The red humanoid-shaped boomer rocketed past as sporadic gunfire splashed off of it. A crashing, thunder-like report sent an explosive shell lancing at the armoured biomechanoid, but it exploded harmlessly behind it as the combat machine neatly sidestepped the shot. The boomer's mouth gaped wide, and a crackling green energy beam scorched the air, being followed a moment later by a blinding explosion. A deep, grandiloquent voice began speaking as the boomer proceeded to rain death and destruction on its foes.

"Are you having problems with rebels, or other, irritating counter-insurgents? Do you perhaps have some top-secret facilities that need top-notch protection? Or are you interested in giving ironclad security to your nation's defense? If you fit any of these categories, then the A-12 'Tankbuster' Heavy Combat Boomer is for you! Designed for the discriminating arms-buyer, the A-12 sports an impressive array of offensive power. From the 100-terawatt particle beams to the compact, but deadly, Vulcan autocannons, it's all you'll ever need from a front-line combat boomer! As an added bonus, the A-12 can be configured to meet specific mission profiles! Just pull out the unnecessary components, and insert the new ones!" The monologue paused briefly, and the boomer finished off its last opponent in an impressive show of pyrotechnics.

"For those of you who can't afford that unbeatable army you've always wanted right away, no problem!! Just talk to your local GENOM representative, and a deferred-payment plan can be negotiated for a minimal charge. Some dealers may sell for less; 'Plug'N'Play' options extra. Buy now, and we'll even upgrade your existing C-55s to better cope with your requirements! This is a limited time offer! GENOM Armaments: Tomorrow's firepower, Today!!"

The image of the boomer disappeared from the large projection screen at the end of the cavernous meeting room, the room lights flicking back on at the same time. The pale, somehow gloomy illumination revealed a tall, lean man in a white suit, with long, shoulder-length greyish-white hair. Icy blue eyes glinted in an impassive, craggy-featured face, as the man swiveled his chair to face the only other person in the room: a tall, slender woman with long, violet-coloured hair, wearing a dark blue business suit. Her face was calm, her blue-grey eyes revealing nothing of what she thought.

"Impressive," Quincy's gravelly voice rumbled, "although the sales pitch was a little overdone."

"Marketing felt that it would be the best approach," Madigan replied, with a slight shrug. "Flashy advertising attracts attention, and we definitely want to attract attention in this case."

"True," Quincy admitted. He paused, looking thoughtfully at the now-empty projection screen. "Dr. Yoshida's designs are performing beyond our immediate hopes; we must be sure he is adequately compensated for his efforts." A short silence fell again.

"Did you want me to proceed with the other field tests of the A-12's and C-55E's?" Madigan inquired. Quincy nodded curtly.

"By all means," he replied, a slight smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. "We do have a reputation to uphold; it wouldn't do for defective goods to get into the marketplace."

SkyKnight Productions
Proudly Presents
A NonTechnical Film

MegaTokyo 2035
The Knight Sabers

"The Bubblegum Zone - Episode #9"

Copyright (c) 1995 Bert Van Vliet

The quiet hum of computer terminals, overlaid with the clatter of keyboards being tapped on drifted through the sprawling office area of the ADPolice Investigation Division. In one area of the office space, several young women worked away at filing reports and entering data into the machines; the rest of the office space was taken up by scattered desks, manned by overworked detectives trying to keep up with the reams of paperwork required by the ADP bureaucracy. A tall, well-built man with brown hair walked through the door into the offices, wearing jeans, a white shirt and a blue jacket with a badge pinned to the left breast pocket. Under the jacket, a large-caliber revolver peeped out from a shoulder holster just under his left arm. As the man walked through the office, he cut an impressive, yet somehow incongruous figure.

Inspector Leon McNichol resignedly ran a hand through his hair, sighing. Another glorious day in the life of a public servant, his mind noted sardonically. There were days he hated his job, mostly because the crooks seemed to get bolder and bolder, and the cops became more and more hamstrung by paperwork and procedure. At times, he almost wished for the simpler days when he'd started out as just a front-line trooper; at least then, things had seemed straightforward. Clear blue eyes swept the office with a searching gaze, noting all the details from force of long habit. A slight frown creased his brow, as he slowly walked further into the realm of officialdom.

"Have you seen Nene yet?" he asked a nearby secretary. The harried, brown-haired young woman didn't look up from the report she was rapidly pounding into the computer in front of her.

"Sorry, I haven't," she replied distractedly. "I think she's still on sick leave. She might be back today; I don't know for sure." The young woman went back to her report as Leon turned away, walking over to his small island in the sea of paperwork. Daley hadn't arrived yet, so he sat down, propped his feet on the desk, and sat thinking. Nene had been working on getting some information on a case for him, and her coming down sick before she could get him the information had been annoying; normal channels hadn't worked on this particular case, and Nene had demonstrated an uncanny knack for being able to get 'restricted' information.

Nene's sudden illness had struck a few people as strange, mostly because the cheery, red-haired girl always seemed bright and energetic; she'd have been the last person anyone had expected to come down with something serious enough to keep them bedridden for almost two weeks. It had been very sudden, too. Leon had seen her the day before she'd called in sick, and she'd seemed perfectly healthy. For some strange reason he couldn't define, he found himself suspicious.

He liked Nene a lot; she was cute, almost always cheerful, and had a kind of innocence about her that made talking to her refreshing, especially given the caliber of people he had to talk to most of the time. But there was a sharp brain behind the cute, green-eyed face; her work was always thorough and meticulous. She'd also easily, but politely, brushed him off on the couple of occasions he had tried to get her to go out with him, and in a manner that left no doubt in his mind that he was wasting his time.

At the same time, he now found himself remembering how she occasionally disappeared while she was supposed to be on duty, and how, come to think of it, she'd shown up at work before with unexplained injuries. Nene didn't strike him as the normally accident-prone type, but she'd been in several times with bandages, and once with her arm in a sling. She'd usually explained the questions away by saying she'd fallen off of her scooter, but Leon doubted anyone could fall off of a scooter that many times. No, there must be another reason for it.

He mentally sifted through the list of people he knew she was friendly with, then immediately discarded all of her friends from work as above suspicion. He realized suddenly that, outside of work, he really didn't know who her friends were, with one exception: her boyfriend. He'd met the tall, red-headed, greenish-brown eyed, young man once before, almost two years ago. There'd been something about him back then that had aroused Leon's inspecting instincts, some aspect of his manner that hadn't quite rung true. He hadn't been able to find a reason for his suspicions, however, and had shoved it to the back of his mind.

Now, those suspicions surged back to the forefront, clamouring for attention. Who exactly was he? He vaguely remembered Nene calling him 'Bert', but that was it. Apparently, he had an engineering job somewhere, but where exactly? No matter how hard he thought about it, he couldn't remember Nene ever telling anyone at the office anything else about him. That in itself was strange, because almost all of the other girls in the office talked about their boyfriends, constantly at times. Why was she staying quiet? Did they have something to hide?

"Hey McNichol!!" someone yelled across the office, jerking him out of his ruminations. "Call for you on line three!!" With a sigh, Leon picked up the phone, and set aside the puzzle he'd found for some time when he was less occupied.

****

..."Don't shoot; I'm not armed," the blond-haired man in front of her said smoothly. Nene grinned savagely to herself as Hollister's hands started to come up. She'd done it! She'd managed to get the bastard who'd hurt Bert, Sylvie, and Anri, and now she was going to...

Her heart leaped into her throat as Hollister suddenly dodged sideways, leveling a large gun of some kind at her. For one awful moment, Nene stared, shocked and fear-stricken, into the gaping black muzzle. There was a blinding flash from the gun, and a thunderous roar that shattered the world into a hazy, pain-riddled fog. Nene screamed as she felt the slug from the gun pierce her armour, destroying the plating effortlessly, and burrowing deep into her flesh. Burning agony washed through her, spreading outwards from her numbed stomach...

****

"NOOOOOOOOO!!!"

Bert jerked upright in his recliner at the terrified scream that suddenly blasted from his bedroom. Pitching the novel he'd been reading before dozing off into the nearby couch, he jumped up from the chair, and walked quickly, almost running, across the room to his bedroom door.

"Nene?" he knocked cautiously, listening. No one replied, but he could hear hysterical sobbing coming from inside. Turning the knob, he opened the door and stepped into the room, moving on memory, and turned on the small lamp by the bed to provide a bit of light. The dim illumination revealed a tangled mass of bedsheets, wrapped around a sobbing, red-haired young woman in a white nightgown who was shuddering and shaking uncontrollably, her face pressed into the pillow. Bert quickly went over next to the bed.

"Nene?" he called again gently, reaching out and gently touching her shoulder. She rolled over, revealing a tear-wet face and horrified green eyes. Bert sat down on the edge of the bed, and scooped her up, hugging her tightly. She hugged him back, and cried into his chest for several minutes before calming down again.

"Another nightmare?" he asked quietly, running a hand tenderly through her tangled hair. She nodded wordlessly, her trembling making it difficult to tell that she was nodding, keeping her face still pressed against him. He squeezed her again gently, trying to offer her some comfort, while at the same time damning Hollister in the back of his mind with every curse he could think of; none of them seemed to even come close to promising what he thought the bastard deserved for having hurt her.

The last two weeks had not been easy on any of them. Nene was still terrified as a result of her near brush with death; she'd never been hurt that badly before, and she wasn't dealing with it very well. With the brash assurance of youth, she'd assumed she was immune to serious harm, an impression that had been irrevocably shattered by Hollister's bullet. He hoped the shock would not be an insurmountable obstacle for her.

He understood exactly what she was going through, having been through it himself, and he was trying to help her through the rocky parts. He wasn't sure how successful his efforts were, though; she'd been having nightmares a lot lately, and despite all his attempts to help her deal with it, she was still waking up screaming at times.

His own recovery from his ordeal at Hollister's hands was proceeding, but at a very slow pace. He was able to control himself a lot better, and not lash out instantly at anyone who came near, but he still had the occasional relapse. Each time it happened something in him seemed to die, just a little, each time that he had to restrain himself from hitting one of his friends. He hugged Nene once more, wishing her peace of mind with more intensity than he'd ever wished for anything before, for anyone, himself included.

Nene had become quiet, and Bert started to release her, easing her back to her pillows, thinking she was falling asleep. Instead of laying back, she threw her arms around his neck, pulling him down, and gave him a hard kiss that had an intensity in it that almost bordered on desperation. After a moment of surprise, he hugged her again, returning her kiss. After a few moments, she pulled back slightly, her face still wet, with a few stray red hairs clinging to it. He gently brushed them out of her face, and looked into her lustrous, emerald-green eyes. They were a little calmer now, but the lurking fear that had triggered her nightmares was still in the backs of them. His own eyes were showing her his love and concern for her, which was helping her to calm down a bit.

"You'd better try to get back to sleep," he finally said gently, looking at the clock. "You've got to go back to work in a few hours." Her two weeks of paid sick leave were up, and there was no way they could sidestep the issue any longer: In the morning, she had to go back to the ADP offices and get on with her usual job. If she stayed away any longer, there was sure to be at least a semi-official probe into her illness, and they couldn't risk that. At the mention of sleep, however, Nene's eyes widened, and brimmed with tears again.

"Will....will you stay with me for the rest of the night?" she asked him in a small, quavering voice. She was still trembling, and her pulse was still pounding like runaway trip-hammers; he could feel it as he held her. "Please? I....I don't want to be alone...I..." Her voice cut off as he leaned forward and kissed her again compassionately.

"Whatever M'Lady wishes," he said quietly, which brought the faintest, fleeting flicker of a smile to her face; it was the first time in a while he'd called her that since his run-in with Hollister. Giving her a quick smile of reassurance, he stood up, and dug a spare pillow and blanket out of the closet. He went back over to the bed, plopping the pillow down next to hers. Quickly straightening out her tangled sheets and blankets, he squeezed onto the bed next to her, draping his extra blanket over the both of them, and settled back.

Nene hugged him gratefully, and snuggled closer, putting her head on his shoulder as he wrapped an arm around her. After a few moments, her breathing slowed down a bit, becoming the even, steady breaths of someone slumbering soundly. Bert carefully reached over, and hit the switch for the light; gently cloaking darkness slithered across the room. After a few more minutes, he also fell asleep.

****

THE NEXT DAY......

The subdued murmur of bureaucratic activity greeted them as Bert escorted Nene through the door of the ADP offices where she worked. The hum of computers and rustle of forms and other paper being shuffled was overlaid with the bored tones of people talking on the telephones, or the slightly more animated sounds of people having arguments over a morning cup of coffee. It appeared to be business as usual for the ADP. In the few times Bert had been through the offices, they'd always appeared the same: vaguely hyperactive and chaotic.

Glancing around in apparent unconcern, he walked with Nene over to her desk, noting that there were a few bunches of flowers with 'Get Well' cards left on the desk. The sight of the floral arrangements helped perk her up a bit, but she was still quiet, pale-looking and subdued, which, for her, was not her normal demeanor. Nene had never seemed to be anything but cheerful and bubbly at work; the sudden mood change might seem suspicious, and he hoped that nobody inquired too deeply into what her 'illness' had been. She sat down behind her desk, tucking her handbag underneath it.

"Think you'll be okay?" he asked quietly, sitting on the edge of the desk. She looked back at him, biting her lip in uncertainty, and nodded, once. Bert very carefully kept any more unease about her from leaking through to his face; Nene wasn't talking much, which was not a good sign.

"I'll pick you up after work," he told her, "and we'll go to dinner someplace, okay?" She nodded again, giving him a weak smile. He smiled back, then leaned over and gave her a gentle kiss, trying to express his feelings for her in the brief contact. Her eyes appeared to be a little brighter-looking as he pulled back, which eased his heart slightly.

A sudden stir at the far end of the office attracted his attention. As Bert's gaze snapped up, a small army of young men and women, led by a brown-haired, blue-eyed young woman with freckles in an ADP uniform advanced towards them; Naoko, and several of Nene's co-workers. Obviously, they'd heard she was back. He restrained the urge to bolt wildly, leaned forwards, and gave Nene another quick kiss.

"Take care," he said, looking into her eyes. He stood and beat a hasty retreat as the mob of well-wishers surrounded Nene's desk, all clamoring to find out how she was, and what had been wrong with her.

Through the milling crowd, Nene watched him leave; for a brief moment, a lost and lonely expression flickered on her lovely face, then disappeared. Forcing a smile onto her face, she turned to dealing with the crowd of people around her desk, preparing herself for a very long day of answering questions.

****

Bert walked quickly through the ADP halls, shoulders hunched, with his hands in his pockets, trying to get out of the building before anyone started asking questions. He was in a really lousy mood, and he really didn't feel like answering inquiries on anything. His foul state of mind was a result of his concern for Nene, and helpless frustration over the fact that he couldn't help her in any other way other than being there for her; he wanted to do more, damnit.

He strode rapidly through the halls, avoiding contacting people with unconscious deftness; since his 'incident' he'd found he had an almost sixth sense about when people were around him. While useful occasionally, at times it made him more furious than anything. All he wanted was to go back to being normal, but it appeared as if that option was being denied him. That thought always provoked towering fury, and an almost overpowering urge to go looking for Hollister with a weapon of some kind.

He fought off the lurking anger over what had been done to him again, unaware that his internal struggle was making him look like a red-haired thundercloud, as he stalked through the halls of the ADP Headquarters with a very foreboding expression. People who saw him coming were surreptitiously moving out of the way, giving him a wide berth. All of them stepped aside, except for one man, dimly noticed out of the side of his eye.

"Excuse me," a voice called over to him. Bert didn't reply, being lost in his own thoughts. The call was repeated. "Hey!! You there!!" He ignored it again, and was preparing to exit the building when a hand reached out and grabbed his arm.

Bert froze, fighting the instant reflex action that erupted. Inside his pockets, his hands clenched into tight fists, and his face became taut with strain as every muscle in his body tensed. In the depths of his mind, the snarling urge to retaliate against whoever had just attacked him howled for release. He fought it down, reason overriding instinct; he was not being attacked, and there was no threat to him. He turned slowly, damning his subconscious mind for its now-violent reactions to unexpected contact.

"Let go of me. Now," he said tightly, still quivering slightly. Shit; he'd tried to sound normal in his request, but it had come out sounding vaguely like a threat.

Leon McNichol released his arm, and stepped back slightly, his face inscrutable, blue eyes flicking quickly to the ID passcards Bert had hanging from the breast pocket of his jacket. Once his hand was clear of his arm, Bert relaxed a bit, mentally sighing in relief. "Was there a problem Inspector?" he asked, his tone a little more courteous.

"No, not really," Leon replied easily, his manner appearing to be calm and relaxed. "I just heard that Nene had come in today with her boyfriend; I recognized you, and I wondered how she was doing."

"She's fine," Bert replied, trying to sound like there was no doubt in his mind. "She's over the worst of the illness, and the doctor said she'll be completely recovered before too much longer." He wished he could believe himself; he wasn't sure Nene would be 'better' anytime soon.

"What was the problem?" Leon asked curiously.

"Virus of some kind," Bert said, shrugging. "That was all the Doc would say, but he's pretty sure it's gone now."

"Hmmm," Leon looked thoughtful, and there was a look of calculating appraisal in his eyes that made Bert's guts tighten in unease. The look vanished, and Leon grinned in a friendly, disarming manner. "I'm sure she'll be okay. I guess I'll see you around, then."

"Sure," Bert replied, forcing himself to smile in return. "See you later." He turned and walked on, exiting the ADP building through the large, swinging glass doors. He could feel Leon's gaze almost boring holes in his back as he walked away. He carefully kept his walk normal looking, even though his tension level now made him want to start running as fast as he could just to get some distance between him and everyone else.

As he strode down the steps of the building, his mind uneasily went over his brief discussion with Leon. It was the first time Leon had ever specifically sought him out at the station; why? Could he suspect something? Or was he just trying to be friendly? He dismissed the thought as excessively paranoid a moment later, and began walking across the parking lot to his car.

****

Leon watched the younger, red-haired man leave the building, his face unreadable. His mental state, however, was not quite as calm as his face seemed to indicate. There was very definitely something up; his years of investigative work screamed at him that something was amiss.

Leon had decided to try casually approaching Nene's boyfriend on his way out of the building. However, he'd had to actually grab the guy's arm to get his attention; he'd been stomping along, ignoring everything else, apparently thinking about something unpleasant, if his expression had been any indication. It was his reaction to being grabbed that had confirmed Leon's suspicions that something was not right.

While very rigidly controlled and concealed, it had not been the startled reaction of someone interrupted in their thoughts. In the sudden tension that had swept the red-haired young man, and the flicker of...anger?...that had passed fleetingly over his face, Leon had detected a...wariness...almost a primed readiness, as if the young man had been expecting an attack. Very peculiar. The half-threatening way he had told Leon to release him had also been strange. The young man he'd just seen bore very little resemblance, other than physically, to the person he'd met before; there was a driven, vaguely hostile feel to his demeanor now, although what the source was, Leon couldn't even begin to guess at.

Leon pulled a notepad from his pocket, turning and walking back into the depths of the ADP building. As he walked, he jotted a few quick notes onto the pad, and tore off the top sheet. He re-pocketed the pad as he entered one of the offices belonging to the Records division. A cute secretary, blond and blue-eyed, looked up from her data terminal as he entered. A wide, slightly hopeful smile spread across her face.

"Inspector McNichol!" she exclaimed. "What can I do for you?" Leon grinned back boyishly, unconsciously smoothing his hair back with a hand. He handed the young woman the slip of paper he'd been scribbling on.

"Could you run a quiet background check on this guy?" he requested. "He may be related to a case I'm working on, and I can use all the leads I can get."

"Why, certainly," she replied cheerily. "I can have it for you in twenty minutes."

"What a coincidence," Leon drawled, smiling. "That happens to be when my coffee break is. You busy then?"

The young woman flushed slightly, dimpling.

****

"Come on, rest break's over!!"

Priss groaned, pulling herself off of the wooden side-bench she'd collapsed onto. Wiping a hand across her sweaty forehead, she glared at her impudently grinning, blue-eyed and black-haired tormentor.

"Linna, I'm going to kill you when I get better," she promised her friend grimly. "Haven't you ever heard of 'mercy'? Or even 'sympathy'?!"

"Nope," Linna replied instantly, grinning again. "Come on, your leg won't get stronger with you sitting on it!" The energetic young woman was wearing a two-tone, blue spandex exercise outfit; Priss was wearing an old, faded, red track suit.

"Well you get shot through the goddamn leg the next time then," Priss grumbled sullenly, levering herself to her feet, wincing as her left leg throbbed angrily. "Then we'll see how goddamn athletic you are afterwards." Her leg had proved to be the worst of her injuries from the Knight Sabers' raid on Hollister's hidden base, as it was still weak and hurt almost constantly. Although there was some minor, residual stiffness in her shoulder, her stomach and shoulder wounds had healed completely.

"I'll pass, thanks," Linna returned dryly, reaching up and tucking her hair back under her headband. "Look at it this way: this is the perfect incentive to never get hurt again. If you'd try learning something a little more technical than bar-brawling, then you wouldn't get hit nearly as often."

"You fight your way, I'll fight mine," Priss snapped. "It's worked up until now."

"And we've got the medical bills to prove it," Linna deadpanned. Priss' red-brown eyes narrowed in irritation, and she was about to reply when someone snickering off on the sidelines drew her attention. She spun around, glaring at the offending person.

A few feet away on another bench, a tall young woman with short, dark brown hair and a slender, well-rounded figure, wearing shorts and a dark T-shirt was muffling her laughter behind a hand. Sitting quietly next to her, not saying anything, but smiling nonetheless, was a smaller young woman with dark green hair and blue eyes, similarly attired.

"Was there something funny?" Priss demanded. Sylvie tried to control herself as she replied.

"No, not at all," she replied, completely failing in trying to look innocent. "You just seem upset about something, that's all." Mirth sparkled in her golden-brown eyes as she looked back at her friend. "I can't imagine why, though."

"I'll just bet," Priss retorted. "You probably just came to watch Linna torment me."

"That's a possibility," Sylvie agreed impishly. Priss threw up her hands in disgust, giving up, and turned back to her smirking instructor.

The exercise session lasted another half-an-hour, which was thirty minutes too long as far as Priss was concerned. Her leg ached abominably by the time she was done, and it didn't feel a hell of a lot better after she'd showered and changed. Wincing, she limped back out to the exercise room where Sylvie, Anri and Linna were waiting, cursing her slowly healing leg muscles all the way. The other three women had already changed, and were gathered near the door.

"Feeling better?" Sylvie inquired innocently, as the brown-haired singer came up to them. Priss glared at her, sparks crackling in her eyes.

"No," she snapped. "Bugger off and leave me alone."

"She sounds fine to me," Linna noted dryly.

Anri giggled as Priss swung an ominous glare in Linna's direction; the green-haired girl had come a long way from the terrified, reclusive creature she'd been a few short weeks ago. In the time since she'd been rescued, Anri had been kept company almost constantly by Sylvie and Priss, and their quiet support and encouragement had slowly drawn her out of the shell she'd retreated into. She wasn't quite back to normal yet; she was still shy, and reluctant to talk, but in Priss' mind, she was one hell of a lot better than she had been right after they'd gotten her out of Hollister's clutches.

"You might as well forget it," Linna cut her off with a grin as Priss opened her mouth to retort. "Grumble and gripe all you want, but you're not getting out of the exercise sessions, and you're not getting any sympathy, not from me, anyway. Just ask Bert; he'll tell you to give up and just get it over with."

"Where is he, anyway?" Anri timidly inquired, flushing self-consciously as everyone looked at her. "I...I mean...I just wanted to thank him for the flowers he sent before," she explained awkwardly, flushing again. Priss and Sylvie swapped suddenly concerned glances.

"I haven't seen him in a week, come to think of it," Priss said slowly. "He's been spending all his time with Nene, I think. Have you seen him, Linna?" Linna's grin slipped slightly.

"No, I haven't either," she said. "He hasn't tried to contact me at all, and he's missed all our usual practice sessions since...well, you know, since..."

"Since he almost turned on you, right?" Priss sighed. "That wasn't his fault, Linna; he's been through a lot lately. We all have."

"I know that!" she shot back, biting her lip and running a hand through her hair. "It's just that...he's so...so..."

"Driven?" Sylvie suggested quietly.

"That's not quite the right word, but it'll do for now," Linna said agitatedly. "He used to be a lot more relaxed, easier to get along with. Now...now I feel edgy around him all the time, and I don't like it."

"After all he's helped you with, and the amount of time you've spent with him before this, and now you're afraid of him?" Priss asked, shaking her head. "You should know him better than that, Linna."

"I thought I did, once," Linna replied quietly, looking away. "Now I'm not so sure anymore."

****

"Come on, come on," Bert snarled under his breath, glaring at the computer screen in front of him. "Compile the goddamn data faster, will you?!" The computer ignored him, and continued to churn through the simulation data he'd fed it at its own pace. Stifling the curses that sprang to mind, he shoved his chair back from the bench, angrily snatching up his mug and taking a large gulp of the steaming tea sitting in it, drinking it without really tasting it.

Wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, he slammed the mug back down onto the counter, slopping a few drips over the side onto the counter top, and turned away to the worktable sitting in the center of the room. On it sat a barely recognizable pile of silver armour plates, wiring, myomer bundles, and small, molded circuit boards: what was left of his hardsuit at the moment. Scanning the plans tacked onto the nearby wall board, he spent several minutes re-wiring and re-connecting the parts. As he was running a diagnostic scan on the suit, the computer beeped; it had finished analyzing his calculations.

Dropping the scanner, he strode quickly over to the computer, snatching the printout from the print roller as it spat it out. Greenish-brown eyes scanned it intently for a moment, then his face settled into a look of disgusted disappointment. With a slow, searing oath, he ground the hapless printout into a crumpled wad between his hands, teeth clenched. He chucked the compacted paper into the garbage pail nearby, and turned back to slapping his suit back together, his face set in a stony expression.

"Bad news?" a quiet voice inquired from the shop door. Bert stiffened imperceptibly, then turned, forcing himself to remain calm. Sylia Stingray walked over to him, moving calmly and gracefully, the picture of poise and self-assurance. Her blue-black hair was neatly arranged, and her business-like attire, a white blouse with dark skirt and jacket, gave her a look of austere beauty. Her brown eyes held a look that was part concern, part inquiry.

"You could say that," Bert replied in a neutral tone. "I just got the test results back on the armour plating."

"And?" Sylia prompted.

"And nothing," he gritted, flames seeming to leap in his eyes briefly. "There's not a goddamn thing I can do that will stop that kind of ammunition; anything using depleted uranium shells is going to cut through our hardsuits like they were made of tissue paper. Shit!!!" He spun away from Sylia, slamming a hand into the countertop behind him, shoulders hunched in frustration. "Not only that," he added a moment later, before Sylia could say anything, "but I blew it when I used ceramel as the only base material for the hardsuit armour."

"In what way?" Sylia inquired quietly. He turned around, and she could see the lines of strain that were slowly being etched into his face around his mouth and eyes.

"Ceramel is a very light, strong, heat resistant material," he told her. "Those qualities alone made it a fantastic armour material, but I didn't realize that it could get shattered by stress vibrations as easily as it does." His fists clenched. "Damn it, I should have known that something like that might happen!!" There was an anguished, self-condemnatory look on his face.

"Stop that, right now," Sylia ordered firmly, eyes flashing angrily. "You're not omniscient, and you can't predict the future. All right, so you missed something. It happens. Get used to it, and get over it. Nene and Priss would have been hurt even if the plating had held together; you just said yourself that nothing you can make would have stopped those bullets."

"Well, it won't be happening again, I can tell you that much for damn sure."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means I've already replaced all the armour plating on the team's suits," he informed her. "The base layer is a multi-plex carbon fibre weave, coated with a material called Starlite, which is a very, very heat resistant, space-age plastic. Over top of that is a layer of ceramel plating, coated with my polymer concoction. The new plating is every bit as physically strong as the old armour plate, and it won't shatter under stress, no matter what happens to it," he noted with a grimly satisfied expression. "In fact, it's a little bit stronger in that regard."

"Very impressive," Sylia noted, a hint of steel appearing in her voice suddenly as she folded her arms across her chest, "but I don't recall authorizing a wholesale upgrade of all of the suits." Bert blinked, and stared at her. She gazed back at him, one eyebrow raised questioningly.

"I...I didn't think you'd mind," he said slowly. "I felt it was important to everyone's safety, so I went ahead with it."

"On your suit, because you're so familiar with it, I might overlook your lapse," she told him. "But you can't just alter everyone else's without informing me whenever a new innovation comes along. How do you know you didn't damage some critical system when you changed the armour plating? Or the balance of the suit? Deciding on upgrades for the rest of the team is my responsibility, not yours. Clear?"

"Clear," he grumbled. "I won't make any more upgrades to anyone else's suit without your say-so."

"That raises a second question: just when did you do all these improvements?" Sylia asked, giving him a quietly searching look. "I thought you've been spending your time with Nene?"

"I am; I did it on the occasional night when she was sleeping soundly," he replied absently, reaching past Sylia to get his mug. He drained off the rest of his tea at a single draught, and walked over to the teapot that stood nearby on a hotplate, off to the side of the worktable. He refilled the mug, adding his usual dosages of milk and sugar. As Sylia watched, he drank the mugful in a steady, continuous drink, and then refilled the mug, again adding sugar and milk. She walked over to him, and put out a gently restraining hand as he started to knock back the next mugful. Her brown-eyed gaze was compassionate, but firm and unyielding.

"That's enough," she told him firmly. "You're over-compensating needlessly, and you're going to run yourself into the ground if you keep it up. When was the last time you got a full, and I mean FULL, night's sleep?"

"I don't remember," he muttered, flushing and looking away from her. "I've got too much to do."

"No you don't," she corrected. "You just think you do; you're supposed to be relaxing, and trying to get better yourself, remember?"

"I've got to do something," he snapped. "I can't go on outings with the team, so I've got to contribute somehow! I'm not gonna just freeload!"

"You're not freeloading!" she snapped back, her own temper finally beginning to fray from exposure to his current irritable state. "You're supposed to be recuperating, not driving yourself towards another breakdown!! You owe it to everyone else to get better, not worse, you jackass! Just what would Nene do if you snapped because you've been overworking yourself?! Tell me that!" she demanded. Bert flushed bright crimson, and looked away from her, not replying.

"Well?!" she demanded again. "Answer me!"

"I can't," he mumbled, flushing again, looking at the floor.

"Well this is going to stop, right now," she told him flatly. "You're done for the day; go back to your place and get some sleep. I'll be checking on you, and you'd better not be back in here. Don't force me to change the access codes for the lab and the shop."

"Yes Ma'am," he sighed disgustedly, slugging down his tea and banging the cup onto the workbench. "Was that it?"

"Unfortunately, no," Sylia sighed. "I originally came down to see if you felt up to going through another testing session in a few days; I'd thought you were getting more stable, and I wanted to evaluate your responses again." She kept her feelings carefully masked as she spoke, watching him carefully.

"Mind if I ask why?" he asked quietly, some emotion flickering by on his face too quickly for her to identify.

"Because," she replied simply, "I may need you in your suit. Priss and Nene are not going to be physically able to go on an outing for some time yet. That leaves us with two functioning members: Linna and myself. Physically, you're unharmed; if you can control yourself, I'd like to have you on standby, just in case. Three Knight Sabers are definitely better than just two, and with the modular design you've built your suit around, you can take up some of Nene's usual detection/counter-detection roles."

"All right," he said slowly. "I guess I'll feel up to it in a couple of days, but it'll also take me that long to finish re-assembling my suit."

"Fine," Sylia nodded. "I'll let you know in the next few days when I'll be doing that, then. Right now, you are going to go get some sleep. Oh yes," she added as an afterthought, "and stay off of your computer, too. I said sleep, and I meant it."

"You're the boss," he replied morosely, sighing, and walking towards the door. Sylia followed him out, flicking off the lights and closing the door.

****

Bert closed the door to his apartment behind him, wearily running a hand through his hair. His eyes flashed irritation for a moment, and he half turned as if to leave his room again. He stood for a moment, hand on the doorknob, as if trying to decide something. Resolution formed on his face. He carefully opened the door, and took a quick look around. Not seeing or hearing anything, he started to stealthily step back out into the hallway.

"Going somewhere?" Sylia's cool voice inquired politely. Bert froze instantly, mentally swearing at himself, and at his luck. After a moment, he relaxed and turned resignedly towards the far end of the hallway where her voice had come from. As he turned, she walked down the hallway towards him, emerging from the darkness of the corridor, a faintly exasperated expression on her face. "I thought I told you to get some rest?" she inquired coolly. His shoulders slumped into a defeated-looking posture.

"I wasn't going to..." he tried explaining half-heartedly, but Sylia didn't even let him get the sentence finished.

"Bed. Now," she ordered sternly, pointing back into his apartment. He turned around, feeling like a kid caught up past his bedtime by his mother, and walked back into his apartment. Sylia followed him.

"I don't need a chaperone," he said testily, glaring at her. "I can go to bed without supervision, thanks."

"Then why were you trying to sneak out again?" she asked pointedly. "I'm making sure that you get some rest, even if I have to sit out in your living room for the afternoon."

"You wouldn't!" Bert exclaimed, paling. Sylia looked him square in the eye, brown eyes calm.

"Try me," she invited. Bert stared back at her for a moment, gazing searchingly into her eyes. Sylia looked right back at him, and watched grudging acknowledgment of the fact that she was indeed serious about her threat appear in his eyes. Muttering disgustedly to himself under his breath, Bert stalked into his bedroom, and forcefully banged the door shut, stopping just short of actually slamming it.

Sylia stood for a moment, watching the door, a faint smile on her face. With a sigh, she hunted around, found a cup, and poured herself a cup of tea from the almost-always full pot Bert kept warm on the counter. Sipping at it, she walked over to the furniture surrounding the coffee table, and sat down on the couch. As she settled back to keep watch, some of the pages in a sheaf of notes on the coffee table caught her attention. She leaned forwards curiously, and picked up the stack of papers to look at them, setting her teacup to the side.

She shuffled through the notes, wincing as she tried interpreting the pained scrawl that passed for his handwriting. Pages of calculations, with the occasional paragraph of explanatory text passed through her vision, and she realized he'd been pushing himself a lot harder than he'd told her at first; there was no way one person could do this much work and still be getting enough rest. Her face hardened slightly as she glanced at the closed bedroom door, and she mentally promised herself that she was going to have another chat with him about it.

She thoughtfully scanned the rest of the papers, wondering just what he was trying to design; she certainly understood all of the mathematics, and the physics theory that appeared throughout the pages. It was when she got to the last three or four pages that she realized what it was he'd been trying to perfect.

The last three pages each held a diagram of a sleek red, white and pink hardsuit; the first page held complete technical details on what Sylia knew were the current capabilities of Nene's suit. The second page held another sketch of the red-haired girl's suit, but the technical specifications had changed slightly to match the new armour plating designs Bert had told Sylia about. The third page, with yet another diagrammatic sketch, was obviously the end result of a combination of all of the previous work.

Nene's hardsuit had been re-designed from the ground up. While still having the same physical appearance, the suit systems and subsystems had been re-designed into a more compact, more power-efficient configuration that gave some extra room in the suit's frame for some additional systems. Bert had already filled that space, however.

The space had been filled with a complicated series of what looked like small, linked magnetic field generators and micro-sized particle-beam emitters that were spaced all over the suit in an alternating pattern, and concealed just beneath the armour plating. As Sylia examined the spec sheet, her eyes widened as the full significance of what she was looking at hit her. Her stunned gaze lifted to the bedroom door, as the pages she held flopped back to the coffee table. The bottom-most page came loose from the stack and fluttered to the floor. As Sylia picked it up, she noticed the title across the bottom of the page that she'd missed previously:

HARDSUIT FORCE-FIELD DEFENSE SYSTEM
PRELIMINARY DESIGN
****

"Who the hell IS this guy?!" Leon muttered to himself in exasperation. Irritably slapping the thin file-folder in front of him closed, he leaned back in his chair, rubbing a hand over his eyes wearily. He drank the last of his coffee, grimacing at the foul taste of the now-cold liquid. Almost against his will, his eyes dropped back to the folder on the desk, and the few meager scraps of information it held. Despite diligent searching, it was all he was able to find on Nene's boyfriend.

He sighed, leaning back and running it all through his mind again, and again coming up against a brick wall. He had a description, age, apparent address, apparent employer, and some academic records. That was it. The traffic department had a license and a couple of vehicles registered for him, but that hadn't given Leon any leads either; except for a speeding ticket for a motorcycle incident, he was clean. The guy was a complete unknown, with no immediately apparent ties to anyone or anything, and Leon found himself becoming more and more irritated about the lack of information the more he thought about it.

The other peculiarity was that none of the existing records were older than three years; it was as if he had no past at all. Since there was no way that average people could just erase all possible records of themselves, Leon found himself looking at the unpleasant possibility that Nene's boyfriend was either a government agent, or else a member of a very powerful criminal organization.

Bullshit, he told himself irritably. The man didn't have the right feel, the right.... mannerisms to be a crook. Despite the fact that he appeared to have undergone some kind of personality change, Leon was willing to bet his badge that the guy wasn't a criminal...well, not a mobster, anyway. That still left open the option that he was a covert agent of some kind, however.

Leon sat back, rubbing a hand over his face again tiredly. The question now, was what was he going to do next?

 

THE NEXT DAY.....

Kate Madigan walked thoughtfully through the gigantic oaken portal to Quincy's lofty office, paging through a lengthy file nestled in a tan-coloured folder. From behind the vast expanse of his desk, the white-haired CEO watched her approach, his face impassive. At length, she reached his desk, and looked up, meeting his gaze levelly.

"We have a problem, sir," she began, taking a last glance at the file folder, and then handing it across the desk to the craggy-faced corporate ruler. "Dr. Yoshida is becoming too unstable to employ for much longer, I'm afraid."

"Oh?" Quincy rumbled. "Who has made this determination?"

"Almost everyone being forced to work in the same production facility with him," Madigan returned with a trace of dryness. "The man apparently refuses to confer with anyone lesser than a manager, hardly eats, hardly sleeps, and spends all his time creating 'perfect boomers' for 'proving himself'. He has completed the work on our new combat models, and they are indeed superb, but his 'independent' designs are a joke now." She sighed. "The Doberman he managed to get hold of and modify is useless now except for ground combat. It can't fly because its armour is too heavy, and it lacks the power for a sustained fight. We may be able to use it as a training target for our other combat models, but that's it. The Knight Sabers wouldn't even have to fight it; it's too slow to present a serious threat."

"Hmmmm," Quincy rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"The technicians are all convinced that he's completely crazy," she added, "and they won't work with him at all anymore, even under threat of termination of their employment." Madigan had herself briefly visited the facility where they'd hidden the crazed boomer designer after the death of the HeadHunter, and she'd been a little shocked, and very definitely uneasy at what she'd found.

She shuddered mentally, recalling what she'd seen: a tall, emaciated-looking man with shaggy reddish-brown hair, and with skin drawn so tightly over his frame now that he almost looked like a mummified corpse. His face had a perpetual rictus-grin on it, and all the fat there might have been on his body once was gone now; his clothes hung on him like rags on a rail fence. His once-brown eyes were now bloodshot, and appeared to glow all on their own. He seemed to be hardly aware of anything going on around him, and was continually muttering "They'll pay!" and "My genius can overcome anything!" to himself while scribbling formulas and sketches on whatever paper he had handy. Madigan hadn't needed to take another look to know that the man's mind, while being questionable before, was very definitely in decline now.

"That is indeed unfortunate," Quincy's voice rumbled. Madigan gave her attention back to him as he continued, tossing the file folder onto his desk. "Dr. Yoshida was a useful employee; it will be a great loss to us when he retires." A slow smile spread across Quincy's face as he looked at his violet-haired second-in-command. "We must be sure that he gets the full benefits package when he leaves."

"Sir?" she asked, confused. They couldn't risk just 'retiring' Yoshida by taking him off of work; the man was a wanted criminal. Even though he'd been presumed dead, having him suddenly turn up alive would raise awkward questions, and all Yoshida had to do was mention some of the details of what he'd been working on, and GENOM would suddenly have all kinds of problems again.

"Why, Dr. Yoshida will soon be leaving our employ," Quincy explained with a dark smile. "We wouldn't want him complaining about being unfairly treated, so we shall arrange an adequate, shall we say, compensation for his services." A rumbling chuckle rolled through the office, giving a chill to anyone outside the office who happened to overhear it.

 

THE NEXT DAY....

"You're sure you want to go through with this?" Priss asked again. Her red-brown eyes were worried, despite an almost Herculean effort to keep her feelings hidden. Bert sighed in irritation as he shrugged into the bulky telemetry suit. Behind Priss, he could see Sylia programming some parameters into the testing computer as Sylvie watched from where she was leaning against the wall. Nene and Linna were both absent due to work obligations.

The telemetry suit, the main component of the virtual reality testing room Sylia had constructed, was basically a very bulky undergarment softsuit, with some plastic armour plating in places. The entire ensemble was meant to approximate the physical feel of wearing a real hardsuit. There were sensor webs all throughout the suit that monitored the wearer's movements and responses, and fed the information to the sophisticated computer that ran the simulator. The computer took the data, and matched the simulator responses with it to provide an adequate response to someone's actions, such as registering a boomer as being killed.

The link was two-way, however; the suit could also provide some stimuli to the wearer, letting the wearer feel if he or she had been hit by weapons. The armour plates had vibrational devices inside of them that gave the suit occupant a brief physical nudge when the computer deemed them as being physically hit. It also had some electrodes that could give the wearer an actual, very low powered, electrical shock to simulate being hit with energy weapons. It was the electrical feedback aspect of the suit that had set him off the last time; it had tripped the automatic 'all-out attack' mode that had been plaguing him since his kidnapping ordeal, and he'd gone berserk briefly, destroying all his simulator opponents, and then the replicas of his friends.

"Look," he finally said to Priss, fastening up the last few closures on the suit. "I appreciate the concern, but quit nagging will you? I'm nervous enough as it is." That was no less than the truth; memories of what had happened the last time danced at the edges of his memory, prodding him with needle-like poignancy. He shrugged them off almost angrily; that had been a little over two weeks ago, and things had changed since then. Reaching out, he picked up the helmet that accompanied the suit, and tucked it under his arm. "It's just a simulator," he told her. "There's no real danger, and besides, we need to know if I've improved or not. This is the only way."

"Well, I still don't think...," she started to retort when Sylia's voice drifted over her shoulder, ending the conversation.

"The simulator is ready, Bert," she told him quietly. "You can start anytime." He sighed, and looked over at Priss, giving her a quick, reassuring smile. He tucked the helmet under his arm as he clumped over to the door to the simulator room. He fumbled around with the door handle, finally managed to get the door open, and stepped through.

It took another minute to find the cables inside the room that were used for limited flight simulation; setting the helmet on the floor, he worked at getting them attached to the suit. He swore under his breath to himself as he worked at latching the stubborn connections together; his real hardsuit was less hassle than this was! At last, he made the final connections. Stooping, he picked up the telemetry suit helmet, and settled it into place.

"Okay, Sylia," he reported over the helmet comm, straightening up and stretching. "I'm ready; let 'er rip."

Bert took a deep breath, and tried to hold down the crawling nervousness in his guts as his entire field of sight suddenly lit up, looking briefly like a static-filled television screen, and gradually resolved into a large, crisply-detailed, seemingly deserted, warehouse district. He looked down at himself, and saw brightly polished, silver-and-blue armour plating. He raised a gauntlet-clad hand up to in front of his face and flexed it; it looked and felt like he was wearing his real suit. He shook his head, marveling at the sophistication of the simulator briefly; damn, but it felt and looked real! The imaging system combined with the feedback sensors was fantastic in its approximation of the real thing.

SkyKnight shoved the thought to the back of his mind, and powered up his systems. Positive status readouts flickered across his helmet viewscreen as he moved towards the center of the warehouse area, keeping a wary eye out for trouble.

With mechanical snarls, a pair of C-55 boomers suddenly shot towards him on flaring thrusters, lashing out with crackling plasma beams. SkyKnight ducked smoothly under the assault, dropping into a sideways shoulder roll as the biomechanoids blasted past him. He rolled back up to his feet as his swordblades snapped into extension, turning to face the way the boomers had just taken. The boomers banked around in mid-air, and dove back towards him; the warehouse district soon reverberated with howls and explosions as Knight Saber and boomer battled for supremacy.

****

"Level Seven now," Sylia reported quietly, tabbing a console switch before leaning back in her chair. Through the viewing window, she could see Bert ducking, weaving and periodically attacking his virtual adversaries, the bulky telemetry suit apparently not impeding his movements to any great extent. On a large, central viewscreen, the computer displayed a rendered image of what was actually happening from the computer's viewpoint: A silver-and-blue hardsuit was systematically dismantling every C-55 boomer that came within reach of it. Behind her, flanking her seat, Priss and Sylvie watched wordlessly, faint traces of worry on their faces as the program began to approach the point that had driven Bert over the edge the last time.

"Computer, boost difficulty to Level Eight, and initiate random factors," Sylia ordered the machine. It whirred for a moment, then flashed a question on the screen:

COMBAT PROTOCOL TO ENGAGE?

Sylia hesitated for a moment, her gaze lifting to the red-haired young man in the room beyond. She sighed, looking anguished for a moment, then the look disappeared, her smooth face becoming emotionless..

"Full assault," she replied flatly. Behind her, Priss sucked in a sharp breath, and her fingers dug into the back of Sylia's chair as her hands clenched in worry. The three women watched the viewscreen as a sudden horde of blue C-55 combat boomers charged towards the lone silver suit.

****

SkyKnight ducked under a whistling claw swipe, at the same time sweeping his own swordblade through the boomer's midsection, gutting it and taking it out of the fight. Using the momentum of the strike to continue his motion, he drove his armoured fist into the guts of the next boomer along, pulling the triggers on his particle lasers at the same time; the boomer flew apart in a flare of energy and spinning armour shards. Still moving smoothly, SkyKnight dropped and rolled over on his left shoulder, coming to his feet again as a scorching volley of spitting, blue-white plasma bolts carved divots from the asphalt where he'd been standing a scant second before.

The silver-blue battlesuit shot backwards on howling jets, spraying a covering fire of red laser bursts to cover his supposed withdrawal. The half-dozen or so C-55's left snarled again, and all six leaped into the air to pursue him. As they all became airborne, SkyKnight's backwards motion suddenly reversed, and he blasted forwards, the scream from his suddenly stressed-out flight system sounding like a jetplane going into a power dive.

As the silver-clad Knight Saber swept through the surprised boomers, there was a pair of closely-linked, electric-sounding snap-hisses; two huge, glowing blue arcs were carved through the air as both of his arm-mounted lightsabers activated. A second or two later, four of the six remaining boomers dropped to the pavement, in several, widely differing locations. As the remaining two boomers tried to re-orient themselves to deal with the sudden reversal, a loud series of crack-bangs sounded. Several sharp, driving impacts pounded them from behind, and a moment later, the boomers burst apart in a messy spray of armour parts and oily liquids.

SkyKnight dropped to the pavement again with a clank, breathing heavily. As he landed, the railgun bolt launcher on his left shoulder folded back into its rest position. Bert wished he could wipe the sweat off of his face; it had been a grueling workout so far, but he had a sneaking hunch he wasn't done yet. While Sylia hadn't been taking it easy on him, she also hadn't tried to set him off with the same set of circumstances as the last time. Not yet, anyway.

To his immense relief, he wasn't having to exert the same desperate, ironclad control on himself that he'd had to the last time he'd been in the simulator. It was definitely easier this time; he hadn't had any sudden flashbacks, at least, not yet, and he felt...relaxed. He pondered that for a moment, trying to figure that one out. Even though he knew he was in a simulation, he'd never, ever been relaxed about being in a fight of any kind before, real or imaginary. Something stirred uneasily at the back of his mind at the discovery, but he couldn't define what it was.

It dawned on him suddenly that things had been quiet for a few minutes now. That was not good; quiet was as boring as hell right now. A slight grin crept across his face.

"Hey, Sylia!" he called into the helmet comm. "Don't tell me you're done already?! That wasn't even a decent warm-up!!"

****

"He's starting to sound like you," Sylvie remarked, a faint smirk on her face as she looked over at her friend. "You're corrupting him."

"Oh, go to hell," Priss muttered distractedly, although a faint smile was tugging at the corners of her lips at Sylvie's observation. Bert had sounded okay, and he'd certainly performed well so far, but she had this nagging feeling that something was not...quite..right. She'd seen Bert fight before, several times, and there was something about his style now that she couldn't quite pin down, something unsettling, but also something she couldn't identify.

Sylia didn't acknowledge either of them as she leaned forwards and hit another button on the console, the faintest trace of a frown on her face.

****

"You stupid, moronic, jackass," Bert swore under his breath at himself, ducking under a point-blank cannon blast from the hulking B-12 Assault Boomer in front of him. "You just had to go and open your goddamn mouth, didn't you?!" He skipped sideways from another fiery salvo, edging just a few scant inches closer to the biomechanical war machine. A second or two later, a blazing, blue-white energy blade scythed through the air in a roundhouse slash, and the boomer collapsed into two smoking heaps. SkyKnight started to turn around to check if he had any more opponents, when the numbing shocks of a series of direct hits from weapons fire hurled him sideways to land in a heap, near the smoldering remains of the boomer he'd just killed.

"Damnit, damnit, damnit, damnit," he snarled to himself as he stiffly rolled over on the ground, just barely avoiding another round of cannon fire into the pavement where he'd been laying. The two B-12s that had caught him by surprise stomped closer, getting a better vantage point from which to shoot at him. The left-most boomer was suddenly rendered headless by a shattering volley of red-white laser bolts that seared upwards from the prone hardsuit, and the right-hand one instantly dodged aside, narrowly avoiding a similar fate.

SkyKnight rolled to his feet, gasping for breath, and still swearing at himself. He should have kept his mouth shut, he noted to himself; Sylia had kicked up the difficulty level again, and now he was getting royally pounded. Even though he couldn't really get hurt, given the level of realism in the simulator, he was responding as if he was in actual danger, and he was now sore from several clumsy acrobatic evasion attempts, and once from accidentally diving headfirst into a wall he hadn't realized was there. Thankfully, however, he found he was still not having too many problems maintaining control of himself. His biggest problem at the moment was fatigue.

The B-12 ended his self-assessment by lumbering forwards again, and opening fire with its micro-missile launchers; a hailstorm of small, high-explosive warheads swept towards him. SkyKnight vaulted high into the air in a parabolic arc with a brief assist from his jets. As he came down, he knocked the B-12 staggering backwards with a laser shot; a split second later, as he landed next to the stumbling boomer, a blue-white plasma blade again sizzled through the air. The swordstroke ended at the boomer's cranial casing, and it dropped heavily to the ground.

"Okay, I surrender, Sylia," Bert panted into the helmet comm, staggering a step backwards as his lightsaber snuffed out again. His preferred weapon, the lightsaber he'd devised was the best hand-to-hand weapon available, capable of cutting through almost anything. The only drawback, of course, was that you had to get close to your assailant to use it effectively. He used it a lot more often in the simulator than he did in real life, mostly because it was safer; there was no risk of accidental amputation in here. Despite the range drawback and personal risk involved, it was a good weapon, and a perfect 'ace-in-the-hole' at times. As he quietly admired his creation, it suddenly hit him that the simulation hadn't ended yet.

"Uh, Sylia?" he called again. "What are you doing? I think that's enough, don't you?"

****

"Sylia?" Priss echoed the statement from the comm speaker. "What are you doing? He's had enough now, he said." She looked from the viewing window to Sylia, who was still seated in her chair. Sylia looked back at her calmly, a calm that was tinged with faint traces of regret.

"I'm sorry, Priss," Sylia sighed. "But there's one last test we have to try."

Priss stared at her for a moment, then looked back at the viewscreen; a silver-blue hardsuit was looking around uneasily, nervous apprehension in every movement he made. Sylvie remained quiet, also watching the screen, her face unreadable.

"You're not really going to do that to him again, are you?" Priss asked her friend, and sometimes leader. There was an overtone of entreaty in her question that didn't need explanation. "He's stayed in control up until now; we really don't need to push him any further." Sylia sighed again wearily, running a hand through her blue-black hair. A brief flicker of anguish again washed across her face.

