, and go somewhere to think. I'm sorry." She turned and Nene watched the door slam with a chilling finality.

It had taken Sylia the rest of the day and into the night to hide her financial transactions so that they could not be found by Genom. As the clock in the corner chimed midnight, Sylia decided to call it a night. She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. Sylia couldn't remember when she had been this tired last and she hoped that she wouldn't dream tonight. She was about to shut off her screen when the message light blinked. < Almost made it out. > She answered it reluctantly.

The pale and haggard face of Fargo peered out at her and Sylia bit back a smile as he waved a little. "Got something you might be interested in. Seems that Genom's in a buzz about the possibility of an actual competitor out there somewhere and is worried about some of their more secret stuff falling into the wrong hands. They're moving the Delta Complex to a new location."

Sylia straightened in her chair, all traces of fatigue forgotten as she grasped the implications of this move. The Delta Complex housed the most advanced research data that Genom possessed. Incredibly protected and deep within the earth, its security was something that Sylia had been trying to find away around for years. If they could destroy it…


"In about half an hour."

"What?! A little more notice would have been nice, Fargo."

Fargo shrugged, unconcerned. "You knew when I knew. Can't help that. He winked off screen and Sylia immediately buzzed Mackie.

Priss opened the door of her trailer and looked at Linna blankly. Linna stepped forward and Priss had the choice of being knocked down or allowing her to enter. Her curiosity was enough that she stepped back and watched Linna deposit a grocery bag on her kitchen table. She pulled out two six packs of beer and glared defiantly at her. Priss' eyebrows rose and she shut the door. "Did I miss something?"

Linna popped the top on a can of beer and took a long swallow. She lowered the can and Priss could see the over bright and pain-filled eyes. "Oh hell." Priss grabbed a can and motioned to the bed. "Sit down and tell Priss all about it. I'm guessing that you and Nene have had a spat?"

Linna curled up on the foot of the bed and proceeded to spill her guts in a long lamenting ramble. There was humor in this situation, Priss thought as her friend tearfully explained what had happened. She just hadn't found it yet. Priss emptied her can and crushed it absently between the fingers of her cybernetic hand.

Linna watched the metal yield to her manipulations and it soon formed a small, compact ball. The ball arched cleanly across the room and sank into the recycling bin with a clatter as it met others of its kind. "Geez, Priss. Show off why don't you?" Priss retrieved two more beers and ignored her comment. "So you're afraid that Nene's addicted to system surfing and you've been fired…right so far?" Linna nodded.

Priss watched Linna finish her first beer and took the can from her before she could attempt to throw it. She was already slurring her S's and Priss knew from past experience that Linna had a half a beer limit. But if you can't get drunk when you're hurting, when can you? Priss refused to look at her own problems in that light and focused on Linna. Better to let her have her night of excess under a watchful eye rather than by herself or in a bar somewhere. God only knows where she'd wind up. Linna was looking at her expectantly and Priss wondered what she had missed.

= She asked you what you think she should do. = Arashi had no face, had no body, but Priss knew in that moment she was smirking. < Thanks. >

Priss took another sip of beer and frowned as Linna threw her head back and polished hers off in a quick series of gulps. Oh shit. "Well to be honest Linna, hasn't Nene always been addicted to surfing? I mean, this isn't the first time I've heard you complain about this, only the method has changed. As to your job, well hell, you've been everything from a dancer to an aerobics instructor to a broker, what's one more switch?"

Somewhere in the alcohol-induced fog of her mind, Linna heard what she was saying and understood. It made perfect sense really and suddenly she didn't feel as bad as she had when she'd first arrived. "You're right, Prish! Shheez jussht Nene! Alwayshz hashz been alwayshz will be. And I can get another job! If I want one. I don't know that I want one, Prish. Do I have to?"

Priss shook her head, trying not to laugh as her calm teammate spiraled into a perfect drunken state. "No, you don't have to, Linna but you do like to shop and I understand that that takes money."

Linna grew excited at that and climbed further up the bed, closer to Priss. "Can I tell you shomtheing?" She didn't give Priss a chance to answer. "I have money, loshtz of money. I mean l o t s." She made a concerted effort to say it correctly. "Ingee fixed me right up! I shee the money now, Prish. Lovely, lovely money." She fell forward on to her face next to Priss, who sighed with relief. It was short lived, though as Linna rolled over and looked up at her with wide eyes. "You're lovely, Prish."

Linna reached up and grabbed the front of Priss' shirt, hauling her down and locking her lips against Priss'. Shock kept Priss frozen and it was the hand that tried to climb under her shirt that jolted her into action. Priss jerked her mouth away from Linna's and stumbled back off of the bed. Breathing as if she had run a marathon, Priss watched in disbelief as Linna rolled on to her side and issued a soft snore. "Shit."

= Disappointed? = Arashi was being snide and Priss once again wished she could find a way to strangle the collective. = Not possible, I'm afraid. What are you going to do with her? =

< Get me Inji. >

Inji was remarkably sober and Priss was immediately suspicious. < I thought that you guys were affected when something altered our personalities. Why aren't you drunk? >

= Because all of the collectives have taken steps to insure that doesn't happen again. We've each built a small series of logic chips within our hosts that contain our personalities and will give us the ability to function in case our host is impaired in any way. =

Priss fumed silently as she considered the implications of this, but after looking at it from all sides, she realized that it was something that needed to be done. Damn. < So what's the story with Nene? >

Inji sighed, or at least the nanobots version of sighing. = Seiki has been encouraging her to explore the system more than she would usually and Nene has been listening. I've been discussing it with her and she's promised not to lead Nene astray again. =

= It wasn't astray, just a little out of bounds. = Seiki wasn't repentant in the least and Priss scowled. < Well your 'out of bounds' just caused both Nene and Linna a great deal of pain. >

Seiki was silent and Priss wondered why she could feel Seiki's remorse.

= Another safe guard. In the event that one of the enclaves is… inoperable, another can step in and organize things until they return. To do this we established a limited, permanent connection. =

Priss resisted the urge to scream. < Didn't it occur to you to ask first? >

= You would have refused. = Arashi answered calmly as if it made perfect sense. Priss was about to reply when Taisei interrupted.

= Sylia would like to speak to everyone, including the hosts. Is that acceptable? =

Priss stiffened and looked at Linna. < Sure, but Linna's out of it. >

Inji spoke up. = I can take care of that. =

Seiki announced that Nene was here, so to speak and suddenly her voice rang in Priss' mind. <What's Linna doing in your bed, Priss? >

Priss took exception to her tone. < Why do you care? Is the system down? Looking for a little diversion in between rides? > Nene's hurt was a tangible thing and Priss immediately felt bad. <You know damn well that I can barely stand to have anyone touch me now, so cool your jets and apologize to Linna when she sobers up! >

The abrupt silence was deafening and suddenly Priss knew that Sylia had heard her.

Linna got off the bed and waved to Priss on her way out the door. "I'll see you there, Priss."

Priss realized that she couldn't hear what the others had said and she yelled for Arashi, unexpectedly afraid of the absence of sound. "Arashi!"

= Yes, Priss? =

< Don't yes me, damn it. What did Sylia want? >

= She said not to bother you with it. =

< Arashi. > The threat was evident and Arashi humored her by pretending to give in even though she had been going to tell her any way.

= The Delta Complex is being moved and Sylia's going to attack it in transit. = Priss felt the familiar excitement heat her blood as she pictured the battle that would occur. "When?"

= In fifteen minutes. = Priss cursed and grabbed her motorcycle helmet on her way out the door.

Linna helped Sylia drag the large crate on board, wishing that her head didn't pound with every step. Nene followed, carrying two impulse cannons and trying not to laugh at Linna's obvious discomfort. Mackie helped them secure the crate of ammunition and then went to load the motoslaves. He paused in the hatchway and looked back at Sylia. "Should I load Priss' bike as well?"

Sylia ignored the questioning looks that the others sent her and set the cannons into their rack. "No." Mackie hesitated like he wanted to say something, but the emotionless expression on her face stopped him.

Linna was baffled. "What could be the final showdown with Genom and Priss isn't coming? I can't believe it."

"No kidding. I thought she had already gone ahead. Why wouldn't she come, Sylia?" Nene set her helmet on her seat.

"I didn't ask her to."

Nene froze and stared at her in disbelief. Linna was incredulous. "You what? Sylia that's crazy! Priss is our strongest fighter! How are we supposed to do this without her?"

"You're not." They all turned to see Priss standing in the hatchway. She was in her armor, her helmet tucked under her arm and a cigarette between her lips. Nene and Linna were so glad to see her that they cheered, but Sylia had focused on the cigarette and was adding another sin that had resulted from her actions.

Priss stepped aside to allow Mackie room to wheel Sylia's bike in and smiled at his excited grin. "Don't forget mine while you're at it, Ace."

"You got it, Priss!" He whistled his way back to the hanger and Priss' smile lasted until he had gone. It slowly died as she glanced at Sylia. "Sorry to gate crash, but you know how I love a good free-for-all."

Sylia nodded and then resumed loading weapons. "I assume that Arashi briefed you?"

So, we're going to play it polite and distant. Okay, that works. "Yeah. Sounds like you flushed your quarry with your little buying spree." If there was an edge in her voice, it was one that only she and Sylia heard.

Nene laughed. "You bet she did! I've never seen so many simultaneous search strands from Genom to the web!"

Sylia halted her trip to the hanger and spun around on her heal to stare at Nene in suspicion. "Search strands?"

Nene felt herself flush. "Uh…" She sent a panicked plea for help to Linna, who merely shrugged. < Well she was going to find out anyway. > Nene nodded reluctantly as Mackie brought in Priss' bike. "Okay, I guess I'm caught. Seiki's been linking me directly into the system." Mackie sent her a reassuring smile as he ducked into the cockpit. Priss ignored them and checked her bike.

Sylia knew exactly what she was talking about. It had been something that she had wanted to attempt, but hadn't had a chance. "I see. Well that should make this a little easier then. Nene, see what you can do about scrambling the guard's command codes, turn them against each other if you can." It probably wouldn't work, but it might distract them for a few precious moments.

Linna gritted her teeth at the request and didn't look at Nene.

Eyes narrowed, Priss watched Sylia check the seals on her armor and motion to the others that they were ready to go. Priss wondered if Sylia realized that she had forgotten to check her bike's status. She knelt beside Sylia's motoslave and began a thorough check of its systems. Sylia flushed as she saw what Priss was doing. She resisted the urge to kneel beside Priss and help as she had so many times in the past. Priss had made it pretty clear that she didn't want Sylia near her. Instead, she stepped into the cockpit and told Mackie to launch. Taisei was supportive. = She needs time, Sylia. = Sylia heard her, but didn't respond.

The quick flash of flame caught her attention and she saw Priss' features bathed in the glow of her lighter as she lit another cigarette. The flame winked out and Sylia blinked at the shadow that seemed to fall over Priss' face. She shivered as a weird sense of foreboding gripped her. "Nene? Can you check the Genom system? See if anything seems out of place?" Nene nodded and leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. Sylia realized that she was connecting to the system and briefly wondered what it was like.

Linna shut the lid of the ammo crate with more force than necessary, making Nene jump, who blushed at Linna's glare and held up her hands in a 'what can I do gesture.' Priss had been startled by the sound as well, but she recovered quickly, drawing on her cigarette and letting the soothing bite of the nicotine flood her system. Sylia had seen her reaction and cursed herself again.

Linna almost wished she had a knife so she could test the old saying 'tension so thick you could cut it'. She stole covert glances at Priss and Sylia, wishing that she could just snap her fingers and everything return to the way it was. = An interesting idea. = Inji was feeling the same sense of unsettlement that Linna was. Arashi had recovered from the ordeal, but she seemed quiet, even for her. Taisei had practically become a recluse and she speculated that it was in response to Sylia's own sense of self-exile.