"I don't like it either," she replied flatly. "But I don't have a choice: we have to know for sure." Her hand reached towards the control panel once more.

****

SkyKnight walked warily through the now seemingly deserted warehouse district, his stomach feeling like tightly-strung piano wires, and his mind skittering around in nervous dread of what he was sure was coming. He'd realized after a few moments why Sylia hadn't ended the simulation yet: she wanted to see how he'd react to having the rest of the Knight Sabers around him in a fight. So far, it had all been solo action, which wasn't a good enough indicator of his competency. She needed to know if he was going to be able to distinguish friend from foe in a heavy fight.

In the back of his mind, there was also the nagging fear of just how she was going to conduct that particular test.

The silver-clad hardsuit rounded a corner, still searching for some indication of what was coming, but found none. It was almost as if the computer had taken pity on him, but he knew that wasn't the case; it was merely waiting for the right opportunity.

Another couple of minutes slowly inched by, with SkyKnight restlessly pacing around the warehouses, beginning to get irritated. As he paced, his sensor display lit up with a set of signals indicating someone, or something, was nearby. Swallowing nervously, he turned and moved cautiously in the direction the readings had come from.

As he walked, a red-pink hardsuit came into view, several metres distant. The hardsuit was carefully scanning the surrounding area, with all the sensor antennae from its backpack extended and deployed. For a brief moment, Bert wished this was the real thing, and not some computer-generated mockup; it was doubtful that Nene would be in her suit anytime soon.

"Hi there!" the Nene simulacrum waved cheerily. "No boomers detected yet, sorry." Just as Bert was about to respond, three blue-armoured C-55s sprang up from the surrounding darkness, and all of them converged on the isolated hardsuit; she screamed in fear, and tried to shoot one of the marauders while avoiding the other two. The attempt failed miserably; Nene was grabbed by two of them, and the third's mouth snapped open to target her with a plasma cannon.

SkyKnight blasted forwards instinctively on snarling thrusters, time seeming to slow down as his mind suddenly began working with an icy cold clarity. Before the third boomer could fire, it was tackled sideways by the hurtling hardsuit, and the two hit the pavement with a bang. The boomer tried to blast him at point blank range with its plasma gun, but SkyKnight grabbed its face with a gauntlet-clad hand, and ruthlessly squeezed; the boomer's head casing burst apart in a shower of oily liquid, parts and sparks.

Leaping to his feet, SkyKnight spun towards the two remaining boomers and Nene, his swordblades snapping out. As he turned, one of the boomers holding Nene suddenly picked her up bodily as she struggled to get loose, and then hurled her hardsuit at him as if she'd been weightless. SkyKnight instantly stepped back and to the side, and grabbed the red-pink hardsuit as it flew past him, spinning her around, absorbing the momentum of her uncontrolled flight and setting her gently on the ground.

"T-t-thanks," she stammered, staggering slightly. Suddenly, she clapped one hand to her visor, while pointing over his shoulder. "Oh no, look out!!"

Moving smoothly, he shoved Nene to the ground, leaping sideways in the opposite direction, as a jagged, crackling blue-white bolt of electrical energy sizzled through the air. It was so real-looking, Bert was willing to swear he could smell ozone in the air. The uncomfortable proximity of the shot also started him sweating, and murky memories began to claw at the barriers he'd managed to wall them off behind.

SkyKnight dove sideways again, trying to hold onto his control and avoid getting hit. This, then, was what Sylia had been holding in reserve; she wanted to know how he'd respond to possible electrical attacks. He ducked another electrical blast, still trying to scrape together enough presence of mind to return fire; at the moment, most of his attention was being held by keeping the flashbacks at bay, and avoiding getting hit. Something in the back of his mind was screaming at him, telling him to just flee and avoid the pain that was sure to come; his guts had locked solid at the thought of being hit electrically again.

"It's not real, damnit. It's not real," he muttered to himself repeatedly, trying to convince his subconscious to shut up and leave him alone. It didn't work; the fear scrabbling at his defenses continued to eat into his self-control.

"Leave him alone!!!" the Nene-simulacrum suddenly shrieked, firing her arm laser at the boomers. Instantly, they switched aim from him to her; searingly hot blue-white streams of electrical energy slashed through the air towards her.

"NO!" SkyKnight yelled, reflex again taking over. In the back of his mind, a voice howled that it wasn't real, that it was a trick, but it was too late; he threw himself into the path of the energy streams, knocking the red-pink hardsuit aside.

"AAARRRGH!!!" The hoarse yell was torn from him by the brutal, agonizing slam of the electrical current. Every muscle in his body spasmed again, partly from the actual shocks provided by the simulator, and partly from the memories triggered by it. SkyKnight doubled over, staggering helplessly, clutching at his head, as a red tide began to rise, drowning his sight in a crimson miasma....

****

"Sylia!!! For God's sakes that's enough!!! Leave him ALONE!!!" Priss snarled, her gaze whipping from the blue-black haired woman to the twitching, doubled-over, red-haired young man in the simulator room beyond.

"I can't, Priss," Sylia replied quietly, her own face tortured-looking as she looked away from the screen. "I know it looks cruel, but we have got to know for..."

"Yeah, yeah, you've said that a dozen times already!" Priss cut her off furiously with a slashing hand gesture. There was a helpless fury flashing in her red-brown eyes as she kept looking from Sylia and then back through the window to the still-spasming Bert, hands clenched into fists at her sides. "How the hell is he supposed to get better if you keep trying to break him, though?! Hasn't he already been through the blasted wringer enough times to allow for some friggin' sympathy once in a while?!"

"Priss, I'm not doing this to try and break him!!" Sylia snapped, traces of hurt appearing in her eyes, quickly concealed. "This is hurting me as much as anyone else, but are you willing to risk your safety, or anyone else's, just because you feel sorry for him?"

"He wasn't ready to get back in his suit!" Priss shot back, glaring. "You shouldn't have asked him, goddamnit!!! It's partly his bloody misguided sense of honour and duty that made him try it; he probably wouldn't have if you hadn't asked him to!!" Sylia opened her mouth to reply when Sylvie's quiet voice cut through the argument.

"He's getting up," was all she said. The gazes of the arguing women snapped to the viewing window, then down to the computer screen.

On the monitor, a violently shaking and shuddering silver-blue hardsuit was straightening up, bracing itself against the electrical streams that still were washing over it.

****

"I...will...not...snap!" Bert snarled defiantly, eyes squeezed shut, teeth clenched. Sweat poured down his face as he fought to force himself upright, overriding the convulsions that were wracking him at the moment through force of will. The strain was horrendous, however; his guts felt like they were going to burst. Red flashes crackled and snapped through his sight, carrying brief images of a smirking, blond-haired man, and other, associated images from when he'd been tortured, with them. It was in the past, now, he told himself again; he'd survived, and would continue to survive. He had to; there was too much at stake to just give in.

SkyKnight tried to take a deep breath and hold it, but the pain and convulsions tearing into him, and the fight to keep from dropping over the edge into overdrive, made that impossible; he was gasping for air as if he'd just finished the Ironman Triathlon in record time. Darkness flickered at the edges of his vision, and he realized he had to end this...ordeal... quickly, or else he was going to either lose it again, or pass out.

Bracing himself, SkyKnight forced himself into an upright stance facing the boomers. In the back of his mind, the whirling storm of incandescent rage and memories continued clawing at his rapidly-failing ramparts of control. Another shudder wracked him anew, and he hazily realized that his first priority was stopping the electrical currents from hitting him; that should give him a little bit of breathing space.

Twin cylindrical handgrips snapped into his hands from their arm-guard slots, and with synchronized snap-hisses, two blue-white lightsaber blades sizzled into being, and were whipped up, directly into the path of the electrical beams the boomers were blasting him with. The result was more than he'd hoped for; the plasma blades blocked most if not all of the electrical current by deflecting the energy off to the sides, resulting in an immediate release from the pain he'd been suffering. There was a lingering trace of it, but the minute the energy had been blocked, it had disappeared and was more like a vague recollection. The retreat of the torment also allowed him to slam the lid on the memories and anger that had been raging at him, and to get his breath back.

The boomers snarled at him again, seeing their prey beginning to recover, and they split up, trying to flank him and attack him from two sides. As they moved, the electrical beams cut off, and SkyKnight erupted into blindingly swift action.

The silver hardsuit shot sideways, towards the left-most boomer, moving quickly and running hard. As the boomers fired at him again, he dove forwards, arms outstretched in front of him, and pulled a forward, somersaulting roll that brought him to his feet right in front of the one offending boomer. An almost casual, full-powered backhand from SkyKnight removed its head, and the biomechanoid collapsed into a scrap heap. The silver-clad Knight Saber immediately did a back-handspring, avoiding the wild volley of plasma beams and lightning bolts that the remaining boomer shot at him. He backflipped twice more, instinctively staying just ahead of the searching fire that sought him out hungrily.

SkyKnight suddenly dove sideways instead of backflipping again, and the C-55's attacks missed harmlessly by a very wide margin. The boomer never got a chance to correct its aim; A blazing volley of four, coruscating particle-laser beams wiped it from existence, turning it into a cloud of spinning armour shards, vaporized liquids, and carbonized circuitry. With a thundering blast, the beams also half-vaporized the wall of the building behind it.

As the lingering echoes of the final fusillade faded, SkyKnight straightened up, his weapons systems shutting down. A grim smile flickered over his face inside the helmet; he looked down at his gauntleted hands, and flexed them a couple of times.

"Checkmate. Game and match," he quietly said out loud. The warehouse district suddenly dissolved into a multi-coloured field of static, and then darkness.

****

Bert shoved the door of the simulator room open, wearily stripping off the VR helmet at the same time. He was the picture of almost total exhaustion; his shoulders were slumping, and his head was hanging. Every so often he lurched a bit as he walked.

Cool air rushed in and gently caressed his sweaty face, offering a modicum of relief as he peeled off the helmet. He swiped a sleeve across his forehead, and then began undoing the closures on the telemetry suit as he walked across the room towards the changeroom. Damn it, he was so tired, everything hurt...

"ANSWER ME, GODDAMNIT!!!" Priss' voice blasted in his eardrums, making him jump in surprise. He'd been so worn-out, and anxious to get out of the suit that he hadn't heard the volley of concerned questions that had barraged him when he'd come out of the simulator room.

Blinking slightly bloodshot greenish-brown eyes, he lifted his head and looked into her worried face. Sylvie was hovering anxiously behind her, her eyes also reflecting her concern. He couldn't see Sylia, but he was too tired to think straight, and didn't look for her.

"Pardon me?" Bert croaked. His mouth was dry as hell; he needed a drink in the worst way, but he managed to get some moisture into his mouth long enough to speak. "What was the question?"

"I said 'Are you okay?'," Priss repeated, swapping a glance with Sylvie. Bert nodded vaguely, pushing past them absently and continuing on to the changeroom.

"I'm fine," he replied tiredly over his shoulder, "I just need to use the washroom for a bit, first." He shoved the door open and stepped in, closing it behind him and locking it. Weaving a bit now, he went over to the nearby lockers and managed to get out of the telemetry suit finally, sighing in relief at how much easier it became to move around.

As he started to fish some clean clothes and other things out of the locker, a sudden tremor shook him. Wheeling around, he sprang for the nearest available garbage can, and proceeded to throw up violently in it. The racking heaves persisted for a few moments, than died off. Bert shakily wiped his mouth off with the back of his hand, and waited for a moment or two, still coughing occasionally. Nothing else happened, so he turned to the sink, and rinsed out the foul taste that had been left in his mouth by throwing up, and took a long drink of water. He stepped back over to the lockers with a weary sigh, and dug a bar of soap, bottle of shampoo, and some towels from the top shelf.

The hot shower helped to revive his flagging energy just a bit, and he felt almost normal again once he'd dried himself off and thrown on a clean tracksuit. He still felt a little out of it, however, so he splashed some cold water on his face. It helped a little, but he realized he was going to have to get to bed soon, or risk collapsing.

Bert sighed again, and made his way to the changeroom exit. Unlocking the door, he opened it and stepped out into the short corridor joining it to the testing control room. As he did so he could hear Priss fuming angrily about something.

"What the hell is taking him so long?!" she grumbled. "He should have been out of there by now."

"Priss," Sylvie's voice replied. "Relax. He's fine, really; you heard the shower. He's just getting cleaned up. You can stop wearing a groove into the flooring; he'll be out soon." Bert started moving closer to the main room.

"Oh, sure," Priss snorted. "He's perfectly okay...horseshit! You saw what the hell he looked like coming out of there, and that didn't look to me like he was fine. He didn't even realize we were speaking to him until I yelled almost in his ear! The stupid bastard's probably passed out on the floor right now."

"Thanks for the concern," Bert remarked dryly, stepping into the room, "but the stupid bastard is quite upright at the moment." Priss spun around, flushing bright red as anger, worry, and relief vied for dominance in her expression. Anger won, easily.

"It's about friggin' time you came out," she snarled, stepping right up to him. Angry red-brown eyes stared hotly into his. "You could have at least said something before vanishing into the changeroom; it would have made waiting just a little easier," she fumed. Bert stood quietly during the scolding, his gaze flickering from Priss, to Sylvie, to Sylia.

Sylvie looked relieved to see him, but at the same time there was a question implicit in her eyes that he knew he was going to have to answer shortly. Sylia also looked relieved, but she was trying to suppress rampant guilt at the same time over what she'd put him through. As for Priss... he knew exactly what her feelings were right now.

"Thanks for the concern," he replied wearily, cutting Priss off before she could speak any more. "I appreciate it, really, but I'm fine. Now if you'll pardon me for a moment..." He carefully reached out and gently took Priss by the shoulders, moving her out of his way. Stepping past her, he walked over to Sylia. She was watching him intently, her concern and other feelings hidden behind an impassive mask.

"So what's the verdict?" he asked simply when he reached her chair. She looked up at him for a moment thoughtfully, then reached out and hit a switch on the computer console. A small monitor screen lit up, and two lines on a graph appeared, a green one and a red one. The red one was slightly higher than the green one, but it maintained a nearly identical shape, except for a brief spike near the end.

"You're now officially at Level Eight," Sylia replied quietly, her face concealing her inner disquiet. "You did extremely well overall, with an increase in combat efficiency to 82%."

"That's not what I meant," Bert replied, dismissing the information with an irritable gesture. "I meant am I in, or not?" He waited as Sylia looked away, her gaze becoming briefly filled with agonized indecision. He raised a hand to brush his hair out of his eyes, and noticed it was trembling suddenly. Oh hell, part of his mind noted, not now! Please, not now!! He carefully lowered his hand again, clenching it into a fist, and trying to will himself to stop shaking; he could feel faint twitches spreading to the rest of his muscles.

"I guess you are," Sylia sighed, looking back at him after a long moment of silence. Priss sucked in a sharp breath, and divided an unhappy glare between him and Sylia. Sylia ignored the look and continued. "You've demonstrated that, for now, at least, you can hold onto your self-control. I think that makes it safe to take you along." Bert's face relaxed, and a relieved smile began to spread across his face.

"As backup, ONLY," Sylia added firmly, stopping the smile in its tracks. "We'll have to wait and see about the fully active duty status." Bert's expression turned sour, but he fought down the urge to protest; Sylia was right in not returning him to full duty yet, and whining about it wouldn't change her mind, so he might as well get used to it.

"Okay, fine," he nodded. "It's a deal." There was a sudden ringing in his ears, and he blinked, looking around to find the source. As he did, both Priss and Sylvie let out a startled exclamation of some kind, and the two women jumped forwards, grabbing him as his knees buckled. Sylia looked startled, and started to get out of her chair, surprise turning to concern. Bert shook his head dazedly as the ringing turned to a loud roar of some kind.

"What's wrong?!" Priss asked worriedly. "What is it?!" She and Sylvie were holding him upright by main strength; Bert's legs wouldn't support him any longer.

"Not...sure.." he replied distantly, blinking and shaking his seemingly fog-filled head again. It felt like he was seeing everything through an infinitely long tunnel. "Tired..I...guess.."

There was a loud, rolling, rumble, almost like an ocean was crashing down on him; black waves of unconsciousness washed over his sight, and the room vanished.

****

A blue and white ADP patrol car pulled to a halt on the laneway in front of the small, two-story brown house, gravel scrunching noisily under its tires. The gull-wing driver's door swung upwards, the rush of air-conditioned air from the interior of the car dissipating the faint cloud of dust that the stopping car had raised. A pair of booted feet swung out of the car to the ground, being followed a moment later by a tall, blue-clad, brown-haired man with an ADP badge hanging on his jacket.

Leon looked around at the area surrounding the house, noting all the trees and shrubs that ran riot all over the place. He fished in a pocket, and pulled out his sunglasses, donning them out of force of habit. He didn't really need them, though; the setting sun was sinking behind the trees, casting a sullen red light over everything. He had to look around quick; before long it would become too dark to snoop further.

Leon walked slowly over to the small, somehow rustic-looking house, slowly looking around. There was a cool breeze wafting through the leaves of the trees, providing a quiet background rustle that was oddly soothing, and there was a hint of freshness to the air that was lacking in the downtown core of MegaTokyo. As he walked along, Leon felt himself relaxing despite himself, stress vanishing into the pastoral surroundings like water being soaked up by a sponge.

As he came up to the house, Leon's gaze sharpened as he noticed that a couple of second-story windows were boarded up, and the front door was practically in the same condition. Strange, he noted to himself. The house didn't look like anyone had been living in it for some time, which struck him as odd; if Nene's boyfriend wasn't living at his listed address, then where was he staying?

Moving cautiously, he eased up to the front door, and looked around again uneasily. He couldn't see anything, and he turned back to the door. The door had been crudely boarded shut, and then a padlock had been placed on it. However, judging from the marks and gouges on the door, someone had forced their way in very recently; the lock was snapped off, and the boards had been loosely put back. Leon started to see if the door would open, then stopped, hesitating. He really didn't have the authority to go any further as he had no proof that Bert was involved in anything shady, just suspicions. Suspicions that were getting stronger the more anomalies he encountered, however. If he entered the man's house, even though it looked like it had already been broken into, technically speaking, he'd be trespassing. After a moment, curiosity and investigative instincts won. Leon carefully pulled a board out of the way, and stepped over the others as he shoved the door open.

The first thing to greet the tall inspector was a dusty-looking suit of steel, medieval plate armour. Leon's eyes widened a bit at that; that suit was a fairly impressive piece of work, and was probably worth several thousand yen. The coating of dust on it confirmed that no one had been living in the house for a while. He quickly swept through the rest of the rooms, not quite sure what he was searching for. As he searched, he noted that some of the rooms looked like they'd been searched; chairs were overturned, bookshelves rooted through, and tables moved. The bedrooms looked like a whirlwind had passed through, with blankets and clothes spread everywhere. The entire upper floor had been ransacked and overturned, with the first floor being apparently ignored.

Leon finally concluded that he wasn't going to find anything useful, and he made his way back out the front door, puzzling over the questions his quick look at the interior of the house had raised. Not only had the house been unoccupied for some time, but evidently someone thought there was something valuable inside.

None of the electronic components, a TV, VCR, and some other weird devices had been moved, the dust alone was an indication of that, but everything else looked as if someone had thoroughly searched through everything. Very, very strange, he reflected. He shut the door behind him, and quickly placed the boards back the way he'd found them. Casting a quick glance at the rapidly darkening sky, Leon pulled off his glasses and decided to take one last quick look around the exterior of the house.

The blades of grass whispered under his feet as he tramped around the house, sending a searching gaze into the surrounding bushes, trees, and lengthening shadows. He moved out a short distance into the forested area behind the house, still looking around. After a few moments, he gave up in disgust; it was rapidly becoming too dark to see, and he really didn't expect to find anything anyway. With a disgusted snort, he spun around and started to walk back to his car.

As his boot swept through the grass, it caught something and kicked it briefly free of the concealing ground foliage. Whatever it was, it was small, and glinted with a metallic sheen as it fell back into the grass. Leon stopped in his tracks, and bent down to find it, whatever it had been.

He pulled a small, clear plastic bag from a pocket, putting it over his hand like an improvised glove. After a moment's searching, he found what he'd kicked, and a couple of other objects like it hidden in the grass nearby: a small, metallic cylinder of some description, open at one end. He had an immediate suspicion of what they were, but it was too dark now to see any other details. Leon stood up again, peeling off the bag and turning it inside out so that it contained his finds, and stuffed the bag back into his pocket.

Moving rapidly, he strode around the house to the front driveway, and climbed into his car, closing the door. As the door swung down, he tabbed the switch for the interior lights; a dim yellow glow sprang up from the recessed lamps. Fishing in his pocket, he brought out the bag with the cylindrical objects, and held them up to the light. He sucked in an apprehensive breath as the appearance of the objects confirmed what he'd suspected.

The cylinders were almost three inches long, with one end open, and crimp marks showing around the open end. The other end of the tube was sealed, with a rimmed end, and a small, depressed circle in the exact center of the end. The brass colour of the cylinder body left no doubt as to what the cylinders were: rifle cartridge casings. Military-type weapons, too, if he was any judge of weapons and ammunition. Offhand, they looked like they might be 7.62 mm ammunition, probably higher.

The hand holding the bagged casings dropped back to the arm of his seat as Leon stared blankly out the car window, shutting off the interior lights at the same time. Just what the hell was going on around here?!

 

THE NEXT DAY....

Bert jerked bolt upright in bed, the flannel blanket draped across him falling away. Bleary greenish-brown eyes stared around at the momentarily unfamiliar-looking surroundings: a plain but richly-finished dresser, covered with a white cloth, and a couple of easy chairs over by a fairly large window with closed blinds. A vase containing some colourful flowers sat on the dresser, providing a homey touch. Other than a couple of non-descript pictures, the kind just added to break up the monotony of bare walls rather than for actual content, there was nothing else in the room. After a moment or two of dazed confusion, he finally recognized the room as Sylia's guest room.

"Aw, bloody hell," he muttered to himself, as he remembered the final results of his testing earlier. Despite a massive effort not to, he'd folded like an accordion and passed out from the strain and exertion. That, and the fact that lately he'd been driving himself to perform on substantially less sleep than most people required. He flopped back into the pillows after a moment, as his body let him know exactly what it thought of the situation: it wasn't happy with him.

Every single muscle he owned felt stiff and sore, almost like Linna had flogged him through one of her workouts. His mouth tasted utterly foul, and he desperately needed a drink of water on top of that. There was a dull, gritty ache around his eyes, and a steady but subdued throbbing pulsed at his temples. As he lay there contemplating how lousy he felt, he drifted into a light doze again. After an indeterminate period of time, his eyes snapped open, and he sat up again, finally becoming fully alert.

Wincing at the twinges from his stiff muscles, he got off the bed, and went into the small adjoining washroom. A long drink of water, and a quick wash cleared the last clouds from his mind, and he stretched cautiously, trying to decide what was next on his agenda.

He peered into the mirror at himself, noting absently that he needed a shave; the beginnings of a reddish stubble was appearing on his face, making him look a little meaner than he normally felt upon first awakening. He sighed, scrubbing a hand along his jaw as he scowled at his scruffy reflection, whiskers rasping coarsely. His stomach rumbled, and he concluded that breakfast was the first thing on his list.

Turning away from the mirror, he left the bathroom and the bedroom, stepping out into a short hallway that connected the guest rooms with the main living room. He stealthily moved down the hallway, and took a quick look around the living room; no one was in sight, so he started drifting carefully towards the door to the apartment.

"I just made some tea," Sylia's voice called from the kitchen, stopping him in his escape attempt. "There's dinner, too, if you're hungry," her voice added a moment later. Dinner? What happened to breakfast?! his mind asked. His stomach answered for him: it didn't care, just as long as it was food.

He looked out the window at the city, and saw blackness peppered with twinkling neon lights. The clock on the wall, unnoticed until now, read 7:30 PM. He stood confused for a moment, until he realized that he'd apparently been out a lot longer than just the night after his combat testing. Damn. His stomach growled at him again, and he sighed in resignation. Turning around, he went into Sylia's kitchen.

She was sitting at the small dinner table, her meal already partly finished, and a cup of steaming tea sitting by her elbow. A folded up newspaper sat on the edge of the table. Across from her, a second plate with another generous portion of food had been set up, and a large mug of tea called enticingly to him from where it sat on the table, next to the plate.

"Trying to sneak out again, were you?" Sylia asked, a faint smile on her face as she shook her head. "That's not very polite, you know." Bert flushed guiltily as he sat down, his mouth beginning to water at the smells coming from the plate of food. It smelled fantastic, and looked good, too. His internal combustion engine rumbled once more, and Sylia smiled again at him.

"I didn't want to wake anyone up," he tried explaining, flushing again. "I thought it was early in the morning." Sylia shook her head.

"Sorry, but you've been asleep for about twenty-three hours," Sylia informed him, her expression hardening slightly. "We'll discuss just how hard you've been pushing yourself later. For now, eat something before you expire." Bert reddened again, and he didn't reply for a few more moments as he worked his way through the meal. It was a fish and rice dish of some kind, and it tasted as good as it smelled. It also made him acutely aware of how limited his own culinary talents were; he'd been living on canned and microwaveable stuff for too long, he reflected. He could make a few things that were pretty good, but by and large his dishes were pretty basic, not at all like this was; it had that added touch that made it seem extra tasty, and somehow ...comforting...like a home-cooked meal from when he'd been much younger.

The food quickly vanished, and he sat back with a contented sigh, taking a long, appreciative pull at his mug of tea. Sylia watched him thoughtfully the whole time, finishing her meal also, a faint smile on her face.

"Ahhh...Thanks," Bert told her after draining the last of his drink, sighing deeply and relaxing. "That was fantastic; you're a great cook."

"Why, thank you," she replied, blushing modestly. A slightly awkward silence fell for a few moments.

"If it's not a stupid question," Bert asked hesitantly, "Why'd you move me here? There is an infirmary room at Raven's; you didn't have to put yourself out on my account."

"I figured it would be more comfortable for you, and it made it easier to keep an eye on you," she replied smoothly. Too smoothly; Bert peered closer at her, noting what he'd been too tired before to really notice.

"And you felt guilty for running me through the wringer," Bert quietly added, "and you felt you had to apologize or make up for it somehow." Sylia flushed a bright red, and looked horribly embarrassed for a moment. After a second or two, she regained control of herself.

"That's a possibility," she admitted with just a trace of coolness. Bert shook his head smiling ruefully.

"I'm not carrying any grudges," he told her simply. "Yes, it was hell; I'd be lying through my teeth if I said I enjoyed it, but that doesn't change the fact that you had to do it. Hell, if you hadn't suggested it, I'd been thinking of trying it again just to see how I was."

"You're being awfully...calm and forgiving about this," Sylia quietly noted, faint traces of guilt still lurking in the backs of her eyes. Bert tried shrugging nonchalantly, but it came off as looking vaguely irritated.

"I've changed a bit," he replied, a quick memory of a quote flashing through his mind, something about being forged in the flames of adversity.... He shrugged the memory away, and continued speaking.

"Before? Yes, I'd probably have been pissed off and snarling for days about it." He sat staring off into space absently as he talked, and Sylia watched as a parade of memory-linked emotions flashed across his face. "After everything I've been through now, though, I've realized that there are some things it just doesn't pay to get steamed over. Evaluating my performance is one of them; I've been fighting myself for weeks now, and there's no way you could describe my views on the subject as impartial. That means that, unfortunately, it becomes someone else's responsibility to make that particular call."

He looked over at her, greenish-brown eyes showing a combination of sympathy and respect. "I don't envy you your job," he told her quietly. "I don't think I could do it myself, not without being a complete wreck and recluse afterwards." He looked away again. "So since I'm not carrying any ill-will, maybe you could relent a bit and forgive yourself. Besides, it's done now, and I'm still all right." Oh really? a sardonic voice at the back of his mind noted. If you're all right, then how come you still act like almost everyone's a potential enemy? Bert stuffed the unwelcome observation back into the dark corner of his mind that it had emerged from; the last thing he need now was his subconscious producing nagging, gloomy remarks.

As he sat quietly, staring into space and brooding, Sylia refilled their tea cups, giving him a quietly searching look. She didn't say anything, though, and they sat quietly together, sipping at their drinks. After a few minutes, Sylia sighed and set her cup down, her expression becoming slightly stern.

"I think we need to discuss just how far you were pushing yourself before last night," she told him quietly. "I think you overextended yourself for no good reason, and I don't want you to repeat that. Luckily, last night was only a test; you'd have been severely at risk if it had been a real mission, and I can't allow that. Am I making myself clear?"

"Perfectly," Bert sighed, a scowl flickering across his face. "I understand your concern, but I'm not going to apologize for what I did; you may think it wasn't necessary, but I sure as hell did."

"And just what was so important that you were jeopardizing your own health?" Sylia asked, although she had a faint inkling of what his reply was going to be. His next words confirmed her suspicions.

"Nene's safety," he replied quietly. "That, and being able to giver her some peace of mind if she.....when she gets back on the team."

"Care to explain that?" she asked quietly. Bert's gaze turned distant, and slightly pained-looking.

"Nene hasn't been taking her...near miss very well," he started awkwardly. Sylia nodded, understanding perfectly, and he continued. "I know what she's going through, because I went through it myself, back when those USSD Dobermans jumped me." He paused, taking a drink. Setting his mug back down, he continued. "I was able to get over it, partly because of my 'heroic ideals', I guess you could say, and partly because ...because of my friends being there. Well, Nene doesn't have my heroic ideals, and..." He paused, staring into space, trying to collect his thoughts, as Sylia waited patiently.

"Nene has never had the same drive, or fire, if you prefer, about our work as the Knight Sabers as you, Priss, or even Linna has. I always," he flushed suddenly, almost guiltily. "I always thought she...didn't take things seriously enough at times; I know I didn't myself for a while, but..." He stopped speaking, floundering in a complex quagmire of emotions that he was trying to give voice to. He loved Nene, more than anything else, but at times her apparent innocence about the world in general seemed like a liability. He'd never said anything, to anyone about it before, mostly because he wasn't really the one who had any right to comment, being a hopeless idealist at times himself.

"But I'm not sure if she can get over nearly getting killed by Hollister," he said, swallowing against the sudden pain in his throat; Nene just had to get better...she had to! "I've tried everything I can to help," he told Sylia in a low tone, "but...but I wanted..want to do more than just 'be there for her', damnit. I've got to help her somehow...and that's when I came up with those defense upgrades for her hardsuit."

"The force field system?" Sylia asked quietly, sympathy evident in her eyes. Bert nodded tiredly.

"It will work, but only for limited time periods," he told her. "There isn't a suit powerplant available that can power it for more than a few minutes before the entire suit shuts down entirely. "I've devised a sensor program to link into her control systems; if the sensors detect something capable of penetrating the normal armouring of the suit, then the field comes up, briefly, just long enough to divert the attack." He hesitated, then sighed. "Unfortunately, if someone were to fire a heavy projectile, such as a DU round, with enough velocity, the kinetic energy in the object would likely break through the barrier anyway. I tried to design around that, but I can't. For the size and frame of suit we use, that's going to be the limit of any force field defenses: limited power and duration, and we'll still be vulnerable to very high-velocity projectiles." A very faint smile appeared on his face. "That gives us an excellent incentive to not get hit."

"The incentive not to get hit has always been excellent," Sylia noted dryly. "Why do you think this will help Nene?" Bert took another swig from his mug.

"I'm hoping it will provide a measure of comfort..a...a 'security blanket', if you will, that will help her in getting her confidence back," he replied simply. "She doesn't have the advantage of being the scarred and world-weary war-horse that I am now," he noted, with just a trace of resentful bitterness. "I don't think that there's much that would really bother me now, with the exception of losing any of you." He looked up at Sylia, a complex whirlwind of emotion swirling in his eyes. "I don't mean to say that I've become callous," he assured her, "it's just that...with everything I've been through, now, I've got a breadth of perception not available to most people, and I guess that lets me be a lot more equable about a lot of things now; I can take a lot more in stride. Nene doesn't have that advantage, and if she ever does develop it, I hope she never has to go through what I had to."

An uncomfortable silence fell over the room as he finally quit speaking. Sylia took a sip from her now cold tea, pondering his explanation. She could see he'd told her the complete truth; some of his observations about Nene had been almost too painful for him to say, but he'd forced it out anyway. She could see one minor point he'd missed, however.

"I can understand your feelings," she told him quietly. "But you're never going to be able to protect her completely. I think if you try too hard, you'll smother her. She has to be allowed to grow on her own."

"I know that," he replied miserably, shoulders slumping. "But that doesn't mean I have to like it."

 

THE NEXT DAY....

Bert took a large slurp from his mug of tea as he stepped past the end of his kitchen counter while simultaneously trying to juggle a slice of toast spread with Cheese Whiz, and a well-worn novel. Just as he made it almost all the way to the coffee table, the phone rang, startling him. Stuffing the last bit of toast into his mouth, he took another quick sip of tea to wash it down, and dove for the phone, dropping the novel onto the floor and almost tripping over it. He snatched the receiver from it's cradle.

"Hewwow? Mmfgh!" He tried swallowing the lump of toast that had suddenly become stuck in his throat, and doubled over coughing for a moment. After sounding like a dying automobile with choke problems for a minute or so, he finally cleared his air passages enough to speak.

"Hello?" he wheezed into the mouthpiece, still clearing his throat. The last few crumbs grudgingly surrendered, and went down his gullet finally.

"You didn't go and get sick, did you?" Nene's voice asked suspiciously. "I heard about your collapse the other night; I'm not happy with you, mister." Bert grinned wryly to himself; in some ways at least, Nene was still the same. Now if only the rest of her personality would recover...

"No, nothing like that," he hastened to assure her. "You just caught me in the middle of eating something, and I discovered I couldn't eat as fast as I thought I could."

"Humph," she muttered by way of reply. "Okay then; are you still meeting me for dinner after work?"

"But of course, M'Lady!" he exclaimed. "I keep my promises; you should know that by now."

"Okay then; I'll see you at 8:00 PM then," she replied, sounding a shade more cheerful. "What are you going to be doing today?"

"Getting a little exercise," he replied, straight-faced, taking a swig from his cup.

****

Vibrant, energetic dance music reverberated throughout the spacious room, as a black-haired and blue-eyed young woman in a blue-green spandex aerobics outfit seemed to float across the floorboards. Her dancing was a seemingly never-ending whirl of leaps, twirls and artistic pirouettes that carried her effortlessly across the floor space of the room, with her never seeming to actually alight on any spot on the floor for very long. The dance patterns she was using were simple and clean, but elegant at the same time, immediately entrancing to the eye. The entire performance was spellbinding, her every movement a rejoicing in the freedom of the dance.

With an echoing snap, the cassette player came to the end of the tape, and Linna finished her routine with a grand flourish, seeming to become firmly rooted to the ground again as gravity re-asserted itself. With an exhausted, but contented, sigh, she walked over to the small table in the corner of the room. Picking up a towel from where it hung precariously on the edge of the table, she mopped off her streaming face, looping the towel around her neck afterwards.

Picking up the water bottle from the table, she took a long draught, enjoying the feeling of delicious coolness as it spread through her moisture-starved tissues. She took another drink after the first one had been given time to settle, humming quietly to herself.

She absently gazed out the large bay window as she hummed, one hand sweeping her hair back under her headband automatically in an unconscious gesture. Things were going pretty good at the moment; her job was fantastic, nothing catastrophic had happened lately, and she felt great. What more could anyone ask for?

Originally, when she'd started her new job, she'd been worried that her duties as the chief choreographer wouldn't allow her any time to do any dancing herself. She'd soon had that worry put to rest; a lot of the other dancers reacted more favourably to someone who led by example, which had suited Linna just fine. She was now regularly leading the various dancers through their paces in a class-style fashion. It had immediately prompted a lot of the dancers to work harder to try and keep up to her, and she couldn't get rid of a faint trace of smugness over the fact that she'd been able to run most of the more seasoned company veterans into the ground during the first week of training. A couple of whiners had quit over it, but they hadn't been missed by anyone.

She sighed again, a feeling of contentment filling her. For the first time in a while, she felt happy and fulfilled at her job, which hadn't been something she'd been able to say very often before. Sure, playing with stocks and bonds had been fun, for a while, but there'd always been something missing, some feeling that she wasn't doing everything she was capable of. Now she was, and she felt great.

Smiling to herself, she glanced at the clock. She sighed as she realized she had a couple of hours to kill yet. Shrugging mentally, she turned around to leave the room, and stopped in her tracks, her smile fading slightly. Standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame with his arms crossed over his chest, was a familiar tall, broad-shouldered figure with red hair. Greenish-brown eyes met hers from across a room that suddenly seemed to be too small to Linna.

"Hello, Linna," Bert greeted her quietly. He was wearing a black track suit and running shoes, and was leaning casually in the doorway, almost completely filling it. Linna's nerves began jangling as she realized she was going to have to squeeze past him, if he didn't move, in order to leave the room. "That was a great dance routine," he complimented her. "You looked fantastic."

"Um, thanks," she said uncertainly, slowly walking over towards him, her unease growing with every step closer that she took. She finally stopped, short of him by about fifteen feet, even though the distance was not much of a comfort, or a defense. "Could you move out of the way, please?" she requested politely. "I've got to go get cleaned up."

"What, don't you have time to talk to friends anymore?" he asked, a slightly wounded expression appearing. "We used to chat all the time, before. Remember?"

"Of course I remember!" She flushed guiltily at his words. Before the torture ordeal that had altered him, they'd always talked for a while after workouts, on whatever came to mind, ranging from personal problems to just silly things to pass the time.

Since his kidnapping, though, she'd hardly seen him. For a while he'd been more or less hiding from everybody; however, once he'd come out of being reclusive, and it had become apparent just how serious his problems were, she'd started avoiding him. She was honest enough to admit to herself that at least part of it was fear; ever since that night at Sylia's when he'd almost turned on her, she'd been uneasy around him, fearful of another outburst, fearing for her own safety.

"Look," she told him, "We can talk some other time. Right now I've got..."

"Nothing," he interrupted in a flat voice, the banter gone from his tone. "Priss, Anri, and Sylvie aren't due in here for Priss' rehab session for another two hours, at least. I checked. That means you're just marking time right now." He straightened up, and began walking towards her, his arms dropping to his sides. "What's the real reason you don't want to talk to me, Linna? I think I deserve an answer." Something screamed warnings in the back of Linna's mind, and she tensed, backing up a step as he advanced on her.

"Bert, stop it," she pleaded. "You're... I....this isn't the time or the place to discuss this..."

"I think it's the perfect time," he replied, his intent gaze seeming to bore into her. "There's no one else here at the moment, so that means we won't have eavesdroppers. I want to know the real reason you don't want to stand and talk to me." He advanced closer, narrowing the gap between the two of them to about six feet. "I want to know the real reason someone I considered a friend has been treating me like I've got the plague suddenly. Well? I'm waiting."

Linna backed up another step as he stepped closer, bringing the distance between them to less than a couple of feet. She could almost feel a driven intensity radiating from him, and it immediately sparked a flashback of what he'd looked like that one night a few weeks back when he'd flipped out. She swallowed against the sudden dryness in her mouth.

"Bert, please don't be like this," she said, not quite meeting his gaze. "I have got some stuff I have to do. Now would you please move out of the way?"

"Make me," he said calmly, folding his arms over his chest again, staring down at her. Linna couldn't believe what she'd heard.

"Pardon?!" she asked, dumbfounded. "What did you just say?!"

"I said make me move," he replied evenly. "The only way you're getting out of this room is by either knocking me out, or talking to me first. I want to know why you've been hiding from me."

"I haven't been hiding..." she started to weakly protest, but he cut her off angrily.

"BULLSHIT!!" he snapped suddenly, furiously, making a slashing, negatory gesture with his right hand. "I...." He never got a chance to finish the sentence.

Linna's mind, with her nerves already stretched tight from his behaviour and menacing demeanor, interpreted the gesture as a prelude to an attack of some kind, an impression strengthened by her fear of his behaviour lately. The response was almost instantaneous; she struck out, hard, not sparing the force she put into her strike, trying to put him down as quickly as possible so she could get away.

Bert's head was snapped back on his neck by a lightning-fast uppercut. He staggered backwards, and a split-second later, he was knocked back again by a spinning kick that connected with pit of his stomach. He flew backwards through the air as if kicked by a wild horse, and bounced, hard, off the wooden floorboards with a dull thud and a strangled grunt. There was a loud crack as his head impacted with the floor, and his body flopped in a limp heap as he slid to a stop.

Linna stood in a ready stance, gasping for air, partly from fright, and partly from the sudden exertion. She watched the slack form warily for a moment; there was no movement at all. She waited a moment more, trembling a little as the adrenaline wore off, and started moving cautiously around him towards the door; he still didn't stir, and a faint edge of concern finally intruded on her thoughts. She stopped, and waited; several minutes passed, and there was still no movement from the prone, red-haired individual.

It suddenly hit Linna that he hadn't been going to attack at all. As she mentally reviewed what had happened just before she'd clobbered him, she realized that he hadn't been attacking; his stance had been angry, yes, but he'd been totally out of the right posture for attacking someone. She also realized that, if he'd been going to hit her, he'd have been primed and ready for a counter-move from her; the ease with which she'd nailed him indicated that he'd been wide open and unprepared.

"Oh no!!" she gasped, the colour draining from her face as she realized she'd been the one who'd gone over the edge this time. For all her worry and concern over his stability, she'd hit first. Concern nudged the fear in her mind, and after a brief moment's hesitation, she ran over to Bert, kneeling next to him. She took a deep breath, and reached out and tentatively grasped his arm.

Nothing happened.

Releasing her breath in a shaky sigh, Linna rolled him over so that she could see his face. He was very definitely out cold; a large, angry-looking bruise was on the left side of his jaw and face, and there was a thin trickle of blood coming from the corner of his mouth. Sudden fear prompted her to check his pulse, and she sighed in relief to find that it appeared to be steady; the blows she'd hit him with could seriously injure almost anyone. The fact that he was in good shape might have helped to spare him somewhat from serious damage, but there was no way to tell for sure until he woke up.

Linna stood, and dashed over to where she'd left her gym bag. Rummaging around in it, she found another, smaller towel, and proceeded to dampen it with some water from her water bottle. As she sprinted back to where he lay, she scooped up her other towel, which had fallen on the floor when she'd knocked him out. She folded the larger towel into a small, pillow-like bundle, and placed it under his head. Taking the dampened towel, she gently sponged off his face, wiping the blood away. At the touch of the cool cloth, he stirred and muttered something. Linna swallowed against a suddenly dry mouth, and gently wiped at his face once more.

Bert's eyes opened, a vaguely stunned and unfocussed look in them. His gaze swung over to her, and she watched as a sudden wave of pain washed through over him; he immediately doubled up around his sore guts, a strangled groan coming from him, as he flopped over onto his side.

"Bert?" she queried tentatively. She hesitantly reached out and touched his shoulder; he twitched a bit, but remained curled up. "Bert? Are you okay?" she asked timidly. Now THERE'S a stupid question! part of her mind noted dryly. Hardly anyone would be 'okay' after having her slug them the way she'd just hit him.

"Why don't you just finish the job and put me out of my misery?" He hissed painfully, sounding like he was speaking through clenched teeth. "If not, just leave me alone and I'll crawl off in a few...hours. Maybe." His voice trailed off into another strangled groan.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly, but firmly, "but you could have just asked me to talk to you."

"I tried, damnit!" he half-snarled, turning towards her and almost sitting up, then flopping back to the floor with a groan. "But if you won't answer your goddamn phone, then how the hell am I supposed to ask?! I've been trying for a friggin' week now; don't you check your goddamn phone messages?!" He finally sat up, sweat popping out of his brow at the effort it took to keep from collapsing again. There was a whirling mix of pain, anger and confusion in his eyes as he looked at her. The tight, strained expression on his face indicated just how much he was feeling her strikes at the moment.

"Bert," she sighed, "I've been working almost twelve to fourteen hours a day lately, and today was the first day I've had off for a little over a week; up until today, I've been giving Priss her sessions on my lunch breaks. As for the phone, I haven't even looked at it for days; I didn't feel like doing anything or going anywhere, so I covered it up and ignored it. I didn't have any important appointments coming, so I figured it was safe to ignore."

"Well that's just perfect," he replied, wincing and gingerly feeling his jaw. "So how the hell are your friends supposed to contact you then?" He winced again, and quit poking his jaw, and went back to holding his stomach. God damn it, it bloody hurt!! His neck wasn't much better; it had already stiffened up from having his head snapped back on it. "You were never in the building at the same time I was, although I guess it was by accident, considering what you just told me, and I didn't want to pass on messages with anyone else. Just what was the reason for going into effective hiding?"

"I wanted to be by myself," she said simply. "You, of all people, should know what that feels like; you certainly go off on your own to sit and think often enough, or at least you used to."

"Okay, true enough," he conceded grudgingly. Another flicker of pain flashed across his face. "So why the hell did you try to kill me?"

"Why the hell did you come barging in here like a thunderstorm?" Linna countered evenly. "Your method of approach was, shall we say, less than diplomatic?"

"I had tried being reasonable," he growled back, cautiously feeling the back of his head; his probing fingers found a very large, egg-shaped lump that was extremely tender, and he quickly jerked his hand away, wincing. "However, to me, it didn't look like you wanted to be reasonable, so I opted for a different approach, and decided to try cornering you."

"Well, don't ever try it again!" she told him, suddenly angry. "I don't enjoy being scared half to death, thank you very much!"

"All right, so I was a little pushy. That's hardly a justification for damn near taking my head off!"

"You scared me, you stupid asshole!" she flared. "I thought you'd gotten angry and gone off the deep end again, and the way you were acting certainly didn't contradict that impression! I was scared, and you pushed me too hard, you jerk!"

"I'd noticed that," he remarked dryly, cautiously feeling his jaw again. For a moment, he sounded like his old self. "Mind telling me just why you were so scared of me? You should know by now that I'd never do anything to hurt my friends." Linna sighed, looking uncomfortable.

"I did know that, once," she replied quietly, getting off her knees to sit cross-legged next to him on the floor. He seemed to be completely in control of himself; his posture was relaxed, and she wasn't getting any hostile or tense feelings from him anymore. "But..." She hesitated, not sure of what to say next without hurting him.

"Go ahead, say it," he said, suddenly sounding old and tired. "It's probably nothing I haven't already thought myself." There was a sudden pain in his eyes that had nothing to do with his recent injuries.

"I know you've always said that you'd never hurt your friends," she said slowly, not looking at him. "But...that night at Sylia's when you turned on me...the look on your face, it wasn't... it wasn't you," she finished in a rush. "I literally couldn't recognize you for a moment, because there was so much anger or hate, I don't know which, in your expression. It was like looking at an entirely different person, and it scared me," she finished simply. "I think I've been scared of you ever since; I just wasn't sure what you were capable of anymore." Bert nodded wordlessly, looking away at the flooring, suddenly looking drawn and old.

She looked at him, a quiet apology in her bright blue eyes. "I'm sorry, but that's the plain truth, and when we found out just what you were capable of in the simulator, it didn't make me any less scared; Level Ten is beyond my ability right now, and I was afraid of getting hurt if I was around you when...if you lost control. I wouldn't have been able to stop you, and I guess that just added to things."

"At least you didn't have to walk around afraid of what you might end up doing to other people," he rasped, clearing his throat angrily, and scrubbing a sleeve across his eyes. Linna reached out and gave his arm a sympathetic squeeze, noting that there didn't appear to be a reflex response to his being touched this time. Maybe he was getting better.

"I know it wasn't easy for you, either," she told him. "And I was honestly going to check with you about continuing our practice sessions when you felt up to it, but I didn't think that you were ready yet. The way you barreled in here this afternoon, stomping around like a renegade boomer, didn't help that perception." A long interval of silence stretched between them for a moment. Linna watched him sit there, quietly going over her words, some of the strain lines in his face seeming to become etched just a little bit deeper. After a while, he sighed and looked over at her.

"I'm sorry," he apologized. "It wasn't my intent to scare you; I just thought I might be able to get some answers if I was more direct."

"Your directness was bloody intimidating," she told him a trifle tartly. "Next time, just ask first."

"Oh, rest assured, I won't try anything like that again," he assured her, wincing. He looked over at her, trying to conceal his feelings behind an impassive mask. "So where do we go from here?" he inquired. "If you want me to leave, I will, and ...I'll...understand." There was a bit of a catch in his voice, and Linna could see the faint hope that he hadn't irreparably harmed their friendship lurking in the backs of his eyes.

"You don't have to leave," she told him quietly. "I think we can iron out what to do next."

"Thank you," he replied just as quietly. Linna gave him a quick smile, then became businesslike, standing up and looking down at him.

"The first thing we need to do is to get you moving again," she told him. "You're going to feel it a lot worse if you just sit there feeling sorry for yourself."

"What I'm feeling is a great deal of pain, thank you very much," he grumbled back, recognizing immediately her switch to instructor mode. "Sorrow has nothing to do with it." That wasn't entirely true: he was definitely VERY sorry he'd screwed up on his interpretation of her behaviour, especially since the results of his actions had not been pleasant.

"Well get up, get moving, and get your mind off of it," she told him. "Believe me, it'll make things seem a bit better."

"If you say so," he sighed. Gritting his teeth, he carefully got to his knees, then tried to stand up and straighten the rest of the way. Linna stepped closer to him, and grabbed his arm, helping him. She felt a brief tension flash through him, and then disappear. After a period of strangled noises, and subdued, under-his-breath swearing, Bert made it to a mostly upright position again. Next, Linna made him walk around a bit again to try and loosen up his agonized gut muscles. After a few minutes of very crabbed-looking movement, he seemed to be moving a bit easier, and she picked up the pace a bit. After almost an hour, she had him more or less fully mobile again, although he was sweating from the effort it was taking at times to keep from doubling over in pain.

"Okay," he finally sighed. "That's enough; I've walked around this room enough times to do it blindfolded now. Can we move on to something a little more technical?"

"Technical? Like what?" she asked, frowning slightly.

"Well...," he hesitated for a moment. She waited, and he continued. "Could you try teaching me a bit more martial arts?" he asked quietly, looking at her uncertainly. "I know you said I was hopeless at it before, and just showed me some of the basics, but could we try it again? If nothing else, I don't think some of the discipline would do me any harm."

Linna stood silently for a moment, vaguely uneasy over his request. She wasn't entirely sure teaching him how to be a better combatant was a good idea, especially since he seemed to have developed a certain amount of natural attack aptitude since his kidnapping. She wrestled with her own inner fears for a few moments, and made her choice.

"All right," she sighed finally, looking up at him. "We'll try it out for a bit and see how you do. I want you to keep in mind, though, that this is for self defense only. Got that?" He nodded, and bowed slightly; his stomach at the moment wouldn't allow him to move much further.

"I will keep your words firmly in mind," he assured her soberly. There was a sudden glimmer of amusement in the backs of his eyes as he added, "Sensei."

****

"No!! I don't wanna go in there!" Priss moaned, flailing around and trying to get away from Sylvie and Anri as they herded her towards to front entrance to the non-descript brown brick building where the exercise facilities and archery ranges were located. "I can't take it anymore!! Just shoot me now, goddamnit!!"

"Priss, for God's sake shut up and quit bitching!" Sylvie finally said, exasperated almost beyond endurance. She grimly held onto her friend's arm, and kept steering her towards the entry door. "You have to go through with this if you ever want your leg to be fully healed and back to normal! Now shut up and get in there!!"

"Look on the bright side, Priss," Anri added, helping Sylvie hustle the brown-haired woman through the doors. "After another couple of weeks, you'll be free."

"I don't want to wait," Priss snapped. "I'm sick of being goddamn tortured by a sadistic aerobics instructor while my 'friends' kill themselves laughing on the sidelines. I don't need to do this anymore and that's final." As if on cue, Priss' leg suddenly throbbed and folded on her; only Sylvie holding her arm prevented her taking an ignominious fall to the ground.

"Oh, right," Sylvie noted dryly, bracing herself and helping Priss to get her supports back under her. "I can see you're perfectly all right. Priss, quit whining and acting like a child, will you? It has to be done, and that's all there is to it." Priss looked angrily away from her, but her anger was only partly at Sylvie's words; she was mad at her seemingly traitorous body for refusing to heal as quickly or as well as it had in the past. It implied that a time was coming when she might be hurt beyond her ability to heal, and she didn't like that thought, not in the slightest.

Sighing in resignation, she quit resisting Anri and Sylvie's pull on her, and they trooped through the doors, and over to the stairs. Why the hell didn't he put in an elevator system?, Priss snarled to herself as she climbed the stairs, leg cheerily protesting all the way. At least he could have considered the fact that not everybody would be up to the task of climbing all the bloody stairs there were in the place. She made a mental note to give him shit about it the next time she saw him.

The three women finally reached the second floor, and began walking to the end where all the exercise rooms were located. As they walked, they could hear the faint murmur of voices from the main room where Linna liked to work out. Priss and Sylvie exchanged curious glances, Sylvie raising an eyebrow.

"Sounds like Linna's got company already," she noted.

"Maybe we should wait," Priss stalled, half turning around. "I don't want to interrupt her at anything." Anri quickly grabbed Priss' right arm as Sylvie grabbed her left.

"Oh no you don't," they chorused. "Quit trying to weasel out of it; you're going to your rehab session," Sylvie added firmly. "If you don't quit whining and complaining, I'm going to carry you into there over my shoulder." Priss blanched, looking at her friend; from the level, clear gaze Sylvie returned, she knew that the golden-brown-eyed young woman was serious in her threat; Sylvie was also quite capable of carrying it out, too. After a moment of glaring back at her friend, Priss rather irritably acquiesced to being led into the exercise room.

The scene that greeted the trio upon entering was not quite what they'd expected: Linna was standing off to the side, watching Bert go through a slow series of martial arts moves of some kind. His attention on what he was doing was intense; he didn't notice the trio as they entered the room, focusing entirely on what he was doing, and on Linna's words to him. Linna did notice them as they entered and gave them a quick wave; the group moved off to the side to wait until she was finished as Linna turned back to her student.

"Not bad," she observed. "Practice those ones on your own for a couple of days, and I'll get back to you a bit later in the week. Okay?" Bert nodded wordlessly, and Linna gave him a quick smile. Becoming momentarily serious, she bowed to him, and he replied in kind, although a little more care was evident in how he was moving.

Linna straightened up, then the black-haired, blue-eyed dancer and martial artist turned around and grinned at the reluctantly approaching Priss and her escorts. Behind her, Bert sighed in relief, and also slowly straightened up, wincing. Sylvie could see that he was moving a little stiffly, but didn't think he looked like he'd been working out that intensely.

"Hi, Linna," Sylvie greeted their grinning instructor. "We dragged her in for the next session. Ready to start?"

"Sure," Linna nodded, then smirked again. "Just as soon as Bert gets off the exercise mats."

"I'm moving, I'm moving," he grumbled from behind her. "Just give me a chance to recover from the workout first." As he moved up behind Linna, she seemed to tense briefly, then apparently shook it off, glancing behind her and smiling impishly at him.

"If you're looking for sympathy, forget it," she told him. "You know better than that."

"Can't blame me for trying," he sighed. As he slowly moved past the black-haired young woman, Sylvie and Priss noticed what they hadn't been able to see before: a very large and angry-looking bruise on the left side of his jaw and face. Anri couldn't see it because of the angle she was looking at him from.

"Holy shit!! What happened to you?!" Priss burst out. "What did you do to yourself now?!" Out of the corner of her eye, Sylvie saw Linna twitch, and started to look at her questioningly, but Bert's voice replying distracted her.

"I wasn't watching where I was going, and I ran into something," he replied simply. "Nothing to get excited over." Priss looked at him skeptically; he looked back innocently, his face revealing nothing at all to indicate that he wasn't telling the truth. That alone made Sylvie suspicious; usually, he was much easier to read. She heard the barest trace of a relieved sigh come from Linna, and a suspicion flashed in her mind, but she refrained from commenting. Obviously, whatever had happened, they'd worked out their differences.

"If you say so," Priss muttered dubiously. "It looks more like someone belted you, to me."

"Tell you what, Priss," Bert offered, a grin forming. "You walk over to the door, and I'll hit you with it; we'll compare bruises afterwards and see who's right."

"Go to hell," she shot back irritably. "I'm due for enough pain right now as it is."

"Well then," Linna said brightly, eyes sparking with amusement as she looked over at her grumbling, red-brown eyed victim. "Shall we get started?" Priss moved out onto the mats, a look of gloomy martyrdom settling over her face. Linna shook her head briefly, flashed a quick grin at Sylvie and Anri, and then got started on getting Priss warmed up.

Sylvie turned away from the exercise mats, and began walking over to where Bert was carefully leaning over to pick up a towel from off of a side bench. Anri trailed her, suddenly turning shy. He looked up as they approached, and then forced himself upright, draping the towel over a shoulder. Sylvie watched a very carefully hidden grimace of pain flicker across his features, and noted that he was favouring his midsection; she surmised that he'd been hit there as well. She kept her own feelings hidden as she came up to him, smiling warmly. He grinned boyishly back.

"Ladies," he declared grandly, giving them a half-bow. "What brings you this way?"

"We just thought we'd say hi," Sylvie replied. "It beats watching Priss complain about her leg." At her words, Bert's expression sobered a bit, and Sylvie detected sympathy and a trace of...worry? concern?...something else, anyway, in his gaze as he quickly looked over to where Priss was stretching out her muscles.

"How's she doing?" he asked quietly, still watching the brown-haired young woman move. Sylvie sighed.

"She's getting better, slowly," she replied. "But it's not healing as fast as she'd like, and even though she won't talk about it, it's been giving her a bit of pain every now and then."

"I know what that's like," he muttered to himself. Sylvie traded a confused glance with Anri, then looked back at him.

"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked. "Old injuries bugging you or something?" He jerked, as if startled, and his eyes quickly became masked, cloaking whatever expression had been in them.

"Nothing, just rambling," he dismissed the question with an irritated wave of his hand. "I just know what having to wait for something is like, I meant." Sylvie wasn't so sure; his expression had indicated a bit more than just an understanding of Priss' impatience. She didn't pry further, respecting his privacy, but at the same time she wished he wasn't so self-contained at times. He'd never been wildly outgoing before, and with everything that had happened to him lately, he now was downright isolationist at times. How were you supposed to help your friends out if they wouldn't say what was the matter?

"I've been meaning to talk to you for a while now," Anri shyly spoke up. Bert's gaze swung to her, a friendly smile appearing as he waited for Anri to continue speaking. She flushed slightly, self-consciously. "I just wanted to...to thank you for everything you've done," she said awkwardly, "and to thank you for the flowers you sent when I was...sick. They really helped cheer me up." Bert grinned, and swept her a deep bow. Anri blushed.

"It was my pleasure, M'Lady," he declared floridly, straightening up with the barest of winces. He hesitated for a moment, flicking a quick glance from Sylvie to Anri and then back. Sylvie nodded slightly, understanding his unspoken question, and Bert stepped over and gave Anri a gentle hug. She seemed surprised, then hugged him back, blushing again as he stepped back. "Seeing you recovered and getting around again is all the thanks I need," he told her quietly. He took a quick glance at the clock and sighed.

"Well, ladies," he said, sighing again. "I hate to cut and run, but I've got to go pick Nene up from work. I'll try and connect up with you again later, okay?" The girls voiced their agreement, and Bert quickly strode from the room, casting a last, unreadable glance at Priss as he left.

****

Nene sat at her desk, quietly finishing up the last report of the night. Like a large portion of other reports she'd had to file, it was some minor incident that seemed to have had an inordinate amount of importance attached to it by the investigating officer, and it was as boring as hell to read. She sighed, running a hand absently through her hair, and glanced at the clock as she finished off the last data entry, and archived the file.

She sat back from her terminal and stretched languorously, yawning as weariness hit her abruptly; it had been a long day, and she was heartily glad it was over. Just as soon as Bert picked her up, she was going to...

"Hey Nene," Naoko's voice intruded on her thoughts. "Got a minute?" Startled, the green-eyed, red-haired young woman looked up from her desk to meet Naoko's frankly curious, blue-eyed look.

"Sure!" she replied, trying to sound bright and cheery. It wasn't easy; she was tired, and she still was having problems keeping her mind off of....some rather morbid thoughts, at times. It wasn't making her job any easier, either; several people had already commented on her apparent personality change, and Nene was finding it hard to keep coming up with excuses. "What's up?"

"Did your boyfriend go and get into some kind of trouble?" Naoko queried. Nene blinked in surprise, wondering what was going on.

"No, not that I know of," she answered, looking puzzled. "What makes you ask that?"

"It's just that Leon's apparently been checking him out," Naoko shrugged. "A friend of mine down in the Records division told me that Leon had a background check run on him."

Nene stared at her friend, face paling as an awful, sinking sensation hit her in the pit of the stomach. Why would Leon start checking on Bert?! She asked Naoko, and got a shrug in response.

"Apparently he's tied into some case Leon said he was working on," Naoko told her. "He's been kind of tight-lipped about the whole thing, and acting kind of strange, come to think of it."

"Strange?" Nene repeated faintly, her mind racing. What did Leon suspect? What did he know for sure, if anything? "What do you mean by strange?"

"Well, he's been kind of preoccupied lately, and a little grouchy about something. He also gave some stuff to Forensics for testing," the brown-haired young woman replied. "I think they were cartridge casings or something. Apparently he found them outside someone's house, but that's all he would say."

"Outside their house?!" Nene repeated dumbly, a wave of cold shock spreading through her. It couldn't be....Bert had said that he'd removed all traces of the kidnap attempt on him, and the fight that had occurred outdoors. Still, empty cartridges would be hard to locate in the grassy area surrounding his house, so it was possible he'd missed them. "Did he say where this house was?"

"No," Naoko sighed petulantly. If there was one thing she hated, it was not being able to get anyone to talk. How could you keep up to date on things if no one would say anything?! "He's clammed up completely over whatever it is that he's investigating. You couldn't get two words out of him right now with a crowbar." Naoko glanced at the clock. "Whoops, gotta run! Let me know if anything else happens!" With a cheery wave, Nene's friend disappeared out the office door.

Nene suddenly shivered, and wrapped her arms around herself, hugging herself for warmth. There was an unpleasant cold feeling working its way through her right now; for almost three years Bert had been worrying intermittently about whether or not somebody would start checking on his background, a worry that, up until now, had seemed pointless.

She stared blankly at her computer terminal, trying to figure out just why Leon had suddenly started investigating Bert. After several frustrating minutes of her mind spinning its wheels, she gave up. There was no reason she could see at the moment for the sudden interest.

She tried to console herself with the fact that there wasn't really a lot of information for Leon to find. Immediately after that thought, she realized that, in a way, that was worse: a lack of information would only raise more questions, and start an investigator into digging deeper and looking harder for something. From what she knew of Leon, she realized that he was probably doing that right now.

Nene sat up in her chair, trembling slightly. What if Leon found out, somehow, about Bert being SkyKnight? What would he do? Her mouth turned dry as fear began sinking its talons deeper into her guts; knowing Leon, and how 'By-the-Book' he could be at times, he'd probably try arresting him, if he did somehow manage to figure it out. He might even try hauling him in for questioning right now, on suspicion of something illegal.

Nene blinked as a wave of sleepiness swept her; glancing at the clock, she realized that she was twenty minutes late now for meeting Bert down by the front entrance. He was probably still waiting. Another uncontrollable surge of fear struck her as she realized Leon might see him down there and try fishing for information. Given the way Bert was reacting to people other than his immediate friends lately, there was a horrible potential for disaster implicit in that occurrence.

Nene quickly yanked on her jacket, and pulled her bag out from under her desk. She settled her jacket into place, sweeping her vibrant red hair back over her shoulders, freeing the few strands that had become caught under her coat collar. She glanced around the office quickly, almost furtively, and then reached down to her bottom desk drawer. Opening it to the very limit its tracks would allow, she rummaged in the back of it, and pulled out a file folder. Closing the drawer, she looked at the file folder for a moment; the folder was almost empty, and contained a very brief report, dated 'March 2032'.

Nene stared at the folder, chewing at her lower lip for a moment, indecision running rampant over her face. The file folder contained the report she'd finished filling out, almost three years ago, on a certain, red-haired individual who'd claimed to be from 1995. It had been sufficiently intriguing at the time that she hadn't filed the report normally, but had decided to wait and see what, if anything, else would develop in relation to that report; she'd always notified Sylia if sufficiently interesting reports had passed her way. Given what had occurred afterwards, it had never been processed.

Other than her, and the detective who'd originated the report, no one else knew of the file's existence, and she was currently holding the only copy. She hadn't filed it, mostly because she'd known somehow that the time might come when it could raise awkward questions. It appeared as if that time had arrived, and now she had to decide what to do.

Destroy the file was the best option all around; it eliminated any possibility of her boyfriend being found out. Despite the fact that she knew it was for the best, Nene couldn't erase a faintly guilty feeling as she stuffed the file into her bag, glancing around again, hoping no one noticed her. She took a great deal of pride in the ADP, and destroying records, no matter what the reason, seemed...somehow criminal. She quashed her misgivings after a moment or two of struggle; it was necessary, and that was all there was to it. With one last glance around at the office, she quickly left.

****

Bert waited, trying hard not to fidget as he leaned against the hood of the nondescript blue car he'd borrowed from Sylia's garage; his truck was still effectively in hiding, since it was entirely possible that Hollister and his cohorts were keeping an eye open for it. The car was okay, but he really missed his truck. He shifted a bit again, wincing as his gut muscles protested.

He swore under his breath again as he glanced at his watch. Damn it, what the hell was keeping Nene?! She was almost half-an-hour late from getting off of work; unless she'd suddenly gotten some last minute work, in which case she'd have called him, there must be something wrong.

He paced a bit, wondering if he should try entering the ADP building to find her. He immediately dismissed that idea; after Leon quizzing him the last time he'd been in there, he didn't want to go inside unless absolutely necessary. He didn't want, or need 'official attention'. Just loitering in the parking lot was making him nervous enough as it was; sooner or later someone would notice, and probably come over and start asking questions.

Just as he spun around to irritably pace the length of the car again, the glass doors at the top of the stairs banged open, and a breathless, red-haired young woman in a form-fitting ADP uniform burst through them, bounding down the steps as fast as she could. Unconsciously, Bert relaxed, and a welcoming smile appeared as Nene ran over to where he'd parked the car.

"Well, it's about time," he remarked with a mock-sigh. "I was beginning to think...mmff!" He was cut off in mid-sentence by Nene hurling herself at him, and pulling his head down for a kiss. After a rather surprised moment, he hugged her and kissed her back, ignoring the twinges from his neck and stomach. It was when he hugged her that he realized she wasn't entirely okay; she was shaking like a leaf in a high wind.

The kiss lasted for another couple of moments, until she drew back to breathe, looking up at him. "Sorry I'm late," she apologized meekly. "I lost track of the time."

"After a greeting like that, I don't care," he told her, smiling down at her. "I was beginning to get a little worried though. Some last minute work crop up?"

"Not quite," she evaded, suddenly looking around almost fearfully. "Let's get out of here; I don't want to discuss this here, and I think we need to talk to Sylia, too." Bert nodded, puzzled, but didn't prod her further; she was pale, and looked scared for some reason. He briefly hoped it wasn't a complication of her nightmares, and held open the car door for her, helping her into the car. Carefully closing the door, he went around the car and clambered into the driver's seat as Nene belted herself in. Starting the engine, he shifted the car into gear, and drove off onto the highways of MegaTokyo, leaving the gleaming cylinder housing the ADP behind.

****

Sylia sat quietly, sipping her tea, no traces of worry evident anywhere on her face. She was the picture of unruffled calm, her blue-black hair neatly in place, and her brown eyes unrevealing. Bert briefly envied her as he paced the length of the room, back and forth, several times. Nene sat on the couch next to Sylia's chair, holding her own drink, her worried emerald-green eyes darting from Bert to Sylia constantly. She was still pale and nervous-looking, unconsciously running a hand through her long red hair every so often, sweeping it back over her shoulders. She looked a little rumpled at the moment, with her uniform tie loosened at the neck, and a few wrinkles showing in her normally neatly-pressed blouse.

"Bert, quit trying to wear holes in my carpeting," Sylia finally said testily, getting sick of watching him pace the room like a caged tiger. "This is not as big a problem as it seems."

"Isn't it?" he snapped, spinning towards her, anger and worry both warring for dominance in his face. He was slightly pale with the strain of maintaining control on himself, and it was highlighting the large bruise he had somehow acquired on the left side of his jaw. Sylia had noticed it earlier when he'd arrived with Nene, but had managed to keep from asking about it. Nene apparently still hadn't noticed it, being preoccupied with her own worries. Bert began pacing again, trying to attain a calm appearance; he failed.

"I've got one of the more persistent police inspectors pulling covert probes into my past," he fumed, "and you don't think I should worry?! Damn it, Sylia, this is worse than an official investigation! At least if it was officially sanctioned, we'd have had some warning that way! Leon's discreet inquiries have already netted him enough to make him suspicious, and he's not going to just go away, not now. He's going to just keep poking and prodding, and eventually he'll find something out, something we'll all wish he hadn't."

"That is always a possibility," Sylia conceded, "But suspicion is not proof, and he'll have a very hard time proving anything." She drank from her teacup, then set it down on the table. "I also think that he won't have too much time to devote to checking you out; Leon can't just avoid his regular duties, and that means he'll be busy at other things before long."

"Right," Bert snorted, resuming his pacing while scowling darkly at the carpeting. "Like that's a real hindrance; he's always found ways to work around the limitations of his job before. I don't think that's going to be an effective deterrent for long." He swore under his breath again, wishing that, just once, his luck would quit running on the abysmally lousy side.

"Well," Sylia tried another tack, "we can always create a 'history' for you that we can place in the official records; I realize that now is a little late, but if Leon tries to point to your lack of past records as proof of something suspicious, he'll get a rude shock when he finds out that they do exist."

"That'd help," Bert admitted, trying to force himself to calm down and be reasonable. His success was limited; he still felt like going out and running as fast as he could for a few blocks. His nervous energy level at the moment could probably burn out his hardsuit systems. "That doesn't change the fact that he already knows, or suspects, that something isn't right. If he's watching me, he could find out about the rest of you. I don't want to risk that."

"What possible reason could he have to suspect people you were friends with?" Sylia asked.

"He's a cop, Sylia. They're suspicious of everybody," Bert replied sourly, then caught himself, looking apologetically at Nene. "I wasn't aiming that at you, Nene," he told her. "I just meant that as an inspector, he's always looking for something suspicious, and since something started him checking me out, he'll probably take any small thing related to me, and start poking into it. I don't want him poking into the activities of my friends." Nene nodded wordlessly, her green-eyed gaze troubled.

"Well, we'll just have to be careful, won't we?" Sylia said simply. "There's no real way to stop him looking around, so we'll just have to make sure we don't give him any more reason to look around." Bert didn't reply audibly, but muttered something under his breath as he stalked back and forth across the room. Sylia caught part of his sentence, and it prompted an uneasy feeling to start slithering around in her stomach. To her, it had sounded like he'd said "we could always shoot him."; given some of the ways in which he'd changed, she wasn't entirely sure he wasn't serious.

"I hope you didn't really mean that," she noted quietly. Bert jerked, startled, and looked at her. She could see helpless frustration in his gaze, frustration, and fear over being found out.

"No, I didn't mean it," he told her, "but I..." He paused, fighting to control himself. "I'm scared," he admitted tightly. "I don't want to lose what I've managed to build here; I've just barely gotten myself back together after what Hollister did to me, and having something else ruin my life right now...would be more than I can handle." He went over and finally sat next to Nene on the couch, reaching out and taking his now-cold mug of tea, drinking it down. Nene almost hesitantly put an arm around him; he smiled warmly at her, and put his own arm around her shoulders, drawing her closer. A thick silence settled over the room like a heavy blanket, as everyone sat, lost in their own private worries for a moment.

As they sat there for a few moments, a quiet but insistent beeping erupted from a computer terminal tucked away almost invisibly in a corner of Sylia's living room, hidden under a cloth cover of some kind. Bert looked up, a faint look of surprise crossing his face, one that was mirrored by Sylia and Nene.

"Now that's something I haven't heard in a while," he noted. The computer that had started signaling was Sylia's automated 'watchdog' on the ADP communications lines, used mostly when Nene was off duty. It was set to monitor the ADP channels, and notify her if certain conditions arose; apparently, after a long silence of several months, the right circumstances had arrived. Sylia nodded absently in agreement, a faint frown flickering across her smooth face as she rose from her chair, and walked over to the terminal.

She flicked the cover off the monitor, and turned it on. Bert and Nene watched as the light from the glowing screen flashed across her face in a rapidly changing pattern as the machine churned its messages across the screen. As she read the data, Sylia seemed to tense up; she shut down the terminal, covering it back up. There was a very serious expression on her face as she came back over to the red-haired couple. Her gaze centered on Bert alone.

"Do you feel up to a mission tonight?" she asked quietly. "I think we're going to need everybody we can get." Bert nodded, once.

"I can handle it," he replied, a sudden, icy calm seeming to settle over him. Sylia wasn't quite sure, but she thought she'd seen a brief flash of...eagerness...in the backs of his eyes. "What's the situation?"

"Apparently, there's almost twenty C-55's running loose," she replied simply. "The ADP says they just 'turned up', and they've started trashing whatever they can. There's been several casualties already."

"They 'just turned up'?" he echoed. "That doesn't sound right; how can twenty combat boomers just appear out of nowhere?" Sylia shrugged; it had struck her as funny also, but the whys were not as important right now. After they'd stopped the boomers, then they could worry about the source, although she had a faint suspicion what that source was.

"I'll go get suited up, then," Bert replied, standing and stretching, wincing at the muscular complaints the action produced. "Are we going to need the KnightWing?" Sylia shook her head.

"No," she answered. "The boomers are only a few blocks away; we won't need the plane for that short a distance."

"Okay then, I'll see you down there..." Bert started to reply, when Nene's voice interrupted him.

"I'm coming too," she announced quietly. It shaped an instant silence in the room, as both Bert and Sylia looked at her. Nene flushed under their gazes, but didn't look away.

"Nene," Sylia spoke slowly, "I'm not so sure that's a good idea..."

"Why not?" she demanded. "You're taking Bert along, aren't you?"

"That's a slightly different situation," Sylia replied awkwardly. "He's been tested lately, and we know how he'll react to combat situations. You're....still recovering from your.... experience; we should take it easy for a while before you get back into things." She wished Bert would speak up and help her out here; he should know better than anyone that Nene wasn't ready to go on a mission yet, especially one that was likely to be pure combat. He remained silent, however, his gaze locked on Nene's face, his expression unreadable.

"I'll be fine," Nene spoke confidently. "They're only C-55 boomers; what's so bad about them?" With that, she stood, and left the room, Bert's silent gaze still following her. After the red-headed ADP officer had left the room, Sylia rounded angrily on him.

"Why didn't you say something?!" she demanded, seething. "You know she's not mentally ready to face a dangerous situation yet!"

"I know," he replied tiredly, looking at Sylia with a pain-filled gaze. "But she's made up her mind, and nothing I can say will change that. If she wants to go, the only way you can stop her is to tie her up somewhere, or wreck her suit before she gets to it." He sighed, scrubbing a hand across his jaw, wincing as he accidentally aggravated the bruise Linna had given him earlier. "She's going to have to find out the hard way whether or not she's ready yet," he told Sylia. "You said it yourself yesterday: I can't protect her all the time. Well, you can't either; she's going to have to either fly on her own...or fall."

"If you'd at least voiced some concerns, she might have reconsidered," Sylia replied quietly. "She'll listen to you more readily than anyone else."

"Sylia, please," he said painfully. "I'm already scared enough about her going along as it is; I know what I said sounds cold, but it's like your having to run me through the grinder on my testing: it's necessary. I don't need guilt feelings complicating things right now, on top of everything else." Sylia flushed slightly, embarrassed.

"I'm sorry," she sighed. "I'll call Linna, and meet you downstairs." He nodded, turned, and left the room. Sylia stood for a moment, her inner disquiet finally coming out from behind the impassive mask she'd been hiding it behind. After a moment, she controlled the fear and uncertainty, shoving it to the back of her mind, and stepped over to the phone.

****

The last piece of silver-coloured armour plating slapped into place with a pneumatic-sounding hiss-snap, and there was a gentle hiss of displaced air as the suit lining molded itself snugly to his body contours. Bert carefully flexed an arm, feeling how the suit was responding to his movements; there was no apparent interference, but then again, the suit wasn't fully functional yet. He reached over to the blue-antenna-winged silver helmet that sat on the side bench, picking it up, and looked at it for a moment; the darkened eyeslot that represented his eyes as SkyKnight stared back blankly at him, offering no insights into what was in the immediate future.

Sighing, he reached up, and settled it into place, the contacts between his helmet, hardsuit, and softsuit clicking together with a metallic-sounding snick. He still didn't entirely understand the way the hardsuit controls and softsuit interface worked, but as long as they worked, he wasn't going to knock himself out over details; the control systems were the one thing on the hardsuits he didn't fool with.

As the last connection was made, the familiar hum of activated circuitry filled his ears, and his viewscreen flashed on. Flickering readouts sped past his sight, indicating that everything was working perfectly. He sighed again, and stretched, reveling in the comfortable closeness of his armour. The familiar, supportive feel of his suit, and the comfortable feeling of security it provided him with had been something he hadn't even realized he'd been missing. Now it was back, and it was a fantastic sensation, somehow uplifting and invigorating.

He paused very briefly, searching himself for any signs of the nervous tension that had bothered him the last time he'd been in a real hardsuit, but he couldn't find any. Something inside him questioned that finding, but he irritably squelched the doubts; what he needed was some action to help him get over the doubts and worries that had been dogging him lately, not more soul-searching.

A grimly anticipatory smile flickered across his face as he clanked across his workshop to a nearby workbench. He picked up the twin railgun bolt launchers sitting there, and latched them into their respective shoulder mounts. Their muzzles briefly tracked around the lab as his suit battlecomputer tested them out before adding their command paths to the main suit control programs. He was ready, he hoped. As SkyKnight turned around, a knock at the door to the lab sounded.

"Door's open," he called, his now-modulated voice booming through the confines of the room. The door opened, and an olive-green and gray hardsuit entered the room. Linna tucked her helmet under her arm as she walked over to him; he pulled his off a moment later, and his suit went back to standby mode, his shoulder guns folding down into a low-profile rest position.

"I can't talk Nene out of it," he told Linna before she could say a word to him. "I know her well enough to know that she won't listen to me. So please, don't ask." She blinked, looking a little hurt.

"I didn't come in here about Nene," she replied, looking up at him. "Sylia already filled me in on what happened, and I think you're doing the right thing. I came in here to see if you were all right, not to nag you about anything else."

"I'm sorry," Bert muttered, flushing. "I didn't mean to snap at you. I'm just...worried, that's all. I don't want anything to happen to Nene, but she's...she's pushing it, I think. I wish she would wait just a bit longer first, but she won't." He looked away from Linna. "I know I'm the wrong one to say anything, given how I've acted in the past, but, damn it, I...."

"You want to protect her, and she's not co-operating," Linna said quietly.

"Yes. NO!" he snapped. "I mean...aw shit, I don't know what I mean anymore! I'm just scared for her, that's all there is to it." He looked away from Linna's concerned gaze, forcing himself to stay calm; he had a horrible feeling that something bad was going to happen. He could feel it. Unconsciously, his gauntleted hands balled into fists, and he had the sudden urge to start pacing the room.

"Hey," Linna said gently, reaching out and grasping an armour-clad arm. Bert didn't react negatively to being touched, and looked over at her quizzically. "Relax; everything will be okay," she told him.

"If you only knew how much I wanted to believe that," he replied gloomily. "But I can't shake the feeling that something's going to happen."

"If you don't relax, you won't be in much shape to fight boomers," Linna told him. "Then something really will happen: we'll have to re-hospitalize you." A faint smile flickered across Bert's face.

"That's a possibility," he conceded blandly. "Good thing my health insurance is paid up then, isn't it?" Linna rolled her eyes, and shook her head. A brief moment of quiet dropped over the shop.

"We'd better get going," Linna remarked after a moment. "Sylia's probably wondering where we are." Bert nodded, donning his helmet again. Linna settled hers into place, and the two hardsuits left the shop.

****

Probing talons of smoke pierced the night sky, emanating from the hungrily roaring fires below. Almost the entire block near Kaneda and Fifth streets was aflame, and sporadic explosions occasionally burst through the choking pall of smoke that wreathed the street level. From a rooftop offering a vantage point above the destruction, four armour-clad figures looked on.

"Somebody miscounted; I'm only reading about ten boomers," Nene reported. Bert wasn't sure, but he thought he detected a bit of a tremor in her voice. He irritably throttled down his nagging subconscious; he had enough to worry about. Nene would be fine; all she needed was some more time. "They've spread out, and appear to be moving away from this area," she finished.

"Damn," Sylia muttered. If the boomers were spreading out, that meant that the Knight Sabers would have to spread out in order to get them, and Sylia didn't want to thin their forces out any further. After a moment or so, she realized she didn't have a choice, and sighed in combined disgust and resignation.

"All right then," she finally replied. "Nene? You, Linna, and I will take the nearest boomers here; SkyKnight, you're responsible for intercepting the outermost boomers before they reach anybody. With your flight system, that shouldn't be a problem. Okay?"

"Gotcha, Boss," SkyKnight replied, an anticipatory grin again wreathing his face inside his helmet. "Consider them intercepted."

"Be careful," Sylia warned him sternly, then sighed. "Knight Sabers....Go!"

****

"Take cover, damn it!! Fall back!! FALL BACK!!" Leon hollered at the top of his lungs, sweeping the arm of his ADP K-17 Armour Suit around in a motion signaling a withdrawal. All over the street, ADP troopers in body armour and helmets scooped up their weapons and began withdrawing from the area. Leon flicked a quick glance at his cockpit displays, noting that most of his men were still unhurt. He tabbed his loudspeakers again. "Get the wounded out of here now! I want them evacuated before things get any worse."

The bulky, blue-white mechanized suit turned around again, facing towards the raging infernos a scant fifty feet away. As he turned, his two remaining K-17 units moved up to flank him. Damn it, Leon swore to himself, just when he'd thought things were getting better in this rathole of a city, something had to happen to destroy that impression.

The ADP had been caught with its pants down, both figuratively, and literally speaking; there hadn't been a boomer rampage in months, and the top brass had decided to cut back the staff on the 'Boomer Response Units'. The net result of that inspired decision was that Leon had been forced to take one of the K-17s out himself, because there had been a shortage of qualified suit pilots around when the current disaster had developed. Topping that off, the K-17s hadn't been overhauled in so long, that some of them had developed mechanical quirks ranging from poor control of the suit, to involuntary shutdowns. He mentally promised himself that he was going to correct the negligence of the mechanics when....if he made it back to the station in one piece.

He swore again, as several indistinct forms stirred in the smoke and flames ahead, and hulking, humanoid shapes began to emerge from the hellish conflagration. Four, blue C-55 boomers stepped out of the flames, and stopped, spreading out. Leon's mouth was dry with nervous anticipation of what was to follow; he didn't think that his three K-17s were going to be able to stop these boomers, mostly because they'd already lost four suits, and two pilots, elsewhere in the city, from just a meagre handful of boomers. He spared a brief moment to aim a heartfelt curse on the bureaucratic horseshit that had effectively emasculated the ADP's efficiency. How the hell were they supposed to stop boomers if they weren't given the necessary support and equipment?!

For a moment, the tableau of the boomers facing the ADP suits held still; then, the boomers sprang forwards with mechanical snarls, almost faster than thought. Leon just barely ducked aside as the boomer that had singled him out slashed at his cockpit canopy with wickedly curved claws; the faint squeal of metal on metal indicated that he'd only been partly successful, and his computer informed him of a hull breach on the right shoulder of his suit. Luckily, no systems had been damaged. He was still in the fight.

Leon's K-17 lumbered forwards, and managed to grab one of the other boomers from behind, seizing it by the arms. He immediately realized that he'd made a mistake, as the boomer started to tear free from his grasp with almost insulting ease; the boomer's strength was burning out the hydraulic musculature on the K-17.

"Shoot the bastard!! Hurry up, I can't hold him much longer!!" Leon panted into his radio microphone. His guts clenched in sudden fear as he received no reply, and he quickly glanced at his status readouts.

Only one of his men was still in the fight, and was too busy dodging the persistent attempts of one of the C-55s to kill him to try and help Leon. The other K-17 pilot was dead; he hadn't even had time to scream before the boomer had torn through his suit, and him, spreading a sticky, gory mess all over the street. The blood-smeared boomer that had killed him was just turning from the unfortunate pilot's body, and appeared to be targeting Leon next; its mouth snapped open, and a beam emitter of some kind shoved itself into view. Leon watched helplessly as a greenish glow began to build in the boomer's weapon.

With a piercing, crackling boom, a red-white lance of coruscating energy speared down from the darkness above; the crimson-splattered boomer was smashed into a backwards fall, and flopped around on the pavement, trying to regain its feet. A second and third blast hammered into the downed biomechanoid, blasting its torso into spinning shards of twisted metal and wiring. The C-55 flopped limply, and quit moving.

Just as Leon was about to start cheering wildly in relief, the boomer he'd been holding tore free of his grip; his K-17 suit jerked crazily as the hydraulic systems burned out from the stress load, and his suit quit moving.

"Awwwwwwww SHIT!" Leon swore, feeling panic claw at him; he was a sitting duck now. It would be several minutes before the backup systems came on-line enough to allow him to move. In the meantime, the boomers could pick him off like a fish in an aquarium tank. Sweat began rolling off his forehead as he watched his immediate antagonist pop its claws, and step closer, arm coming back for a swing Leon knew would kill him. The boomer seemed to grin evilly, and its eyes flared redly as the coldly-glinting claws started to slash forwards.

There was a loud, almost supersonic engine scream, and a silver flash dropped from the smoke-shrouded sky. The boomer spun around, aiming its claw strike at its new foe. The strike never connected, as the killer machine was driven off of its feet by a crushing roundhouse punch from the silver-and-blue clad armour suit that suddenly materialized in front of it. The boomer hit the pavement headfirst almost twenty feet away, and rolled over swiftly, roaring defiantly.

SkyKnight's arms snapped up, and two beams of spitting, sizzling laser energy lashed out towards the boomer, neatly bracketing its location. The boomer easily dodged between the beams...and lurched around, staggering drunkenly as it encountered the hailstorm of explosive railgun bolts that SkyKnight's shoulder launchers had fired into the apparently empty space between his particle laser beams. The bolts punched into the boomer's plating, then detonated deep inside its body; the boomer flew apart in a snarling flash of flame and spinning scrap pieces. The glowing red eyeslot of SkyKnight's helmet swung over to regard Leon's paralyzed K-17.

"Thank God you're here," Leon told the silver hardsuit. "We can use...Hey!! What the hell?!?!" The silver-clad Knight Saber abruptly sprang forwards, and almost casually shoved Leon's K-17 over onto the ground. The K-17 toppled over like a skyscraper in an earthquake, making an ungainly arc before slamming into the asphalt on its back with a clamorous, ringing bang. Leon saw stars briefly as the back of his head smacked into his cockpit canopy, and he damn near bit his tongue from the jarring impact with the ground.

"What the hell did you do that for?!" Leon snarled angrily, swearing. "You goddamn..." He cut off what he'd been about to say as a brilliantly green-white energy bolt hissed through the air over him, momentarily blinding him. Leon swallowed his words, a chill working its way through his guts as he realized that the shot would have hit him if he'd still been standing upright. If SkyKnight hadn't shoved him over, he'd have been dead.

Several more blindingly bright energy shots tore through the thick, smoky air. Leon muttered some more strangled curses, and tried moving again. His K-17 whined a bit, but still refused to move; the actuator system backups still weren't on line yet. He lay there, helpless and fuming, while the sounds of battle roiled through the air around him.

****

"Sylia!" Bert's voice crackled urgently over the comm. "Watch yourself!! These are NOT normal C-55s! I repeat, these are not standard C-55s!!" Sylia stiffened in shock at the abrupt report. The channel was still open, and she could hear the crackling whine of energy weapons of some kind in the background of SkyKnight's transmission.

"Can you explain a little more clearly?" she requested, as she, Linna and Nene moved closer to the location of the boomers they'd detected. "What do you mean by non-standard?"

"They're faster," he explained tersely. "Better armour; took two to three p-laser shots to get one of them. Monomolecular claws. Particle beams instead of plasma cannons..."

"All right, all right, we get the picture," Sylia cut him off. "Don't take any unnecessary risks; just take them out and then get over here."

"Roger; Done in ten minutes...I hope," SkyKnight replied, then cut off the channel. Sylia took a moment to swear silently; new boomers, and here they were without their full complement of members. She signaled Linna to take the left flank while she moved over to the right.

"Nene," she ordered. "Hold back here, and keep us updated on any boomer movements."

"But Sylia!" Nene started to protest, and was silenced by an angry slash of Sylia's white-armoured arm.

"I mean it!" she said sternly. "I didn't expect these boomers to be upgraded ones; you're not fully ready to be in a combat situation yet, so I want you to stay clear. Do you understand me?"

"But..."

"I said, do you understand me?" Sylia repeated, turning more towards her. The red-pink suit sighed petulantly, crossing her arms over her chest in a sulky manner.

"I understand," Nene replied grudgingly. She didn't think it was fair; Bert had been allowed off on his own, and he was in danger of losing control of himself if the circumstances were right. She didn't have anything even close to that kind of a problem, but she was being sent to the sidelines as if she'd misbehaved, or something. She watched as the white and green hardsuits of her teammates disappeared into the darkness beyond her. With another disgusted sigh, Nene activated her sensors and began sweeping the area with sensor scans.

****

SkyKnight cast a quick glance over his shoulder at the C-55 that was circling around behind him, and then returned his attention to the one that was in front of him. The blue biomechanoid was trying to distract him while its colleague moved in behind him, mostly by feinting strikes at his head whenever it seemed like he was about to attack the second one. He knew what they were trying to do, but he couldn't think of a way out of the quandary he'd found himself in.

Part of his dilemma stemmed from the fact that Leon was still down and helpless, and he was trying to keep the boomers away from the defenseless officer. They seemed to have realized this, and were playing that fact to the fullest advantage possible, attacking him in ways that left him unable to respond fully, not without leaving Leon open. The other K-17 that had been still functional when he'd arrived was dead; it had tried to go hand-to-hand with one of the C-55s from behind when it had apparently been preoccupied with its silver adversary, and the boomer had spun around, and promptly blasted a huge hole through the blue and white mechanized suit, and its luckless pilot, with its particle beam.

SkyKnight hadn't been able to do anything about it, being preoccupied at the time with not having his guts speared by the other homicidal machine that was assailing him. He'd felt a brief pang of intense sorrow and guilt over not being able to prevent the officer's death, but that had been fleeting at best, vanishing under the cold adrenaline wave running through him right now. His own survival was what counted at the moment; too much was riding on him remaining alive to get caught up agonizing over 'what ifs'.

He ducked a claw swipe from the front boomer, and twisted desperately sideways, avoiding the claw strike he knew would be launched at his back by the boomer behind him. He wasn't quite fast enough; there was a high-pitched screech, and a ripping sound, and a wave of angrily burning pain spread out from where the boomer's claws had sliced his side. Slapping a gauntleted hand to the gash, SkyKnight backhanded the boomer with his other arm and swordblade, slashing a deep trench across the boomer's carapace. It snarled angrily, and flipped over to join its cohort as they both fell back for a moment, regrouping.

Bert risked a quick glance at his side; it didn't appear to be serious, but there was definitely blood flowing, as he saw a thin crimson stain beginning to seep out around the edges of the gash. Unfortunately, the sides of the suits, under the arms, was where the armouring was the thinnest. It had to be, in order to allow the wearer enough flexibility and articulation of the armour joints to move. It also meant that the wearer had to guard against getting attacked from the sides too often, since a lucky hit could punch through. He gritted his teeth, trying to banish the discomfort to the back of his mind.

The boomers moved in a perfectly synchronized pincer movement, slowly, almost as if savouring the anticipated kill, and Bert abruptly realized what else had been bothering him about these upgraded C-55s: they were fighting intelligently, using strategy. They'd never been able to do that before; the only boomer he'd ever encountered before that had been capable of deductive reasoning had been the HeadHunter, and that bastard was well and truly dead.

What about the AI technology, though? he realized with a cold flash of dread. It had never been determined if only the HeadHunter had been the sole possessor of the technology, so it was quite possible that GENOM had the data to build new combat models based on the more 'human-like' AI's processes.

"It goddamn figures," he muttered to himself, getting into a ready crouch and flexing his fingers. Despite his training lately, and his simulator results, he'd come to the realization that his fighting at the moment was not up to par. There was a huge difference between practice and the real thing, and he'd realized he'd backslid a bit. He'd been out of a hardsuit for so long, that he'd grown rusty; even with the new AI, he should have been able to take care of these boomers a lot quicker than it was taking him. And if he was rusty...then his friends were likely going to need help. He had one last chance to quickly nail the boomers, a desperate gambit he wasn't sure would work....

With snakelike speed, the two boomers leaped at him, one slightly in front of the other. In a purely instinctual move, SkyKnight threw himself backwards, clumsily landing on his back with a loud clang, ending up sprawled next to a concrete lamp post and storm sewer grate. The boomers dropped to the asphalt with heavy impacts about ten feet away from him. SkyKnight didn't try to get up, however.

Metal gauntlets crunched a clenched set of handholds onto the sewer grate and post as he pointed the soles of his armoured boots towards the boomers, and his helmet came up slightly to look at the boomers for one last time. Then...

"AFTERBURNERS!" SkyKnight barked sharply. With a loud, hungry roar, incandescent waves of white-orange flame spurted instantly from the rocket booster nozzles on the backs of his boots, hitting the boomers squarely. High-pitched, mechanical screams came from the firestorm, sounding vaguely agonized.

SkyKnight wasn't paying attention, however; he was desperately trying to maintain his purchase on his anchorage points. His head was back, helmet against the pavement; inside his suit, Bert had his eyes squeezed shut, and sweat was running down his face as he tried to withstand the sudden forces that were trying to take over and send him flying. The brutal thrust of his rockets was slowly crumbling the grip he had, and he was starting to slide slightly, grittily scraping his hardsuit along the pavement. He tried to dig deeper and hang on, his gauntlets starting to slide as the violently snarling washes of flame continued to mercilessly sear the boomers.

****

"Linna!" Sylia panted as she hauled at the chunk of masonry pinning Linna's right leg, "are you all right?!" The slab shifted, and the dented and dusty olive-green hardsuit was able to slip free; she hadn't been able to get enough leverage on the concrete pieces pinning her to be able to escape on her own. Sylia grabbed her friend's arm, and helped her to straighten up.

"I'm fine, just bruised," Linna's voice reassured her. "Since when did boomers start trying to collapse buildings on people?!" she suddenly demanded, almost angrily. She felt her left arm, and rotated the shoulder a bit to make sure everything was still working.

"Since now, it seems," Sylia replied dryly, looking at the smoldering pile of scrap nearby that had been a blue C-55 boomer. The biomechanoid had been ferociously attacking Linna, never letting up, and forcing her back; only Linna's tremendous agility had kept her from serious harm. Then the boomer had suddenly fired, apparently missing by a large margin. It hadn't been aiming at the green-hardsuited young woman, however; it had been aiming at the wall behind her. Linna had been caught under a sudden cascade of masonry as the wall crumbled. She had been pinned by the leg, and unable to move when the boomer had tried to get in the finishing blow. Sylia had been able to intercept it before it could harm her, and had blasted it into a smoking junkheap with her particle-laser beam cannons.

"They never used to be able to do that," Linna noted, wincing and placing a hand on the small of her back as she unbent herself. "I mean, they never used strategy before."

"It appears as if more than just their hardware has been upgraded," Sylia sighed, helmet swiveling around; there were apparently no more boomers in the area. Best to make sure, though. After a moment, she opened her comm channel.

"Nene," she called. "What's our status? Any more boomers left?"

"There's a couple, I think," Nene's voice crackled back, still sounding miffed. "I can't really tell for sure. Maybe if I were to..."

"Don't start again," Sylia warned flatly. "You're not coming any closer to the battlefield. Get over it. Now."

"Fine. I'll call if I detect anything," Nene sulkily muttered back, and shut down the channel. Sylia swore under her breath to herself.

"What's with Nene?" Linna asked, puzzled. "That didn't sound like her."

"She feels left out, and she's trying to prove there's nothing wrong with her," Sylia replied, sighing again. "I just hope she doesn't get into trouble trying to prove that she's okay."

****

Nene's sensor scopes flashed urgently, and she irritably looked at the displays, emerald-green eyes flicking across the images and data displayed. There was a lone boomer approaching her position, and not from the direction Linna and Sylia had taken; it appeared to be a lone marauder. Perfect! Now she had the opportunity to prove to Sylia that she could handle her end of things; one boomer wasn't going to be a problem. She'd handled single boomers before.

Charging her laser cannons, the red-pink hardsuited young woman concealed herself behind a nearby rooftop antenna mast, and waited for the renegade biomechanoid to come within range.

****

SkyKnight staggered upright, pulling himself up by using the lamp post he'd been desperately clinging to earlier. A few feet away, blackened, carbonized lumps sizzled angrily on the pavement: what was left of the two boomers he'd managed to catch with his rocket exhaust. He sighed in relief, and stretched; his armour creaked while something in his back crackled and popped back into place.

"It's not the years," he sighed to himself with a wry grin. "It's the mileage." Despite feeling tired, he felt pretty good, considering...he winced as his side throbbed again. He carefully looked down at his side, and noted that the red stain was still growing slightly. Damn, the gash must have been a little deeper than he'd thought.

Sighing again, SkyKnight awkwardly reached around to the small of his back, and felt around. A small, rectangular object fastened to his armour met his probing hand, and he pulled it loose with a metallic clack. He brought the small object around front to where he could see it. He looked from the small box-like object he held to the gash on his side armour, mentally estimating something. Taking the object by its sides, he cracked it open lengthwise, revealing a soft, gauzy-looking white pad of some kind nestled inside; the pad was attached to the casing that had contained it, preventing it from falling out.

Careful not to touch the pad with his gauntlets, he carefully moved the object nearer to the hole in his armour. After a moment of careful positioning, he slapped it over the hole, exactly like a patch, making sure to force the white padding into the slash in his plating.

He held the 'medical patch', or hardsuit field dressing, as he liked to call it, in place for a moment, stifling the curses that sprang to mind as the antiseptic and coagulant compounds contained in the pad burned into his wound like live coals. He'd come up with the HFD idea shortly after the Knight Sabers' semi-disastrous raid on Hollister's base. While a full-blown medical kit might have been a better idea, no one on the team had medical training, which would make using a medkit worse than not having one at all, especially if the user were to make a mistake of some kind. Making these bandage pads was much more practical and easy to do, but he reflected that he was going to have to find something that didn't sting quite so much for a disinfectant.

After a moment, he pressed all around the edges of the outer casing of the HFD, and the adhesives in the edges securely glued the patch to his suit. Sighing in relief, he activated his comm systems for a moment. The comms spat and crackled in his ears, sizzling like something was frying. Damn; evidently his systems had gotten scrambled by one of the boomers tagging his helmet with a punch.

"SkyKnight to Saber Prime," he broadcast, hoping he was transmitting clearly. "All clear over here. The place is a mess, though."

"Roger that, SkyKnight," Sylia's voice replied, interference snapping in the background. "What is your status?"

"I got scratched up a bit, but other than fatigue, I'm okay," he replied. "I've got a couple things to check on, then I'll rendezvous with the rest of you. How's Nene?"

"Fine, I think," Saber Prime replied. Bert's heart jumped slightly; Sylia didn't sound so sure. "She's on sentry duty right now, and we haven't received any word of any more boomers yet; we're pretty much done over here ourselves."

"Okay. Meet you in ten," SkyKnight replied, and shut down the channel, an uneasy feeling tickling the back of his mind. He couldn't really say what it was, so he dismissed it. He turned towards the center of the street, where a badly mauled K-17 was picking itself up from the street. Its movements were jerky and erratic, and smoke was coming from some of its joints, but it was definitely moving. SkyKnight shook his helmeted head, and walked over to Leon's suit.

****

"Come on, you useless scrap heap," Leon snarled under his breath. "Move, damn you!" His K-17 grudgingly responded, reluctantly answering the commands of its pilot. With several jolting shudders, the mangled armour suit began to get up from the pavement. The way it was stopping and starting made Leon feel like he was popping the clutch on an old manual transmission car. He gritted his teeth and persevered, forcing the damaged K-17 upright.

"You're clear now, Inspector," the deep, resonant voice of SkyKnight penetrated Leon's cockpit. "There shouldn't be any more problems tonight." The ADP inspector finished pulling himself and his malfunctioning suit upright as the voice finished speaking, sweating from the effort it was taking to move the damn suit; the backup motivators weren't nearly as good as the primary ones. After a moment's hesitation, he popped open his cockpit canopy. Cool air rushed in, sweeping his face with a welcome freshness. The stench from all the nearby fires also wafted in, unfortunately reminding him of what maintaining the peace had cost the ADP tonight.

"Thanks," he said, his suit turning slightly so he could look at the crumpled, mangled heaps of white and blue metal that had been the other K-17s on his squad. "Too bad you couldn't have gotten here sooner," he added, unable to keep a trace of bitterness from entering his voice.

"We try our best," SkyKnight shrugged. "I can't do anymore than that."

"Well that's just fine," Leon retorted. "I'll be sure and tell that to their families." He knew he was being unreasonable, and knew it was partly because he was tired, but he just didn't care. It always hurt to lose men that had been under his command, especially to something this goddamn senseless.

"Look, McNichol," SkyKnight suddenly snapped. "Just what the hell do you want from us?! I don't like what's happened any better than you do, but we can't be everywhere at once. Nobody can. Instead of bitching about what we didn't do, and who we couldn't save, why don't you try looking at what we did do?! It could have been one hell of a lot worse." The silver suit turned and started stalking away, angrily kicking a chunk of scrap metal away from itself.

Four new K-17s suddenly loomed out of the smoky darkness in front of SkyKnight, blocking his path. The silver-blue armour suit stopped, then tried to walk around the looming battlesuits emblazoned with the ADP logo. They moved to block him.

There was a moment of tight silence, during which Leon could hear the flames crackling nearby. SkyKnight's helmet came around to look back at Leon his red eyeslot flickering ominously in the dim, fire-lit light of the street, but he remained silent. Leon looked puzzled, wondering what was going on; he hadn't heard any orders over his radio to the effect that more K-17s were being sent to his area. He ponderously stomped over to the area where the police suits apparently had SkyKnight surrounded.

"What's going on here?" he queried the lead suit. "SkyKnight just saved our asses; let him go."

"I'm sorry, sir," an apologetic voice spoke from the lead suit. "But we've been ordered to arrest him."

****

Nene grinned to herself as the blip on her tracking sensor display moved closer; her target would soon be in visual range, and then she'd be able to prove to Sylia that she was recovered. In the back of her mind, a voice was cautioning her that she really should call for backup, and reminding her of the fact that she'd promised Sylia she'd call if she detected anything. She ignored her conscience, however. She was sick and tired of being treated like a little girl.

Her sensor readout indicated that the boomer had just entered visual range, and Nene peered cautiously around the support beams of the antenna mast she was hiding behind. Where was it? It shouldn't be too hard to locate a blue C-55....

Shock washed over Nene with the numbing force of a bucket of ice water being suddenly thrown over her. The boomer approaching her, flying on jets of some kind, was not blue.

It was red.

Her suit computer scanned through its database...and came up empty. The boomer was a new type, unlike any she had information on. She swallowed against the sudden dryness in her throat and mouth, and activated her long range scanners, gently probing the boomer to see if she could find a weak point on it. In the back of her mind, uneasy fear had begun to crawl around, and she thought that she felt a twinge from her stomach muscles. She tried to ignore the feelings, chiding herself for an overactive imagination. Information scrolled across her screen, and she frowned at her sensor display; she couldn't scan the boomer very well, and the results were inconclusive. Shrugging to herself, she boosted the power to her active sensors, trying to get a better scan.