Nene checked the data flowing in and out of Genom carefully, not wanting to trip any security measures. She had yet to do so, but Seiki had warned her that it could be dangerous if she did. Everything seemed fine, but she ran the checks again just to be sure. She ignored the fact that Linna was glaring at her and resisted the urge to stay linked. She broke the link and looked at Sylia. "There's a lot of activity, but considering what's happening tonight, it's no more than I would expect to see."

Sylia nodded and turned to the screen that illuminated the far wall. Several targets were marked and she laid out the plan for tonight's raid.

In the outskirts of MegaTokyo lived the lost souls that the city had claimed. They were the homeless and the forgotten, the drug addicts and the cyber junkies. Society's cast offs, left to die in the cold shadows of the city that loomed over them like a shroud. Business was conducted at the point of a knife or the end of a club, and witnessed by the predators around them. A look could get you killed and a question would get you killed faster. In a bizarre way, this misplaced corner had been the perfect place to hide Genom's most secret research facility. Even if someone had suspected it was the there, they rarely lived long enough to get to the apparently abandoned building that housed the Delta Complex.

The actual complex was extended some thirty stories underground and spread out under the city for over three miles. When the second great earthquake had struck, no one comprehended the fact that it had been caused by the massive underground excavation required to build the facility. It had taken over three thousand boomers almost ten years to build the site and now they were going to try and move it all in one day.

Not the building itself, but the massive amounts of equipment and research that was now feared to be in danger. If the plan went accordingly then everything would be relocated on their moon base by midnight tomorrow.

But Sylia Stingray had other plans.

In the continual twilight of cyberspace, It waited. Time had little meaning to It now and if it had thought about it, It might have regretted the loss of that. Once It had lived by the passage of time, had toiled by it and had strived to outrun it, but in the end, its time had run out. Reborn into this world It had struggled to survive and to learn, always to learn, because in the last echoes of what it had been It knew that there was power in knowledge.

The multicolored strands that swept through the system would have once been considered beautiful, but now they were nothing more than a means to an end. And the end was coming. It could feel it. When the bright one had first appeared It had fled, fearing that it's enemy had discovered its existence. Hiding in the places that the bright one could not follow, It had studied this delicate invader and had finally comprehended what she was.

Nene gripped the data strand and twisted it back on itself. In real time, the two boomers who had been about to attack her turned on each other. As the effects of Nene's manipulations rippled across the battlefield, the others took quick advantage of it.

Priss raced through the confused boomers, firing repeatedly at the large airship that the more critical equipment had been loaded onto. The engines had engaged and it had been attempting to lift off when Priss had blown the rear controls and sent it crashing to the ground. As she continued to fire at the ship Linna stationed herself at Priss' back and picked off the smaller ships.

Sylia moved like lightening across what had once been an abandoned parking lot, her saber slashing methodically through the unresisting mechanoids. A trail of explosions followed in her wake and when the Dobermans were released, they had an easy path to follow.

Nene felt the jolt when the Dobermans were added to the battle grid she was manipulating and she warned the others quickly, even as she tried to stop their approach. <Dobermans! Six of them! Sylia you've got two of them coming in at six o'clock. Priss. Linna. Three heading your way at two o'clock. I'm trying to take over their command line, but-> Sylia cut her off. < Don't! The defense protocols of Dobermans are too dangerous. Turn the surviving boomers against them and pull back to the Knight Wing, understand? >

Nene heard her and acknowledged, but she just knew that she could stop them. She did fall back to the plane, but she remained hooked into the system and tried to divert the Dobermans. She carefully began to twist and turn the data as it flowed to the heavily armored boomers. She had almost managed to bypass the codes when the security program struck. It swept out over the strands she was holding and wrapped around her, immobilizing Nene completely. The program then tried to 'erase' her, thinking she was another program. Nene screamed as the charge shot through her and dimly she wondered why it was hurting if it wasn't real. Seiki was scrambling to block the attack, but wasn't having much luck. If they didn't break the connection then Nene would die from the shock. = Focus Nene! Help me repel the program! = But Nene was unable to hear her.

Sylia heard her scream and broke off her attack to rush to her aide. "Nene!" She saw the Doberman advancing on Nene in the same instant that the two behind her attacked. Sylia leaped high into the air and the rockets that they had launched against her struck the boomer attacking Nene. It exploded in a wild mass of fire and metal and Sylia had a brief glimpse of Nene's armor, laying near the plane having been blown backwards to safety. < Mackie! Get Nene inside and set the external defenses. > She turned back to the Dobermans who were pursuing her. "I believe you were looking for me?" Sylia blanked her mind and charged them.

Priss saw her from the edge of her vision and began to curse, her volume rising steadily as she backpedaled, trying to find an opening with the boomer in front of her. The Dobermans were the most heavily armored security boomers that were made. Designed to work in the weightless environment of space they had one disadvantage on earth: they were a little slow. Priss fired again with the impulse cannon and bit back a cry of frustration, as the round had no apparent effect. The triggered clicked uselessly and she tossed the empty weapon aside as the Doberman attacked.

The motoslave absorbed most of the shock from the first blow and Priss was only slightly dazed as she opened fire with her rail gun. The spears struck the boomer in the face and it fell back, roaring. Priss didn't waste the reprieve and the knuckle bombs on both fists primed as she rushed forward. The blows landed side by side in the center of the Doberman's chest, triggering the explosions that blew a small hole in its armor. Priss immediately fired three more rails into the opening and back flipped as it swung at her. She stopped several yards away and focused on the boomer as Linna darted in front of her, two Dobermans in pursuit. "If you don't mind, Priss, I could use a hand here."

"I'm not exactly doing my nails here, Linna." Still she took a moment to strike out at one of the boomers as it passed, turning its attention to her. "Oh great." Priss rolled away from the new threat and wondered where Sylia was.

Sylia watched the plasma blade pass effortlessly through the boomer's neck and turned to face it's partner. The helmet hid her feral smile as she advanced on the Doberman. "Thanks for waiting."

In the vast void of cyberspace, Nene Romanova was dying. Surges of energy shuddered through her as the security program tried to halt the threat to the Doberman's systems. Seiki fought to keep her connected to herself, knowing that all would be lost if she were severed from her body. The energy attacks were scrambling her communications and she had no way of calling for help. Nene could feel her mind trying to shut down and tried to stay focused on the program that was attacking her. If she could just find a way to breach it. Thoughts kept getting in her way though. Linna filled her mind and Nene regretted her actions and hoped that she would get a chance to apologize. She was losing her grasp on her link and Nene cried out as she felt a peculiar darkness claiming her.

There was a strange tremor in the system and suddenly the attacking program was gone. Nene gasped as the pain stopped as suddenly as it began and opened her eyes in time to see the security program dissolve into nothing. Nene felt her heart shoot into her throat as she stared at the being that had saved her life.

Dark shadows seemed to surround the man standing before her, wrapping around him like a cloak and hiding his features. Nene opened her mouth to speak and found she couldn't. She swallowed hard. "H-Hi." The shadow didn't respond, didn't move. "Thank you. You saved my life." Feeling a little more confident, Nene got to her feet, noticing as she did the shadow strand that was flowing from the being. "You're the one leaving the shadow trace!" She clapped a hand over her mouth, hoping that she hadn't said something wrong.

The sound that came from the phantasm wasn't at first recognizable, but after a moment Nene realized it was laughter. Something told her that this man did not laugh often, as the sound was hoarse and hesitant. "Who are you?"

Its head tilted to the side and seemed to consider this. "I have no name."

Seiki was comparing it to everything she had come across in their wanderings, but nothing compared to the creature. = I don't think that it's linked to the real world. =

"Where do you come from?"

Again, the dark head tilted slightly. "I do not know. I… am. I… exist."

Nene tried again. "When did you start to exist?"

"I have always existed." It sounded surer than it felt. IT had no memories of its creation, but somehow IT knew that it had once been like her.

Nene blinked. "Riiiight." She was vaguely aware of the battle that was still going on in the real world and Mackie calling to her. "I wish I could stay and talk to you some more, but my friends need me." There was no outward sign that the entity had heard her. Nene shrugged. "Okay, goodbye."

A dark hand was hesitantly stretched towards her. "You are… leaving?"

"Yes. I need to help my friends."

There was an almost frightened quality to its response. "But… where do you go?"

Nene realized that it had no knowledge of the real world. "I'm afraid that it would take more time than I have to explain. I'll be back though. We can talk then, okay?"

A grave nod was the only reply.

Linna let the laser ribbons that trailed behind her helmet whip around as she ducked past the Doberman and they sliced through its arm, severing it. She danced away, looking for another opening. In the back of her mind, she could hear Inji trying to raise Nene and Seiki with no luck. Linna pushed it out of her mind and returned to the boomer. Nene would be fine. She had to be.

Priss continued to fire at her boomer as she radioed Mackie for a weapon drop. "I need the mag-gun! I'm going to let this thing chase me near the plane. Have it ready."

Mackie already had the weapon waiting. "Ready whenever you are Priss." He didn't tell her that Nene had not recovered yet. It would only be a distraction and might cause them to lose focus.

Sylia watched the main airship begin to collapse, section-by-section and felt an odd sense of detachment. Was this what she had hoped to achieve? Genom would be on its knees after this blow, but that would not bring her father back. It would not return the lives of all those that died at Genom's hands. Sylia wondered if she had ever had a clear goal in this war. The sound of Priss' frantic call for back up snapped her from her musings and she sprinted to where she had last seen them.

The Doberman just refused to die and Priss was getting a little pissed. She'd fired three magnetic mines at the thing and none of them had even left a scratch.

Linna tried to neutralize its arm guns as she had before, but this boomer was ready for her. It caught the ribbons and used them to fling Linna away and into the inferno of the airship. She crashed into the burning wreckage and had to dig her way out, costing her valuable time. She could feel her suit beginning to overheat and sweat began to drip down her face. Warning lights began to flash and she had a brief moment to wonder if this was how it would end when something yanked her from the blaze. Linna looked up, expecting to see Priss or even Sylia. She was totally surprised to see Nene's familiar red armor standing above her. Nene helped her to stand and touched the side of Linna's helmet with metal fingers. "Are you all right?" Linna nodded. "Good. I'm sorry, Linna. I didn't mean to ignore you or make you feel abandoned. I gotta go help Priss, but then we'll talk. You take a breather, 'K?" Not waiting for a reply, Nene zipped off, leaving Linna to stare after her in a warm confusion.

The two remaining boomers had adapted to Priss and Linna's styles of fighting which was what was making them so hard to defeat. Sylia noted this absently as she decapitated one and spun around to slice through the middle of the other. Priss watched the fluid grace that was so inherent in all of Sylia's moves and a slight smile parted her lips as the boomers were dispatched with that deadly efficiency. They exploded around her and Priss felt her breath catch as she saw Sylia silhouetted by twin explosions. The sudden desire that burst through her, left Priss gasping and she didn't think she had ever wanted Sylia more than in that moment. Regret that it could not be followed quickly, choking the desire and clogging Priss' throat with tears. "Damn it to hell."

Sylia heard her comment and turned to her. "Sorry if I spoiled your fun Priss, but we need to secure the rest of the convoy." She ignored the pang at Priss' words, assuming that she had upset her in some way. Sylia targeted a smaller truck and opened fire, feeling a small release of tension as the fireball engulfed the truck next to it as well. Maybe this was why Priss wanted to break things when she was angry. Sylia didn't have time to speculate as the contents of the second truck walked from the flames.

Priss saw the boomer and felt a trickle of dread sweep over her. Taller than the military boomers and seemingly more armored than the Dobermans, this boomer might be a bit more than they were prepared for.