It was a mistake. The instant she boosted her scanner output, the boomer wheeled around in midair, streaking down towards her position. A huge, coruscating wave of green-white energy seared through the air towards her. Nene shrieked and ducked, as the sizzling energy blast sheared off the antenna mast she'd been hiding behind. She threw herself desperately to the side, as the bent and twisted metal wreckage from the top half crashed to the rooftop decking, scattering bouncing shards of metal all over. The young ADP officer saw stars flare briefly in her sight as she hit the roof on one shoulder, and slammed into another nearby rooftop structure. As she groggily shook her head, and rolled over, trying to get to her knees and get up so she could get the hell out of there, a heavy impact shook the roof's surface beneath her.

With an awful sinking feeling, Nene looked up to see a huge, hulking, red-armoured boomer standing about twenty feet away from her. Standing about ten feet tall, it was roughly humanoid-looking, resembling a very large, red-coloured C-55, although the vaguely skull-like face looked more like it had fangs than normal teeth. It was huge and very muscular looking, making the young woman feel suddenly small and helpless. With something akin to a physical shock, Nene realized that this boomer looked like the Superboomer that the Knight Sabers had killed years ago.

Yellow eyes flashed balefully in the gloomy darkness of the rooftop, and Nene's suit sensors informed her that she'd just been scanned. She started to back away from the boomer, as fear began to scrape and gouge at her. Call for help!! her mind urgently screamed at her. Now, before it's too late!! Nene swallowed again, trying to control her racing heart. She was about to call Sylia when a cold, mechanical voice from the boomer paralyzed her with icy fear.

"Identity confirmed," the biomechanoid stated laconically. "Red Knight Saber. Procedure: Exterminate." The boomer seemed to suddenly smile malevolently. "Threat Level Estimate: Inconsequential."

****

"You're joking, right?" SkyKnight asked flatly. "Just what the hell did I do now?" This is turning out to be such a wonderful day, he observed sourly to himself. On top of everything else that had happened to him today, now some hotshots from the ADP wanted to take him in. Bloody marvelous. Bert kept his attention on the mechanized suits in front of him, a cold, watchful feeling spreading through him.

"You're an illegally operating vigilante," the lead K-17 stated. "I recognize the fact that you have assisted the ADP on several occasions, but we cannot make exceptions for anyone. We have been ordered to arrest you, and we intend to carry out our orders." The K-17s spread out a bit more, surrounding the silver hardsuit. SkyKnight didn't move, or even shift slightly.

"Who issued the order?" Leon interjected from where he was standing behind Bert. SkyKnight couldn't see it, but Leon was watching him with a very uneasy expression.

"The Chief," the lead suit replied, with the closest thing to shrug he could manage inside such a bulky armour suit. "I realize you don't like this Inspector, but we have our orders. Personal feelings aside, he's an outlaw."

"I suggest you gentleman reconsider your decision to try and take me in," SkyKnight said coldly. His mind was icily calm as he noted the location of the four K-17 battlesuits on his viewscreen. He didn't want to fight the ADP, but he wasn't going to allow himself to be arrested. He eased into a ready stance, and prepared to fall back in order to get the hell out of there.

"We know you won't harm cops," the lead suit replied, sounding almost bored. "So spare us the theatrical threats, huh? Just come along quietly." Bert opened his mouth to reply, when a terrified scream came through on the helmet comms.

"BERT!!! SYLIA!!! SOMEBODY HELP MEEE!!! PLEASE!!!!" Nene's voice shrieked through hissing static, sobbing at the same time. There was the sound of a loud impact of some kind over the channel, and the line went dead except for the electric crackling of his comm systems.

SkyKnight instantly stiffened in surprise and shock, and everything seemed to start moving very slowly. He spun sharply, ears ringing from the force Nene had put into her desperate call for help, and he started to sprint away from the K-17s, a wave of Arctic-cold fear sweeping through him as he moved. He'd only taken a couple of steps when two of the K-17s grabbed his arms. Jerking him to a halt, the K-17s tried to pull his arms back, pinning them to his sides. SkyKnight's mind went utterly cold.

"We said you're under arrest, damnit!" he heard. "Just where the....AAAAARGGH!!" The speaker's voice ended in an agonized scream, as SkyKnight tore his arm from the grasp of the police suit on his left, and brutally drove the point of his elbow into the guts of the offending K-17 with all the power his hardsuit possessed; armour plating cracked and shattered, and was driven inwards. The K-17 toppled over backwards, sparks and smoke flaring from its ruined torso, pieces of scrap metal clanging to the pavement with a ringing noise.

Tortured groans could be heard coming from the downed suit, as the silver-clad Knight Saber ripped his other arm free of the confining grasp that held it, turned with a whip-like quickness, and mercilessly slammed the other K-17 with a roundhouse right that instantly shattered most of the K-17's armour plate on the torso and cockpit canopy. A wickedly-fast, left uppercut drove the mechanized suit staggering backwards; it collided with a lamp post, then keeled over onto its face with a loud bang.

The remaining two K-17s were caught flat-footed; they'd never anticipated resistance, not of this kind. The missile pods on their shoulders popped open, but by then, SkyKnight was already thirty feet down the street and running hard. As the stunned police watched, the shoulder-mounted wings of the silver suit snapped out, and the silver-garbed hardsuit shot skywards with a roar. He was barely ten feet from the ground when a wash of incandescent flames from his booster rockets kicked him into the skies even faster.

SkyKnight quickly locked onto the erratic signal from Nene's transponder beacon, and blasted towards it. As he roared desperately along, his boot rockets sputtered and died; they'd exhausted their limited fuel supplies. Bert didn't hesitate, immediately boosting his jet turbines to 150% maximum power. With the tortured shriek of stressed machinery, his flight jets shot him forwards, towards the beacon marking Nene's location.

****

The blue biomechanoid burst asunder under the combined impacts of a heavily-charged knuckle bomber, and both of Sylia's palm-mounted laser cannons. The white and green hardsuits didn't pause, but immediately spun around and leaped skywards. Jet thrusters kicked in, hissing urgently, as the two Knight Sabers also sped towards where the frantic call for help had come from.

"Nene!!" Sylia called, fear running through her with icy-cold feet. "Try and get out of there, now!! Nene?!" There was no answer to her call, just static. Sylia banished the horrified thought that kept trying to claw through her mind; Nene would be okay...all they had to do was arrive in time to save her.

"I can't get a response from Bert," Linna reported. "I mean, the channel is working, but he's not replying."

"Damn it, what the hell is he doing?!" Sylia fumed. "We're going to need him, I'm sure of that."

The two hardsuits sped onwards, leaving behind the smoldering battlefield.

****

A smashing impact rocked the world with a crimson wave of pain, and Nene was driven to the rooftop again, crying. She doubled up around the agonizing pain she could feel eating into her stomach, whimpering and trying to crawl away. Her helmet viewscreen flickered erratically, showing the hulking red boomer that was slowly and systematically killing her stomping closer.

"Sylia? Bert? Anybody?!" she called into her helmet comm, trying to force her voice to behave for a moment. Static hissed mockingly at her, and Nene started crying again as she realized she was all alone. She tried getting up again, gulping and attempting to ignore the agony from her midsection long enough to activate her flight system and escape, but the boomer sprang forwards before she could get halfway upright, and again belted her sprawling with a stinging backhand slap.

Nene's hardsuited body flew across the roof, smashing into the low retaining wall that ran around the rooftop edge, and crashed to the decking. She tasted blood from somewhere in her mouth, and shakily tried to pull herself up the retaining wall. Her body refused to co-operate, and the badly-shaking young woman collapsed to the rooftop, crying in fear and despair.

She'd tried so hard...but it hadn't done any good. She'd known the minute she'd seen the boomer that she'd gotten in over her head, and she'd tried to get away, but the boomer hadn't allowed that. The brief fight she'd managed to put up hadn't accomplished anything, either; the boomer wasn't even showing scorch marks from the few brief shots she'd hit it with. Topping that off, her sensors still couldn't find a weak point on the boomer's armour to exploit. Calling for help hadn't produced any responses, and she felt cold claws of fear seize her guts, squeezing mercilessly. She'd never been this alone before.

She looked up at the boomer as it approached her, moving slowly and with unmistakable intent; she realized it had decided to quit toying with her, as a compact weapon of some kind sprang out of one of its arms. Her sensors registered a large energy buildup, and she could see greenish light gathering in the muzzle of the weapon. A faint, droning whine rose in the air.

"No," she whimpered again, trying to huddle back into the wall. Everything she could see turned blurry with tears as her eyes brimmed again. "No, please, no..." She stared at her imminent demise, a sick feeling settling over her, unable to look away as the glow in the boomer's weapon became brighter. The image in her viewscreen seemed to waver, becoming for a brief instant a smirking blond-haired man in a grey suit, pointing a large handgun at her.

What happened next was difficult to say for sure; the entire night seemed to light up in a dazzling, blinding blast. Explosions tore through the air, pounding her with shockwaves from the blasts. Nene screamed again, and curled up protectively, throwing her arms over her helmet. There was another flurry of explosions, and something crashed into her. Nene cried out as the heavy weight of something landing on top of her drove her hardsuit bruisingly into the wall. She couldn't see what was going on since she'd been temporarily blinded by the earlier explosions.

She heard metal plating scrape and grind against her hardsuit as the heavy weight on top of her shifted and started to move. As the weight eased, she heard some pained, under-the-breath swearing, and a faint hope blossomed.

"B-Bert?" she quavered, swallowing and trying to keep from breaking down again. "Is that you?"

"I'm here," his voice reassured her. There was a flat, ugly quality to his tone that she'd rarely heard from him, but she was too relieved at being saved to pay it much attention. "Just stay put until I'm finished," SkyKnight told her. "This won't take long."

The young red-haired woman started crying in relief, as the sounds of a vicious fight began to racket through the air.

****

SkyKnight ducked the crackling green energy bolt the hulking red boomer in front of him spat at him. The boomer dodged his attempt to reply in kind with his particle lasers with equal dexterity, and the two antagonists briefly circled each other, looking for an opening.

SkyKnight winced as his body complained at what he was forcing it to do, and he kept a cautious eye on his suit readouts; everything seemed to be working normally. In order to save Nene, he'd thrown himself in front of her, and taken at least two particle beam shots to the torso. His armour was now incredibly scorched-looking, and marked with a few dents; inside the suit, Bert was feeling like he'd stepped in front of a train. He ached all over now from the physical shocks that stopping the energy blasts had produced, and it hadn't helped his gashed side to feel any better, either.

The boomer had also suffered some damage; smoking craters pockmarked its torso from the laser fire he'd hammered it with at long range just before it could shoot Nene. Its left arm was also missing from the elbow down; it had exploded when he'd managed to hit the weapon with one of his particle-laser bolts. It hadn't been slowed down by the damage, though, and it still had several weapons, if his sensor readings were giving him an accurate scan.

Snarling, the boomer lunged forwards, a long, wickedly-sharp looking blade snapping out from the wrist of its undamaged arm. SkyKnight's own swordblades snapped out, and he blocked the descending edge with a cross-block move. The boomer recovered immediately and feinted a strike at his lower body. SkyKnight moved to respond to it, then quickly blocked the boomer again as it scythed its weapon towards his head. The fencing match went on for a few more seconds, a flickering storm of edged death whirling between the Knight Saber and the biomechanoid. Even though it was only seconds, SkyKnight felt like it was years; the boomer was incredibly fast, and very strong, at least a match for him. He began to wonder if he'd been premature in saying this fight wasn't going to take long.

The boomer's yellow eyes flared for a moment as it stepped back a pace. As it did, twin guns of some kind flipped up from concealed shoulder housings. The guns were very compact-looking, each with about six barrels arranged in a circular pattern. With a cold shock, SkyKnight realized what the guns were, and desperately dodged sideways as the miniguns opened up, the streams of hot metal they churned out gouging trenches through the rooftop.

Not all of the slugs from the cannons missed entirely, however; Bert swore as a stray shot tore loose his armour plating on the left shoulder. The impact from the hit saved him from a couple of serious injuries, though, as two more slugs gashed trenches across his chest armour; if he hadn't been turned by the previous shot, the next two would have taken him right in the chest.

Fury and fear erupted, lending speed to his moves. SkyKnight blurred under another salvo, and snapped a quick shot at the boomer. The scorching, red-white energy blast shattered the leftmost cannon into a smoking tangle of scrap and wiring.

Howling furiously, the crimson boomer spun around after SkyKnight, trying to tag him with its one remaining Vulcan cannon. As it turned, the silver hardsuit flashed through the air, leaping in close, accompanied by an electric snap-hiss noise. A blazing blue plasma blade slashed through the air, destroying the second cannon, and carving a huge gash in the boomer's chest. It snarled, and a particle cannon muzzle protruded from its mouth as its head tracked towards the silver-clad hardsuit.

"Oh no you don't, bastard!" SkyKnight snarled. His lightsaber sizzled through the air and cut into the boomer's head and particle beam assembly.

Unfortunately, the boomer fired at exactly the same time.

There was a blinding flash, and an explosion that knocked SkyKnight sprawling to the rooftop with a loud clang. He wasn't really paying attention, however, being more preoccupied with the miasma of pain that was washing over him from his right arm; the arm felt like it was on fire, and he rolled around on the roof a bit, clutching his arm at the elbow. After a few moments, the agony diminished to almost bearable levels. His breathing coming in short gasps, SkyKnight rolled to his knees, and forced himself to his feet. Gritting his teeth, he finally managed to work up the courage to look at his arm.

The arm of his hardsuit was a mess: the entire gauntlet and arm-guard assembly that had housed his weapons for that arm was burned and cracked, and several pieces of plating fell off as he looked at it, dropping to the rooftop with muted, sorrowful clangs. His particle-laser cannons looked intact, but he shut down the power to them completely as a precaution. He cautiously tried to flex his hand and make sure that, inside the suit at least, he was okay. He could feel his hand trying to move, but the gauntlet itself was welded almost completely into immobility; he clenched his teeth as his arm throbbed angrily from the attempted movement. Damn; felt like it was burned.

It was when he turned his arm slightly to examine the mounting for his suit lightsabers that he realized what had happened. A huge, jagged hole had been torn open in the underside of his arm armour, running almost the entire length of his forearm, and wiring was spitting and smoking from within the ruined systems. Evidently, his lightsaber system had overloaded and blown up from being hit by the boomer's particle beam. Wait a minute....the boomer!!!

SkyKnight spun around, frantically searching for his foe before it could take advantage of his momentary distraction. He didn't have to worry; the boomer was far too preoccupied in dealing with the dodging and darting white and dark green hardsuits that were attacking it. As SkyKnight examined the red combat machine, he noted that the weapon explosion had evidently worked both ways; the boomer was missing the lower left side of its jaw, and its head mounted particle beam assembly. Smoke was curling sinuously from the wreckage, but the boomer was fighting as if the damage to it was insignificant.

As Bert watched, Sylia's white-armoured form ducked under a shot from some unidentifiable weapon in the boomer's chest, while at the same time Linna leaped in close, driving her knuckle bomber into the boomer's lower torso. There was a bright flash and a racketing blast, and a few pieces of armour plating went flying. When the smoke cleared, there was a fair-sized hole in the boomer's carapace, but it didn't appear to be badly damaged.

"Damn it," SkyKnight sighed. He ached all over, and his arm felt like it was still burning up, but he had to help Sylia and Linna finish off the boomer; as had been proven so far, the killer biomechanoid was no pushover. He powered up the guns on his good arm, and prepared to jump back into the fight.

"Forget it!" Sylia's voice cracked over the comm channel like a whip. "You're hurt; stay out of this, and check on Nene. That's an order, mister." She ducked under another scorching energy salvo, as SkyKnight grudgingly complied with her order.

Turning away from the raging fight, Bert quickly strode across the rooftop to where a trembling, red-pink hardsuit was wobbling to its knees. Nene's suit was battered and dented, with scratches marring its enameled exterior. A couple of the antenna spars on her backpack had been snapped off, and her helmet was missing one of its antenna wings, but other than that, she looked like she was unhurt. He suddenly noticed she was holding her stomach, and all thoughts of his own injuries vanished under a wave of fear and concern.

"Nene?" he asked quietly as he came up to her. Her helmet turned towards him, and he dropped to his own knees next to her on the rooftop. "Are you okay? Are you hurt?" She didn't answer, but collapsed against him, crying uncontrollably. He awkwardly wrapped his arms around her suit, trying to console her.

"Shhhhhh. It's okay," he soothed, giving her as gentle a squeeze as possible when two people are wearing powered body armour. "You're fine. Don't worry, I'm here. Everything will be fine."

"I tried," she cried, shuddering and gripping him tighter. "I tried so hard!! I just wanted to...to..."

"I know," he told her quietly, compassionately. "Believe me, I know what you wanted." A bright flare of light washed over him from behind, followed a moment later by a thunderous detonation that sent reddish armour pieces skittering by him on the edges of the hot blast of displaced air from the explosion.

"Nene!!" Sylia's voice called. Pounding footsteps sounded behind them, and in the next instant, her white hardsuited figure was standing next to them. SkyKnight stood up, gently pulling Nene up with him. She didn't relinquish her hold on him, however, clinging to him like a drowning person to a life preserver. "Is she badly hurt?" their leader demanded anxiously, her blue visored helmet turning slightly from Nene to him. Behind her, the sleek green and grey shape of Linna's hardsuit came up behind her, looking a little dusty and battered, but otherwise okay.

"I don't think so," he replied quietly. After a moment's hesitation, he sighed, and added, "Nene was holding her stomach, though; she might have been re-injured." Nene didn't deny or confirm his observation, but continued to cling shudderingly to him, crying.

"We'll have to check after we get back to base," Sylia decided, sounding worried. "What about you? You look like a wreck."

"It's a long story," SkyKnight sighed. "Could we perhaps go home first, and then worry about the whys and wherefores?" He winced as his accumulated trophies of the night all decided to scream in protest at the same time. "I'd like to get out of the suit before too much longer."

"I second that motion," Linna put in, sounding tired. "I'd really like to get out of my suit, too; I'm beat."

"Okay, let's get out of here, then," Sylia sighed. Nene didn't appear to be in any condition to walk or fly, however. SkyKnight and Linna gently supported her on opposite sides, as the Knight Sabers lifted into the air, and disappeared into the cloaking darkness.

****

"YEEEOWWCH!!"

"Sorry," the white-haired old man said insincerely. "Did that hurt?" The old man straightened up, a blood-soaked wad of what might have once been a white bandage pad in his gloved hand. He tossed it into a nearby, plastic-lined garbage pail, and pulled out a sterile-wrapped antiseptic pad. Unwrapping it, the old man stepped back to his reluctant, red-haired patient's side, and sponged off the now lightly bleeding gash on the lower left side of his torso.

"No, of course not," Bert half-snarled sarcastically, wincing at the sting of the antiseptic, glaring. "I always yell like that. Of course it goddamn hurt!! You didn't have to rip it loose like that!!" The old man tending him was tall and wiry, with short white hair and a mustache, and wearing a white doctor's coat over some rumpled-looking jeans and a shirt. A compact, briefcase-like medical kit sat on the nearby countertop, filled to the brim with various surgical implements, sterile packages, and bottles. Sardonic amusement glinted in the doctor's brown eyes as he looked at Bert, fishing something else out of his briefcase.

"I sure as hell did," he replied, unfazed by his patient's profanity. "In the first place, I needed to make sure the wound was clean; in the second, those drugs you used in the pad almost permanently glued the damn thing to your idiotic hide." He pulled out a syringe, and filled it with a few cc's of a clear liquid from a small, stoppered bottle. "I'll give you a formulation to use that won't do that for the next time. And from now on, for God's sake, if you have to design something with medical applications, leave the decisions on what preparations to use to the professionals, okay?" Bert flinched violently as the doctor stabbed him with the needle and depressed the plunger, flushing in chagrin from his remarks at the same time. After a moment, the burning in his side seemed to cool off and vanish. Bert sighed in relief, and managed to hold himself still while the doctor quickly and expertly smeared some kind of medicated ointment on his gashed side, firmly bandaging it up afterwards.

As the doctor stepped back, Bert quickly pulled his sweater back on; the basement infirmary wasn't the warmest room in Sylia's building. He carefully flexed his lightly bandaged hand; it was burned slightly, but not enough to cause more than a day or two of discomfort. He'd already had several comments about sticking his hands where they weren't supposed to be. He sighed, deciding that complaining about his treatment wouldn't really get him anywhere.

"Thanks, I appreciate it," he told the doctor, who was now packing his medical implements into his case, closing it and locking it. The doctor turned around, picking up his case as he did.

"You're welcome," he replied, faint flickers of amusement visible in his eyes. "It was nice to meet you awake and lucid for a change, instead of comatose and feverish. Try and dodge faster next time, though, okay?" Bert flushed again.

"It's not like I try and get injured," he muttered. "It just happens."

"I know," the old man replied dryly. "But if I'd had even just a couple of patients as injury-prone as you are back when I was practicing, I'd never have needed anyone else." The white-haired old man grinned as Bert flushed again guiltily, then reluctantly grinned himself.

"I suppose I do run up a pretty good bill at times," he remarked, sighing, and hopping down from the examination table. "Thanks again." Bert hesitated slightly. "I never did get your name."

"That's right," the old man replied calmly, becoming a little more serious. "And you won't be, son. It's safer that way for everybody. Good night." The old man left, leaving Bert to stand by himself in the infirmary for a few minutes. At length, he sighed and stood a little straighter. Wincing slightly at the aches from his abused body, Bert strode briskly out the door, flicking off the lights and shutting it behind him.

****

A fairly tall woman with blue-black hair paced back and forth across the small lounge, steering with unconscious deftness around the scattered chairs on the room. A look of extreme anxiety marred her smooth features, and her brown eyes were whirling with a complex multitude of concerns. She was wearing a form-fitting white, red, and blue bodysuit of some description, covered by a white lab coat. Periodically, she cast a glance at the door to the lounge, but her constant, agitated motion around the room never slackened.

Sylia looked up anxiously as the tall, thin, white-haired old man carrying a medical kit knocked briefly and then entered the room. The old man sighed tiredly, and dropped his kit into a nearby chair. He looked over at Sylia finally, and a warm smile spread across his face.

"Sylia," he greeted her. "How's my favourite niece doing?"

"I'm your only niece, uncle," she reminded him, shaking her head as a reluctant smile spread across her face.

"Then that makes you my favourite as well, doesn't it?" he replied blandly. "Come here and give this tired old sawbones a hug."

"You haven't changed a bit," she sighed, walking over to him and embracing him. He kissed the top of her head fondly as he hugged her, then allowed her to step back.

"Why, would you want me to?" he asked, quirking an eyebrow at her, unsuccessfully hiding a smirk.

"It'd be a hopeless wish," she said dryly. "You've always been incorrigible." She was silent a moment, and they stood there looking at each other for a minute or two. Sylia opened her mouth to speak, but was forestalled.

"The young lady is fine," he assured her. "She's just terrified at the moment. I gave her a sedative to help her sleep, so she should be okay until the morning. As for the young man, he'll recover completely. The burn wasn't serious, and the gash was just a flesh wound, this time. Other than being bruised up a bit, he's perfectly healthy. He'll probably gripe about stiffness for a couple of days, but nothing you can't live with."

"Easy for you to say," she retorted, smiling. "You're not the one who's going to have to listen to him for the 'couple of days'."

"The burdens of command," her uncle replied blandly.

"Thanks a lot."

"No charge," he replied grinning, then sobered. "There was one thing I wanted to ask you about, however," he noted. "Has your friend there always been ...overly sensitive about physical contact? I know I caught some kind of reflex action about to occur a couple of times when I was examining him, but he was controlling himself pretty well. I almost didn't notice at all."

"No, he wasn't always like that," Sylia sighed, sinking into a nearby chair wearily. "It's a long story."

"I have time," the old man said dryly. "The one advantage to being retired, I suppose."

"Regrets, uncle?"

"Sylia," he sighed, easing himself into a nearby chair. "The older you get, the more regrets you have about everything. I don't think there's anyone alive who doesn't wish that they'd done something differently, or wonders what might have been. Yes, I suppose I regret my decision in some ways, but in other ways, I don't. I know I made the right choice; I was one of the few with enough guts to stand by their convictions, and the fact that I'm still alive proves it."

"I'm sorry," she said contritely, reaching out and clasping one of his hands. "I didn't mean to re-awaken any painful memories." He shook his head, squeezing her hand briefly before releasing it.

"They've been with me for years, Sylia," he assured her. "I've gotten used to them. Now you were going to tell me about this friend of yours?" Sylia nodded, sighing, and gave him the condensed version of the kidnapping, skipping some of the details her uncle didn't really need to know. Her uncle was silent for a moment when she'd finished, head bowed slightly. When he looked up at her, there was concern mixed with fear for her in his eyes.

"Sylia," he started to say slowly, but she shook her head slightly, cutting him off gently, but firmly.

"Please, uncle," she told him, "let's just skip the argument where you try to convince me to do something else, shall we? I know it's dangerous work, and I know that there's a risk I may get hurt, but I have chosen to accept that risk. Why can't you?"

"Because you're young," he snapped irritably. "I'm old; I haven't got all that many years left, but you still have your whole life ahead of you. I don't want to hear you've been killed because of your....your 'crusade'. I know how you feel, and I share your feelings, believe me I do...but I worry about you, constantly." An awkward silence fell for a moment, and the old man sighed, a slight smile appearing. "I knew I wasn't going to change your mind anyway," he told her wryly. "You're as incorrigible as I am in a lot of ways."

"Runs in the family," she deadpanned, then smiled warmly at him. Her uncle smiled back, then stood stiffly, Sylia rose also, and he gave her another quick hug, kissing her fondly.

"Take care of yourself, my dear," he sighed. "I don't want to have to ply my trade at your expense." With that, the old man picked up his case, and left through the door, giving her a parting smile. Sylia stood quietly for a moment, arms folded in a strangely defensive gesture, almost like she was hugging herself for warmth. A melancholic expression briefly flashed over her face, but she shook it off. The lounge became deserted a few moments later as she flicked off the lights and left herself.

****

"Priss, for God's sake sit down," Bert said wearily. "It wasn't your bloody fault, so quit castigating yourself over it, will you?!" From where she was seated on a nearby couch, Sylvie nodded in unconscious agreement. The dark-haired young woman was clad, as usual, in her snugly-fitting blue-white bike suit, and her helmet lay upended in a nearby chair, with her gloves crammed inside of it. Her golden-brown eyes kept shifting from Bert to Priss. Linna had stayed around long enough to make sure all her friends were okay, but then she'd had to leave; her dance company was getting an early start the next morning.

"Wasn't it?" Priss snapped, bitter self-reproach flashing in her eyes. She peeled off her red leather jacket, and angrily hurled it into the same chair that Sylvie's helmet was sitting in. "If I'd kept an eye on her on our last mission, she wouldn't have gotten shot, and then she wouldn't have felt she had to prove herself tonight. I didn't, she did, and now she's probably going to be even more of a wreck." Priss spun around angrily, intending to keep pacing, but it was at that moment that her injured leg decided to give out on her. She grabbed the back of the nearby couch to keep from falling, biting her lip against a startled, pained outcry.

Sylvie immediately moved to get up and help her, but Bert was already moving. He leaped out of his chair in a fluid motion, a concerned look on his face, and was around the coffee table and couch in an instant, putting an arm around Priss' waist to help her stand.

"Get away from me, goddamn you!" she snarled, trying to shove him away. "I'm fine!! Go play the chivalrous hero with someone else!" Bert's face remained concerned, although a slight flash of hurt at her response flickered briefly in his eyes. He could see angry moisture gathering in Priss' eyes, and realized she was more upset over her leg's condition than she was letting on. He didn't respond immediately to her remarks, but guided her around to the front of the couch, and helped her to sit. Priss refused to meet his gaze, staring moodily at the coffee table.

"I'm not playing," he told her quietly, trading a quick glance of concern with Sylvie. "I'm concerned about you."

"I don't need it," she growled. "I'm fine. Bugger off and leave me alone."

"Fine," Bert sighed disgustedly, his fatigue greatly lessening his tolerance for her usual stubbornness. "Be like that, then. But I'm still telling you it wasn't your fault. If it was anyone's fault, it was mine. I should have kept her from going somehow, especially since I knew better than anyone that she wasn't fully ready to go back out yet. Instead, I decided to let it lie, and now she's in even worse shape." He turned away from his friends and started pacing himself, suppressing winces at the twinges from his bandaged side.

"I can't believe you two are arguing about whose fault it was," Sylia's voice came to them from the apartment door. Everyone looked up as she wearily entered the room. Sylia had changed into a faded grey tracksuit, and looked tired; there were slight circles under her eyes. She sighed, running a hand through her blue-black hair as she came over to the central area where the seating around the coffee table was arranged. "I don't think it was any one person's fault, specifically," she told them as she came up to them. "Nene was at least partly to blame herself for not following my orders at the time. I should have realized that there was a possibility of her disobeying me, but I chose to ignore it, and that makes me partially to blame as well."

"I think we can stop with the 'who's at fault' session," Sylvie spoke up from where she was sitting. "Why don't we just say it was a shared responsibility, and leave it at that? I'm getting tired of listening to everyone wallow in guilt, if you don't mind." Everyone else flushed red, and didn't meet anyone else's eyes for a few moments. Sylvie shook her head ruefully.

"She's right," Sylia sighed. "It's pointless; it's done, and we'll just have to live with it. Self-recriminations are a luxury we can't afford to indulge in right now, especially given the seriousness of what happened tonight."

"What did happen tonight?" Priss asked, still sounding slightly sullen. "All I got to hear was that Nene got jumped all over by a new boomer." She was still pissed off over the fact that Sylia hadn't even notified her of the mission, until after it was too late to try and go along.

"What looked like a pile of normal C-55 boomers, wasn't," Bert replied absently, still pacing like a caged animal. "They were better armed and armoured, and definitely faster and smarter."

"And the one that Nene decided to confront was a new type," Sylia added simply. "I've never seen one like it before, although it did have some resemblances to the Superboomer. I'd say GENOM's design team has been very busy lately." She sighed, sitting wearily in her chair, and staring out the large bay window of her living room at the twinkling nighttime lights of the sprawling city beyond.

"So what are we gonna do about it?" Priss demanded. "Are we gonna just sit here and let them get away with it?! We should go out..."

"And what?" Bert interrupted irritably. "Level the city until we find the production facilities? We don't know where the damn things are being produced. You think they're just going to nicely tell us where they're illegally making combat boomers? Yeah, right!" He paced some more, scowling unconsciously, as Priss flushed. Her red-brown eyes narrowed dangerously, and she glared at the restlessly moving red-haired young man.

"I'm going to be looking into that," Sylia spoke up, interrupting whatever retort Priss had been about to launch, glancing at Bert with the faintest trace of concern in her gaze; he paced on, face like a thundercloud, apparently oblivious to everything else. She looked back at Priss and Sylvie. "The main thing that we have to do now is get ready."

"What do you mean by 'get ready'?" Priss asked, looking suspiciously at Sylia.

"I mean that everyone, and I mean everyone, is going back into training, starting as soon as possible," she replied. "We were all unprepared for tonight; we've been inactive for so long that we've all grown a bit rusty, and I think that it was a contributing factor to our performance when we went after Hollister. I'm going to discuss setting up a training program of some kind with Linna, and then everyone will be on it. Including myself," she added, as Priss opened her mouth to say something. The brown-haired young woman kept silent, and leaned back into the couch looking vaguely upset for a moment. She didn't say anything else, but Bert noticed absently that she was unconsciously rubbing her injured leg.

With a sigh, Bert stopped his pacing, and came over to the couch, dropping heavily into it next to Priss. She didn't appear to notice, but sat staring into space with a distant, pained look in her eyes. They all sat silently for a moment.

"Well, I think we need to do something more than just get back into training," Bert finally said. "Maybe 'field trips' wouldn't be a bad idea now and then. You know, just go out and dodge around on the rooftops a bit, so we can get used to the way the terrain can change."

"That's a reasonable idea," Sylia agreed. "It's a lot better than just sitting in the simulator all the time." Nobody else replied to his observation. Bert's gaze met Sylia's eyes for a moment, and he almost imperceptibly nodded in Sylvie's direction. A faint hint of a smile appeared on her lips as her gaze flicked briefly to the dark-haired woman, and she nodded ever so slightly.

"We're also going to have to do something about evening the odds a bit," he spoke up. "Even with everyone present, and at 100% we're still getting outnumbered at times. What we need is another member for backup." He casually looked over at Sylvie, raising an eyebrow quizzically. "Wouldn't you agree, Sylvie?"

"What?!" she said, startled out of whatever thoughts had been preoccupying her. She stared, wide-eyed, from Bert to Sylia, her gaze staying on Sylia. "You mean me?!"

"That's correct," Sylia replied, nodding. "If you are willing, we'd like you to become a member; we had a meeting about it the other night, and everyone was in agreement. Anri is welcome too, if she wants in."

"I'm.....I....I don't know what to say," Sylvie said dazedly.

"Say yes!!" Priss exclaimed, a crooked grin spreading across her face. "Come on, it'll be a blast!" Bert had a momentary vision of something exploding at Priss' observation, and hoped that it wasn't a prediction of what was going to follow on the heels of the addition of a new Knight Saber who also happened to enjoy a lot of Priss' usual pastimes.

"I...yes..yes, I'd like to join," Sylvie said softly, sudden tears glimmering in her eyes. "Thank you. It really means a lot to me, I...." She started crying a bit, and Priss carefully stood up and limped over to her, giving her friend a hug. Sylvie hugged her back.

"You won't be on fully-active status right away," Sylia continued speaking. "At the very least, not until you're used to handling a hardsuit. However, until then, you can pilot the KnightWing for us; we really need a good pilot. Once you are fully ready, you'd be our reserve force." Sylvie nodded wordlessly, swabbing at her eyes and trying to regain her composure. While she composed herself, Sylia stood and went into the kitchen.

"So when are you building their suits?" Priss asked sitting back down on a nearby chair, figuring that Bert would be immediately jumping all over that possibility, since he was so nuts about building suits and other gadgets. He didn't answer, apparently not having heard her; his gaze was slightly abstracted as he stared into space, almost like he'd already started planning what to build. Sighing in irritation, she reached over and prodded Bert's leg. His body jerked in a brief snap of motion, not quite the offense-geared reflex action of a few short weeks ago, but still more than just surprise. He appeared to catch himself and come back to the present, and he looked quizzically over at Priss.

"I said, when can you build Sylvie and Anri their suits?" she repeated. Bert shrugged.

"From the ground up, a brand new, fully-tested suit will take at least a couple of weeks. I can certainly handle the hardware end of things," he replied. "But the controls and the ...um...er ...the ...ah...."

"The what?" Sylvie and Priss chorused. Bert squirmed a bit in his seat, flushing slightly.

"Sylia will have to do the ergonomic part of the suit design," he replied awkwardly. "I can't do that."

"Ergonomics?" Priss repeated. "What the hell is that supp...oh." She suddenly developed a wide grin, and actually started to laugh. "You can't...do...the...HAHAHAHA!!!!" She collapsed helplessly into the couch again, snickering and laughing out loud.

"What's so funny?" Sylia asked, coming back into the room with a tray of steaming mugs. Sylvie was staring from Priss to Bert, who by now was flushing almost brick-red. He was also steadfastly refusing to meet anyone's eyes.

"He...can't...do....the.." Priss gasped, then collapsed laughing again, tears squeezing out of her eyes. Sylia looked at her, puzzled, as she placed the tray on the table and sat down, taking a mug for herself. Bert immediately seized another mug and started drinking it down, trying to hide his obvious discomfort.

"Ergonomics of my suit," Sylvie finished Priss' sentence for Sylia, puzzled. "What's so funny about that?" Sylia developed a sly smile of her own, and looked over at Bert, raising an eyebrow. Sylvie didn't think it was possible, but he seemed to turn even an even brighter red colour. He was so embarrassed, she was positive he was radiating heat waves.

"Part of the 'ergonomics' of designing the suit for a specific wearer is taking their measurements," Sylia explained to her gently. "It's a rather involved process, since the suit has to be as perfect a fit as possible, in order for some aspects of the control systems to work properly. Since that's the case, you'd only be wearing a softsuit."

"What's the big deal about taking my measurements?" Sylvie asked, still puzzled. "Something like that shouldn't be too....hard." She looked at Bert, abruptly remembering just who she was dealing with. She grinned suddenly, impish humour glinting in her eyes.

"Don't bother," he growled, his gaze meeting her eyes briefly as she opened her mouth to make a comment of some kind. "I don't want, or need, the hassle right now," he stated flatly, banging his mug back onto the tray table. Sylvie sighed, shaking her head and smiling.

"What are we going to do with you?" she asked rhetorically, smiling gently at him. She should have remembered how hung-up he could get on propriety; he was so square sometimes, it was almost painful to watch. They were going to have to find some way to get him to loosen up a bit...

"You could tell Priss to shut up," he mumbled, giving the still-laughing, brown-haired woman a smoldering glare; Priss was gasping for breath by now, she was laughing so hard. "I don't happen to think it was that funny."

"I'll take care of that end of the suit construction in the next few days," Sylia interjected, giving him a slightly sympathetic smile. "You can just concern yourself with the hardware aspects of her suit."

"Thanks," he said, flushing again. "I'll check back with you in a couple of days then. Right now, I've got some things to do." With that, the tall, red-haired young man stood and swiftly exited the room, Priss' laughter still trailing after him.

 

THE NEXT DAY.....

Bert carefully carried the steaming mug of tea over to his coffee table, balancing a couple of books in his other hand. With painstaking care, he lowered the mug to the table; it was slightly awkward, handling things while his hand was bandaged up, because at times it interfered with his sense of touch. He hesitated a moment, then peeled the wrapping off his hand, flexing it experimentally. There was no pain, and it looked okay, so he decided to just forego the bandage.

With a sigh, he flopped back into his recliner, putting his footrest up. Tossing one of the novels he'd been carrying into the nearby couch, he started to read the other, occasionally sipping his tea. He read quietly, just relaxing, for about an hour or so. At length, he sighed again and stretched, feeling oddly peaceful for a change. With everything that had happened over the last few weeks, he couldn't remember the last time he'd just said 'to hell with it', and quietly read or done something recreational. He made a mental note to try and do it more often; he needed to use anything that could help him relax.

Stifling a groan at the way his battered body protested the movement, he sat up and stiffly levered himself out of his recliner; it seemed as if every bang and bruise he'd received the night before without noticing them were now having a competition to see which one could attract the most attention. He ached all over.

Well if you keep throwing yourself in front of shots like you were last night, it's not going to get any better, his subconscious pointed out. You're going to have to either find a better way of saving people, or else just get used to being sore the morning after, it added before he irritably squelched it. He couldn't help it, especially where Nene was concerned; instincts just seemed to seize control of him at those times, instincts that didn't allow time for the contemplation of the sanity of a particular action.

With a rueful grin, which turned into a wince a moment later, he succeeded in getting up out of his chair, and he hobbled over to the kitchen counter. He had just made another pot of tea when his bedroom door creaked open. As he turned around, a rumpled and disheveled Nene slowly walked through the door, into his kitchenette, rubbing sleepily at her face.

Her normally lustrous red hair was a tangled mess, and there were dark smudges underneath her eyes. An old flannel blanket was draped across her shoulders, covering her wrinkled white nightgown. Her expression was distracted and lost-looking, and she didn't return his tentative smile of greeting. She didn't have any visible marks from her ordeal of the night before, but it wasn't physical injuries Bert was worried about.

"Hi there," he greeted her out loud; she didn't reply. He walked over to her and gave her a gentle hug; she-half-heartedly returned it, almost like she was still asleep. He reached up and brushed her tangled bangs out of her eyes, looking into them; there were still lurking traces of fear in the green depths, stirring around in agitation. Bert tipped her chin up, and kissed her softly on the lips; Nene kissed him back, but she was lacking the ...energy, the spirit she normally seemed to have. A chill of some kind starting curling around in his guts, as he hoped her listlessness was merely a result of the sedative she'd been given last night.

"Come on, you'd better go and get cleaned up," he said, deciding that trying to carry on as if things were normal was the best course of action. He gently steered her towards the bathroom door. "You still have to go to work, remember?"

"No!!!" she suddenly cried. Before he could move, Bert had a sobbing, red-haired young woman clinging tightly to him like a leech. He stiffened as pain knifed through him, but managed to stifle the swear words that sprang to mind as Nene unknowingly squeezed his bandaged side. "I don't want to! I c-can't! Please!!" she sobbed, almost hysterically. Bert held her as she cried, a feeling of complete helplessness welling up; Nene appeared to be falling apart, and there wasn't a thing he could do about it. He wrapped his arms around her shaking body, trying to comfort her somehow.

"Nene, I'm sorry, but I can't do that," he replied softly, swallowing against the sudden, painful tightness in his throat. "You know I can't do that. You have to go to work; there's no way to avoid it, not like before."

"B-but I can't stop thinking about it!" she wailed, fresh streams of tears dripping off her face as she looked up at him. Bert gently brushed them away, caressing her cheek with his hand at the same time.

"You have to try," he told her simply. "It's in the past, and we can't change that." He leaned down and kissed her again. "Dwelling on it is only going to make you miserable. Please, just let it go," he told her as he pulled back a bit. "You're going to drive yourself crazy if you keep this up. I realize it was a terrifying experience, and I know how you feel, but you have to face it, put it behind you, and then move on. Crying and denying it like a little girl isn't going to make it go away." It was the wrong thing to say; Nene's eyes narrowed dangerously, and a slight, angry flush suffused her face.

"'Little girl'?!" Nene repeated, stiffening in his arms. "Is that what you think of me?!" Bert mentally cursed himself for the poor choice of words, then swallowed, and braced himself.

"Nene, you're a very attractive and smart young woman," he told her, suddenly feeling like he was picking his way barefoot through a minefield. "One of the things I've always loved about you is your cheerfulness and ....and vitality, but..."

"But what?" she asked ominously, her face darkening. Bert sighed mentally, bracing himself for the now inevitable explosion.

"But I've .... felt that....maybe at times you don't.... take things seriously enough, don't...think things through often enough," he said slowly, a sharp pain lancing through him with each word as he watched Nene's face become more and more stony. "You know your suit isn't built for front-line fighting, but you still tried to do it last night. I..."

"I don't take things seriously?!" she repeated, cutting him off, anger flaring hotly in her eyes. "You're a fine one to talk, Mr. Chivalrous Knight-in-Shining-Armour!! At least I'm not running around trying to fit myself into some stupid image!!" Bert stood, shocked into speechlessness, as Nene stormed into the bathroom, slamming and locking the door behind her. Awful silence permeated the room for a moment.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly to the suddenly empty and hollow-seeming room. He turned, and leaned against his kitchen counter, putting his head down on his arms, squeezing his eyes shut as a couple of tears leaked from them at the edges. "Damn it, I'm sorry...."

****

The usual hum of office activity rose and ebbed around the isolated islands of desks scattered through the ADP Investigation Division. The noise was unusually hushed this morning, however, as if people were afraid to talk too loudly about something.

Inspector Leon McNichol didn't even notice the subdued atmosphere in the offices; he was seated at his desk, trying to finish his report for the upper brass on what had occurred the night before during the sudden boomer rampages. His mind was only partly on the task however, and he was unable to keep his attention on his work. He absently sipped at a cold cup of coffee, grimacing disgustedly at the taste while staring off into space.

In part his distraction was due to numbed sorrow over the loss of some of his men to the biomechanoid rampage; he still couldn't erase the feeling that he was partly responsible, even though he knew he'd done all he possibly could. He knew that the possibility of death while on duty was part of the price of wearing a badge, but that didn't make it any easier to live with the results. He throttled down yet again the lingering rage over the way the government bureaucracy had crippled the ADP's ability to effectively deal with boomer problems. How could they do their jobs if they couldn't get the support they needed?!

The second reason for his distraction wasn't quite as easy to categorize, but it did have an easily identifiable source: SkyKnight. For the first time since Leon had known the silver-clad Knight Saber, SkyKnight had used almost deadly force on someone other than a boomer; the two K-17 pilots he'd injured would recover, but they weren't getting out of the hospital anytime soon.

Leon hadn't seen SkyKnight in a long time since before last night, and they'd never chatted much before anyway, but the hardsuited mercenary he'd seen last night had seemed totally unfamiliar. It was almost like there was someone else under the armour. For one thing, he'd been completely silent during his brawl with the rogue boomers, which was unusual; previously, he'd always made some kind of smartassed quip once in a while. There'd been a driven intensity to his fighting that hadn't been there before.

The other factor adding to Leon's unease was that there had been a definite hard edge to his conversation, and his subsequent actions. SkyKnight had always been civil before, and scrupulous in avoiding conflict with the ADP, but he'd been terse, almost harsh when talking to Leon, and his effortless smashing of the K-17s that had tried to restrain him had been further proof that SkyKnight was not the same any longer.

Leon sighed, leaning back far enough in his chair that he ran the risk of toppling over backwards. He yawned, scrubbing at his gritty eyes; he hadn't been able to sleep all that well in the aftermath of the fight, and his mind had insisted on replaying everything he'd seen, giving him no rest. He leaned forwards again, folding his arms on his desk, and he let his head sink down onto his arms for a moment. Despite himself, his eyes sagged shut, and inside of a minute he was dozing quietly, as the office noises still continued to drone around him.

****

Fires crackled sullenly, wreathing the street with a sooty shroud of smoke. Electrical cables writhed and spat like artificial snakes, hanging down from shattered utility poles and transformer boxes. In the distance, the subdued roar of burst fire hydrants spewing water into the air almost drowned out the sounds of distant explosions. Asphalt crunched underfoot as an armoured shape stirred in the darkness and smoke. Around it, dimly-seen blue and white shapes spread out, surrounding it.

"I suggest you gentleman reconsider your decision to take me in," the deep, electronically-modulated voice of the gleaming silver-and-blue hardsuit rumbled, as a low, throbbing hum began to pulse ominously through the air. Leon suppressed the uneasy twinges that ran though his guts, and noted the silver hardsuit had shifted into a combat-ready stance. Alarm bells started going off in the back of his mind, and he shifted a bit closer to SkyKnight, hoping he could somehow mediate a peaceful resolution of what looked like immediate combat.

"We know you won't harm cops," one of the blue-white K-17s replied. "So spare us the theatrical threats, huh? Just come along quietly." Leon shifted closer another step; SkyKnight's head came up a bit, almost as if he was going to reply, and then it happened.

"....HELP...!!...." Leon's ears just barely caught the muffled, staticky voice, apparently coming from SkyKnight's helmet. Whatever it was, it was instantly cut off as the silver suit jerked and stiffened in apparent surprise. Leon was caught flatfooted as the silver-garbed mercenary spun with surprising speed, and started to sprint away from the hulking K-17s.

Leon's mind seemed to be spinning somewhere off in the distance; as he watched the K-17s grab SkyKnight, and the silver Knight Saber's instantaneous reprisals, his mind kept replaying the brief cry he'd caught from the hardsuit's helmet. It certainly hadn't been SkyKnight's voice, and it had sounded distorted with static, almost like a transmission from somewhere, calling for help. It had obviously been intended as a private transmission, though; the bit that Leon had heard had sounded like the faint pickup of a microphone from a speaker. At any rate, whatever or whoever it had sent the call out had obviously been the reason SkyKnight had suddenly tried to leave the scene.

Leon's mind churned, replaying the garbled cry he'd barely heard. It had almost sounded like it had started with a name....

****

"MCNICHOL!!!!" The piercing yell blasted his eardrums. Leon jerked upright in his chair, eyes snapping open. He frantically tried to clear his mind of the cobwebs of sleep that still clung to him, as he blearily looked around. From a couple of desks over, a blond haired detective grinned at him as he put down the phone.

"Have a nice nap?" Henderson inquired, smirking. "You really should quit snoring like that; makes it hard for the rest of us to concentrate."

"Go to hell," Leon growled back, irritably brushing his hair out of his eyes and smoothing it back. "You spend a night like I did, and we'll see just how spry you are the next day." Henderson's expression sobered a bit.

"Sorry, Leon," he apologized, nodding in sympathetic understanding. "I can understand that you're tired, but that was the Chief Inspector on the phone, and she wants to see you in her office. Now."

****

The double doors banged open, the chill outdoor air flooding into the archery range building's front foyer with a hissing rush of breeze. The damp, cold air seemed to settle over the room like a shroud as Bert strode through the doors, a bleak, depressed expression riding his features. The doors swung shut behind him as he reached up, and pulled off his wide-brimmed hat, absently brushing his hair out of his eyes.

He stood for a moment, staring at nothing in particular, then his face contorted into a disgusted, angry look for a moment, and he pitched his hat with a muttered curse at the coatrack on the wall nearby. The spinning hat smacked into the rack's edge, and dropped to the floor. His long, black duster coat followed a moment later, flailing through the air until it hit the rack, somehow catching on a couple of the coathooks and hanging on them in a disorderly fashion that somehow was reminiscent of a body sprawled lifelessly on the ground.

It was a fitting metaphor, he gloomily reflected, turning and slowly trudging up the stairs to the second floor of the building; given the aftermath of his remarks to Nene, he felt like he'd shot and left for dead.

After the red-headed ADP officer had re-emerged from the bathroom, she hadn't spoken to him except for the barest minimum number of words necessary to ask him to get some breakfast ready while she changed into her uniform. After that, she'd been even more stoic, ignoring his stammering attempt at an apology, and giving him a cold shoulder that made dry ice seem hot by comparison. She'd kept a thick barrier of silence between them all through breakfast, and on the drive to the ADP building. After she'd gotten out of the car, she'd informed him that she'd be getting home on her own that night. Without even saying good-bye, she'd walked off into the HQ building. He'd watched her go helplessly, unable to think of anything to say to her that would...

That would what?! he irritably snarled at himself. That would magically make everything better?! It was too late, the damage had been done; she'd already been distraught over nearly getting killed by the boomer, and his blunt, unflattering appraisal of her hadn't helped any.

Given her emotional state he should have realized that she'd been looking for comfort of some kind. He hadn't provided it; instead, he'd managed to put his foot in his mouth, and he'd hurt her at the same time by being honest. He sighed again, cursing himself with every word in his vocabulary as he came to the top of the stairs; the only certain thing in the whole mess was that Nene wasn't going to be speaking to him anytime soon. His face twisted briefly in inner torment at that thought, and he quickly yanked his mind away from the subject.

He was unable to stop dwelling on it, however. As he walked down the hallway towards the lounge, his mind morbidly kept replaying the image of the hurt and angry expression that had appeared on Nene's face as he'd tried to explain his inopportune remark. The memory was like burning coals eating into him; he would have given anything he possessed at that moment to have been able to recall his words.

Nene's retort to his remarks had been equally as painful to him, and totally unexpected. Okay, sure, she'd expressed misgivings before over his 'shining armoured knight' ideals, but it was the first time she'd ever .... ever intimated that it might be more than just misgivings. Part of his mind tried to dismiss her remarks as being fueled by anger and hurt, and not to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, another part of his mind was unable to just dismiss them, and kept analyzing them to try and see if there was any justification for her observation.

He opened the door to the lounge and stepped in, casting an unhappy glance around the room; everything looked normal. With a deep sigh, he went about making a pot of tea while part of his mind continued to probe through his soul, analyzing what it found.

Was he just trying to fit himself into an ancient, glorified image? While in some respects it might have been true at the beginning of his career as SkyKnight, it was definitely not the case now.

He was honest enough to admit to himself that in the beginning, it had been an ego trip of sorts, flitting heroically around the city, defending the public from the evil depredations of rogue boomers. He had gotten carried away with the armoured knight image, and hadn't really thought seriously about certain harsh realities associated with the job the Knight Sabers did. He'd been dangerously blind to them in fact, and had suffered the consequences: more injuries than he could comfortably count anymore, and a rather rude awakening to just how corrupt things were, and how cold and unforgiving the rest of the world really was.

The results were that most of his idealism had been burned out of him, leaving him cynical, and occasionally bitter. There was still a faint shred of it inside of him, somewhere, that faint longing for a better world, and the belief that somehow he'd be able to make it come about. At least, he hoped it was still there; he'd been through so much that he wasn't really sure anymore.

There were some aspects of his character that were inseparable from his chivalric ideals, his sense of honour being the first and foremost of those. It had gotten him into more trouble than he cared to think about, but it was just the way he was. A wry smirk briefly appeared as he recognized that the existence of his honourable leanings confirmed that he hadn't lost all of his idealism. At the moment, he needed whatever cheering thoughts he could get.

Sighing again, he poured himself a mug of tea, and sat down on the couch, absently pulling a novel from the nearby wall bookshelf at the same time. He sat for a while, aimlessly paging through the book without really reading it, sipping his drink. After a few minutes, his face again flashed disgust, and he irritably pitched the book onto the coffee table. Setting his cup aside, he put his feet up on the table, and leaned back, lacing his fingers together behind his head.

He sat like that for a few minutes more, a black expression on his face as he scowled at the ceiling. With a growled curse, he abruptly sprang to his feet, and started pacing; he had to find something to do now, or else he was going to snap. He didn't feel up to archery, and he really wasn't in the right frame of mind to play in the shop. His mood wasn't going to make him the most sociable person in the world right now, either. Damn it, he needed to do something.... anything!!

A dull thump, and a muffled, pained outcry of some kind sounded through the walls, just barely audible. Bert froze in mid-step, listening intently, but the sound didn't repeat itself. He eased over to the door to the lounge, opened it a crack, and peered cautiously around the door into the hall. Seeing nothing, he eased the door open a bit further, and stealthily slipped out into the hallway.

He carefully crept down the corridor, keeping his back to the wall, moving towards the next door down, the door to one of the exercise rooms. As he moved along, his mind raced; could it be an intruder? He didn't think so, since none of the burglar alarms had gone off. Of course, someone who knew what they were doing could easily bypass computerized security systems; technology was not foolproof. Nene could have circumvented the building systems blindfolded. He quickly squelched that thought, and focused on what he was doing.

He reached the door, and carefully reached out, grasping the door handle. He waited a moment longer, listening, and he thought he could hear....someone crying?! He listened a bit more, one eyebrow unconsciously quirking upwards. Now who the hell could that be, especially given that it was still pretty early in the morning? Slowly turning the handle, he eased the door past the point where the latching mechanism would catch, and let the door swing quietly open.

Stepping softly through the door, Bert swept a searching gaze across the room; all the equipment was the way he'd left it, with everything in its place. His eyes tracked across the room, and came to rest on a familiar-seeming young woman with long brown hair who was awkwardly trying to get back to her feet from a semi-kneeling position. She appeared to be having problems with her left leg; both of her hands had a clenched grip on it at about knee level, as if she was trying to keep it from folding on her as she stood up. He could hear her breath hissing with the effort she was exerting, as if she had her teeth clenched together.

Bert frowned as he finally recognized the woman as Priss, and started quietly walking towards her. It suddenly struck him as odd that she'd decided to come in by herself.

Priss unsteadily straightened up, weaving a bit. As she released the clenched grip she'd had on it, her injured leg folded, and she toppled backwards to the mats, a strangled cry of pain and frustration being torn from her. Bert was across rest of the room before even being conscious of having physically taken the steps. As he came up to her, he noted that there were tear streaks down her cheeks, and there was an expression on her face somewhere between total despair and frustrated fury. Her head jerked up as he approached, and she flushed, angrily scrubbing an arm across her face, trying to dry it off. She glared hotly at him as he came over to her, starting to reach down to help her up.

"Get the hell away from me!" she spat, slapping his hand away. "I don't need any help! I'm fine!" Angry moisture gathered at the corners of her eyes again, and she wiped it away furiously, only to have more leak out.

"Bullshit," he replied levelly. He ignored the way she stiffened and tried to get loose from him as he grabbed her one arm, looping it around his shoulder while bending down, and then put his other arm around her. Straightening up, he easily lifted Priss to a standing position once more.

"I SAID leave me ALONE!!" she snarled, yanking her arm from around his shoulder, and shoving him away at the same time. The motion overbalanced her, however, and her weakened leg gave out again. Priss started to topple over backwards, a pained cry escaping her lips, but Bert immediately snagged her again, managing to get around behind her to catch her before she could hit the mats. He gently scooped her up, and carried her over to a side bench.

He carefully lowered her to the bench, sat next to her, and then gave her a tender hug. Priss sat stonily for a few moments, as if ignoring him completely, then, almost grudgingly, briefly hugged him back. She lifted her head, her eyes meeting his for a moment. At seeing his concerned look, she flushed, and pulled away from him slightly. He didn't try to stop her, but reached around and grabbed a nearby towel, wordlessly handing it to her.

Priss flushed again, and almost angrily snatched the towel from his grasp, scrubbing fiercely at her face, trying to clear away any evidence of the fact that she'd been crying earlier. Bert continued to watch quietly, still not saying anything, worry and concern flashing in a whirling tide through his greenish-brown eyes. If Priss was aware of his feelings, she wasn't giving any indications of it; in fact, she was steadfastly refusing to meet his gaze. An oppressive silence fell over the room as Priss pitched the towel down the length of the bench. It hit the bench end, then flopped limply off of it to the floor.

The red-brown eyed singer folded her arms across her chest in a defensive gesture, and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees, trying to appear indifferent. Instead of making her appear unaffected, however, it made her look isolated and lonely. Her expression was more contained and emotionless than it had been a few minutes ago, but Bert could still see lingering traces of depression in her face. After a couple of minutes of smothering silence, he finally got sick of being ignored, and cleared his throat; the young woman sitting next to him didn't even acknowledge that she'd heard him, but stared off into space, brooding.

"Want to talk about it?" he asked quietly.

"No." Priss didn't even change expression, and didn't look at him.

"Come on, Priss. You expect me to believe you're okay after what I just saw?" Bert shook his head. "I don't buy it; something is obviously bothering you, a lot, if it can make you break down crying. I...."

"I said I don't want to talk about it!!" she half-snarled, hands balling into fists as she swiveled towards him. Bitter fury burned brightly in her eyes. "Mind your own goddamn business!!"

"This is my business," he replied calmly. "We're friends, remember? I want to help. Please."

"I don't want help!" she spat angrily. "Get lost, and leave me alone!"

"I can't, and I'm not going to," he replied, irritation starting to show through the veneer of concerned calm he had in place. "If I was even slightly inclined to leave, I'd at least like to know what the problem is, first." Priss didn't respond, but turned away from him again, her lips compressing into a thin, bitter line as she stared out across the exercise room.

"It's about your leg, isn't it?" he asked suddenly. She didn't reply, but he caught the merest flicker of something as it flashed across her face, and noted that her body suddenly seemed to become taut as a coiled spring. That was all he needed to confirm his suspicions.

"Afraid it's not going to heal completely?" he asked quietly. "Maybe you should see a specialist ab...."

"SHUT UP!!!" she shrieked abruptly, catching him by surprise. Bert jerked backwards, startled, as a backhanded slap whistled by his face. He grabbed Priss's arms as she tried to hit him again, looking into her anger-contorted face; her teeth were clenched together in fury, but there was an anguished look in her eyes, almost one of frantic denial. She tried to pull loose from his grasp, but he grimly held on.

"Priss?! What the...."

"I'm fine!!!" Priss snarled defiantly, although there was a hint of desperation in her declaration. She struggled against his grip on her arms as she continued, "I don't need to see anyone!! I'm fine!! It's healing, you hear?! I...I..." Bright tears suddenly were streaming from her eyes. "I...I...I'm ....fine..." She started crying, still trying to pull away from him. Sighing, he pulled her closer and gathered her up in a hug; she stiffened, trying to shove back from him, but he held on tightly. She finally gave up and slumped against him, sobbing quietly. Bert continued to quietly hold her, trying to offer some solace by his presence.

They sat like that for another few minutes, until Priss managed to pull herself together again. Bert pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her; she took it, and again wiped her face dry with it, sniffling only slightly as she sat a bit straighter, putting a slight gap between them. He ignored the hint, and kept one arm gently around her shoulders.

"Why didn't you say something about it sooner?" Bert asked quietly. "If I recall correctly, you're the one who told me, several times, not to hide from problems."

"That's different," she replied in a low voice.

"'Do what I say, not what I do'?" Bert quoted, shaking his head. "Seems like a bit of a double standard to me."

"You're not the one looking at the possibility of being..." Priss faltered a bit, then swallowed and forced the words out. "Being crippled for the rest of your life."

"You're not going to be crippled," he told her fiercely. "You're blowing this all out of proportion; just because your leg isn't healing as fast as you'd like doesn't mean that it's going to develop into a permanent disability."

"Oh yeah?" she retorted, wiping at her eyes. "And just what makes you such an expert?"

"Experience," he replied soberly. "Trust me, I know what having to wait for something to heal feels like; it never goes as fast as you'd like it to, no matter how minor it may have seemed at the time. Please, stop worrying so much."

"I can't help it," she muttered. "It hurts most of the time now... and... and..." She faltered a bit, swallowing as her eyes began brimming again. "I....I....I'm scared; I don't want to spend the rest of my life in pain, and crippled because of it," she said in a low voice. "I.... I just couldn't handle it."

"Are you sure part of it isn't just psychological?" he asked. "You're so sure that it's not healing, that it could be mostly in your mind. As for pain," he shrugged, "that can be endured."

"What's that supposed to mean, 'it can be endured'?! How the hell would you know?!"

"Because, I've been living with it for a while now," he told her quietly. "Remember when the HeadHunter speared me through the shoulder and chest?"

"I'm not likely to forget something like that," she replied, a trifle dryly. Having one of her friends laying in her lap, bleeding heavily, was not an experience she was anxious to repeat. She'd felt an awful horror at the time, sure that he was dying right there in front of her.

"Well, supposedly, it's one hundred percent healed," he told her, carefully flexing his left arm, and rotating the shoulder. "I've been to a few specialists, and they've all said the same thing. Despite that, it's still painful at times, almost like it's still torn up inside. There's no physically detectable reason for that to be the case, but it still hurts occasionally." He shrugged again. "I've learned to live with it; I hardly notice it anymore, but it's there."

"Oh." Priss looked uncomfortable, and sat silently after his revelation, uncertain of what to say. She shifted a bit on the bench, and stared at the floor, her mind going over their conversation. There was a possibility he was right, but...she didn't want to go see a doctor, only to have her fears confirmed, and find out that she was going to have a painful handicap for the rest of her life. That thought scared her like nothing else ever had before.

"You've got nothing to be afraid of," Bert spoke up quietly, almost as if he was reading her mind. She realized that he was, more or less; their personalities had enough similar quirks that he could probably predict fairly accurately what her state of mind was like. "I know it's scary," he continued, "but trust me, you've got to get it looked at. I'm sure Sylia can direct you to some good, discreet, orthopedic physicians; all you have to do is ask. Okay?" He reached out and tilted her chin up in order to look into her eyes. "Okay?" he repeated. She nodded slowly.

"All right," she replied, sighing in resignation. "I'll go this afternoon. Satisfied?"

"A little," he smiled briefly, then became serious. "If you don't mind my asking, why'd you come in here by yourself? Couldn't Sylvie come in with you?"

"I didn't want anyone else around," she mumbled. "I don't enjoy falling on my face in front of an audience. I've been coming in by myself for a while now, trying to get my damn leg back into shape."

"Wait a minute," Bert interrupted, frowning. "Linna's been giving you rehab sessions, right?"

"Right."

"And you've been coming in here, by yourself, and working out with your leg on top of that?"

"Yeah. So what's wrong with that?" she queried, wondering why he was frowning. Bert rolled his eyes, shaking his head and putting a hand over his face, sighing deeply. He looked at the ceiling as if praying for guidance.

"Hey, what's with you?" she prodded him, giving him a quizzical look.

"You've been overdoing it, that's what part of your problem is," he told her, sighing and shaking his head again. "Priss, the ONLY exercise you were supposed to be doing was the rehab sessions; they're meant to gradually condition your muscles and bring them back to normal strength. By doing all that extra exercise, you haven't been giving it a chance to heal. You're your own worst enemy sometimes, you know that?"

"I didn't have a choice," she said tightly. "I've got to get this leg back into shape, and I figured exercising it would help."

"Why? What's the rush?" he inquired. "It's not like we've had a lot to do lately." Priss didn't reply, her expression turning tight. She turned away from him slightly, folding her arms across her chest, a look of anguish crossing her features. Bert squeezed her shoulder gently, reassuringly. "Priss?"

"My...band has a concert in almost three weeks," she said quietly. "We've been practicing a bit, but with my leg the way it is, I can't get up on stage. If..." She swallowed, starting to tremble a bit, then clamped some ironclad control on herself, forcing her voice to remain steady. "If...if I can't ... perform by the concert date, then ... they're going to have to find someone else to sing lead for the concert." Bert wordlessly hugged her again, and this time she hugged him back immediately, seeking reassurance in the warmth of their embrace.

"You won't have to worry about that happening," he told her, giving her a brotherly squeeze. "If you get your leg looked at, and take it easy in the interim, I'm sure you'll be fine."

"I sure hope so," she replied morosely, sitting up and pulling away from him. Singing was one of her great joys, and losing that on top of everything else would be an awful blow. She suddenly looked lost and alone as she sat there contemplating her future.

Almost before he realized he was doing it, Bert reached out, tilting her chin up gently with his hand, leaning forwards while pulling her a bit closer at the same time, and softly kissed Priss on the lips. She twitched in surprise, but didn't... quite ...withdraw. It felt kind of nice, actually, sparking some kind of a warm glow in the back of her mind. Almost of their own accord, her lips responded to his, and her arms came up, sliding around him in a hug.

After what seemed like a long moment or so, he pulled back, and she flushed a deep red colour, releasing him hurriedly, suddenly feeling embarrassed and awkward for some strange reason. He appeared to be in a similar state, turning a bright crimson colour, quickly looking away from her.

"I, um, I'm sure everything will be fine," he told her, flushing again. "Just, uh, don't do overdo it anymore, okay?" He quickly retreated before she could do anything to stop him, and fled the room. Priss watched him go from where she sat on the bench, her mind falling all over itself as she tried to sort out exactly what it was she was feeling.

****

Kate Madigan looked up from her desk as a timid knock at the office door proclaimed that someone had business with her. With an irritated sigh, the lavender-haired exec closed the file she'd been poring over, and leaned back in her chair, looking around the room for an idle instant. The knock sounded again.

"Enter," she called evenly. The door swung open a couple of feet, and a young woman with short brown hair, wearing a neat, light grey business suit and glasses peered cautiously around the door's edge. "Yes?" Madigan asked, a touch of impatience in her tone, her blue-grey eyes spearing the luckless woman with a frigid glance. "What is it? You know I'm not to be disturbed when examining security files."

"I...I'm sorry Ma'am, but these reports just came in, and they all have a top level security priority," the young secretary stammered. "You told us that any reports of this nature were to be forwarded to you immediately." Madigan's foreboding look vanished at the news, and she gestured. The young woman came over to her desk, handed her the thick bundle of file folders, bowed, and quickly left the room. Madigan thoughtfully shuffled through the folders as the door quietly closed behind her secretary.

She selected the thinnest folder first, and started reading. It turned out to be a transcript of the ADPolice reports on the boomer rampages of the night before, combined with the technical reports on how their latest boomers had performed. The biomechanoids had performed flawlessly, with an apparent increase in combat efficiency of about 35% overall in comparison to the older combat models. Quite acceptable.

She idly paged through the ADP report, not really paying attention to the details, since they were really powerless to do anything against them anyway; keeping them underfunded and ill-equipped saw to that quite effectively. As she flipped through it, however, the name 'SkyKnight' seemed to leap out at her, and she began reading more closely. As she read the details of SkyKnight's encounter with the K-17s, a slow, almost triumphant smile began to spread across her face.

"So, it's finally beginning to get to you, is it?" she muttered to herself. "Excellent; it will make destroying the Knight Sabers that much easier." She set the report aside; the Chairman would be interested in that one, if for no other reason than it appeared that one of the Knight Sabers was not acting in a normal fashion. That indicated the possibility that the group was having some internal problems, something they might be able to exploit in order to completely destroy them. Still smiling to herself at the thought, she picked up the other file folder she'd been given.

It turned out to be the report on some strange goings on that had happened north of the city. A little over two weeks ago, a massive explosion had leveled part of a nature reserve, and subsequent investigation of the site had revealed that there had actually been a hidden operations base of some kind in the middle of the devastation. Naturally, finding a secret facility of any kind brought suspicion onto GENOM, and they'd been forced into proving they had not had anything to do with the ruined base. It hadn't been very hard, especially since, for once, they hadn't been involved.

Quincy had used the opportunity to have GENOM's own specialists examine the site, and they'd come back with the conclusions that the hidden base had been a combination of a secret research development facility and a military staging base. From the completeness of the destruction, it was their conclusion that a weapons explosion had taken place. Despite going over everything with the equivalent of fine-toothed combs, their specialists hadn't been able to give any leads as to who the former proprietors of the base were, or any other useful information.

Madigan shuffled to the back of the file folder, and removed a datadisk; it had been her idea to check back on some of the routine observation satellite data for that area from the last several weeks. While GENOM had access to almost all of the spy satellites in orbit around the Earth, only some of them were used regularly, like the ones used to keep an eye on major cities. Some of the outlying areas received only occasional scrutiny, since it was generally held that nothing important happened outside of MegaTokyo proper, anyway.

She pressed a button on her desktop, and a viewing projection screen slid silently out of the ceiling above her desk. The disk slid into a slot next to the control panel, and a few seconds later, the spy satellite footage began to scroll across the screen.

As she perused the observation photos, Madigan idly mused that they were going to have to revise their opinions of the outlying wilderness regions. Judging by some of the details in the collection of sporadically-taken pictures, there were definitely strange things afoot out there.

The most obvious change to the area in question was a well-concealed road that had been built leading to a small clearing with a hill in the middle. Although it was obvious that the road builders had taken great pains to make the track blend in with the surroundings when viewed from above, the swath it cut through the forests was unmistakable. Pictures from a time index of several weeks later showed the heat traces from vehicles using the road at night, but it was the last few images in the data set that captured Madigan's attention.

The first one showed a large plume of orange-red flames billowing out from a concealed entrance in the hill. Enlargement of the image showed the silhouetted shapes of debris, and a few twisted humanoid shapes caught in the fringes of the blast. The next image, taken several minutes later, showed another plume of flames being volleyed forth from the hill again, but this time in the middle of the conflagration was a dark mass of some kind; image enhancement showed the sleek, streamlined shape of an armoured attack helicopter. The airship was obviously fleeing the base as it exploded, and Madigan had to admire the construction of the ship if nothing else; it looked like a mean piece of hardware.

The final image in the set was what really interested her. In it, the hill was gone, completely. In its place was a raging pit of flames and smoke that illuminated the surrounding area with a smoky, orange-tinted glow. As she zoomed in on the devastated base, some faint detail at the edge of the clearing caught her eye. Frowning, she focused the viewer on that spot, and hit the image amplification again.

Immediately, a dark, streamlined silhouette of a jet aircraft of some kind became visible, just at the edge of the forested clearing. Off to the side of the dark ship were the faint outlines of sleek, armoured shapes. Madigan's frown became even more intense as she played with the image enhancement and contrast controls. The picture finally became recognizable.

She was looking at the Knight Sabers.

Madigan sat back in her chair, thoughtfully assessing the picture on the screen. It was very definitely the group of hardsuited mercenaries that had been plaguing GENOM's concerns for some time now. Whatever had happened, it looked like they'd come out second best this time: of the four women, only two were upright. The white and green Knight Sabers were carrying their blue armoured comrade towards the waiting ship, and a few feet away, a red, white, and pink hardsuited figure was laying on the ground. The entire group looked battered and beaten-up, not at all.....wait a second!

Madigan scanned around the picture again intently; no, she was not mistaken. There were only four Knight Sabers in the picture; SkyKnight didn't appear to be in attendance for this outing. She briefly considered the possibility that he was in the ship, but then dismissed the idea. Given his annoying chivalric ideals, SkyKnight would have been assisting in moving the wounded, not sitting in the ship. The fact that one of the injured women appeared to be the one he had strong feelings for, based on their observations of him, made that possibility even less likely. No, for some reason, the silver-garbed hardsuit had not been there. Why not? It was definitely something to look into.

Madigan quickly gathered up the scattered data files, and hardcopied the photo images she was interested in. After her report to The Chairman, she had a lot of work to do...

****

The door to the office banged open noisily, as a tall, brown-haired man burst through, impatience and agitation visible in his every movement. At the clamour, the attractive, slender-looking woman seated behind the large desk dominating the office looked up from the paperwork sprawled in front of her, anger flaring in her aquamarine-coloured eyes at the abrupt intrusion.

"Okay, Chief," Leon said, coming over to stand in front of the desk, looking down at her. "What the hell is it this time?"

The Chief Inspector rose to her full five-foot-five height, her long, straight red hair falling to hang behind her, reaching to the mid-point of her back. The immaculate, dark blue ADP uniform she wore did little to cloak the impression of energy and authority that radiated from her trim frame, and there was no mistaking the snap of anger in her blue-green eyes as she glared up at Leon.

"McNichol," Chief Inspector Hitomi Ichinohei's normally calm and controlled voice cracked across the confined space of her office. "I don't give a damn what kind of night you had yesterday, that's no excuse for just barging in here, ignoring proper protocol, and being insubordinate. Am I making myself perfectly clear?" She stared up evenly at the taller police officer, not intimidated in the slightest by the glowering look he gave her back. She'd cleared a lot of hurdles to reach her current position, and no disgruntled junior inspector was going to faze her. She watched as the brown haired officer visibly smoothed his mood out.

"I'm sorry, Chief Ichinohei," he apologized, running a hand through his hair, mussing it up. "I'm just ....still sore over losing some good men last night."

"I know," her gaze softened slightly, and she sighed. "I don't like losing them either." She motioned for him to sit down, and she sank back into her own seat, giving him an appraising glance as he sprawled in the spare chair across from her. His normally clear blue eyes were bloodshot with dark circles under them, and his clothes looked like he'd slept in them. A faint smile appeared briefly.

"You look like hell," she told him bluntly. "Why didn't you take today off? Nobody would have faulted you for it."

"Too much to do," he replied wearily. "I've got about five different reports to finish, including the one on last night's rampage. I've also got some ongoing investigations that need to be seen to." He sighed. "As attractive as a day off sounds, I just can't afford it right now."

"Fine, but if you push yourself too much, you're going to be getting a holiday, whether you want it or not," she warned him. "We can't afford to have anyone on this force not at their best, especially not now. Clear?" Leon sighed again and nodded, smothering the irritated expression that appeared.

"So was this a social call, or was there something important?" he asked a moment later, masterfully suppressing a yawn. "I have got some things to do."

"I'd say it's important," she replied. "Given what happened last night, there's been some old questions re-awakened about you."

"Oh really?" Leon frowned. "And just what questions are those?"

"Why you haven't brought in the Knight Sabers whenever you've had the opportunity, and just what your relationship is with them. After what SkyKnight did to our pilots last night, some of the upper levels have started asking questions again." Leon snorted.

"What, the paper-pushers don't have anything better to do than to start that again?" he inquired sourly. "There isn't any relationship; I've run into them several times, that's all. SkyKnight's the only one I've ever talked with, and he's not very forthcoming. The rest of the group ignores me." The Chief Inspector nodded thoughtfully.

"I believe you," she told him, "but the fact still remains that you're the officer on scene most of the time whenever they do show, and the fact that you haven't even once tried to arrest them has fed all kinds of speculation." Leon stared disbelievingly at her.

"And just how," he asked, anger beginning to grow, "am I supposed to arrest four women and one man who walk around in powered personal body armour that lets them bench-press boomers as if they were paperweights?! The K-12AT suits might, I say MIGHT, have lasted a few seconds against them if we'd tried to arrest them, but our current equipment is a joke! They wouldn't even break a sweat battling the K-17. Hell, they could laugh at it and it'd fall apart!!" Leon ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "I can't believe that we're actually trying to arrest them anyway. They've got the only weaponry around that's capable of taking out boomers, and they're doing it as a public service, for God's sake!!"

"They're mercenaries," the Chief Inspector replied thinly, a cold edge of hardness apparent in her voice. "It doesn't matter whether or not they're a help; they're unlawfully operating criminals, with very illegal weaponry. It's our duty to bring them in."

"Oh really?!" Leon snorted. "Why? So GENOM can seize their suits and build better boomers with them?! I don't believe this!! Okay, fine, so they've got hot hardware; so WHAT?! I could see the concern it if they were bloodthirsty psychopaths or something, but they've been helping to keep a lid on this godforsaken, boomer-infested, stinking rathole of a city!!" His voice was unconsciously increasing in volume as he spoke. "So what if they operate outside the law?!" he snarled. "At least they can goddamn DO something useful, instead of generate red tape, paperwork, and BULLSHIT!!"

"Are you finished?" the red-haired woman behind the oak desk inquired icily. "If you are, then I'd like to point out that you are a public servant, sworn to uphold the law, regardless of your personal views. Laws are there for the protection of society; the system may not be perfect, but we can't let somebody just flaunt the law because it's inconvenient. If one person gets away with it, pretty soon someone else will try it, and before long we'd have anarchy running riot everywhere." She stared levelly into Leon's eyes, driving her point home. "The Knight Sabers are vigilantes, and it is our job to bring them in because they're breaking the law. They may not be a direct danger to society, yet, but if we continue to allow them to operate unimpeded, they may become one."

"Well, I don't believe it," Leon muttered.

"I don't particularly care what you believe," she snapped back, aquamarine eyes flashing irritation at his recalcitrance. "This is a direct order: you WILL attempt to bring the Knight Sabers in at the next available opportunity. Am I making myself clear?"

"Perfectly," Leon retorted sourly. "But I'm telling you right now, it won't work. We'd need better equipment first."

Silence dropped across the office as the Chief Inspector and her older subordinate officer stared across the desk at each other. She was a good officer, he mused to himself, if a bit too much of a hard-nosed disciplinarian at times. There was no nonsense about her; she was direct and honest in her dealings with the officers under her command, and she expected the same in return. The fact that she was willing to go to bat for her officers if necessary, and had done so several times, had quickly silenced the few mutters of criticism that had been floating around the offices.

A lot of those disaffected rumblings had been because a woman had been appointed to the Chief Inspectorship. The fact that she was also younger than most veterans of the force had implied a lack of experience, and many people harped incessantly on that fact, complaining that the brass playing political games was the only reason she'd been promoted. A few of the nastier rumours had even been to the effect that she'd slept around to get where she was. The propagators of those particular rumours hadn't been tolerated for long, though, and had been told rather pointedly by several people, some with a fair bit of rank, to shut up.

Leon had not been one of the whiners, even though he'd been one of the more senior officers passed up for the chance at a promotion. He'd been around long enough to be able to see that her ability was genuinely there, and had recognized the fact that she'd make a good Chief, a much better one than him, or a lot of the other candidates, in fact. He'd also realized that he was quite happy where he was, and didn't really want a promotion. Well, not to the Chief's position, anyway.

The new chief hadn't let on that she'd known about the slight dissension in the ranks, but had quickly and efficiently straightened out the department, brooking no nonsense from the complainers. Those who hadn't been able to adapt to having her in command had transferred elsewhere within the ADP. While the level of bureaucracy and paperwork in the office hadn't decreased any, things were definitely running more smoothly.

"McNichol," her voice jerked him out of the slight fog that he'd started to drift into. He looked over at her, blinking and trying to clear his mind. Hitomi looked slightly rueful, a smile flickering over her face. "There's one more thing I need to discuss, and then I think you'd better go home; you're dozing off where you sit."

"And that is?" he asked, forcing himself to concentrate.

"Why are you using the department's resources for personal uses?"

"Personal uses?" he echoed. What was she talking about? She nodded, red hair waving slightly as she picked up a file folder.

"You've been charming the secretaries in the Records division into checking out a certain 'Bert Van Vliet', according to my information," she replied. "And you've been running some other probes into his past, I understand. Why?"

Leon jumped guiltily, startled. He'd thought he'd been able to keep his checking on Nene's boyfriend fairly quiet. Evidently not, given the stern glance the Chief was leveling at him.

"Uh, well, er, I, uh...." What the hell could he say? All he had were vague suspicions that the man was involved with something....something not quite right. The problem was that he was lacking anything resembling even partial hard evidence of anything.

"Well?" she asked impatiently, drumming her fingers on the desktop. "I'm waiting."

"Well, you see, I'd been curious about this guy," Leon started awkwardly. "It struck me as strange that Nene had suddenly turned up sick. When I thought back a bit further, it seemed like she was always getting these unexplainable injuries..."

"You thought he was abusing her," the Chief stated quietly, leaning back in her chair. Leon nodded.

"That's what I thought at the time," he replied. The tall, brown-haired inspector quickly explained his concerns, and what he had, or hadn't been able to find. "The guy doesn't have any past records, and it struck me as kind of funny." She gave him a strange look.

"No past records?" she repeated, arching an eyebrow. "What, twenty-eight years of data not enough for you?"

"What?!"

"Take a look," she invited, tossing the file folder she was holding across the desk to him. "It's all there," she told him. "Twenty-eight years of personal files. Public school, high school, university degrees, health records, job histories and so forth. Just how much detail were you trying for?" Leon looked up from the file to the Chief, his face a study in bewilderment.

"But this wasn't here a few days ago!" he blurted. "None of it was!! The oldest record I could find was three years old!!" He shuffled through the file a bit more, still not quite believing what he was seeing. There was no way he could have missed all the information sitting in front of him; he'd been incredibly thorough. He frowned as he paged through the file, noticing something funny, then looked over at his superior officer.

"There's no records on his birthplace or country of origin," he noted. She nodded.

"You'll also notice that there's a letter of explanation why," she pointed out. "All his original documents were lost in the 2025 quake; that's why everything in there is a computer transcript."

"Well, wasn't that convenient," Leon muttered to himself, scowling at the file in front of him. While that had happened to a lot of people's records, he just didn't buy it. Not in this case.

"Yes, it was, wasn't it?" she agreed expressionlessly. Leon's gaze snapped up to meet hers.

"Then you think he's hiding something as well?" he inquired hopefully. The red-haired woman across from him sighed.

"Based on what you've said so far, it does look a little 'too perfect'," she admitted, "but other than your suspicions, there's no real reason that I can see to keep investigating this guy." Her gaze narrowed as Leon opened his mouth to speak, then hesitated, looking uncertain suddenly. "What is it now?"

"Well, I didn't quite tell you everything earlier," Leon confessed, swallowing nervously. The Chief's expression turned stormy as she waited for him to continue. "I, uh, checked out the address listed as his permanent residence," Leon told her, sighing. "Nobody's lived there in weeks; the place looks like it's been broken into and ransacked. If he's not living there, then he's hiding for some reason."

"Anything else you 'forgot' to add?" she queried in an acid tone, although her face now had a thoughtful look. The brown-haired inspector nodded.

"I found rifle cartridge casings spread through the grass behind his house," he said quietly. "Forensics is going to be examining them when they get a chance to see if they match up with any weapons we know about." Silence cloaked the office again as he finished speaking. Chief Ichinohei sat thoughtfully behind her desk, her fingers steepled together in front of her face, considering the information.

"It does sound suspicious," she finally conceded reluctantly. A relieved smile started to spread across Leon's face, but it stopped when the Chief added, "Despite that, however, we're just going to have to let it lay."

"What?!" Leon burst out. "But this guy's up to something!! I know it!! The whole setup stinks of something wrong!! He's...."

"And you haven't got any proof!!" she snapped back, her voice overriding his with an authoritative tone that brooked no dissent. "The closest thing you've got to evidence is inadmissible, because you were on his property without a warrant!! Now let the goddamn matter drop, and quit wasting department time on it!! Do you understand me?!"

"But...oh, all right," he muttered irritably, looking sour. "I won't waste any more department time on him. Happy?"

"For now," she replied dryly. "Where you're concerned, though, it's usually a very short term feeling." She waved a hand towards the door. "Go on; go home and get some sleep. We'll call if there's an emergency." The tall inspector nodded wearily, not bothering to summon up the energy to reply to her quip. He heaved himself out of the chair, and slowly made his way to the door, opening it, and stepping out into the office area again, missing completely the coolly appraising glance that Hitomi gave him.

Once he was outside of the Chief Inspector's office, a grimly smug smile passed across the blue-eyed inspector's visage for a moment; no, he wasn't going to use anymore department time for his inquiries. What he did on his time off was his own concern. Whatever was going on, he was going to get to the bottom of it.

Straightening his jacket and adjusting his gun in its holster, he started striding across the office, the thought of getting some sleep shoving all his other concerns aside for the moment. He was passing the secretarial area when one of the duty sergeants hailed him.

"Hey!! McNichol!! Wait up a second!!" Leon turned as a short, stocky man with iron-grey hair, dark brown eyes, and a leathery-looking face charged towards him, waving a file folder.

"What's up, Takagi?" Leon asked when the sergeant puffed over to him. The older man handed him the file folder, wheezing while trying to catch his breath.

"This," Takagi gasped, getting control of himself again. "That forensics report you were after. They just finished." Leon nodded acknowledgment, and tucked the folder under his arm; he was too bloody tired right now to try reading it. He was about to turn to go again when the sergeant's hand on his arm stopped him.

"Mind if I ask what happened last night?" he inquired. "I never did hear the details."

"Which part did you want the details on?" Leon replied, a trace of bitterness entering his tone briefly. "The part where we got our asses kicked by the boomers? Or the clean-up afterwards?" The sergeant's gaze turned compassionate for a moment.

"Don't let it get you completely down, Leon," he advised, slapping his shoulder briefly. "These things happen, and we can't do a thing about it. Sucks, I know, but that's the way it is. No, I wanted to know why SkyKnight wasted two of the K-17s. That's not his usual style."

"How the hell should I know?!" Leon snapped, fatigue making him more cantankerous than normal. "I can't read minds, and I've given up trying to predict what Mr. Knight-in Shining-Armour is going to do. I..."

A loud crash from behind them prompted both men to whirl around. A white-faced, red-haired young woman in an ADP uniform was staring at them, a broken coffee mug on the floor at her feet. The dark brown liquid was slowly seeping away, staining the carpeting. The two men stared back at her, perplexed.

"W-what was that?" Nene asked, trying to keep her voice steady. "A-about the K-17s, I mean?" She looked like she'd just seen a ghost, Leon noted, frowning to himself. Come to think of it, Nene hadn't looked good all day, and there'd been some speculation that her illness was coming back. He watched her carefully as he answered.

"Last night SkyKnight wrecked two of our K-17s when they tried to arrest him," he told her. "The pilots are alive, but they're going to be in the hospital for a few days, at least." Absolutely all colour drained from Nene's normally cheery face, giving her an ashen pallor, and Leon quickly jumped forward, concerned, as she seemed to sway a bit. The young red-head caught herself, and stared around blankly at her surroundings.

"I-I-I'm not feeling too good," she stammered in a small voice. "I-I think I'd better go home." She didn't appear to notice Leon, or anyone else as she walked across the office, vanishing down the hallway leading to the stairs to the changerooms.

"What's with her?" Takagi asked from behind him. "You'd think somebody'd just told her that her best friend was an axe-murderer."

That's a very good question, Leon mused to himself. Just what was wrong with Nene? And why had hearing about what had happened to the K-17s prompted that kind of a reaction? He stared thoughtfully down the now-empty hallway, trying to make sense out of yet another piece of the puzzle.

****

"Checkmate," Sylia noted calmly, picking up her teacup and sipping at it. Amusement lurked in the back of her dark brown eyes as she added, "You're improving. It only took me thirty moves this time." She smoothed out her skirt with one hand and settled into her chair contentedly.

Bert pulled away from the chessboard without replying, giving her a sour glance; she met his glance with an innocent expression. Ever since he'd started playing the occasional chess game with Sylia, he'd never been able to escape the feeling that she was secretly laughing up her sleeve at him. He did win, occasionally, but most of the time she outfoxed him easily, besieging his king in an almost insultingly short time. He was beginning to suspect that she let him win, once in a while, just so he wouldn't feel completely outclassed.

He picked up his own mug, taking a slurp of the hot liquid within. He savoured the mouthful for a moment before swallowing it, quietly enjoying the air of friendly companionship that was in the room at the moment. It wasn't exactly why he'd dropped in on Sylia to begin with, but considering how the rest of his day had been, at the moment he was quite willing to take his small pleasures where he could get them. He sighed, setting his mug aside as his conscience prodded him into finally bringing up the subject that had originally been his motivation for stopping by to see her. His sometimes leader was watching him, cradling her own cup in her hands, a knowing look in her eyes as she gazed over at him. He sighed again.

"There's something we need to discuss, Sylia," he told her. "It's in relation to last night. I was going to mention it sooner, but I...got sort of sidetracked." And he hadn't really been in a frame of mind suited for conversation until a few hours ago, a voice in the back of his mind pointed out. Sylia nodded.

"That's all right," she replied. A wry smile appeared. "I know it's not hard to get off-course, especially lately." Bert grinned slightly, then fished a small optical data disk case out of his hip pocket. He set it on the coffee table, and slid it across the slick surface to her.

"That's my flight recorder data," he explained simply. "I think you'd better look at it, especially the stuff from the early part of the mission." Sylia's eyebrow quirked curiously as she reached out and picked up the disk case, thoughtfully turning it around in her fingers.

"Any particular reason for the emphasis on the early stages of the outing?" she asked, cocking her head at him. He nodded, sighing.

"Yeah, there is," he replied, running a hand through his hair in agitation. "That's the time period when I destroyed two ADP armour suits." Sylia froze in disbelief for a moment, surprised.

"Pardon me?" she asked, a touch of her surprise showing in her voice. "When you what?"

"When I destroyed two ADP K-17 armour suits," he repeated, looking old and weary suddenly. "I'd just finished taking care of the boomers when it happened," he told her. "Four new K-17s showed up, and said they had orders to arrest me, although the implication was that they'd have settled for any Knight Saber they could find." He picked up his mug again, and took another slurp. "I was getting ready to fall back and just get the hell out of there, and then IT happened."

"Nene called for help," she guessed.

"Right," he nodded, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, setting the mug down. "She screamed, and I... I started to go and help," he said in a strained-sounding voice. "It was like I wasn't really in control of what my body was doing," he told her. "I seemed to be seeing everything as if it was long-distance, and I was ....afraid I wasn't going to make it in time." He sighed again, a long, drawn-out exhalation, and put his head in his hands, his elbows balanced on his knees and his hands covering his face.

"And then what happened?" she asked, concerned; he didn't appear to have heard her. Sitting up and leaning towards him, she reached out, gently grasping his hands and pulling them away from his face, holding on to them. "Bert? What happened then?" Guilt-ridden greenish-brown eyes looked into hers.

"They grabbed me," he said in a low voice. Sylia felt a lump of ice crystallize in the pit of her stomach, immediately knowing what must have followed. "They grabbed me, and I....struck out. I think part of it was due to my .... 'problem' with being grabbed or hit unexpectedly. It didn't ... I couldn't ... I don't really remember exactly what happened," he admitted, swallowing painfully, "but all I could think about was that I had to get away so I could help Nene. When they grabbed me, everything went kind of blank for a moment or so. I don't even think it took me ten seconds to put two of the K-17s out of the fight. I .... I wasn't trying to kill them, but ... but I wasn't trying not to kill them either. After they were down, I took off before the others could get in on the act."

"I see," she said quietly. Silence fell for a moment. "Why didn't you tell me this sooner? I could have had Nene look into the reasons for the sudden desire to arrest the Sabers while she was at work." She was surprised by the flicker of deep pain that flashed across his face, quickly walled off behind a granite-faced facade.

"I didn't think of it last night because I was worried about Nene. I forgot," he admitted tonelessly. "And then this morning...." His face became tight, and Sylia became more concerned; he looked like he was about to crack under some kind of strain.

"This morning, Nene and I had an...argument," he told her tightly, muscles working in his jaw as it clenched and unclenched. "We....I.... I managed to put my foot in my mouth by telling her that she had to try to forget what had happened, and to..." His voice turned even more stretched-sounding. "And to stop carrying on like a ... little girl. She said a few things back about me.... and she wouldn't talk to me after that. The last time I saw her was when I dropped her off at work. She said....not to bother picking her up after work."

"I see," Sylia repeated slowly. Bert pulled his hands loose from her, picking up his mug, and she sat back, running a hand absently through her blue-black hair. It was not good news. Given the fact that Nene's emotional state was upset at the moment, she could see how inopportune remarks could suddenly escalate into a major offense. She was more concerned, however, with the effects that the spat could have on the red-headed couple. They'd both been relying heavily on each other for caring and support during their respective recoveries, and a prolonged estrangement would not help either of them. In fact, a sudden withdrawal had the potential to make them worse.

As she sat there thinking the matter over quietly, trying to see some way she could perhaps smooth over the ruffled waters, the door to her apartment banged open. She frowned, glancing towards the front end of the apartment, starting to rise from her chair, wondering who it was.

"Sylia? Are you home?" Nene's normally bright-sounding voice called out. "We've got to talk about something." Sylia noted to herself that the young red-haired woman sounded unusually agitated about something.

"In the living room," she called back, standing up. As she stood, she noticed the faintly hopeful look that had appeared on Bert's face. Every line of his posture was tense as he slugged back the last of his drink and stood himself.

Nene entered the living room area from the front foyer of the apartment, moving agitatedly, and fluffing her hair out as she came towards them, head bowed. As she lifted her head, Sylia noted that the young ADP officer's complexion was very pale, as if she was ill.

"Sylia, I just found out..." Nene's voice trailed off as she noticed that Sylia wasn't alone. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw Bert, her eyes widening, filling with a look that was compounded of what looked like horror and disbelief. Sylia felt a chilly, premonitory feeling sweep through her.

"Uh, hi, Nene," he spoke up awkwardly. "How was your....day?" His voice trailed off as she looked at him like he was a complete and total stranger. The chill in Sylia's stomach deepened a bit.

"What are you doing here?" Nene asked, her wide green eyes fixed on him, an incomprehensible mixture of emotions boiling through them.

"I was talking to Sylia," he replied slowly. "I was," he swallowed, flicking a sidelong glance at her, "I was telling her about what happened last night, during the mission, and I.."

"Did you tell her that you attacked the ADP as well?!" she flared suddenly. Bert blinked, taken a little aback by her vehemence.

"Well, yes, I told her, but...."

"Why didn't you tell ME then?!" she asked. "I had to find out at work!" Tears suddenly started gathering at the edges of her luminous eyes, and she folded her arms defensively across her chest. Sylia stood quietly; from the intensity of their gazes, it was like the red-haired couple didn't even know she was there. She restrained the urge to speak up, praying they'd work through it.

"Nene, I didn't have a chance," he protested, spreading his hands pleadingly. "And I didn't attack them! They tried to arrest me, and...."

"You didn't have to nearly kill them!"

"I didn't!! I mean, I didn't try to kill them!! Damn it, you screamed for help, they grabbed me, and I put them down as fast as I could so I could go and help you!! You can't seriously believe I tried to kill them..." His voice trailed off again as he stared into her face. Sylia watched as most of the colour drained from his face, and he looked like he'd just been shot in the guts.

"That's what you think, isn't it?!" he whispered. His voice suddenly gained in strength, moving towards anger, and he started to shake a bit. "You think I TRIED to kill them, don't you?!"

"I don't know what to think anymore," she replied tearfully. "You've changed; you're not the man I fell in love with. You're harder, colder, and...and...and more ruthless." Bert's face went even whiter. "I don't know you," she whispered, tears beginning to track down her face, "and...and I don't think I want to, either." With that, she turned and fled the room, sobbing brokenly.

Deathly silence filled the room as the door slammed behind the departing ADP officer. Sylia was shocked by the expression on Bert's face: utterly bleak, cold, and empty. It was as if every emotion he possessed had been stripped away. They were back suddenly, and his teeth clenched in infuriated anguish as a heartfelt pain blazed in his greenish-brown eyes. His hands clenched into fists at his sides so hard that his knuckles cracked. His body was trembling as he tightly suppressed his emotions, trying to retain control of himself.

"Bert?" Sylia spoke up softly, concerned. She started to move towards him, intending to try and offer some friendship if nothing else, when his eyes turned on her. They were cold and alien-seeming in that instant; Sylia wasn't sure if he recognized her or not at that moment.

"Pardon me," he grated, his voice sounding like it was coming from an unimaginably deep cavern. "I need some air." He brushed past her, slamming the door of the apartment behind him with enough force to rattle some of the pictures on the wall.

The leader of the Knight Sabers slowly walked back to her chair and sat down, trying to figure out just what she was going to do next. From what she'd just seen, things were now much more serious than a mere argument. There was the very distinct possibility that what was happening could splinter the Knight Sabers' organization, and she had to prevent that from coming to pass.

She picked up her teacup, swallowing what was left, grimacing at the combination of the cold liquid's taste, and the unpleasant thoughts swirling through her mind. She'd just set her cup down, when the sudden realization of what he'd meant by 'needing air' struck her.

"Oh Good God, NO!!" she burst out. She jumped out of her chair and ran swiftly across the room. Not even pausing long enough to grab some shoes, the blue-black haired woman charged out of the apartment.

She was too late.

****

Silver armour plates sealed into place with pneumatic hisses as the various interconnecting pieces of the hardsuit locked into place with metallic snaps. There was a final hiss as the suit's interior lining pressurized, molding itself to the body contours of its occupant. Gauntleted hands reached out, picking up a silver helmet with blue antenna wings on the sides, settling it over his head.

His vision was swept by darkness for a moment, then lit up with a bright glow as the suit systems initiated, and the sensors and viewscreen came to life. A welter of brightly flickering symbols and characters scrolled across the screen; status reports. They were only dimly seen, though, as if at the edges of a tunnel. Everything seemed remote, detached, at the moment, as if being viewed from infinitely far away. It had to be that way; he didn't think he could handle the reality of what had happened just now.

SkyKnight checked himself over once more, more from ingrained reflex than conscious thought. He noted, but didn't attach any significance to, the deep ruts and gouges that still marred the hardsuit's smooth chest and shoulder armour plating. His damaged gauntlet and lightsaber array had already been repaired; it was all he'd felt up to at the time, earlier.

He slapped a pair of launchers into his shoulder mounts without really noting what he'd picked up, habit taking over again. It was all that was driving him right now; his mind was numb with a contorted, whirling mix of anger and deep hurt, and he didn't want to have to confront it.

The door slammed closed behind the silver hardsuit as it clanked out into the corridor. An ominous silence drifted over everything as the sounds of SkyKnight's departure penetrated the room from the outside hallway.

****

The phone rang, its jarring notes slashing through the veil of sleep that had mercifully drifted across Leon's mind. Bleary blue eyes glanced at the clock as he jerked upright on the bed. Goddamn it, after a lousy four hours of sleep, they were calling him already. Swearing and wincing at the noise, Leon crawled off the bed, and staggered over to the phone, hitting the 'answer' button. A cheery young woman with black hair and an ADP uniform appeared in the viewscreen.

"Sorry to wake you, Inspector," she apologized. "We know you're tired, but...."

"Just what is it this time?!" Leon asked, scrubbing a hand across his face, trying to shake the heavy, thick feeling that seemed to be firmly settled over him.

"There's a boomer running loose, and we need you to take command of your squad; it's being sent in as reinforcements."

"Fine," Leon sighed, reaching to a side table where his gun and holster sat. "Give me the details."

****

The door to the shop flew open, loudly smacking into the part-strewn work bench situated behind it as a tall, blue-black haired woman burst through, moving swiftly, her pace somewhere between a very rapid walk and a full-out run. Sylia came to a halt, swearing softly to herself as her worried, brown-eyed gaze swept the cluttered disarray of the tech shop. She'd been right, but hadn't realized until too late to be able to do anything. Bert had already left, in his suit, and given his current, probable state of mind, he had no business at all being in his armour.

She swore again, running a hand through her hair agitatedly, mussing it while her mind raced. What was she supposed to do now? There was a massive inherent potential for disaster with an emotionally overwrought SkyKnight sailing around the city. There was only one thing she could really do, she realized finally. Her mouth set in a determined line as she turned and strode rapidly from the shop.

A few minutes later, Sylia stepped into the hardsuit storage room, making some last minute adjustments to her softsuit's fit. Taking a long, deep breath, she pressed the button to deploy the loading ramp containing her hardsuit; the door to the storage bay slid open silently, and the loading boom began to extend out from the wall, a gleaming white suit of powered armour standing waiting on it.

As the suit moved forwards into the room, she again mentally questioned the wisdom of what she was about to do. Unfortunately, she couldn't see a way out of it; she was going to have to go after SkyKnight, if for no other reason than to prevent him from doing something he might later regret. No one else was available at the moment to help her; Linna was at work, conducting rehearsals for a big performance, Priss was still unable to get back into her suit, and Nene was very definitely unfit for any kind of mission right now. It meant she was on her own; having always worked as part of a team, she found it a very unsettling position to be in.

Sylia stepped up to her suit, smoothly getting into it and activating the startup processes. Metallic snaps and clacks sounded in the stillness of the empty room, overlaid with sibilant, pneumatic hissing. She reached down and picked up her helmet, carefully pulling it over her head and settling the contacts into place. There was a brief hum as her hardsuit came on-line. All her systems checked out, and she pounded from the storage room.

Before she could take off in pursuit of the Knight Sabers' knight-errant, though, she had to first find out which way he'd gone. She activated the main computer in the data control room, and quickly patched the machine into the concealed surveillance and detection sensors located on the roof of her building. The sensors were masked inside of what looked like innocuous solar collector panels, and had a pretty good detection range.

After a few brief minutes of tense scanning, the computer flashed a map of MegaTokyo on the main screen. A red blip on the map was moving steadily to the east. After a quick look at the distance readout, she swore again; with his flight system, SkyKnight was already several kilometers away, and it was going to take her some time to catch up to him.

After a last quick glance at the map, the white-hardsuited woman charged out of the computer room, becoming grimly intent on the task at hand.

****

Night shrouded the deserted, derelict construction site with an inky cloak, concealing the gap-faced and decaying buildings. A few assorted construction vehicles, bulldozers and the like, sat in a neat row, looking somehow like they were ready to pounce on the crumbling structures in order to complete the job that time was slowly performing on its own. New construction materials were tidily piled on pallets by the last machine in the row, awaiting use. In the distance, the muted rumble of the sprawling metropolis' nightlife could be heard.

A screaming, droning noise split the relative stillness of the dark air, and a silver streak dropped out of the skies, slamming into the ground with a heavy, ringing impact that send clouds of dust and debris skittering outwards in rolling plumes. As the dust settled, a battered-looking, silver-armoured shape became visible in the center of the disturbance. A bright red glow from the v-shaped eyeslot in its helmet pierced the darkness.

SkyKnight moved forwards into the derelict site with a slow and deliberate step. The evenly spaced sounds of his heavy tread sounded forced, as if walking was an effort, and every line of his armoured shape was rigid and tense, as if holding in some inner turmoil. He came to a signboard at the edge of a cleared spot in the run-down area, and his helmet tilted to read it:

THIS AREA SLATED FOR DEMOLITION AND RECONSTRUCTION
UNDER DEVELOPMENT BY GENOM INC.

With a snarled, scathing curse that blistered the air, the silver-clad hardsuit smashed the hapless sign into flying splinters with a backhanded swing. SkyKnight's helmet tilted towards the sky, his arms half-raised, gauntlets clenched in fury. He stalked another couple of steps, his body quivering as he tried to suppress the typhoon of emotion boiling in him. He lost the fight a few moments later.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRGH!!!!" SkyKnight's helmeted head was thrown back, and an enraged, inarticulate bellow of anger, hurt, and frustration hurtled challengingly towards the distant starry sky. He furiously slammed a gauntleted fist into the front of a nearby bulldozer that had been minding its own business, and the front grille of the machine was smashed back into the engine. Coolant fluid gushed from the shattered radiator of the vehicle, splattering onto the hard-packed dirt as the silver-clad hardsuit spun around, shaking uncontrollably. In the back of his mind, he kept seeing a red-haired, green-eyed young woman saying, "You've changed; you're not the man I fell in love with."

"IT'S NOT MY GODDAMN FAULT!!!!" he bellowed like a wounded bull. Wheeling around, his gaze fell on the nearby derelict buildings. A moment later, it sounded as if Thor had dropped into MegaTokyo for a party, as crackling detonations shattered the night air, and crimson-white bolts of energy slammed into the crumbling concrete and masonry structures. Bert poured a withering storm of laser energy into the abandoned buildings, teeth clenched in fury as a few angry tears trickled down the sides of his face inside his helmet.