Sylia watched the boomer approach and sighed. Damn Genom and their nightmare experiments! She extended her plasma blade and charged the boomer head on.

Priss saw what she was doing and yelled at her over the com link. "No! Sylia stop!"

The words had a startling effect on Sylia as she raced to meet the boomer. Please, Sylia! Stop! Stop it, Sylia! The echoes of Priss' frightened pleas rang through her mind and Sylia could feel them chasing her as she leapt into the air and began to fall towards her target. In the instant before she made contact with the boomer, she had a thought: Did she really want to survive this? In that split second as time slowed to a crawl, Sylia could see herself clearly, could see herself stay that killing blow and then time snapped back to speed in a dizzying rush as the boomer opened fire. The blast splintered her armor like glass and she soared backwards, crashing to the ground with a chilling screech of metal on asphalt.

Sylia watched the flames reaching high into the sky and wondered why there was no pain. She could hear Priss and the others calling to her and she saw the faint glimmer of dawn creeping between the surrounding buildings. She wondered again, why there was no pain. Maybe she was dead. Taisei was speaking to her, trying to reassure her, telling her to hang on, but Sylia doubted that the enclave realized that she was dead. She looked down at the shards of armor that were twisted inward on the defenseless flesh inside. Blood was pooling around her and she saw the reflection of the flames dancing across it. She must be dead then. Taisei was yelling at her and frantically trying to stop the bleeding. As Sylia lost consciousness, she wondered if this nightmare would end now.

Priss fired at the boomer as she tried to get closer to Sylia. The machine seemed determined to keep her from her lover and that infuriated the young woman. Priss took the mag-gun from Linna and marched right up to the boomer. "Get. The. Hell. Out. Of. My. Way! As it charged her, she opened fire and emptied the entire clip of nine magnetic grenades into its chest. The resulting explosion didn't leave enough remains to sweep into a thimble and Priss immediately shed what was left of the motoslave and ran to Sylia.

The confusing jumble of blood and armor gave Priss new material for her nightmares. <Taisei! >

= I'm here, Priss. She's alive, but just barely. We need to get her to the plane immediately. = She needed a doctor of course, but Taisei was very much afraid that Sylia would not make it to the hospital without aid.

Priss picked up the shattered armor and raced for the plane. Mackie met her at the hanger door, his face pale and his eyes frightened. "What the hell was she thinking?"

= She hesitated in the critical moment. = Taisei tried to stabilize Sylia's heart rate with little success. = I managed to repair the damage done to her memory a few weeks ago. She remembers everything and that's why she's been on self-destruct. =

She laid Sylia down on the deck and climbed out of her armor. <You did what? Are you insane? Sylia didn't need to remember that! >

= She thought so and in truth, so do I. Sylia felt that she couldn't even begin to mend the rift between the two of you until she knew exactly what had caused it. = Taisei focused on Mackie. = Mackie, we have to get airborne as soon as possible, but stay low, all right? = Mackie said nothing, but reluctantly turned towards the cockpit. He looked back at Priss over his shoulder. "Keep me posted?" Priss nodded.

She knelt beside Sylia, picking up her argument with Taisei from where she had stopped. <Obviously, you were both wrong! > Mackie started the engines as something crashed into the side of the plane. Nene and Linna went out to stop the stray boomers that were attacking them. Priss pulled Sylia's armor away and inhaled sharply. Sylia was struggling for each breath. Priss heard the low gurgle and knew they were running out of time. "We have to get her to the clinic!"

= Yes, but she won't make it in time. Everything we need is in here. = Priss ripped the large medical kit from the hull and opened it beside Sylia. "Now what?"

= Brace yourself, this might be a little uncomfortable. = Arashi sounded apologetic.

"What are-?" Pain ripped through Priss' head and her mind seemed to ignite as Arashi dumped every scrap of medical knowledge that Taisei had been able to accumulate into Priss' mind. She grabbed her head and sank to her knees as the information kept coming and in some tiny corner of her brain she knew that she was going insane. Gradually the pain began to recede and awareness returned. Arashi and Taisei were yelling at her to help Sylia. Priss pulled herself back together as best she could. "You. God. Damn. Bastards." She was breathless and she wobbled slightly as she reached for what she would need.

Priss automatically washed her hands in alcohol, snapped on a pair of sterile gloves and grabbed a pair of large bandage scissors. She cut away Sylia's inner soft suit, exposing the lacerations down her chest. Priss was vaguely aware that they had lifted off and she saw Nene kneel beside them out of the corner of her eye. "Priss! How is she?" Priss tossed her an ambubag. "Assist respiration." Nene awkwardly did as she asked while Priss carefully and quickly palpated Sylia's chest, feeling the soft areas where muscle and bone had been crushed. She wiped away some of the blood and inspected the wounds, wincing as she saw the bubbles forming. "Damn. Taisei? You're my x-ray. Show me." Images flooded her mind and Priss could see the internal injuries clearly.

"Oh God."

= Don't panic, Priss. I can control the bleeding and damage to her kidneys and liver. You focus on the larger injuries that I can't help. =

"Damn you, Taisei! You should have warned me about the damage to her spine! I shouldn't have moved her."

= I can repair that. I can't do anything about the blood currently filling her chest. =

Mumbling to herself as she worked, Priss raced to stabilize Sylia. "Heimlich one-way valve…come on Sylia! You've got every other God Damn medical thing in here…where are the stupid chest tubes?" She pawed through the large case, until she found the set she needed. Priss tore open the package and connected the large-bore catheter. Linna winced as Priss picked up a scalpel and made an incision at Sylia's side. She pushed the catheter in and was rewarded by the immediate release of fluid that had been building in Sylia's chest. "Linna, grab some bandages and pack the area around the tube."

Priss grabbed an IV bag of Ringer's lactate from the medical kit and a tube set. She turned Sylia's head away, splashed alcohol onto her neck and shoulder, and opened a large caliber needle. Priss took a deep breath and began, muttering under her breath as she worked. "Inferior junction… medial and middle clavicle… behind the clavicle and towards the posterior… sternal end." Priss watched the blood flow into the needle and sighed in relief. "Well that worked." She removed the syringe, quickly covering the needle with a fingertip to prevent an air embolism and inserted the catheter. Priss removed the needle and connected the catheter to the IV tubing. Tearing open a suture pack, she stitched the catheter in place. "Linna, hang the bag from the weapon rack and put a bandage around that catheter."

Linna did as instructed shooting Priss a worried glance. Her face was almost devoid of color and her eyes were huge. "Are you okay?"

Priss ignored her. "Taisei, what are her vitals?" Taisei told her and she increased her speed. "This feels so strange. It's like being possessed." Her words struck something and she wondered if that was what Sylia had felt like. Returning her attention to Sylia, she picked up the scalpel and made an incision between two of the larger wounds, allowing her access to the damaged arteries. Priss began to close off bleeders with several vascular clamps and set sutures in a few less serious lacerations. It was like a weird dream. The knowledge was there, but in the vast amounts of data there was nothing about the way the blood would smell or how slippery an artery could be between your fingers. Priss vowed that she would let herself puke her guts out just as soon as this was over.

= Her blood pressure is falling, Priss. =

"Damn! Linna, increase the IV flow rate of lactated Ringer's."

Linna looked at her blankly. "The IV Linna! Turn the little valve to the left." Cursing under her breath, Priss nodded as Linna did as she had instructed. "I'm going to make those psychotic little monsters pay for this."

She'd managed to stop most of the bleeding and had removed several large pieces of shrapnel by the time they reached the clinic. Linna and Nene donned their helmets and rushed Sylia inside to the waiting trauma team. Priss began to clean up the remains of her hurried surgery and silently prayed that Sylia would be all right. To distract herself she tried to focus on something else. "Now answer me truthfully, you fanatical little widgets. Can you remove this mess that you've just made in my head?"

Nene and Linna entered as she spoke. "Why would you want to Priss? You're practically a doctor! You're better than a doctor! You can remember everything." Nene was too cheerful for Priss' present mood.

"That's the problem. I now know three different procedures for by-pass surgery, Nene. Where in the hell am I going to need or use that?" She tossed the bloody bandages into a corner and then wrapped the surgical instruments in a plastic bag to be cleaned later. "I'm a singer, remember?"

Nene saw her point. "Well? Can you remove the knowledge?"

Arashi and Taisei were reluctant to answer and Priss took that for a no. "Thank you so damn much! I sincerely hope that I can return your little favor one day."

Linna snickered. "Looks like you're a singing surgeon, now." She ducked as Priss threw her helmet at her. "Come on, Priss. Surely it's not that bad?"

Priss groaned and shook her head. "I have no problem with the sight of blood, Linna, but do you have any idea how gross certain internal organs feel?"

Linna blanched and Priss nodded. "I now have a huge amount of knowledge swimming in my head that I pray I never have to use again. It's all I can do to keep from losing my dinner now."

= We did it to save Sylia. = Rather than placating Priss, Taisei's words had the opposite effect.

"And that's another thing! Why in the hell didn't you stop her?! Arashi was able to knock me out on demand, why couldn't you?"

= She acted without thinking! Do you understand? The first indication I had was when I saw the boomer in front of us. =

Mackie poked his head out of the cockpit. "Should we head home or wait here?"

Priss wearily eased herself into her seat and lit a cigarette with shaking hands. Now that it was over, she could feel reaction setting in. "Take us home, Mackie. Taisei can keep us posted on her condition and we need to ditch the Knight Wing before somebody starts making connections. Believe me, there's nothing we can do at the hospital right now. It's in the doctors hands." < Taisei? Arashi? Find a way to let me see what they're doing to Sylia. >

= We'll try. = They conferred for a few seconds and then found a way to access the operating room cameras. Priss leaned back, closed her eyes and watched strangers fight for Sylia's life.

Sylia opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling above her. Confused, she tried to sit up and immediately gave up that idea with the rush of pain that washed over her. Her chest felt like a boomer had sat on it and she groaned. Sylia looked down at herself and saw a swath of bandages around her chest and abdomen. A clear tube ran down her arm and over to an IV stand that also contained a heart monitor. Sylia tried to recall how she had come to be here and Taisei was more than willing to help her. Memory returned and she groaned at her foolish behavior. Without a doubt, the stupidest thing I've ever done.

= Yes it was. = Taisei was furious. =After everything that she's been through, you think that your death will help her in any way? =

Shaking her head, Sylia answered. < No, my death wouldn't solve anything. I wasn't trying to kill myself; at least, I don't think I was. > She shifted slightly, feeling the pain spread through her chest and ribs. < How bad was it? >

= You almost died… again. You almost didn't make it here. =

The door swung open and Dr. Juubei entered and smiled as he saw that she was awake. "Incredible. After injuries that extensive, I thought you would be unconscious for days."

Sylia smiled faintly. "Put it down to amazing recuperative powers."

He shut the door. "And several million nanomachines."

Sylia's face went blank and the doctor smiled reassuringly. "Now, now, don't panic. I knew what was going on after the first time you came in. After your 'car accident'. Hmph! Car accident!" He wagged a finger at her reprovingly. "Plasma burns are not a usual side effect of a car accident." Dr. Juubei took the seat beside her bed and leaned back with a tired sigh. "Don't look so surprised Sylia. I was a close friend of your father's, isn't that why you hired me?"

Sylia slowly nodded at the older man. He had been a good friend and a trusted one. She had needed a doctor she could trust with the Knight Saber's secret, but she'd had no idea that he had discovered the nanobots. Sylia wondered why he was telling her now.

"I knew what he was working on and I also know that he would be horrified at the way his work has been perverted by Genom. I was and am glad to be able to help your Knight Sabers, but now I'm worried. The hematoma a few weeks ago and now this… Sylia, you… you seem to be growing rather reckless and I wonder if you shouldn't take a break for a while.

"I hardly think that's nec-."

He leaned forward suddenly and pointed to the bandages that covered her. "Yes, it is. Sylia, if you didn't have a skilled medic on your team, then we would not be having this conversation. The level of reconstructive surgery that you required was extensive and I'm concerned about how your nanotechnology will react with the new implants."

"I-Implants?" Sylia wondered why the thought shook her so. "What did you have to do?"

Dr. Juubei opened the file he had been carrying and began to describe both the nature of her injuries and the steps taken to correct them. "Your entire rib cage was shattered. There wasn't enough viable bone left to repair them so we replaced them with fiber alloy, something I'm sure you're familiar with."

Indeed she was. The light weight material was used at the joints of each hard suit because of its strength and resilience.

"We were forced to replace your left kidney, but were able to leave the liver as it seemed like it was trying to repair itself. The same goes with your colon, spleen and your lungs. I found no damage to your heart, which by the way is impossible so I'm assuming that the nanotechnology repaired that first." He skimmed over his notes and nodded to himself. "Oh yes. Your back was broken in three places. You should be paralyzed from the neck down, but again, I'd say that any nerve damage was repaired. I found sutures along several of the major arteries, but they had almost healed by the time you got to me. Beautiful work by the way. My compliments to your medic."

Sylia wondered what had happened from the time she went down to the time she arrived at the hospital. "Cosmetically, we repaired everything that we could with the intention of another surgery, but you're healing fine without it." Sylia touched a hand to her bound breasts and the doctor nodded. "I don't even think you'll scar. Your IV has a massive dose of vitamins and minerals. I'm assuming that the nanos will need them?"

Sylia nodded. "Yes. Raw materials, so to speak." She had an artificial kidney. Metal bones. Somehow that disturbed her more than she thought it would. Dr. Juubei stood and looked down at her. "Sylia I agree with what you're fighting for, but there's no point in waging a war if you aren't around to celebrate the victory. Get some rest. You'll probably be able to go home in a few days, but I urge you to rest for at least a month. You need time heal and I'm sure that the nanos could use the break." He grinned, not realizing how right he was and left her.

Taisei had listened to the doctor's recital and decided to jump in. = I could have fixed that kidney, if he'd given me a chance. I just considered the lungs, liver and spinal cord a little more urgent. = The defensive tone had Sylia smiling slightly. <I'm sure you did your best. Thank you, for fixing my blunder. >

= I didn't do it alone. Priss sewed you back together. =

Sylia lay frozen as this sank in. < Priss? >

= There was no one closer and I knew that you wouldn't make it to a hospital in time. There wasn't another option. = Taisei was matter of fact.

< I don't know why. After what I did-. > Arashi cut her off. She'd just been waiting for Sylia to wake up so that she could chew her out.

= You idiot! You self-serving, whining, bitch! = Sylia flinched as the verbal assault continued. =Poor Sylia! Are you trying to drive a wedge between you and Priss? Get this through your think head; Priss loves you. That hasn't changed and from what I can see, it never will. = Arashi felt the burst of anger fading and added. = Wake up Sylia and stop wallowing in self-pity. Priss needs you to be strong right now. She needs you. = Arashi left as suddenly as she appeared.

Taisei was getting impatient with her as well, but was far subtler. Suddenly Sylia could see Priss defeating the boomer and racing to her. She felt her anguish at seeing Sylia lying in a pool of blood and she saw Priss fall as Arashi mass loaded Priss' memory, knowing how much it had cost her. Sylia watched Priss fight furiously to save her life and then felt her frustration at having to sit by helplessly as the doctors finished what she had started.

A light knock pulled her from her thoughts and she looked up to see Mackie standing in the doorway. "Hi."

"Mackie." Sylia smiled at the flowers he held and waved him inside. "I'm so glad to see you. I was afraid..." She shook her head.

Mackie set the flowers on the tray beside the bed and sat down beside her. "How are you feeling?"

Sylia laughed unpleasantly. "Physically? Like I've been kicked by a very large animal. Emotionally? You don't want to know."

He took her hand and squeezed it reassuringly. "Well you look a lot better."

"Hard not to. I guess I screwed up."

Mackie shook his head. "Nope. Just reminded yourself that you're human."

"Not so much now. I can't believe how arrogant I was with Priss when she lost her arm. 'Here Priss, use this machine. You won't even miss your own arm.' How blind I was." Sylia's obvious self-disgust made Mackie frown as he studied his sister.

"You did what was needed Sylia. Besides, that's over and done with now. Priss is very happy with her arm and you'll adapt to your implants as well. Tearing yourself up over something you can't change won't help anything."

"You're right of course. I guess I'm just surprised at how much this has upset me. I always thought that I wasn't very human before because of the nanos, but now," She shrugged, "Now I realize the difference."

"Sylia, you know better. The things that make us human aren't our limbs and organs, but our hearts."

Sylia looked at him speculatively. "You're very positive lately."

Mackie grinned. "Self defense. You and Priss haven't exactly been the picture of domestic bliss."

"She doesn't want anything to do with me and I can't blame her."

"Sylia, I saw Priss fight for your life with a determination that she's never shown before. Under all the fears, doubts and problems, she still loves you."

"But how do I fix this?"

"Not by yourself. That's the trick Sylia. You can't fix Priss' problems. You can't wave a magic wand and make everything right again. You're going to have to go to her and the both of you work together to overcome this."

Sylia knew he was right, but she realized that she was afraid. Afraid that Priss would reject her. It was easier to sit and bemoan what had happened that it was to try and repair it and Sylia suddenly understood that she had been hiding. Too simple, girl. You should have seen this sooner. You've wasted weeks allowing yourself to play the injured party, but you're not the one who's hurting.

But where to start?

Nene winced as Linna scowled and began to pace the carpet in front of her. "What! Nene, why didn't you tell me about this sooner?" Because I knew you'd do exactly this, she thought silently and wished that Linna would stop towering over her. She abruptly realized that Linna was still waiting for an answer and spoke quickly. "Well, there was the battle that was going on and then Sylia got hurt and then-."

Linna held up a hand. "Okay, okay. I see. Now tell me about this thing you ran into in the system."

Reluctantly Nene did so, not sure that Linna was going to see the entity in the same light she did. Linna didn't. "I knew this mental surfing thing was dangerous!"

Nene shook her head. 'No, Linna, its not! It-he saved me! I almost died Linna and he saved me. Whatever he is, he isn't evil or anything."

Linna was unconvinced. "Nene you can't keep doing this. There's no way of knowing who or what this thing is. You shouldn't link anymore."

The stubborn look on Nene's face said more than words and Linna knew that she was wasting her breath. "Have you seen him since?"

"No. I've seen the fading trails that he leaves, but not him. I've tried to trace them, but they are routed through so many different ports that it's impossible. He didn't find me by accident that night. He had to know what was going on and where I was." Nene shivered as she suddenly grasped the full implications of that. "He knows who I am."

Linna paced faster, arms folded across her chest as she thought. "Well, we definitely need to tell Sylia. She'll probably have a better idea of what this thing is."

"I haven't the slightest idea, Linna." Sylia sat propped up in the hospital bed looking slightly frazzled. Linna was torn between amazement that she could look frazzled and shock that Sylia didn't know what the creature was.

"Surely you've heard of something. Maybe Mackie mentioned something-." Sylia was shaking her head. "No. I would have remembered, believe me. It sounds fascinating, though. I wish I were in better shape. I'd have Taisei link me as well. We could go on a little hunting trip."

Linna blinked and stared at Sylia, completely nonplused by her comment. Even Nene was surprised. "Um, Sylia? Are you feeling all right?" Nene's eyes grew round and she cast an anxious glance at Linna. "You're not…I mean…you didn't get hit on the head did you?"

Sylia shook her head, her expression amused. "No Nene. In fact, my head was the one thing that didn't get banged up. I'm just restless and bored." So bored that going out and looking for a net being that could kill them seemed like a good idea.

Linna was scowling at her and Sylia sighed. < What's her problem? >

= Linna and Nene have been arguing about her linking with the system. Apparently, Linna even stormed out the evening before the raid. It's been remarkably similar to a soap opera lately. = Taisei's tone made it clear that she was suffering through the angst that her counterparts seemed determined to engage in. = I think Inji and Seiki have been at it as well. There's no such thing as a quiet moment anymore. = The injured air brought a tiny smile to Sylia's lips.

Nene and Linna had launched into an argument and know Sylia knew that the reason it sounded like they were repeating well-worn lines was because they were. She resisted the urge to pull the covers up over her head and wished that she were home as it was apparent that she'd never get any rest here.

Priss opened her door and groaned when she saw Linna. "Not again."

Linna shook her head and held up a six-pack of soda. "Not exactly. I learned my lesson."

Priss grinned and waved her inside. "Thank God for that. You drunk is a dangerous thing."

Blushing furiously, Linna sat down the couch and tossed Priss a drink. Her memory was a little fuzzy, but she was very much afraid that she might have made a pass at Priss. "I'm sorry about that. I was upset."

Priss brushed aside her apology with a negligent shrug. "Just don't do it again, please. A jealous Nene is almost as frightening as a drunk Linna."

Linna choked on her drink and looked at Priss in amazement. "Nene jealous? You're kidding!"

"I wish. Do you have any idea how disconcerting it is to be threatened by someone six inches shorter than you are? I felt like I should be laughing, but Nene has this weird look she gets when she's really mad that just freaks me out."

Linna had seen that look a lot lately, but had not realized that Priss considered it to be threatening. "It's her 'torn between crying and killing you' look."

"That familiar with it are you?"

"Too familiar lately. I'm just worried about her, Priss. Is that so wrong?"

Priss wondered for the thousandth time how she had fallen into the role of couple counselor. You'd think they'd realize that I'm the worst person to see about these things. "I don't know, Linna. Sometimes I think it might be. Is this anymore dangerous than when Nene puts on her hard suit? Are you planning on stopping her from doing that as well?"

"No of course not, but this is different."

"How?" Priss stared at her contemplatively. "That's it. You're there to protect her when she's in her suit, but this…. You can't protect her when she's linked."

Linna thought about this and realized that Priss was right. She couldn't protect Nene and that was what bothered her most about the whole thing.

Inji was quick to point out. = If you would practice a little and find out what you can and can't do in the system then we might be able to develop some kind of defense abilities. =

< All right. We'll start when we get home. > "Thank you, Priss. You've made me realize what was bugging me about this linking business. You're right, I can't stand not being able to keep Nene safe."

Relieved that Linna was satisfied, Priss drained her soda can and tossed it into the recycler. She wanted to ask about Sylia, but was reluctant. Linna saved her having to ask by volunteering the information. "Sylia is doing better. The doctors say that she'll be able to go home in a few days. Sylia's not too happy about the fact that Dr. Juubei found out about the nanos, but it makes it a little easier to explain why she's healing so fast."

"Oh." Priss said nothing more and Linna knew that she would prefer to change the subject. It bothered her to see her friends hurting like this, but she didn't know how to make things right again. She was beginning to fear that they never would be again. "Give me all your money."

Priss looked at Linna blankly. "Excuse me?"

"I want you to give me your money."

Priss glanced at Linna's empty hands and smirked. "Aren't robbers usually armed?"

"I'm serious, Priss. I can triple anything you give me within two months."

"Uh huh, I bet."

"Trust me, Priss." Something in her voice made Priss consider it. She knew how much losing her job had upset Linna and knew also that she had been trying to find ways to keep herself busy while she decided on what to do next. "What if you lose it all?"

"I'll replace every cent with my own money."