After a few moments, the noise and light faded, and the silver-and-blue hardsuit fell to its knees with a clang, head and shoulders slumping over in a defeated-looking posture as the blasted buildings avalanched inwards with a roar, spewing dust and debris into the air. Angry hurt still boiled through him, but a sudden, aching surge of loneliness had attained dominance for a moment. He still couldn't quite believe Nene's last declaration that she didn't want to see him anymore. Fear gnawed through the loneliness; he didn't want to be alone again! Damn it, he needed her, needed ... somebody.

Static hissed in his ears. Grateful for the distraction, Bert checked his suit comm system, and found it had detected an ADP transmission. He listened to the panicked cops and dispatcher for a moment before realizing that they were frantically calling for help against a combat boomer that had appeared.

SkyKnight rose to his feet, an anticipatory grin spreading across his face as a wild, reckless urge for a fight sprang up. Something tangible he could fight, could destroy...

A part of his mind advised caution: he was hurt and angry, and his suit wasn't fully repaired yet; he couldn't afford to get into a fight, especially if it was one of the newer combat models. He slapped that part of his mind down a moment later, running his systems to full power, preparatory to takeoff.

This, at least, was something he could take care of simply and directly.

Short silver wings flipped up and locked into position on his suit's shoulderblades; a moment later, the silver-blue Knight Saber was volleyed into the high air by howling jets.

****

Leon ducked frantically as blazing energy streams slashed the air around the police lines; troopers either yelled and dove for cover, or dropped dead in their tracks as they were blasted by a stray shot. All over the street, police vehicles became airborne with shattering explosions, being propelled by rapidly expanding blossoms of flame and smoke. Steel scrap and shrapnel shrieked through the air in a deadly projectile storm.

Leon swore bitterly, ducking with one arm up, shielding his face from flying debris while fumbling for his handgun. Yet more names to add to the 'killed in the line of duty' roster, and he knew with a sickening certainty that it wasn't going to be the last time, either. A nagging voice in the back of his mind, one that had become increasingly more vocal lately, asked him just what the hell he thought he was doing. Here he was all over again, ducking imminent death from rampaging biomechanoids, while more good men bought it around him. WHY?! Why the hell did he stay with such a lousy job, when all it did was come within an ace of always getting him killed, and bring nothing but unending bullshit from the bureaucracy?!

Energy screamed through the air, and Leon gasped in pained surprise, jerking aside just a fraction of a second too late to prevent his jacket sleeve from getting burned off. The stink of charred cloth and crisped hair filled his nose, and biting, stinging pain from his right arm made his eyes water, almost causing him to drop his pistol. Swearing again, Leon dropped flat to the pavement, trying to avoid landing on his seared arm, and rolled over and over until he found the dubious protection of a concrete bench near what had been a bus stop shelter. He came to stop with his back propped slightly up against the side of the bench, wincing as his arm complained about the movement.

Gasping for breath in the smoky haze that was slowly crawling along the street, Leon gritted his teeth and glanced at his arm; the skin was extremely red along his forearm, up to his elbow, and there were more than a few white blisters and welts that were forming. Some blood was trickling from where he'd unknowingly ripped the skin by dropping and rolling, but it didn't look nearly as serious as the burns. As if looking at the damage had been a signal, the nerve endings in his injured arm trebled their anguish, almost making him black out from the pain.

Gulping and clenching his teeth to keep from throwing up, the ADP inspector tore his gaze away from the burned flesh. Eyes closed, he took several deep breaths, trying to steady himself. While it looked serious, the fact that he could feel pain from it meant that it wasn't a very deep burn, thank God. He set his gun across his leg long enough to wipe suddenly sweaty hands on his pants, and again grasped the butt. Bracing himself, Leon lifted the gun, and rolled over to his elbows; sweat broke out on his face as he managed to keep from yelling out loud, and he carefully peered past the end of the bench.

And found himself staring at a crimson-armoured leg.

Leon yelped in surprise as he lunged to his knees instinctively, falling over backwards in his haste to get away. He was just barely in time, as a downward-driving, artificially-muscled arm drove a wide blade of some kind into the asphalt where his chest had been. The knuckles of the red boomer's hand crunched against the pavement a second later. Leon crabbed backwards frantically, his gun skittering away as he forgot everything, even his wounded arm, his only thought survival.

Yellow eyes flashed as the killer biomechanoid grinned evilly; it pulled its arm back from the binding pavement, the long arm blade scraping free of its concrete sheath with a nerve-grating scraping noise. A rumbling growl, almost like a mechanical purr, rolled out of the boomer as it slowly advanced on the wounded ADP officer. It disdainfully ignored the scattered weapons fire from the few remaining ADP troopers, the jacketed slugs whining uselessly off of its metallic carapace into the night, and continued to remorselessly advance on the retreating inspector.

Leon felt his guts shrivel in fear as the boomer loomed over him, his mouth going dry. A second arm blade deployed from the boomer's other arm, and both of its arms swung up and back in what was obviously intended to be a double chop at the sprawled officer.

Leon tried to scrabble away again, but found he'd run out of room to maneuver as his back touched the blasted concrete of a building wall. Weary resignation suddenly filled him; after several years, it appeared like he was finally going to die at the hands of a rogue boomer. His eyes found the glittering edges of the boomer's arm blades, and watched with morbid fascination as they started to descend. A booming voice suddenly overrode the crackling fires and explosions, crashing into the scene like a rock thrown through a plate glass window.

"Mind if I cut in?"

At the question, the crimson biomechanoid spun in mid-strike, blades whistling through the air towards where the electronic voice had come from; there was a grinding, steely crash, and sparks flew through the air as they were blocked by another pair of long blades, blades that were attached to a towering, silver-and-blue armour suit's arms.

"Now that wasn't very hospitable," SkyKnight remarked mildly. "In fact, I'd say it was downright unfriendly." The red eyeslot on his helmet flared brightly, then subsided into a deep, burning red colour. "Suits me just fine." Leon could hear the suppressed eagerness in the Knight Saber's voice, despite the electronic filtering; he wanted a fight, badly, from the sound of it. Leon tried to keep calm as he realized things hadn't necessarily improved with SkyKnight's arrival.

"Identity confirmed: SkyKnight," the red combat machine suddenly stated in grating tones. Leon stiffened, staring at the hulking boomer that was standing toe-to-toe with the smaller battlesuit; it was the first time he'd ever heard a combat boomer speak, a precedent he would have been quite happy not to have been witness to. The boomer continued its verbal analysis. "Procedure: Exterminate. Estimated Threat Level: Moderate."

"That's all?" SkyKnight rumbled back. "Let's see if I can't make you re-evaluate that appraisal." The silver-clad warrior suddenly spun slightly, dropping to his right knee, while kicking out with his other leg. The kick connected solidly with the boomer's leg, just below its knee. Caught by surprise, the boomer crashed heavily to the asphalt on its knees as its leg folded under the unexpected blow.

SkyKnight belted the crimson boomer backwards with a roundhouse right to the head, using the momentum generated by the punch to spin himself back to his feet as the boomer clanged onto the pavement on its back. Moving with blurring speed, SkyKnight dropped under a particle beam shot from the supine boomer, and seized its feet. With a grunting heave, the silver-blue hardsuit jerked the boomer up from the pavement, and whipped it through the air, over his head, to slam it face-first into the burned pavement of the street. Having succeeded in clearing the boomer away from Leon, SkyKnight flipped into the air on hissing jets, and landed again in the center of the street, a few meters further up from the boomer.

Roaring in mechanical fury, the red boomer surged upright, and began stomping after the silver hardsuit. It was stopped in its tracks momentarily by a thundering blast of red-white energy that clawed holes into its armour, but it resumed its implacable forward advance a moment later, narrowing the gap between it and the waiting silver gladiator. SkyKnight dropped into a ready crouch, his left side towards the boomer, feet set shoulder-width apart, with his left arm extended towards the biomechanoid, ready to parry incoming strikes, and his right arm held back to deliver a response to whatever his opponent might try.

What the hell is he waiting for?!, Leon's hazy mind wondered; it was becoming difficult maintaining his concentration on what was going on, and he dimly realized he was going into shock. He blinked his eyes, squinting at the scene in front of him, trying to figure out SkyKnight's tactics; the ADP officer had seen enough to be able to recognize his posture as preparing to meet someone, or something, in hand-to-hand combat. Why the hell didn't he just shoot the goddamn thing?! The dimly-lit scene in his vision swam and then blurred; darkness flooded across his sight in a rushing torrent, and he realized he'd lost the battle to retain his grip on consciousness.

Just before Leon dropped into the black softness of the void, he heard SkyKnight address the rogue biomechanoid.

"Okay, you bastard: Let's dance."

****

Bert knew there was a savage, snarling grin etched into his face behind his helmet visor, but at the moment, he didn't really care. There was a howling exultation singing in his blood at the moment, all of the pain, anger and frustration he'd suffered fusing into one driving urge: destroy. He couldn't strike back at something intangible, like the reasons Nene had declared for leaving him, and Hollister wasn't available to slowly pulverize for having initiated some of what had been done to him, but the killer biomechanoid in front of him right now was very real, and was quite willing to oblige his craving for a fight.

His forearm snapped up, knocking the boomer's strike at his head aside, and his own answering blow was deftly parried as well. The air became alive with a flickering series of strikes, blocks, counter-strikes, kicks, and contorted dodges as the silver-clad Knight Saber took out his frustrations in the whirl of hand-to-hand combat. There were no doubts tormenting him here, no remorse-laden memories; here, it was either kill or be killed, with life hanging precariously in the balance. It was a wildly exhilarating feeling, fed mostly by adrenaline.

The world rocked crazily as the boomer slipped a punch inside his guard, snapping his helmet back on his neck, sending a blazing spike of agony searing into his skull. As he tried to recover, he felt the numbing impacts of several more, rapid-fire punches, and felt the jarring shock of his impact with the rubble-strewn street a moment later. As he desperately fought to get to his feet, SkyKnight suddenly heard a rising whine and crackle come from his armoured foe.

The silver hardsuit sprang up from the pavement, whipping his body around in a contorted movement, moving aside just enough that the blindingly-bright green energy bolt that the boomer spat at him missed, instead blasting a hole through a distant building.

Instantly, SkyKnight blurred across the gap separating himself from the crimson biomechanoid, smashing into it with renewed fury. Again, the two combatants pounded at each other, testing who had the best hand-to-hand ability. After a moment of violent sparring, the biomechanoid again demonstrated that it had the upper hand, spinning with one of his punches, and using the momentum generated as it came around to again knock the silver-and-blue battlesuit sprawling to the ground with a blistering roundhouse right.

Bert's breath whooshed agonizingly out of his lungs as the red combat machine leaped forward, spinning in mid-air while he tried to straighten up, and connected with a solid kick to his stomach. He flew backwards down the street, skidding along the rough road in a shower of sparks and a clanging bang. Bright spots flickered and flashed tauntingly in his vision as he fought for some air.

The air around him turned bright green suddenly; pain flashed through every bone in his body as he felt the slam of multiple particle bolts, and again he hit the pavement, landing in a smoldering, scorched heap. Blackness swam at the edges of his vision as he groggily tried to summon up the energy to move. In the back of his mind, anger and the driving urge to get up and kill the boomer pestering him pulsed and ebbed. Fear began scraping at him as he saw the boomer's eyes flare yellowly; twin, rotary cannons popped out of its shoulders, targeting him.

****

Wind whistled shrilly past her as Sylia shot through the air, her flight pack straining, trying desperately to reach SkyKnight's location. Below her, the brightly lit streets flashed past in rushing, kaleidoscopic blur. The din of the active city could be dimly heard from her lofty position, the inhabitants of the sprawling megalopolis uncaringly carrying on business as usual.

Over her comm systems, the ADP dispatcher and on-scene cops continued to unknowingly give her an almost blow-by-blow description of the fight that was going on. The description was not helping to keep her calm; from the sounds of things, Bert was getting pounded into the dirt. She mentally swore at him for his angry, reckless charging off into the night, while at the same time, part of her mind kept hoping she'd be able to get there before he was seriously hurt.

The white hardsuit swiftly banked over some buildings, getting closer to its destination, as the sounds of explosions began to thunder in the distance, the blasts sending tendrils of probing smoke into the air.

****

Bert flipped over onto his side, narrowly avoiding the stream of hot metal slugs that churned the asphalt into a shattered mess. The volley of high-speed death tracked after him remorselessly as he scrabbled away, diving desperately to avoid another salvo. His frantic dive brought him behind the dubious protection of one of the few intact cars left abandoned by the side of the street; an instant later, a hailstorm of high-density projectiles turned the luckless vehicle into a pile of shredded metal resembling a tin sieve.

There was a shattering blaze of orange-white light, and a billowing cloud of flames and smoke engulfed the wreckage a moment later as the car's fuel ignited. The shockwave from the detonation knocked the battered hardsuit over, but he forced himself to roll upright quickly, alert for the next attack. He moved warily, suddenly realizing that the boomer had stopped firing; the pall of smoke and flames was temporarily masking him from the killer machine.

He took a quick second to take stock of his situation; his power levels were fine, his armour was showing cracks and burns from all the punishment it had suffered, and he'd lost the launcher on his left shoulder. So far, although he'd taken an incredible pounding, no systems had decided to malfunction on him. The factor working against him now was his own stamina. He was rapidly getting tired now, and it didn't matter how enraged he felt, anger couldn't drive him past a certain point. That point had now been reached.

A semblance of reason returned, cooling his mood somewhat, although the driving urge to smash and destroy the boomer out there still throbbed at the back of his mind. Somehow, he had to gain the upper hand long enough to at least cripple the boomer; crippled, it would be much easier to fight, and he was dimly realizing that he could use whatever advantages he could get right now.

He took a deep breath, wincing as his side, gashed the night before, decided to complain. He could feel a warm wetness around the slash; getting into a fight before it had really had a chance to heal had reopened the wound, and the dull pain was slowly sapping what reserves he had left. Coupled with the soreness that had resulted from getting hammered on by the boomer, he knew he had to finish the fight quickly.

SkyKnight glanced around, then ran two quick steps, diving headfirst out into the street in a forward somersaulting roll. No sooner did his hardsuited body clear the concealing smoke around him, then the scream of high-velocity projectiles cut through the air, and depleted uranium slugs began hungrily probing the air around him. He hit the pavement with a bang, rolled over and up to his feet, and then dodged sideways on his jets. As he dodged, the deadly spray of projectiles from the boomer stopped, and the firing mechanisms of its shoulder miniguns could be heard whirring in futility; the boomer had depleted its ammunition.

The boomer snarled viciously, and began running at a frightening rate of speed towards him as he stood there, blades sliding out from its forearms. SkyKnight's glance flashed down; stooping swiftly, he clamped his gauntlets onto a manhole cover in the street, and heaved. The boomer was rapidly closing the gap between them as the thick metal disk tore free. Gripping the disk like a Frisbee, the silver hardsuit whipped the plate at the running boomer, skipping it off the street between them.

The heavy metal disk clanged loudly as it struck the roadway in a shower of sparks. The force of the throw SkyKnight had made caused it to continue on, becoming airborne again, where it struck right at the knee level of the running biomechanoid. The crimson boomer, not expecting an indirect attack, had its feet knocked out from under it; it hit the street face-first, and started to shove itself upright again almost immediately.

The silver-and-blue garbed battlesuit sprang high into the air on his jets, flipping forwards and twisting around in midair, landing behind the rising boomer. The boomer started to whirl towards him, but the silver Knight Saber leaped on it, wrapping an armoured arm around the combat machine's neck, while ramming his other gauntleted fist into the small of the biomechanoid's back, trying to bend it over backwards far enough that it couldn't get enough leverage to fight.

Unfortunately for him, the boomer was a lot taller than he was, even taking his hardsuit into consideration; the crimson combat machine began to thrash around, shaking him off, roaring defiantly at the same time. SkyKnight gritted his teeth, and fired the guns on the arm he had pressed into the boomer's back, cranking the power feed to his lasers as much as he dared.

Blindingly bright red light filled the air around the two combatants, as twin particle-laser beams tore through the boomer's midsection; the shockwave from the explosion flung the silver-garbed hardsuit backwards from his opponent. The boomer's armouring hadn't been sufficient protection against his beam weapons when fired from point-blank range, and it was now seriously hurt.

Oily black fluid dripped from the gaping crater in the boomer's torso as the killer machine turned towards him, and wiring sizzled and spat from within the hole. The boomer's eyes flickered erratically, and it weaved a bit on its feet. SkyKnight smiled grimly to himself as he surveyed his handiwork, and popped his swordblades into extension. In response, the boomer's own edged weapons again snapped into play.

Drawing upon his determination, Bert gathered himself for one last attack; he knew he wasn't going to last for another one. His breathing was coming in gasps, and he felt desperately tired. Whatever he did now, it would have to be decisive and final; he had to kill it with one shot.

With perfect synchronization, Knight Saber and biomechanoid leaped through the air, aiming at each other with their swordblades. SkyKnight knew that if he parried the boomer's incoming weapon, he'd never get another chance; even wounded, the boomer was still matching his speed and reaction times. That left one option open.

He didn't parry it.

****

Sylia crested the top of a low office building, just in time to see SkyKnight and the crimson biomechanoid he was engaged with throw themselves at each other. As she lunged forward, flight pack straining, already knowing she was too late to intervene, she saw SkyKnight's swordblade punch through the front of the boomer's skull casing, and emerge out the back in a spray of armour shards. She also saw the boomer's weapon rip through his hardsuit, at the top of his left shoulder.

The two foes dropped to the pavement, the silver-garbed hardsuit landing on top of the dead biomechanoid. An instant after they collapsed in a clanging heap, she landed a few feet away from them, an awful feeling hitting her in the pit of the stomach. She could see blood all over the shoulder of Bert's hardsuit, staining the scorched and gouged armour plating, but it was impossible to tell just how badly he'd been hurt. In the distance, she could hear orders being shouted by the scattered ADP officers, and it sounded like they were drawing nearer to them.

As she cautiously approached the tangled heap of hardsuit and boomer, SkyKnight stirred, and shoved himself off of the dead biomechanoid, armour plating grinding. His feet touched the pavement, and then his knees buckled. Sylia stepped over to him, grabbing him by his uninjured arm to give him some support. The silver hardsuit spasmed, then seemed to catch himself after a split second or so. Sylia sighed in relief to herself; for one brief instant, it had felt like he hadn't recognized her, and was about to attack.

"How badly are you hurt?" she asked him, looking him over. He didn't look good; every inch of his hardsuit was streaked with dirt and soot, and scored with cracks, gashes, and scratches. The most obvious injury was the large tear through his shoulder, where his armour had been damaged the night before. Apparently cutting diagonally across the muscles atop his shoulder, it looked deep, and very ugly; blood was slowly welling from the wound, dripping steadily down his armour. "Can you hold together long enough to get home again?" She decided to save the lecture for later, when she was sure he wasn't going to pass out on her.

"I'm fine; I'll make it," he replied in a level, neutral tone. "What are you doing here?"

"Making sure you don't kill yourself," she told him, equally as evenly. "We can discuss this later; we're leaving."

"HALT!! You're under arrest!!" an amplified voice bellowed from behind them. Sylia turned slightly, and could see at least two ADP K-17s with a score of troopers in body armour slowly advancing on them, weapons at the ready. She took a quick glance around SkyKnight's shoulder, and could see an identical formation advancing from the other direction.

"Oh, great, it's the comedy relief," she heard him say. SkyKnight's helmet came up a bit, and the red eyeslot in his faceplate began to brighten as he straightened up, standing at his full height. "Don't they ever get tired of this?"

"They're doing their jobs," Sylia reminded him, a trifle sharply. "Just like we do ours, only with a few changes. Now let's get out of here." The silver-blue battlesuit didn't budge when she tugged at his arm. "Did you hear me?"

"I heard you," he answered calmly, his voice suddenly picking up a hint of something else. "Just a minute."

"NOW, mister!" she ordered imperiously. "You are leaving now, and that's final!"

There was a moment or so of silence, during which Sylia could tell he was regarding her; she had the sudden, unsettling sense that he was assessing her, trying to determine just how far she was willing to go in order to enforce her order. The feeling passed as he sighed, his flight wings swinging up and locking into their extended positions while the whine of his flight jets began to increase. She made her own quick pre-flight preparations and began to get ready to take off.

"Don't try it!!" the amplified voice of one of the approaching ADP officers warned. "We don't want to have to shoot, but we will!"

"I've had it with them," SkyKnight declared flatly. "I think they need to cool off a bit."

Before Sylia could stop him, the silver-and-blue battlesuit stepped forwards a pace, and his right arm snapped up to point in the general direction of the ADP troopers; some yelled and pointed, preparing to scatter while some tried aiming at him. Before anyone could get a weapon lined up on him, a bright red energy bolt seared through the air, blasting off one of the side lugs of a fire hydrant, just as the troopers were marching past it.

Instantly, a roaring torrent of foaming white water gushed from the hydrant main, flattening and washing away the surprised cops, flushing them back down the street. The K-17s were also surprised, one of them slipping and sliding on the suddenly slick pavement to fall over with a resounding clang, while the other masterfully stayed upright, being shoved at by the surging column of water. Water ran down the street in both directions in waves, making the footing suddenly very hazardous.

SkyKnight turned sharply, and another crimson energy beam seared through the air; again, a hydrant burst, spraying heavy streams of water across the hapless cops, forcing them back. The heavy force from the pressurized water stream flattened the K-17s; they hit the pavement with clattering crashes, and floundered around in the water, unable to get back up. Further down the street, drenched troopers were picking themselves up from the ground, and trying to recover their weapons.

"I always said they were all wet," SkyKnight remarked, humour and pain in his voice as his helmet tilted to look at his leader. Water continued to gush from the shattered hydrants, and a smoky mist of water droplets began to form in the area.

"Home. NOW," she told him through clenched teeth, trying with limited success to hold onto her temper. He sighed again, and nodded wearily, resisting the sudden urge to say "Yes, Mother". She was mad enough as it was, and there was a limit as to how much he was willing to tempt fate.

A moment later, the bloody and battered silver hardsuit launched skywards, followed by Sylia's white hardsuit. The frustrated ADP officers watched helplessly for a moment or so, then turned to the task of cleaning up the devastated street.

****

"Well, I hope you're happy now," Sylia told him angrily, pacing back and forth across the confines of the room. She was still clad in her softsuit, and had thrown a lab coat over top of it to help keep out the chill from the infirmary air-conditioning. "Except for almost killing yourself, that little stunt didn't do anything for you. At the very least, I doubt it improved your reputation any."

"My reputation can't get much worse than it already is, in some circles, anyway," Bert replied. For a fleeting moment, there was a faint trace of bitterness in his voice, then it disappeared. "And as a matter of fact, it was useful: I feel somewhat better for having done it." He shifted around where he was sitting on the examination table, holding a blood-soaked towel over the rip across his shoulder. He'd removed his softsuit top, revealing the reopened wound from the night before, low down on his left side, just below the ribs; a blood-soaked gauze pad was temporarily taped over it. He looked a little pale, winced whenever he moved, and periodically he was starting to fade out into unconsciousness, his eyes starting to sag shut. It was a combination of blood loss from his injuries and general exhaustion; Sylia was keeping him awake until she could get him treated.

"You feel better because you went out and got yourself royally beat up?!"

"That's not what I meant," he replied, shaking his head wearily. "I meant more that I feel a lot better for having been able to blow off some steam. Okay, maybe losing my temper and brawling with an uprated boomer wasn't the best method to use," he winced, his eyes squeezing shut for a moment as an incautious movement jolted his left arm. "Especially since I managed to get mauled worse than before, but it definitely helped. I feel a lot more relaxed now than I did earlier."

"That's fatigue," she snorted, "not relaxation. You're almost out on your feet now."

"True," he admitted faintly, then fell silent. He tried sitting up straighter, trying to look more alert, but it didn't work very well; inside of a minute, he was slumping again. "When's our doctor making his house call?"

"He'll be here shortly," she answered, glancing at the clock, concealing again her worry at how he looked. She'd described his injuries to her uncle; he hadn't thought they'd need any more medical supplies than what they already had on hand. The minutes now seemed to be ticking by slow enough to be considered hours, and it was driving her up the wall. Silence stretched for a few moments, broken only by the faint hum of the air conditioning.

"May I ask you something?" Sylia spoke up quietly. Bert's greenish-brown eyes lifted, meeting her brown ones; she could see he knew what was coming next. He nodded wordlessly, letting his head hang afterwards. It was becoming a real effort for him to stay awake.

"What are you going to do about Nene?"

"What the hell can I do?!" he snapped, lifting his head, the angry hurt that had sent him off into the night in the first place reappearing in his eyes. "She won't talk to me; I tried that earlier in the day, and that was just over some stupid, thoughtless remark I made. Now she thinks I'm a killer, or damn close to one, so I doubt she's going to talk to me any more willingly."

"Aren't you going to at least try?" she asked quietly, an entreating tone entering her voice. He was silent a moment, suddenly looking drawn and tired.

"I'm going to try," he conceded, swallowing. "I still love her, but...what she said...hurt, a lot. I'm..." He suddenly scrubbed at his watering eyes with the back of his hand, releasing the clenched grip he had on the bloody pad on his shoulder for a moment. "She's blaming me for changing, and it wasn't my fault that I changed," he said painfully, voice sounding choked. "She's acting like I wanted to become a hypertense combat-monger; I didn't, and I still don't, but....but it's happening to me anyway." He sighed, closing his eyes for a moment. Sylia reached out to steady him as he swayed on the table, noting that there was no reflexive response to being touched from him this time.

"I'm the first one to admit I enjoy the occasional fight," he continued, opening his eyes and looking over at her. "But it's the competitive aspect more than anything; I don't...didn't get any particular kick out of destroying things."

"And you do now?"

"Somewhat," he admitted with a sigh. "At least, I did tonight for a brief while. I guess it was kind of cathartic; I've never gone looking for a fight just for the hell of it before. Cutting loose like that was great stress relief; exercise just doesn't seem to have that effect. Well, not as much of an effect, anyway."

"We'll have to set up some kind of a target range then," she noted dryly. "Blowing off steam in public like that is not a good idea, especially since I doubt that you endeared yourself to the ADP any in the process."

"That's tough," he said, his tone briefly becoming flinty. "If they're going to take hands in the game, then they'd better be able to pay the ante."

Before Sylia could ask just what he'd meant by that remark, the door to the infirmary opened, and the tall, lean figure of the Knight Sabers' 'family physician' briskly stepped through, a medical kit in one hand, and a carrying case of some kind in the other. Sylia immediately relieved him of the case, setting it down on a nearby counter. The old man sighed in relief, then looked over at Bert, his gaze sharpening as he noticed the condition of his patient.

"Picking fights again, were we?" he asked dryly, shaking his head. The white-haired old man glanced sidelong at Sylia as he dropped his medkit onto the table end, popping the lid open. His eyes slid sideways towards the blood-smeared, red-headed young man seated on the exam table, then back to hers; Sylia understood his unspoken question, and shook her head slightly; there was no need for Bert to know that they knew each other any further than a working relationship, and that meant no names were to be used. Her uncle nodded briefly in understanding.

"I'm going to need your help, Ma'am," the old man stated, fishing a packet containing some latex gloves from his case and tossing them to Sylia. "An extra pair of hands for this would be a help."

"Certainly, I'd be happy to assist," she replied neutrally as he tore open a second package and donned his own gloves. Her uncle went over to the medical supplies locker, opened it, and after a quick glance at the contents, began pulling out various sterile-wrapped packets and packages. Sylia took them as he handed them to her, neatly arraying them on the counter.

The two of them turned to the sagging young man on the examination table. Sylia felt a momentary chill as she looked at him, but her uncle appeared unfazed as he whipped out an array of hypodermics, pads, suturing needles, and other surgical paraphernalia out of his case, and then perused his selections from the medical locker for a moment, picking out a couple of items.

The old doctor stepped over to Bert, and gently eased his hand from the clamped grip it had on the bloody towel plastered over his shoulder, dropping his arm back to his side. The doctor gingerly lifted the sopping piece of cloth away, and dropped it into the plastic-lined garbage pail nearby. He then unwrapped an antiseptic pad, and gently sponged away at the wound until he could see the damage. The wound started bleeding a bit again, a thick upwelling of dark crimson.

"Hmmm....some ripping and tearing of the muscles involved, but it missed the collarbone, it seems. Another inch lower or deeper, and he'd have had worse problems," Sylia's uncle quietly reported. "All in all, it could have been much worse." He checked Bert's pulse, and said 'Hmmm' again, twitching his mustache as he mentally assessed his patient's condition.

"His pulse is lower than normal, but not dangerously so," he finally judged. "I don't think he'll need a transfusion, but I brought a couple of bags up with me, just in case." Sylia nodded quietly, dividing her gaze between her uncle and her injured friend. The old medico straightened up, sighing.

"Well, Ma'am, if you'll hand me that syringe there, we'll get started," he directed her. She nodded wordlessly again, and handed him the indicated hypodermic. He checked it for air bubbles, and then gently injected his patient with it. The red-headed young man didn't even twitch when he felt the needle slide into his arm.

"We almost don't need anaesthetic," her uncle noted. "He's almost totally out of it now."

"Go ahead," Bert mumbled groggily, his eyes just barely open. "Couldn't possibly hurt worse than anything else I've had to endure today." He fell silent for a moment, then added drowsily, "At least these wounds will eventually heal." The old man's eyebrows hit his hairline in surprise at the words, and he glanced at Sylia questioningly. She shook her head, indicating that it wasn't the time or the place to discuss it, not when one of her friends was slowly bleeding all over the place. He nodded, then turned back to the task at hand.

"Now then, if you'll just hand me that packet there...no not that one, the other one! Off to your right...."

 

THE NEXT DAY....

Leon strode through the bewildering maze of desks in the ADP offices, irritably adjusting the sling his burned arm was resting in. The tall inspector did not look to be in a pleasant mood; a glowering scowl had replaced his usual jovial and easygoing temperament, and it made most people give him a wide berth. Most people.

"Leon!" a young woman's voice hailed him from the direction of the secretarial area. As he turned slightly to see a young woman with short brown hair charging towards him. She was wearing the usual ADP uniform blouse, skirt, and a green hairband. Inwardly, Leon groaned as Naoko came up to him, curiosity alive in her bright blue eyes.

"What are you doing in today?" she asked. "We heard you got injured, and were supposed to be having a few days off. Did the chief call you in? You really look beat; maybe you should take it easy for a while...."

"Naoko," Leon sighed, holding up a hand to cut her off; she'd keep chattering away at him unless he thought of something to get rid of her, fast. She was a nice enough girl, but she was the worst person in the department when it came to gossip, and he just didn't have the energy to humour her today. "I just came in to check a couple of things and then I'm leaving again," he informed the young woman. "That's all."

"Right," she said dryly, looking at him with a knowing glance. "Then why do you look like you're brooding on something unpleasant? Case not going the way you want?"

"That's really none of your business," he replied, a bit sharply as his lousy mood prodded him. Naoko blinked in surprise, artfully looking hurt.

"Well you didn't have to snap at me," she said in a wounded tone. "Geez, you're as bad as Nene this morning." Leon's irritation vanished for a moment, curiosity and concern replacing it.

"What's with Nene?" he inquired. "She looked ill enough yesterday that I thought she'd have stayed home today."

"Nope. She came in today, but she's been really miserable all morning, and she's snapping at everything. You know what I think?" The young woman's voice lowered conspiratorially, and she looked around as if expecting spies to be lurking nearby. "I think she had an argument with her boyfriend," she told him. "He normally drops her off at the front of the building, but she arrived by herself this morning, and she won't answer any questions about it."

"Oh, really?" Leon answered absently, his mind turning the information around, examining it; it might explain Nene's apparent depression lately, but there were still a few unanswered puzzles to be solved. "I'm sure they'll work things out."

"I'm not so sure," the brown-haired young woman replied dubiously, shaking her head. "She's never been this upset before...."

"NAOKO!!!" an irritated yell cut across the office, coming from a harried sergeant at his desk. "Would you quit shooting the breeze with McNichol, and get me that bloody report like I asked you to ten minutes ago?!"

"Oops! Gotta run! Bye!" With a cheery wave, the young woman sped off into the depths of the offices in pursuit of her file. Leon slowly continued his own journey into the ADP offices, a thoughtful look in his blue eyes as he tried again to reconcile the fragments of information he had so far into some kind of recognizable picture. He gave up as he reached the Chief's office; it was just too mixed up to sort out right now. He paused, sighed, braced himself, and then knocked on the door. A moment later, he opened it, and stepped through.

"You're supposed to be at home recuperating," Chief Ichinohei reprimanded him as he stepped into her office.

"Nice to see you too, Chief," he replied. She flushed a bit, then quickly managed to look irritated with him again.

"All right, what is it this time?" she asked, sighing. Leon couldn't keep a smirk from forming at her tone; she sounded like she was waiting for the building to collapse around them.

"Nothing, really," he replied easily. "I just came in to tell you that I'm going to add a couple of weeks of my vacation time onto my 'sick leave' as you called it." He couldn't help looking a little sour over that remark; the Chief had rather peremptorily told him that he was off for a week until his arm had healed. After some thought on the matter, Leon had decided that a vacation wouldn't hurt, either; it had been so bloody long since he'd had some time off that he couldn't quite remember the last time it had been.

"You could have phoned that in," she noted quietly, sitting back in her chair. Clear aquamarine eyes gazed at him from across the large desk, evaluating him. "What did you really want to talk about?" A wry smirk tugged at Leon's mouth; she didn't miss much when it came to assessing a situation.

"I also wanted to go on record as saying that SkyKnight saved my life last night," he informed her. "I wouldn't be sitting here right now if he hadn't shown up." A very fleeting glimpse of irritation showed on the Chief's face.

"Noted," she said coolly. "I trust you also heard what happened after he killed the boomer?" Leon nodded, and decided not to bother mentioning that he'd laughed his head off when he'd heard about the silver Knight Saber's method for dealing with the situation.

"Considering what he did before, I'd say he was downright nice about it," Leon pointed out. "He could have done a lot more than just shoot fire hydrants off." There was no mistaking the irritation on the Chief's face now.

"I know that!" she snapped. She wasn't pleased over the fact that SkyKnight had made the ADP look like bumbling incompetents the night before, and it had been gnawing at her all morning. "That doesn't change the fact that we have our orders."

"Just where did these 'orders' come from?" Leon asked. "We never really got all that worked up about the Knight Sabers before; why the sudden urge to catch them now?" The red-headed woman across the desk from him spread her hands helplessly, looking towards the ceiling in exasperation.

"I know as much as you do," she told him. "The commands came from higher up, that's all I know. I'm not entirely in disagreement with the orders, however; we can't just let armed vigilantes run loose."

"Fine. Whatever you say," Leon replied disgustedly, letting the matter drop. The woman was bloody intractable on the subject of law and order, and didn't seem to be able to recognize the need for flexibility at times. The prevailing mood among most of the officers, even with SkyKnight's recent violent behaviour, was that the Knight Sabers should be left alone. However, orders were still orders, and that was why he needed some more time off. Lately he'd begun to question just what he was doing with himself, and why; he needed some time to think.

Besides, taking some time off would also allow him to poke around a bit and see if he could solve some of the puzzling questions that had been dogging him lately.

****

Nene worked through the stack of reports in front of her mechanically, one part of her mind performing her usual work duties with the ingrained ease of long familiarity. At the same time, the other part of her mind was churning with a raging mix of hurt and anger. Her long red hair looked a little messy, and her normally clear emerald-green eyes were bloodshot with dark circles under them. Even her uniform, usually clean and neatly-pressed, looked a little rumpled.

She hadn't slept well during the night; her cubbyhole apartment had seemed cold and unfamiliar, and she'd kept waking up from some pretty horrific nightmares, most of them featuring a twisted mixture of Hollister and a hulking, red boomer. Each time she'd woken up crying, she'd expected Bert to show up and offer some solace, and then she'd remembered why he wasn't there.

Instantly, her anger at what he'd said to her had surged back again, giving her something else to concentrate on other than the nightmares. After a while, she'd managed to fall asleep again, kept company by her collection of stuffed animals, but the process had continually repeated itself through the night. Morning had found her tired and disheveled; mentally, she felt like she'd been in a marathon, and her body didn't feel much better. It had been an effort to come in to work, but she'd forced herself to do it, mostly so she wouldn't sit at home and dwell on what had happened the night before.

She still couldn't believe how much he'd changed; she wanted the 'Knight-in-Shining-Armour' that she'd fallen in love with originally to come back, but it didn't look like that was going to happen.

The very remote voice of her conscience pointed out that she was overreacting. It wasn't really his fault for what had happened to him; it had been a change that had been an inadvertent effect of everything he'd gone through with his kidnappers. It was going to take time for him to recover. She didn't listen; if he'd listened to HER in the first place, then he wouldn't have been captured and tortured, and she wouldn't have been shot trying to get Hollister. It was all his fault; if he wasn't so wrapped up in trying to live up to some dumb image all the time...

The door to the Chief's office banged closed, startling her from her work. As she looked up, she saw Leon standing in front of the door. He looked preoccupied with something, absently running his hand through his brown thatch of hair. His right arm was in a sling, and she knew why that was; she'd heard about the night's events when she'd gotten into work. Her lips tightened angrily as she also remembered hearing about SkyKnight's rather public humiliation of the officers who'd been at the scene. More evidence he'd changed: he'd always left the ADP strictly alone before, treating them at the very least with courtesy, if nothing else.

As she quietly fumed over that one, Leon's glance fell on her, and he started walking towards her desk. She experienced a brief, irrational surge of panic, then clamped down on it. She didn't know why Leon could be coming over to see her; she'd already gotten him his case-related information a while back. She tried to keep calm and keep working as he approached, but it was a sham effort.

"Hi, Nene," he greeted her quietly, a concerned look in his clear blue eyes. There was also a hint of rabid curiosity which he couldn't quite hide. "Feeling better today?"

"I feel fine," she replied, forcing a smile onto her face and trying to make her voice sound light and cheery. "Why?"

"Well, you didn't look all that good yesterday," Leon said slowly, watching her, "and Naoko said you'd been out-of-sorts all morning." Nene couldn't stop herself from looking sour at his words; God, she wished Naoko would just shut up sometimes! She opened her mouth to answer Leon, when her phone rang. Smiling apologetically at the tall inspector, she picked up the receiver.

"Hello, Nene Romanova speaking," she said into the mouthpiece as cheerfully as she could manage; it was fast becoming a strain trying to appear as upbeat as she had in the past. She briefly hoped that she'd be able to make it through the rest of the day without cracking.

"Hi, Nene," Bert's voice replied. "Can we talk for a few minutes?" He sounded uncertain and uncomfortable about something, but she didn't really give a damn what it was; as soon as she heard his voice, her anger at him for the other day irrationally surged back.

"You've got nothing to say that I want to hear right now," she informed him icily. "Good-bye!" She banged the receiver down forcefully, hanging up as he tried to say something. Her eyes burned as she fought to keep sudden tears from blurring her vision, and she scrubbed a sleeve across her face.

"Nene?" Leon's voice intruded on her whirling thoughts. "Are you okay?" She looked up at him to see concern written all over him. She flushed a bit, suddenly angry at him for witnessing her discomfiture. She stood up, pushing back from the desk.

"I'm fine," she told him tightly, suppressing the urge to break down then and there. "It's nothing, really." She walked away from her desk, heading towards the washrooms, feeling Leon's gaze on her back like a laser beam. She ignored it, and the covert, curious gazes from a few other people around the office. She managed to hold herself together until she got into a stall in the washrooms. The tide of emotions that had been wearing at her all morning finally eroded her restraint, and she burst out crying from the mix of anger and hurt that still bubbled through her. It was some time before she was able to pull herself together enough to go back to her desk.

****

Bert stared blankly at the dead phone receiver in his hand, his mind still numbed from the abrupt termination of his phone call. He sat like that for a few minutes, unable to assemble anything resembling coherent thought in the whirling tide of emotion that churned through him. The predominant feeling was pained anguish; after Nene had called him a killer the night before, he'd felt like someone had stabbed him through the heart. Now it felt like the knife was being twisted and ground around, reaming out the hole.

His face twisting in a bitter, hurt expression, he slammed the phone back down, and sagged back into the couch. His battered body screamed at him from the movement, shooting fiery pains along his nerves; he was feeling every scrape and bruise he'd accumulated the night before, and his slashed shoulder was the worst. He carefully reached over with his uninjured arm and adjusted the sling that was holding his left arm more-or-less immobile while his shoulder healed, trying to make the arm feel a bit more comfortable. The pain receded slightly as he sat there quietly. The physical pain, however, was a minor annoyance compared to the feeling of empty loss that was rolling through him.

After several minutes of sitting disconsolately, he reached over to the nearby coffee table, and picked up his mug, carefully sipping at the steaming hot chocolate inside of it. When he was finished, he set the mug back over on the table, and tried to stand up.

Instantly, liquid fire seemed to race through his veins, as the physical toll of everything he'd forced himself to do in the last two days slammed home. He flopped bonelessly back to the couch, gasping, and trying to gather at least some of the shattered remnants of his vigour, enough so that he could do something and not have to dwell on what had happened to him. It didn't work; his body flat out refused to cooperate with him. For a moment, he wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry.

Sighing disgustedly, he settled himself deeper into his couch, propped his feet up, and lay back on the cushions. He wished he could've at least reached the kitchen table; the bottle of painkillers sitting there would come in awfully handy right now...

After a few moments, the battered and bone-weary, heartsore young man fell asleep.

****

"Interesting," Quincy rumbled, his icy blue eyes unrevealing as he looked at Madigan. GENOM's C.E.O. looked as craggy-faced and impassive as he always had, seated behind his massive oak desk, wearing a light grey suit. His hands were folded in front of himself on the desktop. An iceberg would have exhibited more emotion than he was currently expressing. "What other unusual events have you uncovered?"

"A few weeks ago, an old abandoned industrial complex was destroyed in a large explosion," Madigan reported crisply, shuffling through the file folder she held in front of her. She was standing in front of Quincy's desk making her report, coolly immaculate in a dark blue business suit. "There wasn't much left, but the indications are that it was another hidden research facility, possibly linked to our mysterious 'friends'. The explosion centered on the facility's power generators."

"Is there any indication of the Knight Sabers being involved?"

"None that I can ascertain," the lavender-haired exec replied. "There was very little evidence left at the factory explosion to examine, and we lacked any reliable reports from our usual sources for that time period. It appears to be a chance happening."

"Unlikely," Quincy judged. "Someone going to that much trouble to conceal themselves would have guarded against such an occurrence." He paused for a moment, his gaze turning abstracted as he considered the possibilities. Madigan shifted slightly, and his gaze snapped attentively back to her. "Were there any other strange events of note?"

"None of that type," she responded. "But they were unusual enough to be considered."

"Elaborate," he ordered curiously. "Unusual in what way?"

"The first incident was an armed car chase, about a week prior to the factory explosion," she informed him. "Two armed and armoured cars were reported to be chasing a red pickup truck. One car was wrecked, the other got away, and the red truck vanished into thin air. The occupants of the wrecked car also escaped."

"A kidnapping attempt?"

"Perhaps," she replied. "I was unable to obtain enough information to say for sure. What is certain is that all of the vehicles involved had been heavily modified, well beyond the means of most people. Certain covert agencies might be able to field equipment as advanced as these vehicles apparently were, but checking with our contacts in those agencies proved useless."

"Hmmm," Quincy mused. "Intriguing. However, it would appear to be a futile line of inquiry." Madigan nodded, and continued.

"The second incident occurred after the factory explosion. A high-profile mercenary 'extraction' team, one we have employed ourselves in the past, was captured by the ADP."

"What?!" Quincy, for once, appeared openly surprised. He leaned forwards, gaze intent. "And how did they accomplish that?"

"It was handed to them on a platter," Madigan said dryly. "They found the entire team stuffed into their operations van. All of the soldiers were very seriously injured; some are still recovering in hospital even now." She shuffled through her report folder until she came to the page she was after, and then handed it across to Quincy. He took it, and scanned it quickly, skimming through the synopsis of the statements from the imprisoned mercenaries. His face became intent when he reached the description of the creature that the mercs claimed had assailed them.

"We have no boomers matching those descriptions," he stated, looking over at her. She nodded.

"They appear to have encountered a hardsuit," she replied. "An independent operative, though, and not one of the Knight Sabers. Whoever it was, he had no compunctions about using deadly force; some of the survivors are crippled for life."

"Have our operations been compromised by this?" he inquired, a steely glint appearing in his eyes. "This report says that the leader was confessing and asking for 'police protection'. He may mention the occasions where we have hired him."

"Highly unlikely, now," she replied dryly. "He has been eliminated as a liability." Assassin boomers were such handy things to have around.

"Excellent," Quincy smiled darkly, leaning back in his chair. He looked thoughtful for a moment, gazing off into space.

"Continue your investigations," he ordered her a moment later. "In addition, I want as much detail as you can get on that last incident, and on this lone hardsuit." He smiled again thinly. "Who knows? We may uncover more than we bargained for." Madigan bowed respectfully to him, and left his office, closing the massive doors behind her quietly. As the doors closed, Quincy swiveled his chair to face the bay window overlooking the sprawling metropolis that lay at the feet of the GENOM ziggurat. As he gazed over his domain, a sinister smile of satisfaction crawled across his face.

 

THREE DAYS LATER....

"Hi, Linna," Sylvie greeted the black-haired young woman as she entered Sylia's living room. "How are you doing?" The young, dark-brown haired woman shed the heavy jacket she was wearing over her usual bike suit, and unwrapped a scarf from around her neck; the weather had turned cold lately, and she'd found out that the extra insulation was needed if she wanted to keep speeding around the city on her bike. Without the added clothing, the wind chill became vicious very quickly.

"Hmm? Oh, fine. Couldn't be better," came the groggy reply. The normally energetic dance choreographer was just barely awake, and was slumped in one of Sylia's easy chairs, her head hanging over the back. Periodically, she yawned hugely.

"Don't go and get all excited on us now," Priss noted dryly, removing her own jacket and scarf, walking in behind Sylvie and looking around. Across from where Linna was sprawled, Anri flashed them a shy smile of greeting. Neatly dressed in a light-coloured blouse and skirt, the greenish-haired young woman was sipping quietly at a glass of orange juice, waiting. Faint noises from the kitchen indicated that Sylia was putting some refreshments together.

"It's not my fault the director's had us doing everything over and over and over again," came the sleepy reply. "He wants everything absolutely perfect, and I've gone over the routines with the other dancers so bloody often now, I could do them in my sleep."

"Well, well, well," Priss drawled, a sly grin forming. "So you've finally found out what it's like for the rest of us to go through one of your workouts."

"Watch it, Priss," Linna warned, opening her eyes long enough to give her an irritated, blue-eyed glare. "I'm still not through with you yet, so I'd be careful with the smart remarks." Her head sagged back to the chair cushion a moment later; Priss grinned again, but didn't comment. Anri giggled a bit, then resumed sitting quietly.

"It's a little early for our usual meeting," the brown-haired singer noted, walking over to the coffee table area and flopping into one of the couches, "but Sylia insisted we get here ahead of time. So what's this about?"

"Beats me," Linna replied, shrugging slightly, still looking like she was going to doze off any minute. "I'm as much in the dark as you are." Sylvie swapped a grin with Priss over Linna's condition, then selected a chair next to Anri, and gracefully sat down to wait.

As if that had been a signal, Sylia emerged from her kitchen with a tray holding several mugs, a teapot, and a carafe of juice. She was neatly dressed, as always, but her usually calm features bore a faintly worried look. She nodded greetings to everyone, setting the tray down on the coffee table, then sat down in her accustomed chair.

"Help yourselves," she invited, gesturing towards the beverage tray. Smoothing her skirt down, she took a deep breath, looking around at the assembled women. "Thank you all for arriving a bit early tonight," she said quietly. "I know it's unusual, but I wanted to make sure everyone knew what was going on before," she hesitated, then sighed and continued, "before Nene or Bert get here, if they're coming at all." Her last statement grabbed everyone's attention, even rousing Linna from her exhausted slump.

"What's that supposed to mean? What happened?" Linna asked, then noted Sylia's unusually grave expression. "Uh-oh, this is bad news, I take it?"

"That's one way to put it," Sylia replied. She quickly outlined what had happened between the red-headed couple a few nights ago, including the aftermath. Uncomfortable and somewhat shocked silence fell over the room when she was done.

"That's....not good," Priss observed awkwardly. "I can't believe that Nene would say something like that; that's not like her."

"Well she hasn't been herself for some time now, has she?" Sylia said tiredly. "They're both hurt and upset now, and I wanted everyone to be warned."

"They'll work it out," Linna commented confidently. "They've worked arguments out before."

"Normally, I'd agree with you," Sylia noted. "But this time, there are a few differences.. ...."

The sound of Sylia's front door slamming forestalled further conversation, as everyone exchanged an uncomfortable, worried glance. A few moments later, Nene's slender, red-haired shape rounded the corner from the apartment foyer. The young ADP officer looked worn and tired, and there were dark smudges under her eyes. She gave a wan smile to everyone by way of greeting, then sat down on the other couch, next to Anri, and poured herself a cup of tea. She settled back into the couch, sipping her drink. So far, she hadn't met anyone's eyes, and it appeared as if she was going to stick to that policy. An awkward silence cloaked the room, as everyone tried to think of something to say that wouldn't sound lame.

A perfunctory knock sounded through the apartment, then the door banged open and closed again, and the sounds of someone awkwardly fumbling off their shoes could be heard. After a few moments, a tall young man with an unruly thatch of red hair came striding into the living room, adjusting the sling that secured his left arm to his side. Wearing a dark blue track suit, Bert looked about the same as he usually did, except that his face was totally devoid of any expression whatsoever; it was like looking at a robot. His gaze swept the assembled women, and he nodded a greeting, but nothing else. When his gaze fell on Nene, there was a faint twitch from his jaw muscles as if he'd clenched his teeth, and something flashed in his eyes too quickly for those watching to identify.

Priss was willing to swear that the temperature of the air around Nene dropped several degrees when his gaze passed over the young, red-headed woman. From the corner of her eye, Priss watched Nene's lips tighten as an angry light flared in her green eyes. The look vanished as an icy-cold mask seemed to settle over her features.

Bert didn't give any indication of anything as he stopped next to the coffee table, just long enough to pour himself a cup of tea and dose it with cream and sugar. He was also refusing to meet anyone's gaze, and didn't appear to notice the definite chill emanating from Nene's end of the room, or the concerned glances the rest of the group gave him and the young red-haired woman. Picking up his mug, he stepped out and away from the couches, walking over to stare out the large bay window at the city. After a few moments, it became clear that he intended to stay in that position for the duration of the meeting. He stood stolidly, sipping from his mug, staring out the window at the blackness of the night beyond.

"Well," Sylia finally spoke up, taking a deep breath and mentally praying there wasn't going to be some kind of an explosion. "Thank you all for coming. We've got a few things to discuss, but I don't think that it will take very long." She poured herself a cup of tea; as if that had been a signal, everyone else quickly grabbed a drink from the tray.

"The first item on the agenda is next week's training session," Sylia stated, looking around at them. "It's going to be a 'field trip' of sorts; we need to practice taking advantage of the terrain, and moving around in adverse conditions. I'd like to be able to get everyone together at the same time; that way, we can practice some group maneuvers." She looked over at Priss. "Do you think you'll be able to go along on this one, Priss?"

"Sure, no problem," the brown-haired singer nodded. Her leg was a lot better than it had been a few days ago; following Bert's advice, she'd gotten Sylia to set her up with a specialist, and he'd examined her leg. After giving her some alternate medication to try, and a very stern warning to do ONLY the required physiotherapy, her leg was actually feeling a lot better. It was a huge relief to now be able to walk around without constant torture from her injury. The Knight Sabers' leader nodded in acknowledgment, then turned to the next subject, the status of the two newest members of the Knight Sabers.

"I finished testing Sylvie and Anri the other day," she informed everyone. "Based on the results, we should be able to begin putting Sylvie's suit together...."

"Hey, what about Anri?!" Priss interrupted, frowning. "Doesn't she get a suit too?"