Arashi chimed in. =Go for it! It's only money. = Priss snarled at her to be quiet and went to get her bankbook. She refused to touch her safe deposit boxes though. She handed it to Linna and had the fun of watching her eyes widen as she saw the total.

"Priss!" She looked at Priss and then at the run down trailer and then back at Priss. "Why on earth do you live in this place?"

Priss scowled and wondered why she felt the necessity to defend a home that she herself admitted was on the shabby side. "I like this place, Linna it suits me. Besides, that balance wouldn't be that high if I lived somewhere else."

Linna pocketed the book and smiled at Priss. "Well, you'll at least be able to paint the place when I'm through."

Priss resisted the urge to take it back and mentally waved goodbye to the money. Oh well. "Knock yourself out."

Sylia was released from the hospital four days later. Priss knew this because Arashi was giving her constant updates on her condition, whether she wanted them or not. Priss flew down the highway, aimlessly wandering her way up the coast and wishing she had been braver. Brave enough to see Sylia sooner. Priss reflected inwardly that Sylia's injury might not have been a totally bad thing as it had caused her to care again. The sight of Sylia's blood pouring over her hands made Priss shudder and she blanked the image from her mind. =Nothing like almost losing someone to make you realize how much you love her. = Priss ignored Arashi's gentle prod, knowing that she was impatient for Priss and Sylia to settle things.

= She's not doing well, you know. =

Priss tensed. "What do you mean? Taisei said that she was healing fine. What's wrong?" Mentally running down a list of things that could have happened, Priss again cursed the new knowledge that let her know in explicit detail what things like septic meant. "Is she in pain? Running a fever?"

Arashi wondered at Priss' concern. = One minute she's scared of her and the next she's scared for her. I wish they'd quit dodging each other and talk. =

Taisei was optimistic. = These things take time. = Taisei had even estimated a schedule of time, considering personalities, the level of pain and trauma that would need to be worked through and various other factors contributing to the situation. She graciously shared her schedule with Arashi, who studied it for a moment and then burst into laughter. = You are a seriously disturbed bunch, you know that? Humans will not conform to a set pattern. Erratic behavior is an intrinsic part of what makes them individuals and therefore, impossible to predict. =

= But a continued series of continuous responses to similar- = Arashi interrupted.

= Will give you a slightly better set of odds when trying to guess what a reaction will be. There are no certainties with humans. =

Priss was growing worried with the continued silence and growled at Arashi. <What the hell is wrong with Sylia? >

= Oops. = Arashi ended her conversation with Taisei. = She's not physically ill, Priss. Sylia is depressed. She's not eating or sleeping and Taisei says that she hasn't even looked at the business since she's been home. She seems to have given up. =

Priss thought about this as she rode, letting the information sink in. She'd been there herself, in that dark part of the mind where everything was hopeless and the words that hovered in your thoughts like funeral dirges, were 'why bother?' and 'who cares' and Priss' personal favorite, 'what's the point?'

She couldn't quite picture Sylia in that state. The sense of wrongness was strong and she slowed her bike, pulling off of the road and turning around. No, if Sylia was trying to give up, then Priss was going to have to see her. She ignored the sick roll of fear that twisted in her stomach at the thought and headed back, to Sylia.

Priss stared at the door for a long time before finally gathering her courage and knocking. Nene and Linna had been watching Sylia all day and greeted her at the door. Feeling kind of silly for knocking, Priss was gruff. "How is she?"

Linna shrugged and held up her hands. "Awake, but depressed."

"She's in the bedroom laying down." Nene bit her lip. "Should we take all the knives with us when we go?"

Priss stared at her blankly and then she realized what Nene was worried about. She laughed slightly. "No. If she really wanted to hurt herself then she'd find a way." Priss walked to the closed door and paused. She ruthlessly ignored the trickle of sweat that was currently working its way down her back and gripped the doorknob.

She sat on the window seat, her knees drawn tightly up against her chest and her arms wrapped around them. Priss missed her in her first survey of the room and was turning to leave when she saw her. Suddenly she lost all of the words that she had been going to say. As still as a stone, Sylia didn't betray her awareness of Priss by so much as a flicker of motion. Priss, still trying to find the ability of speech, shut the door and leaned against it.

She forced herself to look around the room and was surprised to see that it had been completely changed. Even the carpet had been replaced and Priss wondered absently if it had been out of remorse or because she couldn't get the bloodstains out. Priss let herself slide down and sat with her back to the door. She wanted so badly to go to Sylia and just hold her, tell her that everything would be okay. But Priss knew from bitter experience that it didn't work that way. In the bright, logical side of her mind, she knew that Sylia was innocent of the crime she was punishing herself for. But in the darker, deeper part that never saw the light and housed Priss' nightmares, Sylia was the star of the newest batch. She could not get past it and Priss was very afraid that it would be the final death knell of their relationship.

Sylia looked out over the city but in her mind, she only saw Priss. The utter betrayal when she had ruthlessly taken away her arm, leaving her virtually defenseless in more ways than one. Saw her face as she had chained her down, cut her, raped her. Those images would go with her to her grave and Sylia suddenly wished that Priss had let her die. "Why did you come with me that night?" Her voice was soft and barely carried to Priss but she heard.

"You mean the night you took my knife away from me and knocked me on my ass? Self-depreciating humor laced her voice. She knew the night in question very well, because she'd asked herself the very same thing too many times to count. Priss had finally discovered an answer.

Priss saw Sylia's reflection smile slightly.

She watched her, bathed in the moonlight and seeming as fragile as spun glass. It was deceptive, that look. "Maybe because I saw something that I recognized in your eyes." Sylia turned to look at her. "Something of myself."

Sylia unexpectedly felt tears well and cursed them silently as she turned back to the window.

"Why did you pick me?" Priss had always wondered at her choice but hadn't been sure that she wanted to know the answer. It seemed to be the time to ask.

Silence answered her and for a moment, Priss feared that she might have stepped into a shadow, causing Sylia more pain. The answer, when it came, was delivered in such a very sad voice that Priss could feel something inside her mourn in sympathy. "Maybe because I saw something in you that I could never be."


She shook her head. "It sounds more dramatic than it is." Sylia rested her head against the glass and watched Priss in the window. "You… you were able to let yourself go, to feel, to react to life instead of trying to out guess it. You were hurting and so you let yourself hurt. And you used the pain to help you focus on a course of action." She laughed harshly. "Oh how I envied you! I still do. I have to think about it, you see? I… can't just…feel."

"You think too much." Priss brought her knees up and let her arms drape over them. "But that's what makes you who you are."

"Is it?"

Priss exhaled softly. "Sylia, you didn't rape me. I can't say it enough it seems." The small sound that Sylia made only angered Priss. "Enough of this! I'm sorry if you're having such a tough time dealing with something that wasn't even your fault! But I can't help you right now, Sylia. I'm having a few problems of my own." She stood up in a sudden motion. "It all boils down to this, Sylia: I still love you, but I'm afraid." Priss drew a deep breath and forced herself to take that step closer to Sylia. "I would like to have your help getting through this, but if you keep trying to destroy yourself then I'll have to do it alone." Priss turned to open the door and drew a line in the sand. "I don't want to be alone again, Sylia. I've been there before and it sucks. If you can forgive yourself and if you can be patient with me then, well… you know where to find me." She opened the door.

"Priss." Sylia slowly uncurled herself from the window seat and stood up. Three steps forward and she stopped, not sure what Priss would be comfortable with. "I still love you, too. I can be patient with you if… you'll be patient with me." A hesitant smile graced her lips and Priss felt a tiny crack start in the wall between them. It was a beginning.

Linna drew a deep breath and let Inji link her to the system. Her stomach lurched, but Inji was quick to fix that and soon she could look around her without getting sick. < Okay. Now what? >

= You have to learn to recognize what you're looking at. = Inji began to teach her the differences between the strands and how to tell when her own signal was being tracked. Linna found that after the first few times her stomach wasn't turning on her and she began to enjoy the sensations of being connected. <No wonder Nene is so willing to link at every opportunity. >

Inji was relieved. Maybe now things would start to get back to normal between them. = Now you need to learn how to defend yourself and Nene. =

Linna nodded and felt her appearance shift. She looked down at herself in surprise. <What's this?> She was wearing a suit of combat armor, not unlike her hard suit. < Inji? >

= Mental perceptions, remember? When I said defend your mind automatically defaulted to what it imagines to be the best defense. =

< Oh. Okay. So how do I defend myself from the security programs and viruses and things like that? >

= With weapons. = Inji smiled as an impulse rifle appeared in Linna's hands. = Not quite, but it's a good start. We can use that to build on. The important thing to remember is that things here may appear one way, but the function they perform can be very different. =

A shield formed in front of Linna and she took it cautiously. < What's this? >

= An antiviral program. =

< This is a computer program? > The cool metal felt real and Linna eyed it somewhat doubtfully.

= As I said, this is the human mind's way of protecting itself. The actual system has no form, no colors, no way for the human mind to function in this environment. =

< All right. > She let the impulse rifle go and it disappeared. < So, are there any programs that allow me to attack? >

Inji laughed. = A great many. I'll teach you the different kinds and then you can create them, as you need to. =

Linna frowned in confusion. < How can I do that? >

= All programs are written, Linna. Once you've learned how to do that then it'll be easy to form them. =

Linna was doubtful but willing to try.

Nene blinked and shook her head. "Could you repeat that?"

Linna smiled at her reaction and repeated. "I'm going with you."

"You want to link? Why? I thought you hated it and hated the whole idea of it."

Linna shrugged. "I'll explain afterwards, okay?"

Nodding slowly, Nene linked to the system. She burst into the virtual world she had come to love and turned to see if Linna was all right. Linna was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was a figure in emerald green armor standing beside her. < Linna? >

Linna tugged off her helmet and laughed as Nene's eyes widened even more. < Surprised? >

< What is this? > She saw a shield and sword appear and stared at her lover in disbelief.

< I just realized that my biggest problem with this was the fact that you were so vulnerable. So, I had Inji teach me how to protect you. > She looked a little hesitant. <You don't mind, do you? >

Nene's smile was huge. < No! Oh Linna! Thank you for this. > She hugged her and Linna was startled at how real it felt.

She ducked her head and kissed Nene experimentally. The soft feel of her lips made Linna's heart speed up and she wondered how that was possible.

Inji was amused. = It's all what the mind perceives. You know what kissing Nene feels like so it's very easy for your mind to provide the stimulus. =

Nene beamed up at her and winked. < We can even make love here. Wanna try it? >

Linna could feel herself flush and shook her head quickly. < I am nowhere near ready for that Nene. >

Nene shrugged lightly and turned to the ocean of strands before them. < Okay. Let's go, shall we?>

As they slipped into the currents Nene couldn't help remarking, < At least you didn't say never. >

Priss watched Sylia nervously as she walked towards her and tried not to flinch as she sat down beside her. She forced herself to focus on the pleasurable things that came with Sylia being so close and tried to work through her fear. The smell of Sylia's distinctive perfume teased her nostrils and Priss inhaled deeply, drawing it in and remembering all of the times she had smelled its fragrance. One night in particular stood out in her mind and she looked into Sylia's eyes with a warm smile.

Sylia had felt the tension fading from Priss, but she was puzzled by the smile. It was soft and in some way she couldn't define, slightly wicked. "What?"

Priss shook her head. "Just remembering the first time we made love in the garage." The smell of oil had mixed with Sylia's perfume, as Priss had been unable to stop herself from taking Sylia right there on the floor. Sylia had protested for about a second, just until Priss had pulled her coveralls down, baring her breasts. Sylia had complained about her back for the next two days, but she was always grinning whenever she brought it up.

Sylia smiled as well, easily recalling one of the more memorable nights of her life. "That's a good memory." She drew a breath and held her hand out, palm up. Priss' face grew serious and she stared at the empty hand before her. She reached out with her own, cursing silently as she saw the fine tremor in her fingers. Priss' hand hovered over Sylia's for a moment before gently settling.

Sylia resisted the urge to close her fingers and let Priss go at her own pace. She was rewarded by her patience a few moments later when Priss' fingers curled and held her hand firmly.

Priss laughed hollowly. "That was easy."

Sylia felt the light glide of Priss' fingertips as they drifted across her shoulder and down her arm. She matched the caress and Priss felt a shiver sweep through her that had nothing to do with fear. Sylia smiled at the smoky desire the lit Priss' eyes, but steadfastly ignored it. Priss' hand moved up to cup her cheek and Sylia gladly echoed it.

This was the hard one; Priss reflected as she leaned closer to Sylia, letting her body come into contact with hers. Priss slowly slipped her arms around Sylia's waist and felt Sylia's arms come around her. The sudden wave of anxiety made her freeze as memories of Sylia lifting her and throwing her down on the bed filled her mind. Priss released Sylia with a gasp and backed away quickly, falling from the couch. Sylia didn't go to her, knowing by now that she needed space until she could calm down. She felt tears of frustration well, but drew them back in.

Priss buried her face in her hands and cursed long and loud. She had been so close. Three weeks of progress, only to be knocked back by a simple hug.

Sylia felt the arms come around her from behind and smiled faintly as Priss kissed her cheek. "Hmm. Someone is in a good mood."

Priss grinned and retrieved a bottle of beer from the refrigerator as Sylia continued to prepare the vegetables for dinner. "I guess I am." She flinched when Sylia turned towards her, a long chef's knife in one hand. The bottle hit the floor, shattering as Priss backed up automatically.

Sylia berated herself as she tossed the knife into the sink and knelt to pick up the pieces. Priss joined her, but didn't speak. You fool! What were you thinking? Sylia's silent litany was interrupted by the touch of Priss' fingers on her chin, lifting her face.

"Don't, Sylia. Don't blame yourself. It's me." She looked so despondent that Sylia reacted without thinking, dropping the glass and pulling Priss into her arms. Priss felt no fear and was profoundly grateful that she had fallen in love with a patient woman.

Nene heard Leon speaking to her in the real world and pulled out of Linna's arms reluctantly. <Duty calls, honey. I have to go. >

Linna sighed disappointedly. < We'll pick up were we left off when you get home. >

Nene waved as she disconnected and Linna looked down at herself and grinned.

= Planning on getting dressed or would you prefer to surf naked? = Inji's sarcasm made Linna chuckle softly. < It's not like I'm going to run into anyone. >

Inji felt the ripple in the system an instant before she saw Nene's net creature appear. =No, just him. =

Linna whirled and stared at the shadowed form in dismay. Instantly she was back in her armor, her sword drawn. < What are you? >

There was a brief pause and he answered. < I think I was… human? >

< You don't know? >

< I am… unsure. >

< How do you connect with the system? Where do you link? >

He seemed to think about this and it was several moments before he answered. <I am the system.>

Linna scowled at his answer. < If you're the system then how can you have been human? What makes you think you were human? >

< I remember… sunlight. >

Inji was scanning the entity trying to discover its source. She was having trouble narrowing the search though as every pathway seemed to carry the signal. = He really may be the system, Linna. Or at the least, he's so interwoven with it that it's impossible to distinguish the two. =

< What do you want?>

< I came to speak with the bright one, but she disappeared before I arrived. >

Linna tightened her grip on her sword. < What do you want to speak with her about? >

< She asked me what my name was. I have none. I wish her to give me one. >

Nene moaned in horror as Leon pointed to the stack of files he had just dropped on her desk. "You can't be serious?"

Leon grinned as he backed away. "That's what you get for daydreaming. Have fun." A Styrofoam cup struck him in the back of the head with surprising force and he rubbed the spot as he joined Daley.

Daley shook his head as they headed for the locker room. "I'm disappointed in you Leon. You've really been bombing out with the girls lately. You've been going down hill ever since you found out that Priss prefers a more… delicate touch."

Leon shoved the door open and went straight for his locker, mumbling under his breath, "I've been going down hill ever since I found out that Priss was a Knight Saber."

Daley was right behind him. "She's a Knight Saber? How did you find out? When did you find out? Why didn't you tell me?"

Leon groaned and glanced around quickly. "Keep your voice down! Forget you heard that, Daley. I didn't say that and you didn't hear me say it, understand?"

"But Leon…" Leon pounded the door of his locker with his fist, making Daley jump. "Think about it Daley. If you knew who one of the Knight Sabers was then it would be your duty to report them wouldn't it? That would put an end to them and then Genom would have a free hand in this city." He rubbed his face and wondered when things had gotten so complicated. "The ADP can't deal with the level of boomer malfunctions there are now. How do you think we'll do it without the Knight Sabers?" It had been a bitter pill to swallow, but Leon had managed it. Now if he could just get over Priss and get on with his life he'd be fine.

Daley slowly nodded. "I see. I guess I misheard you."

Leon pulled his shirt off and grabbed his shaving kit from the locker. "You sure did."

One row of lockers over another officer was ending his shift and as he changed into his civilian clothes, he realized that he might just be able to swing that new car after all.

Priss set the bag on the small table beside the door and took off her jacket. Hanging it on the coat rack, she surveyed the room. "Sylia?"

Sylia appeared from the bedroom and Priss smiled a little. Her bare feet made no sound as she padded across the carpet and the top few buttons of her blouse were undone. The sleeves were rolled up, but the tail was still tucked into her slacks. For Sylia this was as casual as she got. "How'd it go?"

Sylia's smile was pleased. "Genom stock has fallen by over half and the Kousotsu Corporation has snapped up a very large portion. Did you get dinner?"

Priss nodded and picked up the bag from the table. "Right here. Dining room or kitchen?" She was already heading for the dining room when Sylia surprised her. "Why don't we just eat here?" Priss turned around to see Sylia waive a hand toward the couch.

"Okay. Sure." It was a suggestion that Priss had never expected Sylia to make, but she was learning not to assume anything with Sylia anymore. Sylia slipped into the kitchen and returned a moment later with a bottle of wine. They each claimed a corner and began to eat. The silence that hung between them wasn't entirely uncomfortable, but they were each very aware of it.

Priss was wondering how long it would take for things to become normal between them again when she realized something: This had been normal for them. She began to flip through her memories of their time together and realized that outside of discussing work and making love, they had never actually talked to each other. Like dominoes, the memories tumbled one after another, each touching off another.

Priss stopped eating and stared into space as she replayed their relationship in her mind. She was embarrassed to find that she had hardly ever asked Sylia about the myriad of little things that most couples know. Her favorite food, her favorite music, what she hated and if she liked natto. Some of these things Priss had found out over the course of their relationship, but it had always been by accident, an afterthought. Other things began to occur to her and she could feel her face flush. They had rarely ever gone out to eat together and then it had always been with the others. Usually dinner was something they ordered in or grabbed on the way home.

She looked down at the take-away boxes and suddenly lost her appetite. Priss set the carton down on the coffee table and picked up her wine glass. They should be going out more, just the two of them. A familiar voice suddenly echoed through her mind and Priss froze at Sylvie's admonishing laughter.

"Come on, Priss! Get up!" Sylvie had been tugging hard on Priss' foot, trying to drag her from the bed. Priss had refused to release her grip from the tangled sheets and buried her head under the pillows. "Why, for pity's sake? Let's just get a pizza and stay here." Her voice was muffled but Sylvie heard her. "Because I deserve dinner in a nice place once in a while. You know, a place where you have to wear something other than your motorcycle gear?" She had thrown a pillow at Sylvie in reply. "Then I definitely don't want to go. Besides there's a bed right here. Come on, Sylvie, let's order in and then we don't even have to get dressed!" Priss remembered that Sylvie had then managed to drag her out of bed and forced her to go out. They had had fun, Priss remembered and rubbed back the sting of bittersweet tears.

Sylia watched Priss put her food aside and wanted to ask if there was something wrong. She didn't. She was afraid of the answer. Sylia refilled her wine glass and wondered when she was going to stop treating Priss like glass. She was afraid to approach her, afraid to say what she was thinking, afraid to touch her, even in the most casual of ways unless Priss instigated the contact. Sylia was terrified of bringing back memories, of causing Priss even more pain than she already had. The last few weeks had been hell on earth, having Priss so close, but they had agreed that if there was any hope in salvaging their relationship then they would have to spend time together. Priss had moved into the guest bedroom and now each night Sylia lay awake listening to the sounds of her nightmares and knowing that she could not give Priss comfort because she had caused them. In desperate moments she wished that they would just end it and be done with it so that she could have a moment's peace, but on the heels of that thought came the sure knowledge that, for good or bad, she would still be in love with Priss.

The silence continued as each wrestled with their own private demons.

High in the Genom tower the earth was shaking for the few unfortunate souls who had not been fired after this latest fiasco. Quincy brought his fist down on the desk with a thunderous crash and the metal gave way with a creak, leaving a huge dent. "I want to know who they are! I want them dead! They have been the thorn in my side for too long and now they have almost cost me control of Genom itself!" The incredulous note in his voice made everyone take a step back.

A rather brave executive stepped forward and cleared his throat. "S-sir? We have just received word that one of our informants may know the identity of one of the Knight Sabers. If his information is correct…" He trailed off, the rest obvious.

Quincy sat back down and smiled at the man, making him freeze. "Good. If you're right then there's a promotion in it for you, but if you're wrong," He lit a cigarette and stared at the man through the smoke. "… Then I will ensure you a very long and painful death."

Quincy dismissed them all with a wave of his hand and turned to look out over the city that should have been his.

Priss brushed a stray piece of lint from her dark slacks and adjusted the crimson red blouse that she'd tucked into them. Absently threading a silver-worked leather belt through the loops, she sat down on the bed. The low heeled shoes were a far cry from her boots and her lip curled slightly in disdain as she put them on. < The things we do for love. > She picked up the black blazer that she had bought just for this occasion and was putting it on when Arashi spoke.

= Sylia's on her way up. = Priss thanked her for the warning and reflected that the unique communication that existed between them had its uses. She picked up the finishing touch for the evening and went out to greet Sylia.

Sylia hesitated outside the door of the apartment and rested her head against the cool metal. She didn't want to go in, she discovered. Didn't want to face another evening of stilted conversation and telling silences. Steeling herself, she straightened and reached for the knob, only for it to open to reveal Priss.

Sylia blinked in confusion at Priss' warm smile and then her appearance struck her. "Priss?"

Priss saw her bewilderment and felt a rush of pleased satisfaction. Nice to take her by surprise sometimes. "Hi." She reached out and took Sylia's hand, drawing her inside. Sylia turned to face her as Priss shut the door. "What's going on?" She was caught completely off guard as Priss held out a single white rose.

"Will you have dinner with me tonight?" A faint blush tinged Priss' cheeks as she spoke but she was determined.

Sylia took the flower and looked at Priss. "I don't understand."

Priss' smile was shy. "I want to have dinner with you. Out. I made reservations at Lè Jardin." She nudged Sylia in the direction of her bedroom. "Go change."

Sylia went automatically, her bemused expression pleasing Priss to no end. Now to call the restaurant and make sure everything was in order.

Priss stared across the table at Sylia, unable to pull her gaze away from the vision before her. Sylia had managed in an incredibly short time, to go from beautiful to stunning. The deep blue of her dress made the rich brown of her eyes seem to glow as the glitter of what Priss thought had to be diamonds flashed at her ears. Her gown climbed faithfully up her slender form and curved over one shoulder, leaving the other deliciously bare. Priss cleared her throat and sipped from her water glass. "You look incredible."