"I...I don't want one," Anri's soft voice spoke up before Sylia could reply. The young green-haired woman looked to be equal parts apologetic and embarrassed. She flushed as everyone looked at her, but gamely kept speaking. "I did go through all the tests, but I really don't want to...go out and fight boomers," she said, her gaze shifting from Priss to Sylvie. "I'm just not...I don't...I can't handle the idea of going out and fighting all the time." Sylvie smiled gently back at her, nodding understandingly; Priss looked a bit disappointed, but didn't press the issue.

"There's no shame in that," Bert's voice drifted over from the window. He was still gazing out the window, apparently lost in contemplation, but he'd evidently heard the entire discussion. "Not everyone is cut out to be a fighter; there's no sense in trying to overextend yourself by becoming something you aren't. It just leads to trouble."

"And just what is that supposed to mean?" Nene suddenly asked sharply, eyes narrowing as she finally looked over at him. He didn't turn around or look over, but his posture stiffened.

"It means exactly what it says," he replied in a quiet, level voice. "Someone who isn't very good at fighting has no business getting into heavy combat."

"Well, excuse me, O Great and Powerful Knight," she retorted acidly. "Not all of us are walking war machines." Priss caught her breath, taken a little aback by the vitriolic tone of Nene's comments, but Bert's face didn't indicate anything of his inner thoughts. He merely continued to sip at his mug, staring out the window. Everyone else tried to keep from looking uncomfortable.

"Ahem, well," Sylia cleared her throat tentatively, and tried to force the conversation back into a less volatile area. "As Anri said, she doesn't want a traditional hardsuit. But she did come up with an idea, and it fills a long-standing need of the Knight Sabers Organization: Anri is going to train to become our field medic."

"Congratulations!" It was hard to tell if the overjoyed exclamation came from Priss, Linna, or Sylvie, but all three women obviously thought it was a fantastic idea, and they took turns jumping up and giving Anri a congratulatory hug. Nene unthawed enough to smile at Anri and lean over to congratulate her, resuming her silent, slightly hunched over contemplation of her teacup afterwards. Bert remained by the window. Sylia glanced briefly at him, then spoke up again as the clamour from the happy group subsided a bit.

"I'll introduce you to your instructor tomorrow, and he'll be setting up your working schedule," Sylia told the smaller, dark green-haired woman. Anri nodded, still red-faced and embarrassed from all the congratulations and attention. Sylia smiled reassuringly at her, then shifted her gaze over to Sylvie. "I also have some jobs for you to consider, if you're interested," she offered.

Sylvie nodded eagerly; after several weeks of effectively hiding out at Sylia's, she was anxious to have something to do with herself. Hanging around with Priss, biking all over the place was okay, but she wanted to do something useful.

"Good," Sylia said briskly. "I'll lay out the options for you in the morning. For right now, I believe that concludes all the important business. Unless some else has anything to add?"

No one mentioned any pressing matters, and the meeting was adjourned. Anri and Sylvie started bombarding Sylia with some questions about the jobs she had available, not content to wait until the morning, and Linna appeared to doze off in her easy chair. Nene sat expressionlessly, white-faced, her hands wrapped around her mug as she sipped at it.

Priss stood and stretched a bit, glancing sidelong at Nene uncertainly; the red-headed young woman noticed her glance, then ignored her, refusing to meet her eyes. She was still maintaining a chill demeanor that discouraged any conversational attempts. Priss shrugged mentally, then started to walk around the couches towards Bert, intending to see if he was any more amenable to talking.

As she approached, his eyes swept over to her. For a brief moment, the greenish-brown depths were cold, then the ice thawed a bit, and a faint smile cracked the surface. She smiled warmly back at him, letting him see a bit of her concern for him in her eyes.

"How's your leg?" he asked as she came up to him, standing next to him as he gazed out the window.

"A lot better, thanks," she said, sounding relieved. She refused to be diverted, however. "Never mind me for the moment, are you okay?" she queried in a low voice. He looked over at her, and shrugged.

"About as well as can be expected, under the circumstances," he replied quietly, wincing and adjusting his arm sling. A brief flash of bitterness sped across his face.

"Want to...talk about it? I'm not busy right now," she offered hesitantly. She could tell that his emotional shields snapped up immediately, blocking everything off.

"Thanks for the offer, but no. I don't really feel like talking right now, about that in particular." He glanced at the clock, then back at her. "I'll see you later; I've got a few things to see to right now." Priss nodded, and gave his arm a gentle squeeze, trying to express what she couldn't say verbally; a brief smile flickered then died out on his face, then he was gone, striding rapidly from the apartment. He didn't look around before leaving, grimly intent on just getting out of the room.

Priss sighed, watching him leave, a troubled and concerned look on her face. After a moment, she sighed again, then grabbed her jacket from where she'd flung it over the back of a chair. Shrugging into it and wrapping her scarf snugly around her neck, she left herself.

She missed entirely the hotly suspicious look that Nene sent after her as she left.

 

FOUR DAYS LATER....

"I'm sorry, Sylia," Linna said, throwing her hands up in frustration. "I can't get through that shell she's wearing; Nene just flat-out won't talk to me, or anyone else for that matter. She's walking around nursing a grudge, and I don't know why." The black-haired dancer reached up and pushed some stray hairs out of the way, tucking them under her hairband. "I'm not sure how she's doing at work, either; I couldn't even get her to talk about that. I spent the entire afternoon with her, and I ended up doing most of the talking. I'm positive I sounded like a complete air-head most of the time," she said agitatedly, flopping into a chair. "I was hoping she'd loosen up, but she didn't."

"Damn," Sylia sighed tiredly, taking a swig from her coffee cup. She'd been hoping that someone would be able to crack the stony walls of silence that had gone up between Bert, Nene, and everyone else, but it was proving to be a protracted siege. Neither was willing to say anything, to anyone. "We'll keep trying," she decided, trying to keep her worry from showing. "They can't stay uncommunicative forever."

"Want to bet?" Linna asked glumly, shaking her head. She shifted around in her chair, trying to get comfortable. "You're talking about Bert, for one thing; he's as stubborn as Priss is, if not more so. Between the two of them, they'd be able to give a mule lessons in obstinance."

"Maybe she should try and get him to open up," Sylia said with a faint smile at Linna's description. "Immovable object meets irresistible force."

"Right," Linna snorted, grinning a moment later. "Maybe we'd better have the paramedics standing by; that could become messy." The two women exchanged a smile that somehow made things seem a little bit lighter, despite the circumstances.

****

Bert sealed down the last section of armour plating, and stepped back from the worktable. Swiping a sleeve across his streaming forehead, he stretched a moment later, wincing at the fiery twinges from his just barely healed shoulder and side. With a sigh, he scooped up the portable diagnostic scanner from a side bench, and swept the red-pink hardsuit laying on the table with a sensor probe. A faintly self-satisfied smile crawled onto his face briefly; according to the readouts, everything was perfect. All that was left was for Nene to actually field-test the modifications sometime.

The smile disappeared as a fresh wave of depression threatened to break over him at the thought of the red-headed young woman. Trying to hold it in check, he tipped the worktable up slightly, standing the empty hardsuit up, and carefully slid Nene's suit onto the waiting dolly, grunting a bit with the strain of moving the heavy armour around. Once the suit was secure, it took him a few minutes to wheel it back to the hardsuit storage room, and a few more minutes to heave it back into its accustomed storage bay. He stifled the swear words that sprang to mind when his shoulder complained about the labour.

The loading ramp for the bay slid back inside, carrying the red-pink suit with it; a moment later, the hydraulic door hissed shut, hiding the armour from view. Bert stared morosely at the metal portal for a moment, shoulders slumped a bit, as gloomy thoughts churned around in his mind.

Abruptly, an irritated expression swept over his features; straightening up, he pulled a crumpled checklist from one pocket, extracting a pen from another, and made some notes on it before crossing off one of the tasks in the 'to do' column. He scowled blackly at the crinkled sheet of paper for a moment, then stuffed it back into his pocket along with the pen. Grabbing the now-empty dolly, he made his way back to the shop.

Stowing the dolly out of the way, he turned to the work bench along the side of the cluttered room, and began assembling an impressive array of tools and esoteric-looking parts on the countertop. He studied the pile of technological accessories for a moment, then vanished into a shadow-cloaked corner of the cavernous room. A minute or so later, he reappeared, wheeling a beaten and scorched-looking hardsuit on another dolly. The suit might have been silver with blue trim at one time, but it was mostly burned black now. Gouges and deep scoring marred the plating, and there was a crusted red stain around a jagged rip on top of the suit's left shoulder.

With some effort, he awkwardly managed to lever his SkyKnight armour next to the worktable top, which was still tilted up into a vertical position, and strapped it to the surface. Carefully, he lowered the slab again, leaving the suit laying on its back, ready to be repaired. Stifling a sudden yawn, Bert kicked the dolly out of the way impatiently; it rolled away further into the shop, hitting something with a bang.

The red-haired young man didn't notice, but stepped over to the hotplate at the end of another, out-of-the-way bench, and poured himself the last cup of coffee that had been slowly distilling in the pot. He added some large, heaping spoonfuls of sugar with a splash of cream, and slowly drank the concoction down. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve as he set the mug down, he rolled up his sleeves, grabbed a tool from his selected pile, and got to work.

Minutes soon blurred into hours, and the hours stretched until they seemed to extend an unimaginable distance into his memory. He was conscious of stopping occasionally for another cup of tea or coffee, or a side-trip to the washroom, but he wasn't really paying attention. His mind seemed to vanish under a computer-like efficiency, as thoughts of his hardsuit consumed his mind.

The wrecked battlesuit on the worktable seemed to metamorphose, losing all its armour plating, and becoming a jumbled heap of myomer bundles, circuitry and microchips. He glanced at a set of blueprints occasionally, checking what he was doing, then continuing to overhaul his suit. The suit began to regrow its skin, bright silvery plating covering twisted circuits.

The hand that suddenly dropped onto his forearm was as unexpected as a bolt of lightning from a clear, sunny sky. He spun harshly, arms coming up, half-ready to attack whoever had grabbed him, when his mind frantically caught up with him, pointing out that it wasn't an assault. He abruptly reined himself in, forcing his pulse to slow down, trying to relax.

A young woman with concerned-looking red-brown eyes, and long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail was staring at him. She was reasonably tall, and clad in a fairly form-fitting red and black leather bike suit. It was an indication of how far gone he was that he didn't immediately recognize Priss, but instead stood staring stupidly at her, trying to figure out who she was, and how she'd gotten into the building. It dawned on him suddenly that she was speaking.

"Bert, are you bloody listening to me?!" she demanded, her tone halfway towards becoming angry. "What the hell have you been doing?! You look like shit!" He shook his head, trying to clear it while rubbing the back of a hand across his eyes.

"Uh, hi, Priss," he rasped, distantly noticing that his voice sounded somewhat hoarse. He cleared his throat, and stood a bit straighter. "What are you doing here?" Her eyes narrowed, and a few flickers of anger flashed in their depths.

"Checking on you, you jerk," she informed him, putting her hands on her hips, glaring. "Now answer my question: What are you doing?"

"Fixing my suit up," he replied, shrugging and gesturing towards the worktable. "Surely that's obvious."

"That's not what I meant!" she stormed, stepping a little closer, glaring at him. "Why the hell have you been avoiding everyone for the last two days?!"

"Two days?" he echoed vaguely, frowning as he tried to remember, scratching his jaw and noting absently that he needed to shave again. A few days after the meeting, he'd been able to remove his arm sling. The minute he'd been able to work again, he'd run some computer simulations, then he'd rebuilt and upgraded Nene's suit, then he'd started rebuilding his ....uh-oh. It was entirely possible that he'd lost track of the time.

In fact, sifting back through the hazy memories and counting up the tally of mugs of tea or coffee he'd drank, she was quite likely telling the truth; caffeine was likely the only thing keeping him upright at the moment. A moment later, his stomach rumbled hollowly, confirming his theory. Priss watched him as he tried to piece his memory back together, scowling and crossing her arms over her chest, while tapping a foot impatiently.

"Two days," she confirmed. "You've been even more reclusive than usual since the meeting a few days ago. Why?"

"Uh, I lost track of the time?" he tried tentatively.

"Bullshit," she spat. "You're hiding again, aren't you?!"

"Well can you goddamn blame me if I am?!" he suddenly shouted, fatigue finally cracking the restraints on his temper. The hurt and frustration he'd been bottling up for days suddenly bubbled forth like steam from a geyser. "Why the hell doesn't everyone just bugger off and leave me alone?!"

"Because we care about you, you jackass! You and Nene both!"

"Well, isn't that touching," he said bitterly, turning away towards his suit again. "Just go away; leave me alone." The brown-haired singer stepped forwards, grabbing him by the arm, and spinning him back to face her. Her expression had changed from anger to an entreating look.

"Bert, please," she said quietly. "You've got to talk about this, or you're going to blow up, maybe in more ways than one. Please, let me help. I...I care about you, damnit, and I don't want ... you doing this to yourself," she finished. There was just the faintest hint of a flush in her cheeks as she fell silent, a beseeching look on her face.

"I don't...I can't....talk about it," he gritted, intense pain abruptly visible in his face. "I don't even want to think about it. Damn it, just let me leave it alone, please."

"No," Priss said quietly, but firmly. "This isn't helping you, and you're deluding yourself if you think that pretending it didn't happen will make it go away. Now drop the tools, and come back to your apartment. I...."

"I'm not pretending it didn't happen," he snarled, fists clenching unconsciously. "I was goddamn there; I KNOW it happened!!" A memory of a tearful, red-haired young woman saying that she didn't want to see him anymore flared in the back of his mind. He physically flinched away from the memory; it still felt like a raw, open wound, even after a little more than a week. "I've got to get my mind off of it; I've got to do something," he told her, his tone only a shade more reasonable. "I don't want to just sit by myself feeling miserable."

"You don't have to sit by yourself; you do have some other friends, remember?!" she reminded him sharply. "Why the hell don't you try considering their feelings once in a while?!"

"I was," he replied simply. "I was staying away. I can't burden everyone else with my problems."

"Oh, right," she snorted, her tone dripping acid. "I forgot: honourable knights have to bear these things by themselves, suffering nobly in silence, right?" She suddenly stepped close to him, grabbing the front of his sweater in her fists and jerking him forwards towards her. Red-brown eyes bored into his. "You're done for the day," she informed him grimly. "Hell, you're done for at least a couple of days. We are going to go back to your apartment, you're going to eat something and get cleaned up, not necessarily in that order, and then we are going to talk, whether you want to or not."

"I'm...."

"Either come willingly, or I'm gonna crown you with a pipewrench and bloody well drag you out of here," she cut him off flatly. "And don't think I won't."

Bert stared back into Priss's determined-looking eyes, his somewhat hazy mind trying to decide if she was serious or not. She certainly looked ready to clobber him with a wrench, or something else equally heavy. As he looked at her, he thought he detected genuine worry, concern, and ... something else? He woke suddenly to the fact that having her standing so close to him was unsettling, and flushed a bit, slapping his mind down for seeing things that probably weren't there. Proof that he was tired: he was starting to hallucinate.

"All right, fine; I'm done," he surrendered, sighing deeply. Priss released the clenched grip she had on his shirt, and stepped aside, jerking a thumb towards the door, her lips set in a grim, disgusted line. Bert started to say something else, but then thought better of it as her gaze narrowed. Sighing again, he left the shop, the irate young woman following a moment later.

****

Leon sipped carefully at the mug of nearly-scalding coffee, wincing and setting it aside. He leaned back in his chair as he gazed out the front window of the small coffee shop he was lounging in, idly watching the pedestrians get blown around by the chill winds that had been scouring the city for about a week now with unseasonably cold weather.

After a moment, he turned back to the file folder sitting on the table in front of him, with its contents spread all over the small tabletop. He sighed as he looked at the small pile of painstakingly searched-out files and reports; all that effort expended, and all he had was a puzzle still as perplexing as before. What it all meant was that there was something damn strange afoot.

The forensics report had matched the cartridge casings he'd found with ammunition and firearms used by a now-defunct mercenary kidnap group; the mercs were out of business because the ADP had managed to capture them. The only reason that the ADP had caught them was because someone, or something, had beat the crap out of them and left them to be found. The descriptions varied, but after sifting through all the coherent testimony from the imprisoned mercs, it sounded like they'd encountered a hardsuit.

It was where they'd encountered the hardsuit that had been surprising; two of the injured soldiers had said it had been at the house of some guy they were supposed to catch. While they'd refused to be more forthcoming about exactly where it had all happened, one of them had let slip that they'd been looking for somebody with red hair, somebody that their employer was willing to spend obscene amounts of money to capture.

Leon didn't believe in coincidences, not to this degree. He knew of only one person with red hair, who lived in an isolated spot. To his mind, that fact that he'd found matching cartridge casings at Bert's house proved that it had been him that the mercenaries had been after. The question was, why?

Leon picked up his coffee cup again, and sipped carefully, taking a larger mouthful when it proved to be cool enough to drink. His blue-eyed gaze roamed around the mostly-empty coffee shop as his mind pondered the possibilities.

Nene's boyfriend was supposedly an engineer, so it was possible that he had some specialized knowledge that someone could be after. If it happened to be related to some government agency, it might possibly explain why there had been a cloak-and-dagger shrouding of his past; he didn't believe for a moment that the miraculously materialized historical files were legitimate. At the same time, however, it didn't....feel right. This didn't feel like it concerned a covert government agency.

The other option was that it was a corporate concern; corporate politics and maneuvering could get just as ugly as 'official business' could. Whatever the cause was, it was evident that the red-headed man was hiding something, and whatever it was, it meant a lot to someone.

Then there was the matter of the strange hardsuit. From the wildly varying descriptions, it was anywhere from six to ten feet tall, coloured black and dark blue, with talons and wings. While Leon doubted the veracity of some of the descriptions, the colouration of the suit, and the remark about wings sounded vaguely familiar. It had been a while, but he still had a vague, hazy memory of being carried, bloody and battered, into a hospital by a tall, blue-black suit.

If it was the same battlesuit that had saved his life, then what was it doing hanging around somebody's home? Just what was going on around here?

****

"Okay, now talk," Priss commanded, dropping into the couch across from his recliner. She was cradling a steaming mug of hot chocolate in her hands, identical to the one Bert was holding. Her intent gaze never left his face as she sipped at her drink.

"Well what the hell do you want me to say?!" Bert retorted wearily, reaching up and brushing his damp hair back out of his eyes. He felt a lot better having showered and eaten something, but now his extended building spree was dragging him down to where he felt like doing nothing but going to sleep. Priss, however, wasn't about to let him doze off just yet.

"You've got to tell someone about what's happening with you and Nene," she told him. "You can't just sit there and stew over it."

"Nothing's happening, at all," he replied bitterly. "She thinks I've turned killer, and she won't talk to me. Throw on the fact that I made a stupid remark when I should've kept my mouth shut, and you've got a fine mess." He fell silent, sipping at his mug; while it was delicious, he couldn't enjoy it for some reason, and it wasn't helping to cheer him up any.

Priss sat quietly for a moment, sipping her own drink. Her curious side wondered what the stupid remark had been, but she kept silent about it; she could understand how painful remembering it all was for him, and didn't want to aggravate things. He kept speaking as she drank.

"The dumb remark was just the tip of the iceberg," he noted sourly. Taking a deep breath, he outlined what had happened that night when the K-17s had tried arresting him, and the aftermath once Nene had found out, including her remarks to him at Sylia's. Recounting the events was painful, especially since he didn't really want to remember some of them, but in some odd way, he felt something ease within him at the same time. He did feel a bit better by the time he'd finished speaking. Priss listened attentively to him the entire time, nursing her mug in her hands, leaning forwards with her elbows balanced on her knees; she'd heard most of it before, but getting him talking about it was the only way he was going to be able to get over it.

"Have you tried talking to her since then?" she asked quietly, although she had a good idea of what the answer was going to be.

"Of course!" he snapped, gulping down the dregs of his chocolate. Angrily swiping a hand across his mouth, he banged his mug down on the coffee table. "I've tried phoning her at work, several times; she's now screening her calls through one of her secretary friends, and I don't know what she's told them, but ice would be warmer than the reception I get when I say who's calling." The churning emotional mix of heartache, anger, and resentment over his treatment threatened to boil over for a moment, but he throttled it back with some effort. Practice, part of his mind noted sourly.

"What about outside work?"

"I couldn't get her to answer her door," he replied flatly. "And I almost had the cops land on me because somebody reported a suspicious individual lurking around the building."

"Oh." Priss fell silent, unsure of what to say. She absently ran a hand through her hair as she tried to think of a way out of the emotional impasse he seemed to be in. Offhand, she couldn't. Nene had to at least be willing to talk first, and she was very effectively stifling any communication attempts.

"So what are you going to do now?" she asked quietly, setting her mug over on the table.

"Nothing," he said tersely. "I know I've changed because of....everything that's happened. I don't like what's happened in a lot of ways, but I didn't really have much say in the matter, did I?" He suddenly stood, and began pacing, suppressed anger in his movements.

"I've been asking myself how I could have avoided this for days now," he told her. "And I keep coming up with the same answer: the only way I could have sidestepped what's happened to me is if I hadn't helped Sylvie and Anri, and I...."

"You're...you're not blaming them, are you?" Priss interrupted hesitantly. He shook his head.

"No, I'm not. I've replayed what happened back then too many times to count," he replied, sighing. "I get the same result every time: I would still have gone along with Sylvie. All right, so I wasn't much help at the time; I still couldn't just let a friend go off alone. It's the way I am, and the way I'll probably always be." Priss nodded, relaxing a bit; she'd been half afraid he was going to be blaming Sylvie for what had happened to him. Sylvie had certainly been blaming herself there for a while.

"You want to know what really hurts?" he asked suddenly, dropping into his chair again abruptly, and rubbing at his eyes tiredly. "Being called a killer was just part of it, but knowing that she actually believes that I'm capable of... killing someone in cold blood is what really hurts. I thought she knew me better than that." His hands came down and clenched into fists as he gritted his teeth. "I've fought against this for weeks now, against becoming too callous and ready to resort to force as a solution. I know I'm less patient than I was, and shorter-tempered, but I haven't turned into a killer, and I won't."

"I'm sure she doesn't believe that, deep down," Priss tried reassuring him. "The rest of us don't."

"Thanks," he replied glumly, "but I don't think that's going to help. It looks like Nene doesn't...want to see me anymore, for whatever reason." The thought cut and burned at him like a stroke from one of his lightsabers, and his voice thickened a bit. "Excuse me, but I think I'd better get to bed and get some sleep." Before Priss could stop him or say anything, he stood and strode across the apartment into the bedroom, closing the door behind him a moment later. Heavy silence settled over everything, somehow giving the entire apartment an air of depressed gloom.

"Shit," Priss muttered disgustedly, slouching back into the couch, worry and sympathy in her red-brown eyes as she gazed at the closed door. Well, at least she'd gotten him to talk about it; she was just going to have to settle for that for the moment.

Standing up with a sigh, Priss gathered up the empty mugs and dumped them in the sink after a quick rinse; they could be washed later. She looked around the apartment again, then shrugged. She walked over to the closet by the door, and pulled her jacket and scarf out of it, intending to leave. Slowly, she started pulling her coat on, then stopped, her eyes again going to the closed bedroom door while an indecisive look pulled at her face.

After a moment, Priss shucked the jacket off again, and tossed the outerwear back into the closet. The brown-haired singer walked back over to the couch area, and picked up the pillow and folded blanket that were tucked into the seat of a nearby chair. With a sigh, she settled into the couch, sticking the pillow behind her head, and draping the blanket over her legs. Folding her arms behind her head, she stared at the ceiling for a while as her mind wandered. After a while, she dozed off.

 

THE NEXT DAY....

Priss jerked upright on the couch, muzzily looking around at the unfamiliar surroundings as knocking again sounded from the front door. After a moment of groggy floundering around, she managed to get loose from the blanket that had somehow become tangled around her legs, although she fell off the couch at the same time, hitting the floor with a loud thud.

Swearing under her breath, she stood up, irritably pitching the offending blanket over a chair, and padded across the apartment, brushing her hair into some semblance of order with her hands. She hadn't heard any noises from Bert's room, so it was unlikely he could hear anything. Sighing, she opened the door.

"Priss?!" Linna said, obviously surprised. "What are you doing here? Where's Bert?" The black haired aerobics instructor was wearing a scarf and bulky coat, both hanging open since she was indoors. Her cheeks were bright red from wind exposure and cold.

"Sleeping off a two-day engineering spree," Priss informed her, stepping back and letting her in. "Yesterday I went to see if I could get him to open up and talk; he'd been up for two days straight, and he was so bloody out of it, he didn't seem to know who I was at first. I had to threaten to slug him before he decided to call it quits for the time being and get some rest."

"That's always your solution to his stubbornness problem, isn't it?" Linna asked. A moment later, an impudent grin split her face. "We'll have to try it the next time we're trying to convince you of something, if it works that easily."

"Oh, very funny," Priss muttered. Linna grinned again, and began peeling off her jacket, scarf, and shoes as Priss closed the door behind her. "Any more wisecracks at my expense, or was there a purpose to this visit?" the disgruntled singer asked.

"There was," Linna nodded. "We'd scheduled a practice session for this morning, and I was supposed to meet him here." She sighed as she draped her coat and scarf over the back of a chair by the door, then flopped into another padded easy chair. "Good thing I don't have any other plans, since it looks like this might be a long wait."

"Maybe not that long," Priss disagreed squinting at the clock as she sat on the couch. "He's had a bit over twelve hours of sleep now; he'll probably be up before long, insisting nothing's wrong with him."

"The voice of experience speaking," Linna deadpanned, smirking at the flat look Priss gave her. "You still didn't answer my question about what you were doing here," she noted a moment later.

"Uh, well," Priss flushed uncomfortably. "Someone had to keep an eye on him. Just so he couldn't go sneaking back to the shop," she added quickly. "That's it." She reddened a bit further under Linna's appraising gaze.

"Would you quit staring at me like that?!" she demanded crossly.

"That wasn't the only reason, though, was it?" Linna asked quietly, tilting her head and giving Priss a knowing look.

"All right, I felt sorry for him, and I thought somebody should be here if he needed someone to talk to," the brown-haired singer muttered, then glared at her friend. "Happy now?"

"It sounds to me like you're falling for him," Linna remarked, cocking her head sideways and grinning impishly.

"Falling for him?!" Priss spluttered indignantly. "Don't be goddamn ridiculous! He's a friend, that's it!" She couldn't help flushing a moment later, however, as she suddenly remembered the feelings she'd had when he'd kissed her a while back. It had been a ... pleasant experience, but one she'd been trying to forget. She'd kept telling herself that he'd meant it as a gesture of friendship, nothing more, but she hadn't been able to banish the incident from her mind.

"Uh-huh, right," Linna replied in a tone that made Priss want to throttle her immediately. Linna's normally cheerful bright blue eyes suddenly turned serious. "Did you consider what might happen if Nene had decided to stop by and found you here? I mean before you decided to spend the night watching him?"

"The thought had occurred to me," Priss admitted, sighing. "Given the way she's handling this problem, though, I don't think she's going to be dropping in for a visit. If she did, I doubt she'd listen to any explanations about the situation, either." She suddenly looked irritated. "So what am I supposed to do then? Stay away from him so that I don't offend anyone? Not bloody likely!"

"I never said that," Linna replied quietly. "I just wanted to know if you'd considered what she might think." An awkward, uncomfortable silence dropped between the two women as they became preoccupied with their own thoughts.

A muffled thud sounded from the direction of the bedroom, and what sounded like someone swearing briefly could be heard. Priss and Linna swapped a knowing grin, then Priss stood and went over to the kitchen area and started a kettle of water boiling. As the kettle worked away at its task, she leaned against the counter, folding her arms across her chest, watching the doorway. Linna remained in her chair.

The door opened, and a scruffy-looking, bleary-eyed form with hopelessly messy red hair shambled out from the bedroom. He groggily stumbled across the room to the bathroom, entered, and fumbled the door closed. Priss and Linna swapped another grin, shaking their heads; he hadn't even noticed their presences, proof that he was still out of it.

By the time Bert emerged from the washroom, looking more groomed and alert, Priss had whipped up a pot of tea, and already gotten herself and Linna a mugful. The two women were now seated in chairs by the coffee table, watching him with faint smirks on their faces. Like iron drawn to a lodestone, the red-haired young man went to the teapot first and mixed up a large mugful of the steaming beverage, taking a huge swallow right off the bat.

"Why, good morning!" Linna called over in a bright, cheery tone. "It's so nice to see you again, too!"

"What the...?!" Bert was startled by the unexpected voice, and inadvertently inhaled some of the liquid in his mug. Coughing and spluttering, he managed to avoid dumping what was left on the floor, exerting some ironclad control on himself long enough to shakily set the mug over on the countertop while he hacked and gagged into the kitchen sink.

"That was mean," Priss muttered under her breath to her friend, unable to keep a smirk from forming as they watched him sputter.

"No meaner than what you do to him at times," Linna replied impishly, sipping her drink. Priss flushed guiltily, and fell silent. After a few moments of tortured coughing, Bert wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. Glaring at the two friends, who'd artfully assumed innocent expressions, he retrieved his mug and walked over to them, carefully sitting down across from them.

"And to what do I owe the pleasure of your unexpected company?" he asked sourly, swigging some tea. There wasn't much in the way of cheer in his face; he looked more like he was about to go to someone's funeral.

"We had a practice session today, remember?" Linna asked, refusing to be put off by his dour appearance. "I was supposed to meet up with you here, and then we were going to hike off to the club."

"Oh yeah; I did agree to that, didn't I?" he mused, sighing and shaking his head. "Well, I don't really feel like..."

"You're going," Linna said flatly, her cheeriness vanishing like a burst balloon. "I'm not letting you sit in here all day, moping and groaning about your problems. You can't just expect everything else to stop because you're having difficulties; life goes on, you know."

"I wasn't going to sit here...."

"Well, you're not going back to the shop, either," Priss cut him off, slashing her hand through the air. "You've overdone it enough for a while."

"Can I please get a sentence finished?!" he demanded in exasperation.

"NO!" they immediately chorused. "You are going," Linna told him implacably. "Even if we have to drag you."

Cold greenish-brown eyes met determined blue ones in a contest of wills for a moment. Bert's jaw muscles tightened as he briefly considered telling his friends exactly what they could do with themselves and their idea, but he dismissed the impulse. There was no need for pointless invective just because he was in a foul mood; they were concerned about him, that was all. Something eased in him a little more at that thought, and he gave up.

"Fine," he sighed, throwing his hands up. "I'm going. Just give me a couple of minutes to get my track stuff together." Linna nodded, and he stood and went into the bedroom, dropping his mug on the counter along the way. Priss and Linna exchanged a smug smile of satisfaction.

"Well, that went better than I expected," Linna remarked, sighing.

"You couldn't see yourself," Priss said dryly, smirking. "You almost looked like you were about to start on a martial arts lesson right here."

"Speaking of lessons," Linna said thoughtfully, looking over at her, "isn't today when we were supposed to do another rehab session? You can come along too; I can do your rehab right after Bert's session, and it'll save me having to hunt you down later."

Suddenly wishing she'd kept her mouth shut, Priss sighed, and mentally began preparing for a long day.

****

Madigan sighed irritably, shoving the file folder in front of her off to the side. She leaned back in her chair, allowing herself the brief luxury of a stretch before she sat up again and stared at the data files cluttering her desktop. She ran a hand through her long lavender-hued hair in unconscious frustration.

Days of searching, and she still didn't have any better leads as to what was going on. Investigation of the captured mercenaries hadn't provided anything beyond the vague hint of a description of their quarry at the time, and the fact that their former, unidentified employer had been willing to pay a small ransom for the 'acquisition' of this person. Why this person was being sought was yet another mystery to add to the heap.

Investigating the Knight Sabers hadn't yielded results, either. After SkyKnight's second brief altercation with the ADP, humiliating the cops in the process, the armoured group had apparently vanished again. Of course, the lack of boomer rampages lately might have had something to do with that; she made a mental note to requisition more boomers for 'testing purposes'.

Madigan dismissed the Knight Sabers from her mind for a moment, turning back to the puzzle with the mercenaries; there was at least a bit more information to work with. As she considered her options, she stared unseeingly out the window of her office at the clouded, drab gray sky beyond. After a moment, an idea formed; there was one way to get some more information after all.

A grimly determined smile appearing, she reached out and picked up the phone.

****

"Would the two of you PLEASE quit griping?!" Linna said exasperatedly, hands on her hips as she regarded two tracksuit-clad forms slumped on the side-bench. "It wasn't that bad!"

"Easy for you to say," Bert muttered, wincing and gingerly rubbing the back of his neck. "You weren't the one had their head get snapped backwards." He shifted around on the bench, trying to get a little more comfortable, making a mental note to get the benches padded.

"Well it's your own fault," his blue-eyed Sensei snapped peevishly. "I told you to keep your guard up, and to pay attention, but you weren't, were you? Maybe now you'll listen to me when I'm instructing you!" She'd been trying to show him a block to use against certain kinds of hand-to-hand attacks, and he'd been slow in getting his hands up, the result being that she'd made his bells ring with an unintentional uppercut. She couldn't help feeling mildly guilty over it, but at the same time, she was irritated that he hadn't been paying attention. She had a pretty good idea of what was distracting him, but that wasn't an excuse; boomers didn't stop trying to kill you just because you were depressed.

"You know, it wouldn't kill you to learn to show a little sympathy for your students, Linna," Priss noted, her leg propped up on another section of the bench. She winced herself and rubbed fiercely at it, trying to massage some of the soreness out; it had greatly improved over the past couple of weeks, but every time Linna browbeat her through another rehab session, it felt like she'd gone back to square one again. "At the very least, it might make putting up with the classes a bit easier," she added. Linna threw up her hands exasperatedly.

"Priss," she said almost despairingly, "I've done nothing BUT show sympathy for almost the last month, and all I keep hearing from you is the same grumbling and complaining about your leg, and how it feels lousy." Her voice suddenly dropped to a tolerable imitation of Priss's tones. "'Well YOU get shot through the bloody leg muscles, and we'll just see how spry you are afterwards!'" Bert couldn't keep a smirk from twitching at his mouth as he glanced sidelong at Priss.

"I'm getting just a little tired of it," Linna told the brown-haired singer, sighing. "Your leg is fine, and it's gotten a lot better. Soreness from a workout now just means that it's mostly healed, and the muscles are getting back into shape. There's nothing to worry about anymore, so I'd appreciate a lot less hassle, please!!"

"Sorry," Priss mumbled, flushing a bit. "I'll try to stop it."

Linna nodded acknowledgment, considering the matter closed. She picked up her track bag, draping her towel around her neck, and turned to go. She hesitated a moment, then turned back to her exhausted friends.

"When did you want the next practice session?" she asked, directing the question mostly at Bert; Priss' rehab sessions were pretty much already booked and set.

"I don't suppose I could just skip it?" he queried hopefully, then raised his hands, warding off the glare Linna gave him. "I know, I know," he sighed, forestalling her before she could speak. "You're not going to let me sit by myself, moping and groaning, right?"

"Right," Linna confirmed, looking determined. "Shall we say, three days from now? Good. I'll catch you later then." Before anyone could say anything, she turned and swept from the room.

"Well, thanks for asking for my input," Bert muttered sarcastically to the empty room, sighing and shaking his head. A faint smirk twitched at Priss' face at his remark, but she didn't comment herself. They say silently for a few minutes, Priss still massaging her leg. At length, Bert sighed and stretched a bit, looking over at her.

"I, uh, guess I should thank you for dragging me out of the shop," he told her hesitantly, not quite meeting her gaze. "I'd probably have keeled over eventually if you hadn't."

"Hey, no problem," Priss replied quietly. "I just didn't want you ... overdoing it."

"Well, it's nice to know someone was concerned enough to look me up," he said, smiling a little. "Thanks." He stood up and stretched again, towering over everything else in the room for a brief instant. Priss swung her leg off the bench, and prepared to try standing up. He immediately offered her a hand, which she accepted.

"Thanks," she told him, using him as an anchor while she pulled herself upright; her leg throbbed a bit, then seemed to quiet down. Yes, it was definitely a lot better. "I don't think I could have done that by myself." She realized she was still holding his hand, and released it, trying to seem casual; he didn't appear to notice.

"No problem." Bert looked hesitant for a moment, then his greenish-brown eyes met hers. "Will I, uh, be seeing you later in the week?" he asked, flushing a bit. "I'd, uh, like to, if it's all right with you. Just so I don't start regressing," he added, a bit hastily. Looking into his eyes, she could see suppressed loneliness there, and she smiled reassuringly back at him.

"I'd like that," she told him, reaching out and giving his arm a brief squeeze. "You should know you don't have to ask; we're friends, remember?" He smiled back, relieved. They stood quietly for a moment, each briefly preoccupied with their own inner thoughts.

"Well, we can't hang around here for the rest of the day," Priss said briskly, snapping them back to the present. "Let's get out of here; I've got a few things to do today." Bert nodded wordlessly, and held the door open for her as they left the exercise room.

 

TWO DAYS LATER....

The energetic hum of the throng of people crowded into one of the myriad shopping plazas around MegaTokyo pervaded everything, like the buzzing of bees in a disturbed hive. All along the lengths of the walkways, people were browsing the windows for bargains, or dodging into and out of stores, searching for the last items on their lists that still eluded them.

Two young women slowly made their way through the bustling crowds, carefully maneuvering to get through the teeming hordes of people. Both of them were wearing ADP uniforms, although heavy jackets and scarves had been added to the usual uniform skirt, blouse and jacket out of deference to the chilly weather. Brown paper-wrapped packages were tucked under their arms, their acquisitions for the day.

The most energetic of the pair was blue-eyed, with freckles, and short brown hair held in place by a green headband; she was chattering animatedly to her friend, and looking around at everything. Her friend was quieter, a slender, attractive young woman with vibrant, shoulder-length red hair and eyes that were a deep emerald green. There was a subtle hint of depression around her, and it was obvious to any interested observers that she wasn't really paying much attention to her friend.

"Hey, Nene," Naoko prodded her with an elbow, frowning. "Are you listening to me?"

"Of course I am," Nene lied, resisting the urge to sigh at the same time; Naoko was a good friend, and she meant well, but she just couldn't seem to grasp the idea that she'd wanted to be left alone, not badgered into a shopping trip on their lunch break. She was having a hard time maintaining a facade of at least partial interest in things.

"Well?"

"Well what?"

"Well did you want to stop here and get something to drink?" Naoko repeated exasperatedly, gesturing to a small coffee shop/cafe off to the side. Nene considered the question for a moment, then nodded, deciding that she could use something warm and cheering right now.

The two ADP officers entered the cafe, and selected a seat by the window, overlooking the sidewalks with a fairly good view down the street. An apron-clad waitress came by, took their order, and returned a few moments later with two mugs of hot chocolate and some cookies. Nene picked up her mug and sipped slowly at it, savouring the rich chocolate. Naoko followed suit, mercifully keeping quiet while she drank. The cookies slowly disappeared as well.

Nene gazed quietly out through the cafe window at the milling crowds, feeling a brief stab of envy over how carefree some of the people roughly her own age looked. None of them looked like they were contending with horrendous nightmares, or a boyfriend who'd changed on them. It was a measure of how depressed she was that Nene found herself wondering if she'd have been any better off by staying out of the Knight Sabers. She regarded the rest of the team as her extended family, but in many ways, she was wondering now what she might have paid for that privilege.

She ordered another chocolate along with Naoko, and they again sat quietly drinking; her usually talkative friend seemed to have finally picked up on her mood enough to be able to tell that she didn't really feel like speaking, and was keeping quiet. Nene was grateful, since it gave her some time to try and resolve her thoughts.

She glanced again at the restless stream of shoppers, not really seeing them as she tried to sort out in her mind just what it was that was bothering her. Part of it was definitely the nightmares; what had happened with Hollister, and the renegade red boomer weeks later had scared her, more than she was willing to admit. Sure, she knew their work as armoured protectors of the city was dangerous, but it had always been someone else who'd been hurt. The last couple of times, she'd very nearly been killed, and she didn't like having to confront reality quite so brutally; it just wasn't fair!

The quietly nagging voice in the back of her mind that had been pestering her for the last couple of weeks again pointed out that she was being childish; nothing was fair most of the time, and whining about it was pointless. The voice also noted that maybe it was time for her to stop being stubbornly immature about her problems with Bert; screening her phone calls through one of her friends at the station had been unkind, and not answering her door or the phone at home had been the act of a sulky young girl.

Nene tried strangling off the unwelcome voice of her conscience without much success; it had gotten a lot stronger, and she couldn't just ignore it anymore. At the time, she'd wanted to hurt him as much as he'd hurt her; it had really been painful for her, hearing Bert tell her she should stop acting like a little girl.

She wondered if he even had any idea of how much that remark had hurt; after almost three years of a relationship, it had seemed like he still considered her a kid, and didn't take her seriously. His remarks at the meeting a few days ago had been almost the same; he had a lot of nerve saying what she shouldn't be doing, especially considering the messes he usually managed to get himself tangled up in. She'd been nursing a grudge for a while now, but the effort of maintaining it was starting to wear her down.

Adding to her somewhat confused state of mind at the moment was uncertainty over his state of mind. Although he'd improved in the interim since his encounter with Hollister, she was still a little afraid of what he might do; he seemed a lot more impatient and unbalanced at times than he used to. His actions against the ADP seemed to confirm her analysis; he was less careful, and more apt to use force.

But had he really changed all that much? That was the question she'd been trying to resolve for a while now, without success. She'd finally accepted with great reluctance the fact that the original 'Knight-in-Shining-Armour' she'd started going out with was gone. The thought had given her an obscure kind of pang, but she'd finally realized that it was inevitable; no one could go through some of what he'd endured and not be altered by it. She'd been altered herself by what had happened, and she hadn't even been a direct participant in most of it.

She sighed morosely to herself, gloomily staring out the window of the coffee shop. It had been almost a week now since he'd last tried to call her. Could he have given up? He wouldn't have before, she was certain of that much at least, and that might indicate a change in his feelings. She ignored her conscience when it pointed out that her behaviour might have had something to do with that.

The question was, now what was she supposed to do? She flushed slightly, as guilt gnawed at her. Given the way she'd stonewalled him, she supposed it was up to her to make the first move now, and try apologizing to him. She consoled herself with the fact that he'd probably accept it; he'd likely be happy she was speaking to him again. Slightly cheered by that thought, she drank the last of her chocolate, setting the mug down.

"Ready to go now?" Naoko asked her cheerily, noting that her friend looked a little better. Nene nodded wordlessly, and the two women gathered up their packages and prepared to leave, Nene tucking the ends of her scarf into her jacket as she stood up. As she rose from her seat, her gaze fell on a gap in the crowds outside, and she froze solid, an icy-cold feeling suddenly seizing her.

Through the momentary gap she could see two people. A tall man wearing a black, knee-length coat and a wide brimmed brown hat was walking along next to a somewhat shorter woman in a red leather jacket and scarf, with long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail.

Bert and Priss.

There was an explosion of some kind in the back of her mind, and everything seemed to become green-tinged for a moment, anger and jealousy flaring brightly like an erupting volcano. Suspicion crawled through her like serpents, writhing in and out of her thoughts. No wonder he'd quit phoning; he'd started going out with Priss!! Boy, that hadn't taken long, had it?! She supposed she shouldn't have been surprised; it had always seemed like he'd confided his problems to Priss before her, and this was just one step further along. And to think that he'd denied any involvement with the red-brown eyed woman only a few weeks before!

Her teeth clenched as she watched them walk closer; he appeared to be saying something to the attractive singer, and she laughed at whatever it was that he'd said, giving him a mock-irritated nudge in the ribs with an elbow. That was all Nene saw before the crowd surged around them again, hiding them from her view. The red-headed ADP officer became dimly aware that she had a clenched grip on the table's edge, her nails digging into the artificial wood veneer. She relaxed her grip with an effort.

"Hey, Nene, are you all right?" Naoko asked, really concerned now. "You just turned white!"

"It's nothing," Nene replied, pasting a phony smile into place. "I just thought I saw somebody I knew." The freckle-faced young woman nodded dubiously, but didn't pursue the matter. Picking up their packages, the two friends left the cafe, merging into the teeming crowds outside.

****

The hoarse, agonized screams of a man being driven beyond his limits that had been reverberating around the chamber for several minutes died abruptly; the straining form strapped to a metal table that had been emitting them went limp, twitching slightly, his breathing ragged and faltering. A metallic hemisphere that had been positioned over his head retracted towards the ceiling of the vaguely dome-like chamber, the electric hum from the device fading into silence. Other than the table containing the tortured prisoner, and the hemispheric device attached to a telescoping arm that came from the ceiling, the room was bare, the harshness of the cold, grey metal walls unrelieved by any semblance of humanity, or even warmth.

Madigan turned away from the thickly-glassed observation window, her inquisitive gaze spearing the white-coated laboratory technician at the control panel. The younger man, black-haired, with brown eyes, and a nervous face, looked back at her anxiously; having the executive in charge of GENOM's corporate security concerns in the same room was unnerving to say the least. Madigan was always coldly aloof to her underlings, and everyone who dealt with her felt like they were being prepared for possible execution if they made a mistake.

"Well?!" she demanded impatiently. "What happened?!"

"The, ah, subject has gone into cardiac arrest," the young man said hesitantly, adding as diffidently as possible, "I did, ah, say that was a, um, possibility, given his poor health."

Madigan stared icily back at him, her blue grey eyes glittering like sapphires, anger seething in the air around her. It was bad enough things hadn't gone as expected; having some snot-nosed upstart who shouldn't even have been there in the first place telling her 'I told you so' just made it worse. Somebody as young and green-looking as he was had no business being near a project as sensitive as this one was. The hapless lab technician sat sweating under her gaze, feeling his guts shrivel in fear as she silently fumed.

The Deep Psychology Scanner was one of GENOM's closely guarded secrets; only a very select few in the upper echelons knew of its existence, and those few underwent rigorous screening before they were even made aware of its existence. The scientists and technicians who were trained to use and maintain the device were also screened thoroughly, to ensure that there wouldn't be any embarrassing 'information leaks'. There might be rumours of an 'interrogation device' elsewhere in the corporate entity, but nobody knew for sure. Those who got too persistent in trying to find proof to go with the rumours usually vanished mysteriously.

Madigan turned her gaze from the tech, staring through the observation window again into the sealed chamber beyond, at the dying man on the table. It had been her decision to 'acquire' one of the luckless mercenaries the ADP had captured, and have him questioned. After some simple manipulation, she'd arranged for one of the wounded mercs to be transferred to another hospital for better treatment. Instead of that happening, the helpless former mercenary had found himself whisked into a cold, sterile room and strapped to a table. Then the real agony had begun for him.

The DPS was capable of sifting through someone's mind, and finding their psychological weaknesses. How exactly it did that was a detail only its designers knew, but the results were very understandable to anyone. If the subject being probed by the scanner didn't answer a question, or lied, the device triggered hallucinations in the victim: waking nightmares based on the victim's worst fears. The more the subject struggled to resist, the more intense and painful the experiences became.

Given time, the process eroded everyone's will to resist, as the pain became such that the victim was willing to do almost anything to end it. Co-operative subjects could survive the process with relatively little mental trauma; those who fought died, if they were lucky, as they tended to suffer heart attacks or similar occurrences. The unlucky were usually reduced to drooling vegetables.

The mercenary they'd picked had proved very tough, and had lasted for about an hour; then his weakened condition had combined with the strain the DPS put on him, and caused him to suffer a heart attack. She thought she had the information she wanted from him, but she had wanted to make absolutely sure first. Unfortunately, that wasn't going to be possible. Damn.

"Make sure that the body is properly disposed of," she directed the technician.

Turning and leaving the laboratory, the lavender-haired executive walked slowly though the maze of hallways that led from the DPS chamber deep within the bowels of GENOM's ziggurat, paging slowly through the data file she'd managed to glean from the mercenary. It wasn't much to go on, but it was more than she'd had previously. She now had a location for where the mercenaries had been beaten, a description of the man they'd been after, and even a tentative contact for whoever their former employer had been.

It was time to begin getting to the bottom of the puzzle.

 

TWO DAYS LATER....

Soft, white, crystalline flakes of snow drifted down from a murky grey sky in heavy sheets, shrouding the sprawled city below with a thickening blanket of pristine whiteness. The air was crisp and numbingly cold. The fact that the winds that had been mercilessly buffeting people for days were blessedly still for a change made the day actually seem pleasant, and made the city feel oddly peaceful.

Another interesting change about the city was that its normal activity was muted, hushed by the unexpected arrival of almost two feet of snow overnight. Although MegaTokyo's Public Works department possessed some limited snow removal capacity, the abrupt snow dump on the city caught them unprepared, and unable to meet the demand. The work crews were working overtime to clean things up, but they had a long way to go yet. There were some streets that had been cleared, and some limited bus services were available, but that was it.

All over the city, businesses were closed, schools were silent, shopping malls were deserted, and the roads were almost uninhabited. There were a few brave, or foolhardy people, depending on your point of view, who risked the main roads and highways to try and get somewhere. They were either mired in snow, unable to move, or were slowly plowing their way along. Most people looked at the evidence that nature could thumb its nose at them anytime it wanted to, and went back to bed, seizing the opportunity catch up on missed sleep.

One of the exceptions to this rule walked along the deserted, snowbound sidewalks, plowing almost cheerily through the fluffy snow. Clouds of powdery white billowed around the tall figure, clad in a heavy black coat, gloves, and a wide-brimmed brown hat. A scarf was wrapped around his face, concealing all of his features except for his eyes. A cloud of wispy steam was following him as he walked, drifting from behind his scarf. Periodically, he stooped, scooping up a handful of snow, which he then packed into a compact ball and pitched up into the air like an overgrown kid, watching them splash into the undisturbed snow in the center of the street.

Bert grinned to himself as he watched the plume of snowflakes that erupted from his latest snowball's impact with the ground drift downwards again. He felt oddly refreshed and youthful for a change, as if the snowstorm that had paralyzed most of the city had somehow lifted some of his burdens from him. Everything looked brand-new, clad in purest white, untouched by corruption or the stains of everyday life. His hardheaded practical side wouldn't let him entertain the illusion for very long, but for a few moments it made a nice picture.

He reached up and pulled the scarf away from his face, his breath rolling out in a plume of white steam. The air bit at his skin with icy teeth, and he drew a deep breath of the frosty air, holding it in his lungs for a moment, somehow feeling invigorated by the cold. He exhaled another billowing cloud, like some kind of red-haired dragon. He smirked a bit more at that thought as he continued to slog his way through the snow.

After a few more minutes of travel, the shape of Sylia's building began to draw nearer to him. The mirrored glass panels of its sides were dulled by the drabness of the sky above, and it made an odd contrast, the building seemingly gray, with a white cloak of snow. The window displays of the assorted stores located in the ground floor of the building were dark, even the 'Silky Doll' ones; it was doubtful anyone wanted lingerie in this weather. Keeping warm was probably uppermost in their minds.

He grinned again to himself as he glanced around at the wintry landscape surrounding him; unlike most people, he was enjoying the sudden snowstorm immensely. He hadn't seen snow in what felt like eons, and in some weird way it was revitalizing him, and cheering him up, dissipating the gloom he'd been under for the last few days. Besides, back in his old home area, this kind of a snowfall wouldn't have been considered unusual.

Two figures appeared in the distance, laboriously toiling their way towards him through the snow. He squinted in their direction, and after a moment he was sure it was Priss and Sylvie that were approaching; the two forms had vaguely feminine shapes, and one of the women was wearing blue-white garb. Sylvie was about the only person he knew of who wore that colour combination more-or-less constantly, and Priss was generally partial to red, which the second figure was wearing.

A sudden, slightly evil-minded thought struck him. He tried resisting the admittedly mischievous impulse, but failed miserably. With a sly grin, he ducked into the empty front entryway of a closed store, and waited.

****

"Goddamn bloody godforsaken lousy weather!!" Priss grumbled, angrily kicking at the snow in her way. The deep snow made it impossible for her to use her favoured mode of transport, her motorcycle, and it was really pissing her off, especially because she'd been reduced to using the bus and hiking to get anywhere. "Why on earth did Sylia have to schedule another blasted meeting in this weather?!" she complained. "Surely she could have waited until we had clear weather again!"