"I felt that I should make an effort since you so obviously had." She took in their surroundings with a slow studied scan and smiled at Priss. "This place is beautiful." Lè Jardin certainly earned its name she thought, inhaling the heady fragrance from the hanging flowers that framed their small alcove. The drape of leaves and blooms partially hid the patrons from each other, creating a wonderful sense of intimacy. Only the quiet murmur of voices kept the illusion from being total. "Why this place?"

Priss was studying the menu and silently cursing. < Why in the hell is this thing in French? We're not in France. > = It's part of the atmosphere. = Arashi laughed and offered to fix this little problem. Cursing silently, Priss closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose as her head whirled. She looked up as Sylia repeated her question. "Huh? Oh, sorry. I liked the name and the description sounded nice in the ad listing."

The waiter brought them the wine list and then asked if Priss needed to see the menu in Japanese. From the look on his face and the tone in his voice, the human waiter evidently thought that it would be necessary and reached to take the menu from her. Priss stopped him with one quick glare. She looked at the menu again, and then turned to the waiter. "'Un peu de respect je vous prie, sinon. "Nous voudrons le Gratiné de Coquilles St-Jacques, accompagné d'un Château Sancerre 2022. Nous suivrons avec une Terrine de Saumon aux Epinards, et son accompagnement de Riz Basmati. Suivra ensuite un plateau de fromages et une salade verte, avec une bouteille de Beaujolais - un Georges Duboeuf par exemple. Nous finirons, en dessert, avec une Mousse au Chocolat à l'Alizé. Ai-je été assez claire? Ou dois-je me répéter?"

The waiter scrambled to keep up with Priss' rapid-fire order, chiding himself for making assumptions. "Aucunement, aucunement, Madame. Je suis vraiment désolé..."

He left hastily and Priss turned to Sylia, her eyes filled with laughter. "What an ass. Never thought I'd wish we had a boomer waiter." Her amusement died as she realized that she had ordered for both of them without asking Sylia what she wanted. "Damn. I'm sorry Sylia. I got pissed off at that guy's attitude and forgot to see what you wanted. I can call him back and change it."

Priss' frustration was evident and Sylia felt warmth begin to melt some of the ice inside of her. "No, it sounds delicious. But thank you for offering." She reached out and placed her hand over Priss' on the table. "Thank you for this." She gestured to the restaurant with her other. Priss turned her hand up to clasp Sylia's in a firm grip. "I am curious as to why you asked me here."

Priss sighed and wondered how best to explain. "I just got to thinking back over the last year and a half and realized that we hadn't done anything… well, couple-like."

"Couple-like?" Sylia wasn't sure that she understood.

"You know, like dating?" At Sylia's nod she continued. "I guess what I'm saying is that I want to, uh, court you." Priss felt silly saying it like that but it was what she wanted to say.

Sylia was nonplused and took a few moments to rein in her emotions. She had almost given up any hope that she and Priss would ever bridge the distance between them and yet here was Priss, ready and willing to try it again. The overwhelming sense of relief that swept through her brought tears, much to her embarrassment.

Priss saw the sheen build in her eyes and leaned forward, tightening her grip on Sylia's hand as she spoke quickly. "We don't have to, we can stay like we are and work from there. Just forget I said anything." Sylia shook her head quickly, freeing the drops from their resting place. "Please don't cry. I can't stand to see you hurting."

The laugh that escaped Sylia was a little sad. "I'm not hurt, I'm happy. I thought that you wanted to break it off, but tonight you've gone to great trouble to do the exact opposite."

They didn't speak as the waiter returned with their salads and a bottle of wine. When he left Priss picked up her fork automatically. She glanced at Sylia and spoke softly. "I feel like I should apologize for the times that we didn't go out or do something special. Looking back, I must have come off as a complete jerk."

Sylia quickly shook her head. "Not at all, Priss. We've been rather busy this last year and you're not the only person in this relationship. I should have made more of an effort as well. You and I didn't exactly come together under normal circumstances." Her words triggered something within each of them, bringing back the shadows of the past.

Priss smiled slowly. "Yeah, it wasn't exactly dinner and a movie that night on the bridge." They had both been so miserable that night, each staggering under the weight of things that needed to be said. The pressure had finally reached its critical point. Priss remembered the wild passion that had taken them both off guard, but not by surprise

"I still think that we would have connected, even without everything that happened." Sylia's faint grin made Priss feel good and she realized that Sylia hadn't been doing enough of that lately.

"I know what you mean. Things were getting interesting before the accident."

Time passed quickly as they talked about the past and about things that they had never thought to ask each other. One subject led to another and they ate little as the evening progressed. Finally, the waiter came to take away their dessert plates and they were both a little disappointed that the time was ending. Priss looked at her watch and realized that they had been here for over three hours. "It's getting kind of late." She reluctantly signaled for the waiter.

"Veuillez nous apporter le contrôle." He handed her a small black folder that contained the bill and Priss did an admirable job of hiding her shock at the total. She laid a credit card inside and handed it back. "I could buy a new leather jacket for that price." Sylia's sudden laughter made Priss' heart beat a little faster and she knew that it had been worth every yen to hear her laugh so freely again. "Let's go for a drive."

Nene was unsurprised to find him waiting for them when they connected to the system again. She smiled in greeting, but was very glad that Linna was there. < Hello again. >

He nodded. < Hello. I… was unsure you would return. >

< Linna said you wanted to ask me something. > She wasn't sure but Nene thought that he seemed better formed this time, more definite.

< Yes. I would like a name. > The shy tone in his voice belied his sinister appearance.

Linna had told her that was what her wanted, but still she was startled. <Why me? Why not choose your own name? >

< You are the first of your kind that I have encountered. There is nothing else like you. >

Nene considered this. < All right. You want a name…how about Tsumari? >

< Tsumari…Tsumari… I am Tsumari. Thank you… Nene. > He bowed formally, which suggested that his speculation of once being human might have been correct. Then he seemed to dissolve before their eyes.

< Seiki? Inji? Any trace? >

= Nothing solid. Nothing traceable. =

Linna placed a hand on Nene's shoulder and patted it consolingly. < Well I guess you've got yourself a new friend. >

Nene shook her head and turned to her. < I hope so, Linna. I wouldn't want him as an enemy. >

Priss down shifted as the Mercedes rounded a corner and then increased speed to zip through a yellow light. While it was no motorcycle, the car definitely had its good points. "Anywhere you'd like to go?"

Sylia forced herself to ease her grip on the seat and reminded her self that Priss was an extremely skilled driver.

= Of motorcycles. = Taisei was amused by Sylia's anxiety. She would and had leapt off the tops of skyscrapers, had taken incredible risks every time she put on her hardsuit and yet the simple action of Priss driving her was terrifying her. = Why does this bother you so much? =

< Because I'm not driving! > She warned the nanos to disappear and answered Priss' question. "I don't care." Some of her tension must have been evident, because Priss immediately slowed to a more sedate pace.

"Sorry about that. Are you okay?" Sylia nodded gratefully and Priss added. "I hate to be driven by anyone else too. It makes me absolutely crazy." Sylia was surprised by the admission. She'd never said a word whenever Sylia had driven them somewhere. One more thing they'd kept from each other.

They drove on in silence for a time and eventually came to the ocean. Priss drove out toward what used to be Aqua City and glanced at Sylia in question. They had had some rough moments there, but also some glorious ones. "I think we should."

Priss pulled the car to the end of the drop away and saw signs of current construction. "Looks like those idiots are going to try it again." There was no moon tonight, but they could still see the huge waves rolling towards them.

Priss opened her door and stepped out into the warm night. The tang of sea salt added to the feel of the evening and Priss tossed her blazer into the car before perching on the front of the hood. Sylia joined her a moment later, leaning back beside of her, but keeping a noticeable distance between them.

Priss wished for a cigarette at that moment. It was this kind of thing that was making it so hard to reconnect with Sylia. Except for their touching sessions, Sylia was going so far out of her way to give Priss personal space that she might as well be on another planet. =Like Sylia knows that. Why don't you just tell her? = <Go away, you interfering tinker toy! I'm going to tell her right now! >

=About time. =

< OUT! > The faint resonance of Arashi's laughter faded and Priss turned to Sylia. "There's something we need to talk about."

Sylia tensed and Priss sighed. "No. It's not bad. I mean, at least I don't consider it to be." She slid off the hood and moved to stand in front of Sylia. "I really appreciate the space you've been trying to give me, but…" Priss halted not sure how to phrase it so there would be no misunderstandings.

The lone eyebrow that arched at Priss' silence was Sylia's only visible reaction. Inside she admonished herself for being so nervous.

Priss looked into her face and it occurred to her that maybe she didn't have to say anything. Here, tonight, at this place where they had taken those first steps together, this was were it should begin again. Priss stepped closer to Sylia, their breath intermingling in the humid air between them. Sylia felt it brush across her face and something whispered softly inside of her. Priss' hands lightly touched her skin, raising her face closer. Their eyes met and Sylia saw no fear in Priss' steady gaze, only the warm flame of desire… for her. Sylia's heart fluttered wildly as she eagerly moved nearer to Priss, lips parted in silent invitation.

Whatever lingering doubts Priss might have had about the timing were banished with that action. She closed her eyes and let her mouth gently settle over Sylia's. The familiar taste and feel of her mouth made Priss' head spin and she wrapped her arms around Sylia's waist and held her tightly. Sylia was torn between the sharp sting of desire and the almost overwhelming relief that came from being able to touch Priss again. She gripped Priss' shoulders and gave herself up to the desire.

They broke apart, gasping for breath as each searched for any signs of fear or guilt. Priss grinned suddenly and pulled Sylia back into her arms. Passion flared hotter as they kissed again and Sylia felt her stomach twist, low and hot. Her hands slid into Priss' hair and tried to pull her impossibly closer. Priss was dimly aware of the car behind Sylia and pushed her back against it until she was lying across the hood. Sylia's heart stopped and then resumed at a triple beat as she felt Priss' hand on her knee, sliding the material away as she began to trace random designs on the inside of her thigh. It had been so long since she had touched her and Sylia thought that she might go mad if Priss stopped. Tiny biting kisses across her collarbone reassured her that Priss had no plans to stop anytime soon.

Priss managed to think clearly long enough to scan the area for anyone else. Satisfied that they were alone, she tugged the strap of Sylia's evening dress off of her shoulder and pushed it down around her waist. Sylia felt the breeze blowing over her exposed breasts and moved to cover them. Priss gripped her wrists and gently set them down against the hood before releasing them. Her smile was wicked and she bent over the treasure she'd uncovered with a husky laugh, "Uh uh, finder's keepers." She took one tip into her mouth and sucked lightly and Sylia stiffened response, rising up, trying to get closer. Priss reluctantly freed her breast and kissed her way back up Sylia's body. She leaned over her and brushed her lips. "I've missed the taste of you." She returned her attention to Sylia's breasts and continued where she had left off. Sylia heard her murmur against her breast, 'And the feel of you." She felt Priss' hand move down her body and trail its way up the inside of her thigh. Every thought that she had flew from her mind as Priss' agile fingers made her blood sing.

Sylia stared up at the stars overhead and stretched lazily, feeling the faint hum that lingered in the aftermath of Priss' loving. She rose up on one elbow and looked down at her lover as Priss lay beside her on the hood of her car. Sylia blushed as she realized just how unresisting she had been. Priss sat up and swung off of the car to reach inside and retrieve her jacket. Sylia saw the quick flash of fire and then the tiny glow of Priss' cigarette. It still disturbed her that Priss was smoking again, but she couldn't really complain since she had been known to light up when she was tense as well. Priss climbed back up on the hood and resettled herself beside her. "That's a cliché, you know." Sylia gestured to the cigarette and smiled.

Priss shrugged and tried to ignore the sense of dissatisfaction that was troubling her. She had enjoyed giving Sylia pleasure, but she wasn't sure she was ready for her to return the favor. In truth, the thought of making herself that vulnerable again made her feel a little anxious. Okay, a lot anxious.

Sylia curled into her side and Priss felt the warm touch of her lips against her throat. Priss allowed this, as it didn't cause her any undue fear. Sylia slid her hand across Priss' stomach and up to cup her breast lightly through the material of her shirt. Priss inhaled sharply and was relieved that she felt only pleasure at her touch. Sylia felt Priss' response through the thin cloth and smiled as she rolled the stiffening nipple between her fingers, making Priss moan. "I've missed the taste of you as well." She ducked her head and began to suck Priss' breast through her shirt.

Priss tossed her cigarette away and gripped the back of her head in encouragement, praying that she could go through with this. As Sylia's hands moved under her shirt, Priss felt the first stirrings of fear and pushed them back, mercilessly. She was torn between pleasure and panic when Sylia slipped her hand down the front of Priss' slacks, seeking to return the pleasure that she had received. Her fingers delved into the soft folds and Priss was trembling, waiting for the terror to overtake her. This is Sylia! She repeated it over and over, recalling all of the times they had made love and reminding herself that she loved this woman deeply.

Sylia could see the struggle that was taking place within Priss, but she didn't remove her hand. Instead, she moved it lower, slipping inside.

Priss felt her touch deepen and her fear was forgotten as the more powerful force of desire filled her. She dimly heard herself cry out, but coherent thought was lost as she was swept away.

The first rays of sunlight were peeking over the edge of the horizon when Priss felt Sylia's hands gliding lightly over her back, rousing her from sleep.

Sylia had thought she had seen something on Priss' back earlier, but had been distracted by Priss' lovemaking. She pushed the sheet down until the small of Priss' back was revealed and stared at the small tattoo. Not sure what to make of it she traced its outline with a fingertip and Priss spoke quietly. "Find something interesting?"

"I'm not sure. When… why did you get this?"

Priss shrugged. "Does it matter?"

Sylia looked at her seriously. "Yes, it does."

"I got it the night you came to the club."

The night was not one easily forgotten and Sylia wondered what had motivated her. "Why?"

"Why did I get it or why that image?"

"Priss." Sylia's voice held a wealth of emotion and Priss rolled over.

"I'm not sure why I got it. Drunken impulse I suppose. As for the image…" She didn't know how to explain why she had chosen a spider's web or why she had had Sylia's name placed inside it. "I don't know, Sylia. At the time it seemed appropriate."

"And now?"

Priss smiled slightly. "Actually it still does, but for different reasons." She caught Sylia's hand and placed a kiss against her palm. "I'm hopelessly trapped in your web, Sylia."

Extremely disturbed by this, Sylia pulled her hand away and shook her head. "Priss, I don't-."

"Calm down Sylia. I hope that you're trapped in mine as well." She pulled Sylia into her arms and proceeded to demonstrate just how entangled they were with each other.

Over the next few weeks, they spent as much time together as they could. Sylia postponed any jobs for the Knight Sabers that came in and left the Silky Doll in the hands of her employees while Priss cut her rehearsals back to the minimum. They spent their days together, trying to climb into each other's skins and see the world through the other's eyes. Priss went, if reluctantly, to the theatre and, God help her, the opera as Sylia tried, not so much to expose Priss to them, but more to try and find a part of herself that she had lost so long ago. The ability that she had set aside in order to don the mantles of responsibility and vengeance, the ability to be carefree.

Priss demanded that she garage the Mercedes and begin to ride her bike more. "That you could build this bike and then just put it away astounds me. I'm kicking myself for letting you fall back into using the car for everything." She paused and winked at Sylia. "Don't get me wrong, I love that car." Priss grew serious. "If you want to know me, then ride with me because that's were I am. If you're looking for what's missing in yourself Sylia, then you have to start with the obvious."

So Sylia did as she asked and they rode wherever they went, weather permitting. Occasionally they would ride out to what was now being called New Aqua City, which Priss thought was stupid considering the fact that 'old' Aqua City had never been completed to begin with. They watched the construction progress and talked about everything and anything.

At night, they carefully explored the physical side of their relationship and tried to rebuild bonds of trust that had been brutally shattered. They slept in the master bedroom. Priss said nothing about the change in décor, knowing now that it been to help Sylia as much as herself. But it wasn't the bed that had hurt her, nor had the other furnishings. Priss was afraid to ask what had happened to the sword.

On the morning of the seventh night without nightmares, Priss packed up the stuff in her trailer. Giving away everything she didn't need, Priss took the rest and officially moved in with Sylia. Sylia had opened the door when Priss knocked and had stared in confusion at her and her belongings. Priss had smiled a little and asked, "Can I come in?"

"Kind of sudden, wasn't it?" Linna drummed her fingers on the steering wheel absently as she waited for the light to change. Nene gazed out the passenger window at the passing traffic and didn't answer. Linna straightened as the light changed and shot a quick glance at Nene as she pulled forward. "The invitation, I mean."

Nene leaned back in the sit and turned to watch Linna drive. "Yeah. I wonder if there's something else going on. They've been avoiding us lately."

Linna shook her head. "No. I don't think it was on purpose, they certainly have a lot to try and work through."

Nene made an agreeing sound. "Do you think Sylia will disband the Knight Sabers if she and Priss break up?"

Linna signaled a left turn and didn't answer until it was completed. "I don't know. I think Priss would probably quit first."

Nene tried to picture the Knight Sabers without her and couldn't. "It wouldn't be the same without her."

Turning into the parking garage of the Lady 633, Linna nodded absently as she pulled in beside Sylia's car. "It would probably be the end." She unbuckled her seatbelt and looked at Nene. "Well I guess we'd better prepare ourselves for the worst. The odds are good that this will be our last night as Knight Sabers."

Nene scowled and got out of the car. "Don't be so pessimistic! I'm betting that they work things out."

= That's the spirit! Don't give up hope, Nene. = Seiki was ever positive.

Inji laughed at her attitude. = Hope is a nice thing, but reality leaves very deep teeth marks. =

Linna rolled her eyes and pressed the elevator button for Sylia's floor. "You know, I was just beginning to like these things until I realized what they were."

Nene looked at her in question, her eyes filled with laughter as the collectives continued to bicker between themselves. "What?"

"Our consciouses, with voices and double doses of attitude." Silence followed her statement and Linna smiled. "That's better."

The exited the elevator and stopped outside the front door. Nene looked at Linna in question. "You do it." Linna rolled her eyes at Nene's reluctance and pressed the buzzer. "Chicken."

Nene tucked her hands under her arms and was flapping them in agreement as the door swung open. Priss grinned as she froze and drawled teasingly. "I don't think chicken was on the menu tonight, but come in anyway."

They followed her inside and Linna immediately noticed the framed poster that now hung over the fireplace. As she turned to Priss in question, she saw Priss' guitar leaning against the widow seat and several notebooks that Linna recognized. They were the ones that Priss worked out her songs in and as far as Linna knew, they never left her trailer. It wasn't so much that there were some of Priss' belongings scattered around, as much as it was which belongings were there. The last time Linna had seen that poster it had been hanging over Priss' bed in her trailer.

Linna didn't get the chance to ask Priss about it as Sylia called out from the kitchen. "Priss? Is this supposed to boil over like that?" Priss cursed as she dashed for the kitchen. They could hear her muttering, "Why in the hell didn't we just order in?" There was a clatter of pans and loud yelp of pain.

Linna looked at Nene in concern. "You didn't happen to bring any antacid, did you?" Nene shook her head worriedly.

"I heard that!"

Sylia came through the doorway as she spoke, carrying two glasses of wine. She handed one to each of them with a smile. "She's a little tense."

Linna sipped gratefully. "Really? I wouldn't have noticed." She studied Sylia over the rim of her glass. She seemed different and Linna couldn't quite put her finger on what had changed. Nene noticed it as well. < Her smile. > She thought to Linna. < It reaches her eyes now. > Linna realized what she meant. The shadows that had filled them for the last few weeks were gone and Linna wondered if it meant what she hoped.

Priss came back into the living room and handed Sylia her glass. "Dinner will be ready in about ten minutes." She sank down onto the couch and sighed. Sylia sat down next her and smiled at the others.

"You're probably wondering at the sudden invitation after we seemed to be staying away from you these last weeks."

Priss took her free hand and laced their fingers together. Nene looked at their joined hands and grinned. "I guess you guys were a little busy."

"We've been working things out." Priss squeezed Sylia's hand slightly. "I've moved out of my trailer, so if you want to find me call here or at the club." Her nonchalant tone was spoiled by the gleam in her eyes.

Linna's mouth dropped open. Priss laughed at her reaction and Linna closed it with a snap. "That's great, Priss! We thought-." She faltered and blushed slightly as she remembered her and Nene's conversation on the way over. "We were afraid that-."

Sylia spoke calmly. "That things had ended?" Linna nodded. "No, I don't think that was ever an option for us."

Priss looked from Linna to Nene and asked quietly. "How are things between you two?"

Nene grinned and winked at Linna. "Really good now that she's become my guardian."


Linna could feel herself blushing as Nene explained to them in glowing terms the roll Linna now played whenever Nene linked to the system.

Priss coughed lightly and shot Linna a sly look. "My Linna, I had no idea you where into that kind of thing. How…brave of you."

Linna resisted the urge to throw her wine glass at Priss and instead took out Priss' bankbook. "Smart ass. Here. See what snappy comebacks you can make to that."

Priss caught the book as it rocketed towards her head and opened it.

Sylia heard her strangled exclamation and turned to her in concern. "Priss?"

Priss stared at the new balance and shook her head. "This has to be a mistake."

Misunderstanding her, Sylia was quick to reassure her. "Priss it's all right. It's only money."

Priss' laugh was strained. "Yeah, a hell of a lot of it. How did you do this?" Sylia took the book and read the total with a silent arching of her brow.

Linna shrugged. "I told you I'd triple anything you gave me. Unfortunately I miscalculated on one or two investments."

Sylia nodded. "I see that. This is more like quadruple."

"Well I hadn't realized that Genom's falling stock would cause the Kousotsu Corporation to grow like that. You know Sylia; I think we should keep an eye on them. They are quickly becoming a real power in the financial community. They could be the next Genom."

Sylia choked on her wine as Priss burst out laughing. Linna frowned at their reactions. "What's so funny?"

There was a knock at the door and Priss went to answer it, leaving Sylia to explain. She opened the door and found Mackie. "Sorry I'm late."

Priss shook her head. "Get real, Mackie. You couldn't be late if you tried. You're too much like Sylia." They joined the others and found Nene and Linna staring at Sylia in shock.

"Geez, Sylia. What'd you say to them?"

Sylia raised her wine glass and smiled at Mackie. "I told them the truth of course."

Priss snorted. "Uh huh. How much of the truth?"

Linna cleared her throat, her expression still startled. "She owns Kousotsu Corporation and is trying to take over Genom. She's made boomers go bad to hurt Genom's image."

"Well I'll be damned." Priss laughed and helped Sylia to her feet. "I didn't think you'd do it, Sylia." She kissed her lightly. "See there? Honesty isn't so difficult."

"No it isn't. It's rather amusing actually." Sylia glanced at Nene and Linna who were still trying to absorb this new revelation. "Maybe I should tell them about your-." Priss clamped a hand over her mouth.

"I've created a monster now." Priss tugged her toward the kitchen. "Dinner's ready. Come on, let's eat."

They all wandered into the kitchen as Linna complained, "Tell us what? Priss? Sylia? Come on guys, tell us!"


The End

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