"Oh, come on, Priss!" Sylvie sighed, rolling her eyes. "It's not that bad! I think it's kind of neat!" Bright golden-brown eyes looked around at the snowbound scenery, drinking in what was, for her, a brand-new experience. "Look at how clean and white everything is!"

"It turns dirty and sloppy when it gets warmer," the recalcitrant singer growled irritably. "And all it's doing right now is buggering up the roads."

"I still say you're wrong," Sylvie replied defiantly. "I'm sure there's something good to all this; you just need to change your way of looking at things."

"Oh yeah?!" Priss demanded, glaring at her friend. "Well then, tell me ONE thing that all this," her broad gesture of frustration took in the expanse of snow around them, "is good for!"

WHAP!!

There was a sudden spray of white across her vision, and she felt something relatively soft impact with the side of her head and face. Priss stood very silently for a moment, then reached up, brushing her fingers across the lump of stinging cold wetness that seemed to have become attached to the side of her head. As she touched it, the shape of a loosely-packed snowball fell off, dropping to the snow-covered sidewalk with a quiet thump. She could see Sylvie's surprised face, but rather than shock or outrage, her friend was trying hard not to laugh out loud.

"Um, are you okay, Priss?" she queried tentatively, her lips twitching as she tried to keep from openly grinning. "Say something."

"Whoever it is, they're dead," Priss stated flatly, a deadly look in her red-brown eyes. She turned towards the direction the frosty missile had come from, glaring with particle-beam-like intensity. Her smoldering gaze landed on a grinning figure in a dark coat and wide-brimmed hat. He was leaning nonchalantly against the corner of a building, about fifty feet away from them, negligently tossing and catching another snowball in his gloved hand.

"Hi Priss!" Bert said cheerily, an innocent, kid-like grin plastered across his face. "Is something the matter?"

"Why you lousy...." Priss spluttered. "What the hell's the big idea, chucking snowballs at me?!"

"Well, I did hear you ask what snow was good for," he replied blandly, his grin taking on a gloating aspect. "I figured I'd show you."

"You're a dead man," Priss promised grimly, stalking through the snow towards him. "I'm going to wipe that grin off your face." Despite her annoyance, there was something about his grin that was infectious, and she found herself grinning despite herself. Her momentary anger dissipated almost instantly. She was still going to get him though.

"Oh, PLEASE don't hurt me!" the tall red-head pleaded in a mock-terrified voice as she approached. The act would almost have been convincing, except the grin he was sporting belied his words. "I won't do it again! Honest! I had no idea wh...AAAAGH!!!!" His voice ended abruptly in a surprised exclamation, as a whistling snowball thwacked him square in the face. Priss turned, surprised, to see Sylvie thoughtfully hefting another snowball of her own.

"That was sort of fun, you know?" the tall, dark-haired woman remarked with a grin.

"You're as bad as he is!" Priss exclaimed, grinning fiendishly. Behind her, she could hear Bert spluttering and coughing from the shot he'd taken, and she smirked wickedly back at him for a moment. Unfortunately for her, he chose that moment to blindly fire the other snowball he'd still been holding, and it clocked her in the face as well. After a moment or so of surprised gasping, Priss wiped the snow off of her cold-numbed features and glared at him.

"Of course, you realize this means war," she informed him, scooping up a fistful of snow for herself. Bert straightened up, wiping the melted snow from his face with one gloved hand as he seized another handful of nearby snow with the other.

"Oh yeah?" he shot back, unintimidated. "Then prepare to defend yourselves!" The air abruptly became filled with round snowy missiles, as the two women enthusiastically pelted him with hastily-formed snowballs, and received the same in reply. Priss was positive that at least a few of the ones that hit her came from Sylvie's direction, but she was mostly preoccupied with avoiding Bert's devastating aim, and barraging him with her own salvos.

The grinning red-haired young man was getting the worst of deal, being outgunned by two-to-one, but he didn't ask for a cease-fire. He pounded back at his attackers, snowballing the two women impartially, and occasionally whipping in a wickedly-fast shot at them that left them gasping. After a few minutes of cold, chaotic warfare, Priss decided that she wanted to get him just a little better than just with a snowball; ducking suddenly, she rushed him.

He seemed to instantly guess what she was going to do; he started backpedaling, and tried nailing her with another snowball with the intent of forcing her back. She dodged his shot, and scooped up some loose snow as she sprinted, flinging it at his face, trying to blind him for a moment. As he ducked the snow flurry, she reached him, grabbed his coat while he was trying to get his balance, and threw him headfirst into a nearby snowdrift. Unfortunately for her, he managed to latch onto her arm at the same time, and pulled her in with him as he went down.

Snow geysered into the air as they fell into the deep, soft drift. The air around her seemed to be filled with cold, stinging flakes, and for a moment she couldn't breathe, sneezing and snorting in the snow. After a moment, she became aware of the fact that she was laying on top of someone who was also spluttering and coughing. With a cheerful grin, Priss scooped up another handful of stray snow, and plastered it in Bert's face, quickly scrambling out of his reach.

"Feel better now?" Sylvie asked dryly, looking at Priss as she emerged from the pile. "I think you got him." Behind the snow-covered singer, a large snowdrift sneezed and coughed explosively.

"You better believe it!" Priss crowed exultantly, grinning. "That'll show him not to pitch snowballs at people!" As she stood there basking in the glow of victory, she suddenly shivered, and became aware of the fact that she was soaked to the skin from melted snow. Her hair was a wet, limp mess, and chill began to eat at her.

"We'd better get inside," Bert's voice came from behind her, still sounding amused. She whirled towards him, half-expecting to get more snow in the face, but he raised his hands in surrender. "Easy, just take it easy," he soothed, smiling. He was as wet as she was, if not more so, and he was still frosted from head to foot with snow. "You have won, M'Lady, and the field is yours this day," he declared, bowing and straightening up with a grin. There was a brightness to his eyes that hadn't been there in weeks, and the brown-haired singer suddenly didn't find the weather so objectionable, if it had managed to snap his depression even briefly. "Allow me to offer my hospitality," he said in courtly tones. "At the very least, I can get you a towel to dry your hair off," he finished, grinning.

"Okay, fine," Priss accepted his offer. "I'd say it's the least you owed us for the snowballs." He grinned again, unrepentant, and gestured towards the shape of Sylia's building. The three friends started walking through the snow, Priss trying hard not to shiver as the cold soaked through her wet clothes and gnawed at her skin.

"What were you doing out here anyway?" Sylvie asked curiously, looking around at the deserted streetscape. "You already live where the meeting's going to be."

"Because I like this weather," he answered simply, shrugging. "I've always liked the winter, and this kind of snowfall is something I haven't seen in years, so I was out walking. Felt kind of nostalgic, I guess."

"Nostalgic?! About snow?!" Priss said disbelievingly. Bert nodded, but didn't elaborate, hiding a faint surge of homesickness, and kept walking. Priss glanced at Sylvie, who shrugged; she didn't understand why he'd suddenly clammed up either. They hurried to catch up with him as he reached the door into Sylia's building.

****

"What the heck happened to you?!" was Linna's surprised question as they trooped into Sylia's living room. She was sprawled in one of the padded easy chairs by the coffee table, idly paging through a magazine.

"We ran into a snowstorm on the way in," Priss answered dryly, flicking some still damp hair out of her face. She was a lot drier now than she had been, but she still felt chilled and a bit clammy. Her hair was limp and bedraggled-looking at the moment, making her look like someone had tried drowning her.

She selected a seat on the couch and sat down, pointedly ignoring the wide grin Bert was sporting as he hummed innocently off to her side. Sylvie sat next to her, while Bert went and leaned against the large bay window of the apartment, staring out at the snowbound city.

"A snowstorm?" Sylia repeated as she came into the room from the direction of the kitchen. Nene was trailing her, balancing a teapot with some cups on a tray. "What are you talking about?"

Priss sighed, glanced at Sylvie, and started explaining as Nene placed the tray on the coffee table. She noticed that there seemed to be a hint of animosity in Nene's eyes as the young red-head looked at her, but she couldn't think of anything she might have done recently that would cause Nene to be mad at her.

Shrugging mentally, she continued her explanation, aware the entire time of a smug grin from the far side of the room. Linna rolled her eyes, looking over at Bert and shaking her head disbelievingly. Sylia's lips quirked slightly in a ghost of a smile, but she smoothed her face out, and shook her head as well. Nene sat on the other couch, mostly expressionless. She hadn't looked at Bert, although Priss had caught a couple of glances from him being directed at the slender ADP officer. When she was done her recitation of events, Priss grabbed a cup and poured herself some steaming tea. She sat back, sipping at it in an effort to drive off the lingering chilled feeling that was bugging her.

"Well, it certainly sounds like you enjoyed yourselves," Sylia remarked. Sylvie nodded and grinned, a grin echoed by the tall red-head at the window. Priss tried to look sour, but couldn't keep a faint smile from creeping across her face; it had been kind of fun, actually. "I'm glad you're all so energetic," the Knight Sabers' leader added, smirking again, "because we're going to be busy today...."

****

"WHOOPEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!" A swirling explosion of snow blasted through the air, momentarily obscuring everything from sight.

"Oh for...!! Do you bloody MIND?!?!" Priss half-shouted, brushing the snow from off of her blue-armoured shoulders, and irritably shaking her helmeted head. Behind her, Linna was muttering something uncomplimentary under her breath while performing the same task.

"What? What'd I do now?" SkyKnight asked innocently. His brightly polished hardsuit was undimmed by the darkening cloudy grey sky overhead, and seemed to flash like a challenging beacon against the snow. Steam drifted in wispy threads from the ventilation slots of his helmet, concealed at the bottom of the visor, where the helmet's jawline was. A long trench was spread out behind him through the snow, like something had just crash-landed.

"You know damn good and well what I'm talking about," Priss countered flatly, glaring at him; there was no way it could affect him, given that they were both helmeted, but it salved her soul a bit just doing it. "That's the fifth time in the last hour."

"Gee, was that how many it's been? I haven't been counting." His tone of voice gave the lie to his words, and the blue-hardsuited woman briefly considered trying to bury him in a snowbank. She dismissed the notion as useless, figuring that he'd probably enjoy that kind of punishment.

"SkyKnight," Sylia's voice came over the helmet comms, sounding a little exasperated, "would you PLEASE stop that? We're not out here so you can play in the snow." Their white hardsuited leader wasn't in their immediate area, and was quite happy that was the case; Bert had taken to giving a quick exhaust burst from his flight system turbines as he did a sliding, sideways landing skid, almost like someone braking on ice skates. The result of that particular landing maneuver was that the area around him became shrouded in a whirling vortex of snow for a few seconds, covering everything, and everyone else who happened to be nearby, in a powdery white blanket.

"Okay, okay," he sighed in mock-disgust. "I'll knock it off."

"Thank you," Sylia's voice replied. "I'll give you the signal to start in a few minutes. Until then, behave, okay?"

Everyone replied affirmatively, then lapsed into silence to await the command to start the next exercise. While he waited, SkyKnight idly ran sensor scans of his suit, checking and re-checking all of his systems to make sure all of his repairs and upgrades were functioning. According to his diagnostic software, everything was perfect. Nearby, Linna's green hardsuited figure waited patiently, humming some piece of music to herself. Priss wasn't as calm, tramping back and forth irritably through the snow, her arms either folded across her chest, or swinging agitatedly.

The exercise they were about to engage in was almost like a 'capture the flag' game in some respects; they were to attempt to cross the long stretch of the Canyons that lay spread out before them, hopefully avoiding getting tagged with a sensor marker by their suit battlecomputers that would indicate that they'd been 'shot'. There was no actual weapons fire involved; Sylia had set up the suit computer and sensor systems to keep track of that aspect of things. If they were exposed long enough for someone to get a target lock and a clean shot on them, their suit computers informed them that they'd been tagged.

The only way to avoid being tagged out was to use the scattered car wrecks, rocks, and derelict buildings as cover while advancing towards the 'finish line'; taking the direct approach in this instance, the open stretch down the center of the chasm, was sure to result in being caught and eliminated. Sylia was using the course, combined with the weather, to give them some practical experience at adapting to adverse conditions.

The glowing red aperture of SkyKnight's helmet eyeslot swept the snow-sheathed terrain, while his sensor arrays probed the empty-seeming canyon. He couldn't detect them, but he knew they were out there somewhere....

****

Sylvie fidgeted anxiously, unable to keep a slightly nervous, anticipatory grin from spreading across her face; this was going to be exciting! She scanned her suit viewscreen again, but it was a pointless action; Sylia hadn't given the command to start the training exercise yet.

She shifted around again as she crouched in an alcove between two snow-blanketed buildings, getting used to the feel of her suit. It was a remarkably comfortable fit, snug and somehow reassuring in its presence, almost like a friend was nearby.

It was definitely a more pleasant sensation than what she'd felt the last time she'd worn a battlesuit; she hadn't told anyone, not even Priss, but the feelings she'd had when the D.D. Battlemover had forced a synchronization link on her and taken over, imprisoning her in the process, had been the most horrifying thing she'd ever experienced. Some of what had happened to her at Hollister's hands had come close to equaling it, but hadn't replaced it. Irritably, she jerked her attention back to the present; the past couldn't hurt her anymore.

Her sensor displays blinked cheerily, and she could hear the faint background hum of the hardsuit's circuitry in her ears as she waited. She stretched a bit again, becoming impatient; how were they supposed to field-test her suit if nothing happened?!

Sylvie extended her armoured arms out in front of her, and flexed them a couple of times, testing the suit's responses again. As before, it moved easily and without interference. She grinned again, unable to get over the thrill of feeling like a kid with a new toy.

She mentally pictured what she must look like to any outside observers at the moment: a tall, sleek hardsuit with distinctly feminine curves, with dark red and gray armour plating, and white stripes on the helmet and legs. While her suit looked similar to Priss's, its armour was slightly heavier-looking, and it was without the protruding antenna spars on the sides of the yellow-visored helmet. Her suit arms were where the weapons were located; her right arm was equipped with a particle-laser cannon, a railgun launcher, and an extendible swordblade, much like SkyKnight's suit. Her left arm carried a backup swordblade. In the event she felt she had to physically pound on something, the gauntlets of her suit were reinforced across the knuckles.

She knew her choice of colours for the suit hadn't been understood by her friends; Bert had looked very uncomfortable when she'd told him what she wanted. Priss had been curious, but hadn't prodded. Sylvie hadn't tried explaining why she'd wanted the old D.D. Battlemover's colour scheme as her suit colours to anyone; she knew why she wanted it that way, and that was all that was necessary.

To her, it was a symbol that she was the one in control now. What had started her down the road to her current situation had been something she'd been forced into by circumstances and dire need; she'd had to use the Battlemover in order to get the blood Anri had needed to survive while at the same time hoping to somehow gain freedom for the both of them. Now, she was doing this of her own free will, and no one was going to ever take that away from her again. In a way, she considered it fitting that she was going to be using the same colouration, and some of the same technology, although greatly evolved by now, to redress some of the wrongs she'd had to perform.

"Okay," Sylia's voice crackled across the comms, disrupting her intense thoughts. "We're starting now. Linna? You're first; go!"

****

From the top of a crumbling building, a white hardsuit with a blue visor watched as a dark olive-green armour suit started ghosting its way nimbly through the twisted obstacle course set out, keeping under cover, and not revealing itself for longer than a few seconds. Sylia smiled to herself as she watched Linna slowly advance; she was using the natural cover perfectly, and her weapons tracking sensors weren't able to lock onto the approaching hardsuit long enough to score a 'hit'.

As the Knight Saber leader watched, Linna dove, somersaulted , and flipped her way past the last few obstacles in a continuous blur of jet-assisted motion, passing the finish line safely. She'd bypassed all of the obstacles without problem, and no one had been able to score a hit on her, not even Nene's enhanced sensors.

"Well done, Linna," she congratulated her. "If you want, you can watch from up here with me. Priss? You're next." As she listened to the acknowledgment from the distant blue hardsuit, hissing jets announced that Linna had just arrived. Steam and some condensation rolling off of her suit in the chill air, Linna stepped up next to her, leaning carefully on the retaining wall running around the edge of the roof.

In the distance, a blue hardsuit began charging through the snowdrifts towards them, leaping for the shelter of some of the snow-draped car wreckage.

****

Bert watched Priss cautiously advance through the snow from his vantage point, well back of the starting line. He wasn't really paying attention though; rather than concentrating on how she was doing, his mind was carefully going over what he was going to do himself.

SkyKnight noted that only Sylia was immediately visible in the distance, silhouetted on top of a building. The reason for that was obvious: by making herself visible, she was drawing attention away from the fact that there were two other hardsuits hidden out there somewhere. If he paid too much attention to Sylia at her lookout point, he'd get nailed by one or both of the snipers out there.

A grim smile flickered across his face; it wasn't going to get a chance to work. He wasn't going to quietly go along and hope he was fast enough to avoid getting hit. He knew his suit was slower in terms of running and leaping ability than the rest of the hardsuits, mostly because of his own size and bulk; that was the main reason he relied on his jets to give him the mobility edge in a combat. All he had to do was apply that advantage to the training exercise.

He scanned the canyon again, trying to determine the likely places for Sylvie and Nene to be hiding; the problem was that there were a lot of them, and he didn't want to guess incorrectly. He frowned to himself, analyzing the problem. After a moment, he hit the image amplification on his hardsuit viewscreen, magnifying everything several times, and began scanning the surrounding landscape. There was a faint chance that....there!!!

Grinning at the success of his guess, SkyKnight zoomed in on what he'd detected: a faint vapour trail rising from behind a building, slowly curling and dissipating. It was cold enough outside that any water-laden vapour stayed visible for several minutes, in very slowly moving clouds.

Like the steam from someone breathing.

Just to make sure, the silver-clad Knight Saber flipped his viewscreen to thermal imaging for a moment. Immediately, everything turned a cold blue colour, except for two faint heat traces; one was from the thin plume of vapour rising into the air, and the other was a bit larger, and was coming from some mangled scrap heaps farther on. Three other red-orange heat traces were visible in the distance; the heat signatures of Sylia's, Linna's, and Priss's suits.

SkyKnight chuckled to himself, rubbing his gauntleted hands together in anticipation as a wide grin stretched across his face.

****

"Very good, Priss," Sylia's voice crackled in her ears. "You're clear."

Priss sighed in relief, and straightened up from her hunched over position, wincing and putting a hand on the small of her back. She'd wrenched it a bit in that last stretch of open space; the hardsuit boots didn't have the best traction in the world, and she'd managed to find what was probably the only patch of ice in the entire Canyon, and stepped on it. She'd very nearly fallen flat on her face, but she'd managed to stay upright and get under cover.

"Thanks, Sylia," she replied, inhaling a deep, cold breath and holding it for a moment. She felt fantastic; getting back into her suit, even if it was just for a training exercise, had proven instantly exhilarating. She couldn't wait until they actually got to pound on some boomers again. "I'm coming up now."

"Roger that," her boss replied. "SkyKnight? You're up next. Go!"

****

"Ready or not, here I come!" SkyKnight shot back instantly. Not even waiting for an affirmative reply from Sylia, the silver-clad battlesuit shot skywards with the roar of powerful jet turbines, arrowing straight up into the late afternoon sky. The minute he cleared the concealment of the building shielding him from the rest of the obstacle course, his helmet viewscreen displayed the fact that three separate weapon locks were being established. Just like he'd figured.

The silver-and-blue hardsuit abruptly dropped from the sky like a rock as his jets fell completely silent. A scant second or so from impact with the ground, the jets roared again, and the silver battlesuit swooped low across the ground, kicking up a huge cloud of swirling snow as he skimmed the ground. The concealing snow cloud he was kicking up immediately interfered with the visual tracking his foes were trying to use. While they were undoubtedly shifting to a different targeting method, he flashed across an open section of the obstacle course, ducking behind a derelict building. His jets cut out again, and he skidded to a stop, just short of actually sliding out into the open again.

Panting for breath, partly from exertion, and partly from the adrenaline rush that his flight stunt had provided, Bert leaned against the wall behind him and considered what to do next. He'd cleared about half of the course already with just that one maneuver, but he wanted to do more than just clear the course. As he examined the nearby buildings, and compared them with his mental map of the area, he began to grin again to himself.

****

"He's crazy!" Priss said disbelievingly as she watched the silver-and-blue form of SkyKnight drop to the canyon floor, and then vanish into a swirling vortex of snowflakes; the loud drone of his flight system carried to the watching members of the Knight Sabers as a minor snowstorm churned its way down the obstacle course, then ducked behind a derelict building.

"No, he's not crazy," Sylia replied, sounding a bit irritated. "Just reckless. And he's also figured out how to take advantage of the weather conditions in a way I never anticipated."

"That's what you get when you put a kid in a hardsuit," Linna noted dryly. "It looked to me like he was doing that for the fun factor as well."

"You're probably right," Sylia sighed, watching the terrain spread out before her intently. "But that stunt also screwed up the image recognition targeting systems; they need a reasonably clear image to be able to lock onto a target. By the time we switched to EM signature detection, he was already under cover."

"Why, that sneaky bugger," Priss said, a grin evident from the sound of her voice. A tense, waiting silence fell over the hardsuited group as they resumed their vigil, waiting for the next move from SkyKnight.

****

"Where the hell IS he?!" Sylvie muttered to herself, shifting around and peering carefully around the edge of the masonry she was concealed behind. She'd lost sight of SkyKnight when he'd dove behind a building that wasn't too far from her position, and it was worrying her just a bit. His reckless aerial maneuver had caught her by surprise, and sitting there thinking about what he might try next wasn't settling her nerves any. She ran another sensor sweep, noting that the electromagnetic signature his suit was emitting hadn't really moved yet. It was like he was waiting for something to happen. She grumbled a bit to herself, and shifted around again.

A howling roar exploded through the cold air, followed by a flashing blur of silver and blue that shot across the open space of the abandoned street, towards her location. Sylvie tried to get a target lock on the charging hardsuit, but SkyKnight's angle of approach was such that her own hiding place was screening him from her. As she considered trying to change positions for a better angle, the brickwork next to her trembled, and a loud crackling and crunching sounded.

Sylvie spun around, belatedly realizing what was happening; as she pivoted, the wall behind her blew outwards in a crashing rumble, sending fragments of bricks and mortar cascading everywhere. Snow swirled crazily all around, temporarily blinding her as it obscured everything.

As Sylvie frantically tried to see what was going on, she suddenly felt herself being grabbed; a moment later the world spun crazily, and she found herself flat on her back in a snowdrift. As she lay there, her hardsuit computer informed her that she'd been tagged herself, and was now considered a casualty. As her vision cleared, the hardsuited young woman saw a towering silver-garbed hardsuit standing over her, its arms folded smugly over its chest. The glowing red eyeslot in SkyKnight's helmet visor flashed brightly.

"Gotcha!" he stated with a chuckle.

****

"SkyKniiiiight," Sylia gritted with strained patience, slapping a hand over her visor and closing her eyes. She wrestled with herself for a moment, trying to remain calm. "Attacking your opponents was NOT what this training exercise was for!" The watching Knight Sabers hadn't seen what had happened to Sylvie, but they'd heard what had happened over the comm channel, and guessed the rest.

"Well, you didn't say we couldn't attack them, did you?" Bert's voice replied cheerfully. "You just said we were to use the terrain to our advantage and get across the finish line. That's all I'm doing. See you in five minutes."

"Now wait just a minute," Sylia started to order, but the line went dead as SkyKnight shut down the channel. I'm going to kill him, she fumed silently to herself. Behind her, Priss and Linna were snickering a bit. Down below them, a red-grey hardsuit tramped disgustedly out into the open, and began walking towards their position as a silver flash streaked back across the street in an explosion of snow and motion, ducking behind another building.

****

Bert grinned fiendishly to himself as he plowed through a snowdrift in a rolling dive, ending up safely behind a crumpled pile of metal that might once have been a van. God, this is fun! he thought to himself, his pulse thundering in his ears like runaway racehorses. It was almost as exhilarating as getting into a fight with a boomer, and it was definitely a lot safer. He knew he was probably going to get lectured by Sylia for his liberal interpretation of the rules for the training run, but he could live with that.

SkyKnight poked his helmet around the edge of the wreckage briefly, then quickly whipped back as his sensors detected Nene's targeting systems pinpointing his position. Her sensor systems were much faster and more accurate than the standard hardsuit systems, and trying to get close to her without getting tagged was proving more difficult than he'd anticipated. She wasn't giving him any opportunities to get nearer, but was keeping him pinned down. He grinned briefly to himself, feeling a momentary flicker of satisfaction and pride in her; she was sharp, that was for damn sure.

He cautiously peeped over the top of the wreckage, quickly noting the condition of the nearby buildings, then ducking back as his computer system again warned of a targeting sensor sweep. He took a deep breath, and got ready to try moving again.

With a lunge, SkyKnight sprinted from behind the concealing wreckage, angling for a distant building. A split second later, his jets thundered, boosting him into the air and shooting him towards the building. The instant he'd stepped from behind his cover, Nene's targeting sensors had started establishing a lock on him; if he didn't break it in about five seconds....

Air whistled shrilly past his extended flight wings as he blasted through the gaping hole in the side of the building he'd been aiming for. He made it in just slightly over four seconds, avoiding getting tagged. Laughing exultantly to himself, SkyKnight banked around the exposed beams and girders inside the building, preparing for his last maneuver, the one that would mean his completion of the obstacle course.

Lining himself up, SkyKnight shot towards a side window, one that he was sure would bring him out directly on top of Nene's position. All he had to do was steer around some girders in his way, and he was home free.

As the window flashed nearer, a high pitched, staticky squeal spat from his helmet comm system, while at the same time, his suit viewscreen display dissolved into a snarling storm of fuzzy static. Several inchoate thoughts chased each other frantically through his mind as he clutched at the sides of his helmet in pain from the aural assault. The first was that it was a malfunction of some kind; the second was that he was rocketing at high speed towards a wall and some steel beams with no sensors or visuals, literally flying blind. Instinctively, he fired his breaking thrusters and tried to veer off.

All other thoughts disintegrated under the searing, red-hot flash of agony that erupted when his helmeted head was smashed backwards on his neck by a steel cross-beam. He had the briefest sensation of falling, and then everything went black.

****

"SkyKnight, come in. SkyKnight? Bert?! Answer me!" Sylia ordered anxiously over the comm channel again. No response. It had been almost ten minutes since she'd seen him duck into a derelict building, presumably so he could use it to ambush Nene from. There'd been an electrical-sounding crackle over the channel, followed by a loud crash. The sounds of his jets had died instantly, being followed by a second clanging, crashing noise. There'd been nothing but eerie silence ever since, despite frequent queries over the communications channel, and she found herself getting more concerned by the minute.

"Damn it, I'm going to go check on him," Priss announced suddenly, her helmet swiveling to look at her white-hardsuited leader. "It's been too quiet; that's not like him."

"Okay, fine," Sylia nodded. "Just be careful not to get hit if he suddenly comes barreling out of there." She watched as the blue-armoured woman lofted into the air on hissing jets, followed a moment later by Linna. The two hardsuited women vanished into the darkness of the building.

"Sylia!!" Priss's voice crackled urgently a moment later from her helmet speakers. "You'd better get in here; there's been an accident of some kind. He's down, and he's not moving. I'm....he's....his neck's bent backwards," she finished in a rush. Sylia could hear the concern she was holding tightly in check, and understood perfectly; her own guts were frozen solid with dread.

"Sylvie!" she snapped. "Go get the KnightWing and land it in the center of the street." As their newest recruit replied affirmatively, the wings on Sylia's flight pack snapped out into extension, and she flew rapidly towards the building. As she zoomed closer, a red-pink hardsuit started running towards the building, emerging from its place of concealment a few metres away from the structure.

****

Everything hurt. It was almost impossible to think coherently, given the waves of white lightning that were rippling through him, searing his neurons with agonizing pain. Either he was still alive and injured, or else he'd been sent to Hell for pushing his luck once too often. After a moment, he decided he was still alive; he could feel his pulse pounding at his temples, and his breathing sounded loud and harsh in his ears inside his helmet. Besides, given everything he'd done, he didn't think Hell would be letting him off this easily.

He tried opening his eyes, then squeezed them shut as the pain eating at him trebled in intensity the instant the faint glow from his hardsuit viewscreen touched his eyeballs. He fought to keep his stomach under control as it threatened to revolt. He wasn't going anywhere on his own anytime soon, that was for sure.

As he lay there, SkyKnight gradually became aware of the fact that most of the pain was emanating from his neck vertebrae; they felt like a boomer had used them as hockey pucks. Wincing, he tried to reach up and rub his neck cautiously.

Panic knifed through everything else, even briefly banishing the pain from his neck when his arm didn't respond to his command.

Swallowing against the numbing chill that was abruptly congealing his guts into an icy lump, he tried again, willing his arm to move. It twitched a bit, he could feel it, but it wasn't moving more than a couple of inches. Absolute terror exploded through his mind as it dawned that he might have broken his neck.

NO! a voice screamed in the back of his mind. I don't want to be crippled!! Adrenaline surged through him as the desperate urge to move flooded his brain. Ever so slowly, it seemed as if he was succeeding; his body shifted, and his arms started to come up.

"Bert! For God's sake!! Lay still!!" a woman's voice snapped. He felt someone shove him firmly back down. "You're hurt, so just stay put goddamnit!" After a moment he recognized the speaker.

"Priss?" his voice was a harsh croak, his mouth having gone dry with fear. Bracing himself, he opened his eyes, swallowing again against the sickening, lurching feeling that the dim light from his suit displays produced when it met his eyes. In his erratically flickering, cracked viewscreen, he could see a blue-armoured hardsuit with a red-striped helmet leaning over him, hands on his shoulders, holding him still. Behind her, dimly seen in the darkness of the building, were the white and green shapes of Sylia and Linna's suits. A faintly seen shape moved next to them as it resolved into the familiar outlines of Nene's hardsuit. "Can't ... move," he added, clamping down on the yammering panic the words triggered. He could still feel his arms and legs, and they were moving slightly as he tried to get up, but his body was flatly refusing to function the way he wanted it to at the moment.

"I know, just take it easy," she said, trying to sound reassuring and soothing. "You crashed into one of the support beams in here. We're airlifting you out shortly; Sylvie's getting the plane. You're going to be fine."

"I'm...fine now," he gritted, squeezing his eyes shut again as fresh waves of agony broke inside his skull, leaving him feeling weak. Concussion, at least, a detached part of his mind noted hazily. He clenched his fists, noting that his motor control appeared to be grudgingly returning. Gathering his reserves, he tried shifting again, but Priss held him firmly in place.

"I said don't move, you asshole!" she told him sharply. "We don't know how badly you're hurt, and you could make things worse by trying to move!"

"I said I'm fine," he snarled back, his voice returning towards normalcy. "All I've got is a headache the size of the city. Now let me up, damn it!"

"Bert, quit being obstinate for once," Sylia ordered sternly. "You've been unconscious for almost fifteen minutes; you are not going to be moving under your own power until we get you back to base. I don't want you worsening any possible spinal injuries." The cold weight of reason sank into him at her words, and he reluctantly relaxed, trying to keep his mind off of what the possible consequences of this accident were going to be.

"What happened?" Priss asked him quietly, trying to keep him talking and conscious.

"Not sure," he replied, gritting his teeth against the massive shockwaves in his brain that were still echoing around. "Flying along, and all my sensors died, even visual. Couldn't veer off or slow down."

"Have you been modifying your suit lately?" Sylia asked, her tone thoughtful. "You might have damaged something accidentally in those systems."

"No!!" his snapped reply was emphatic. Forgetting, he almost sat up, or tried to. "I haven't changed a thing without your knowledge, and I don't let mistakes like that occur; I can't afford to. I triple check EVERYTHING before I go out in my suit after an upgrade or repair. That shouldn't have happened." He stopped speaking, going limp and gulping back the fresh wave of nausea that swept through him.

"Well, it looks like you missed something this time, doesn't it?" Nene's voice asked, a hint of rancor in her tone.

"Nene, just what is your problem?!" Sylia snapped, wheeling halfway towards the hardsuited young ADP officer. Linna jabbed a stiff elbow into Nene's ribs, knocking her back a step. She backed off out of reach and defiantly crossed her arms over her chest, not replying.

"I did NOT miss anything!" Bert started growling, his guts twisting with nausea again as lights flashed agonizingly inside his head. "I didn't...."

"Okay, okay, I believe you," their white-hardsuited leader said soothingly, giving Nene a warning glance. "We'll check your suit over when we get back to base; I'm sure we'll find out what's wrong."

"Don't patronize me, Sylia; I'm not in the mood," Bert gritted, wishing someone could get him some Aspirin or something. She didn't reply, recognizing the fact that he was in considerable pain and not himself.

Rapidly pounding footsteps echoed in the cavernous, decaying building, and a moment later, Sylvie's red-and-grey hardsuit emerged from the far end of the warehouse, sprinting towards the rest of the gathered armour suits. Under one arm was what looked like a long metal plank.

"We'd better hurry," she reported breathlessly as she skidded to a halt near them. "When I was moving the plane, I heard an ADP dispatcher's report that said they were sending a couple of helicopters to investigate this area. I think someone saw us practicing."

"Thanks," Sylia replied briskly. "We're leaving now. Lay that board on the floor here. Okay, now carefully slide him onto it...."

It took a few short minutes before the crumbling building was vacant again. The Canyons themselves were deserted shortly afterwards, as a sleek black jetplane soared into the early evening sky and disappeared into the distance.

****

The bright shaft of light stabbing into his eyeballs flicked off. Bert winced and carefully rubbed at his watering eyes, glad the examination was almost over. Reaching up, he carefully slid the cold compress on his forehead down a bit to cover his eyes. The resulting darkness, and the coolness the cold-pack was providing soothed the flashing pains that were still sparking around inside his head. Of course, the massive dose of painkillers he'd been given was helping as well in that regard; he now felt comfortably sleepy.

"Well, I can safely say that he doesn't have any spinal injuries," he heard the familiar voice of the old doctor quietly telling someone. "The scans didn't show any fractures or other damage. What he does have, however, is a very severe concussion and a wrenched neck."

"So he'll fully recover?" Sylia's calm-sounding voice replied. Their voices were lowered, but Bert could still hear all of what they were saying.

"Correct. The loss of movement and motor skill he experienced is usually what happens for a while after a severe cranial blow. It just scrambled his wits a bit. If he stays quiet for a couple of days, he'll be fine."

"Oh, don't worry," she replied grimly. "He'll be staying quiet, even if we have to drug him into it." Bert could just picture her brown eyes flashing determinedly, and decided that graceful acquiescence to the strictures on his recovery might be the wisest course.

"If he's smart, he will," the old medico noted in a dry tone of voice, chuckling a bit. "I know that look. Anyhow, you'll certainly have enough help keeping him down, if the line-up outside is any indication."

"True," she conceded.

"Here's the medication he'll likely need," the grey-haired physician told her; what sounded like plastic-wrapped packages rustled in the quiet of the room. "Mostly painkillers. If you need more, although it's unlikely, give me a shout and I'll send my assistant around with some extras."

"And how is your new assistant?" Sylia inquired, a slight overtone of amusement becoming evident in her voice.

"Fine," he replied. "She's a fast learner, and she's got a real knack for dealing with injured people. She just automatically seems to empathize with them, and seems to ease their discomfort somehow; having her walk into the room seems to loosen up my more stubborn patients almost instantly. She's been a real help."

"So you've gotten over my bullying you into taking her on, then."

"Mostly," the old man admitted blandly. "I still haven't forgiven you for that 'cantankerous old goat' remark, though." What sounded suspiciously like a giggle seemed to come from Sylia.

"I'm sorry, but it was all I could come up with at the time," she said lightly. "I can think of a different term if you want."

"I'll pass, thanks just the same," he replied dryly. Cloth rustled, and then the snapping sounds of a medical kit being closed sounded in the room. "I'll talk to you later, Ma'am. I think I'd better leave before the rest of the crowd gets in here." Some more words followed, but they were muttered too low for him to hear what was said. The door to the room opened and closed. After a minute of silence, footsteps tapped their way across the room to the side of the bed he was laying on.

"Bert?" Sylia called quietly. "Are you still awake?"

"Yeah, for the moment anyway," he replied. Gritting his teeth, he gingerly reached up and slid the compress over his eyes back a bit, cracking his eyes open and squinting up at her. The lighting in the infirmary room had been dimmed to almost semidarkness, but his eyes still watered a bit at the illumination. Sylia was standing next to the bed, clad in a wrinkled blue sweater and jeans, mingled concern and relief on her face.

"Feeling better?" she asked quietly. From sheer force of habit, he shrugged, and then instantly regretted it as something swung sledgehammers into the base of his skull, sending spikes of pain lancing into his head and neck. Bright spots flashed in his sight for a moment.

"I'm...a lot better," he told her after his breath returned. "But I really don't want to try moving right now."

"Good," she told him, turning stern. "You're not to try moving for at least two days, minimum. Got that?"

"Yes, boss," he sighed. It looked like investigating what had happened was going to be delayed for a while.

"I'll be checking your suit over in the next day or so," she told him, as if reading his mind. "If there was a malfunction, I'll find it. In the meantime, you're to concentrate on recovering. Okay?"

"Okay," he agreed with a sigh, trying to shift without causing any new pains to erupt. After a moment, he felt a bit more comfortable. His eyes started to sag shut as his body decided that sleep suddenly had a high priority.

"Are you up to having some visitors?" Sylia queried gently. "If not, I'm sure they can come back later."

"I guess I can handle a few," he answered, propping his eyelids open again. "For a few minutes anyway." She nodded understandingly, running a hand through her blue-black hair, smoothing it back. Walking over to the door, she opened it and stepped out into the corridor outside. Bert winced as the door opened, looking away from the brighter hallway lights; he was really going to be glad when his eyes weren't so sensitive. A short, quietly murmuring conversation took place in the hall briefly, then soft footsteps approached the room door.

"Hey there," Priss greeted him tentatively, leaning around the doorjamb. "Got a few minutes?" He wisely avoided nodding, and waved her in. The tall brown-haired singer came into the room, followed by Sylvie and Linna. She was wearing her accustomed red leather jacket over a blue blouse and jeans, Sylvie was wearing her usual blue and white bike suit, and Linna was wearing some green track clothes that almost matched her hardsuit colouration. The three women came over and sat by the bed after grabbing some straight-backed chairs from over by the wall. Something tightened painfully inside of him when he realized that Nene wasn't coming in with them. He privately hoped she'd be coming in later.

"How're you feeling?" Sylvie asked him, her gold-brown eyes anxious.

"Sore," he answered truthfully. "My head and neck feel like they've been used for target practice by some boomer."

"You know," Linna said after a moment with forced cheer, "If you really hated my teaching that much, you could have just said so. I don't think it was necessary to go and do this to get out of class."

"Believe me," he replied wryly, "I don't hate your classes that much. If I was going to find an excuse not to take them, I'd have picked one that didn't involve quite as much pain." Everyone grinned a bit at that comment, then became serious again.

"So how long do you have to stay put?" Priss inquired.

"Two days at least. I really don't feel like trying to move right now; everything spins when I try."

"Don't you dare try it, you jerk!" the red-brown eyed woman said with surprising heat. "You're goddamn staying down! And I'm going to be checking to make sure you do!" She coloured slightly as he looked quizzically at her, but it was difficult to see in the dim lighting.

"Thanks for the concern," he told her. "Trust me; I'm not going to do anything but sleep for the next couple of days." He was unable to stifle a yawn, and his friends picked up on the inadvertent hint.

"We'll check back with you later," Linna promised as she stood up. Sylvie and Priss stood as well, and they all quietly trooped out of the room, Priss giving his arm a quick, reassuring squeeze before she left. A few short moments after the door closed, sleep overtook him, temporarily banishing his aches and pains.

 

TWO DAYS LATER.....

Kate Madigan shuffled the sheaf of documentation in front of her into a neat pile, then stuffed the stack into a file folder, out of the way. With a weary sigh, she picked up the next folder in the stack on her desk. Like a lot of the others, it was yet another report on a perceived problem within GENOM's organization. Like the majority of the rest, it was also an attempt by a lower-ranking manager to try and impress the higher levels of the bureaucracy with his or her 'efficiency'. She snorted at that thought; if they were so efficient, they'd have found a way to deal with the problem at their own level instead of burdening her with it. She had more than enough important matters to attend to without needing extra hassle from other departments.

Muttering a disgusted oath, she suddenly slapped the file folder closed, irritably shoving it off to the side of her desk. She permitted herself a luxuriant stretch, running her hands through her long lavender-hued hair as she leaned back in her high-backed swivel chair, coming dangerously close to tipping it. Sitting back up, she felt a little better. Giving the stack of reports and paperwork on her desk an extremely inimical glare, she instead opened up her desk drawer and extracted one of her ongoing investigation files; she needed to do something she had at least some interest in at the moment.

She sifted through the file carefully, scanning again for any details that she might have missed earlier that would enable her to get somewhere with this particular case. She was so absorbed in her work that the phone was on its fifth ring before she realized that someone was calling her. Her face flashing annoyance at the interruption, she snatched the receiver from its cradle.

"This is Madigan," she identified herself. "What is it?" Her annoyance faded as the voice at the other end relayed its message. Her blue-grey eyes became intent as she stared at the report on the desktop while she listened.

"You're absolutely sure that you've found him?" she demanded. The voice replied affirmatively. "Excellent. Keep him under surveillance until further notice; I will decide what to do next," she directed. Hanging up the phone, she allowed a satisfied smile to appear briefly.

Very soon, and she'd have all the answers she needed.

****

"But I feel fine! Seriously!" Bert tried protesting. "I don't have any more headaches, and I can move without any pain!"

"And I'm seriously going to sedate you if you try moving out of that bed," Anri told him severely. "You're not moving anywhere until I've been told you have permission to get up, and that's final." The young green-haired woman glared at him, her blue eyes flashing determinedly as she continued to search through her small medical kit. She was wearing a light blue uniform similar to a nurse's, and she looked more lively than she had in weeks. The no-nonsense air about her was certainly new; it appeared that her new job had helped add some self-assertiveness. Bert rather sourly wished that the assertiveness could have waited a bit longer to crop up.

"Look, Anri," he tried, using his most persuasive voice and winning smile. "I'm fine, really. I just need to move around a bit or else I'm going to go crazy, that's all." He shifted around and tried to sit up a bit, concealing the faint twinges of pain that were still lingering in his spinal column. "I ..." He cut off as Anri quietly set a syringe equipped with a very long needle and filled with a clear liquid off to the side of her case, and continued to look for something else inside her kit.

"Uh, what's that for?" he queried tentatively, eyeing the needle nervously. He hated needles of any kind, and the point on that one looked long enough to qualify as a railgun spike.

"Pardon me? Oh, the needle you mean?" Anri asked innocently. "That's for dealing with problem patients."

"Oh." Very slowly, the red-head eased himself back down, suddenly losing all desire to try moving. He glared at Anri as he caught the faintest ghost of a smile flickering about her lips.

"If it makes you feel any better," she told him as she took out a small scanning device and notebook, "Priss gave me some pointers on what was the best way to handle you; she said you might need some 'persuasion' in order to keep you in bed." She came over to the side of the bed, and giggled at the look on his face. She decided not to mention that Sylia had also offered some suggestions along the same lines.

"Great," he muttered disgustedly. "Now everyone's conspiring against me." Anri giggled again, then turned quietly businesslike.

"Okay, this won't take long, so just hold still," she told him. Adjusting some controls on the scanner, she took a quick reading, and jotted something in her notebook before running a couple more quick scans, concentrating her attention on the base of his skull and neck. Whatever the results were, she didn't tell him, but made a note of them in her book. She did a few other quick exams, pulse, blood pressure and the like, and peered into his eyes with a small light, making notes about everything. Bert began to feel a bit like an exotic specimen in a lab under her scrutiny.

"What, no tissue samples?" he inquired when she was done, unable to keep a hint of sarcasm from entering his voice. Anri flushed a little, and quickly packed her stuff up, including the needle, closing the case.

"I'm sorry about all that," she said apologetically, "but I've got my instructions. This is part of my medical training as well, you know." He sighed and let his head drop back to the pillow, suddenly feeling exhausted for some reason.

"I know," he told her wearily. "Don't mind me; I'm not a good patient, and I tend to be irritable."

"Gee, I'd never have guessed," she replied impishly, giggling. "Did you want me to get you anything before I go?"

"Actually, yes. There's a notebook and a novel sitting on the coffee table in my apartment. Would you mind bringing them over? The door's not locked, and I need something to read; I can't just sleep all day anymore."

"Well, I guess I could do that," Anri said dubiously, thinking it over. His request didn't contradict her instructions, and she could see why he might need a distraction of some kind. "I'll be right back. Don't you dare try and move while I'm gone," she admonished him before leaving.

"Wouldn't dream of it," he muttered, shifting around. He lay staring morosely at the ceiling for a few minutes, unsuccessfully trying to drag himself out of the morass of depression that had been pulling at him lately. He known that he needed to get himself out of it somehow, and he'd almost succeeded in beating it earlier; the snowstorm, the snowball fight with Priss and Sylvie, and the subsequent hardsuited frolic in the snow on the training mission had almost cured him. It had been incredibly fun, something that had been very rare for him lately. For a while, he'd been able to forget his problems with Nene, and cheer up and relax. That certainly wasn't the case now.

During his recovery, he'd had ample time to dwell on what had happened, and his conclusions weren't making him any happier. He was willing to swear he hadn't missed anything in his checkout of his suit; nevertheless, something had malfunctioned and nearly killed him as a result. That meant he HAD missed something. He had to find out what that was; his life, not to mention the lives of his friends, depended on him not making mistakes with the suits.

Nene hadn't been by to see him either, and that had really eaten at him as well. He was getting depressed enough that he'd found himself thinking about just armouring up and then going and cruising around, hoping to find a fight. Not necessarily one he could survive, either. Any thoughts like that immediately sounded alarm bells in the back of his mind, but since he was effectively stuck in bed until further notice, he hadn't been able to shake them. The door to the room swung open again, and Anri came back into the room, carrying the books he'd requested tucked in one arm.

"There you go," she said brightly. "Reading material for the next while." She placed the books within easy reach, on the small table next to the bed.

"Thanks, I really appreciate it," he told her with a grateful smile. She smiled back, and picked up her case.

"I wouldn't worry too much," she told him. "I think you'll probably be allowed up and around before too much longer." With a cheery wave, she left, closing the door behind her. Bert's smile disappeared as the door closed. With a gloomy sigh, he reached over and grabbed the notebook from the table. Opening it up, he began examining the notes and hardsuit schematics contained within.

****

"I just don't understand it," Sylia sighed disgustedly to herself, leaning back and away from the computer screen in front of her and rubbing her eyes tiredly. Reluctantly, she brought her attention back to the data displayed in front of her: the results of the exhaustive testing she'd put SkyKnight's suit systems through. She run every conceivable test on his suit, trying to locate the source of the problem that had crashed his sensors and visuals, and him with them.

There wasn't one. Everything had just ceased functioning for a few split seconds for no traceable reason. It wasn't the hardware; it had tested out perfectly. The software wasn't the problem either; Bert didn't program the sensor software. That task was a joint effort between Nene and herself, and she was reasonably certain they hadn't missed anything.

So what had caused it?! Grimly, Sylia started sifting the data again.

****

A quiet knock on the door roused Bert from the light doze he'd drifted into. Rubbing at his eyes, he took a swipe at his tousled hair, brushing it out of his vision.

"Come in," he called, snapping the notebook he'd been reading closed, and setting it over on the side-table. Carefully, he eased himself to a slightly propped-up position, wincing at the twinges from his neck; despite what he'd told Anri, it was still a bit tender. At least he wasn't getting headaches anymore.

The door opened slowly, and Nene stepped in through the door, looking uncertain. The attractive red-headed young woman was dressed in her form-fitting ADP uniform blouse and skirt, and had her jacket draped over an arm. She looked a lot better than she had for a while; there was some colour in her cheeks again, and her vibrant long red hair, swept back over her shoulders, didn't make her look unnaturally pale, like it had while she'd been convalescing from the gunshot wound. She almost looked like she was back to normal, except for a hint of tightness around the eyes, and an air of unease.

"Um, hi," she said quietly. "Mind if I visit for a bit?"

"Not at all!" he replied quickly, a tentative smile appearing. Seeing her had caused his heart to give a pained lurch; he'd missed her more than he was willing to let on. Given that she hadn't dropped in to see him since his accident, he'd started wondering if there was anything left of their relationship to salvage. The faint hope that maybe this was the start started unfolding in him.

Nene dropped her jacket onto one of the chairs by the door, and pulled another chair over closer to the bed. She didn't quite move right up to the side, but he was willing to settle for having her in the same room at the moment. She sat down gracefully on the chair, her face serious. She folded her arms across her chest as she looked at him, and a suddenly thick and uncomfortable silence sank over the room.

"So, um, how're you doing?" he tried. "You look great; I'm glad you dropped by."

"I'm fine, I guess," she replied, hesitating the merest fraction of a second before adding, "Thank you." She didn't inquire about his condition, and another awkward silence fell.

"How's work?"

"Fine."

"Anything new happening?"

"Not much."

"Well how much is 'not much'?"

"Same as usual," she shrugged. "Paperwork. The new Chief is nice enough, and she's pretty thorough. Other than that, nothing new."

"I see," Bert replied, wanting to scream in frustration. He could sense some kind of an emotional wall between them, and he wasn't having much luck in finding a way to get past it. She was answering him like she was paying cash for each word, and she wasn't really meeting his gaze. Again, suffocating silence cloaked the room as he tried to see some way out of the current impasse.

It wasn't exactly easy; even though he had missed her, and still loved her, there was a churning, incomprehensible welter of confused hurt and anger in the back of his mind. Okay, maybe he shouldn't have told her to quit acting like a little girl quite so bluntly; that was still no reason for her to have severed all communication with him. The pain he'd felt from her accusations of him being a killer, although dulled by the passage of time, was still there as well.

In the back of his mind, his conscience was nagging at him to apologize to her; that might be the deciding factor that would get her to open up. But the lingering resentment over her behaviour wouldn't let him; he felt he deserved an apology as well, and he privately wondered if she'd realized that. As he sat there wrestling with himself internally, Nene sat quietly, watching him, a faint hint of some kind of inner turmoil of her own flickering through her eyes.

"So what have you been up to?" she finally asked. Bert shrugged, slightly irritated.

"Nothing," he replied sourly. "I've been stuck to this bloody bed for the last two days; you know that."

"I meant before .... before all this happened."

"Not much," he sighed. "I worked on the suits, upgrading them a bit more, and I took my usual practice sessions with Linna. Other than eating and sleeping, I haven't done much lately." He brightened suddenly. "I forgot! I'm opening my archery range to the public next week; I finally got the last safety permit cleared. Want to drop by the opening?"

"Well, okay, if I'm not on duty," she replied hesitantly. "I'm not much into archery, though."

"There's other stuff," he assured her. "I think you'd enjoy it."

"We'll see," she hedged, not meeting his gaze. "I really don't know what my schedule is going to be like next week." He nodded, hiding the faint twinge of disappointment that spread through him. "So you didn't do anything else?"

"I just finished saying that," he frowned, wondering at her persistence. "Nene, what's wrong?"

"Why haven't you been trying to phone me lately?" she inquired, her voice trembling slightly.

"Pardon me?!" Bert stared at her, not quite sure he was hearing her correctly.

"I want to know why you stopped calling me at work and at home," she repeated her question. A faint flicker of anger began to smolder in the back of his mind, escaping the restraints he'd been keeping it under.

"And just why should I have kept trying?" he asked in as reasonable a tone as he could manage. "I got just a little sick of being hung up on, told you were away from your desk, or just not having the phone answered!" It took a monumental effort to keep from losing his temper as he remembered some of those fruitless, frustrating afternoons trying to contact her. A headache began to throb in his temples with the strain. "And you were playing damn hard to get outside of work as well; after a while I figured you didn't want to be contacted, so I quit calling."

"Well, I was away from my desk a lot," she retorted defensively, but it was a feeble attempt, and they both knew it.

"I can understand, I think, why you're a little upset over my behaviour a couple of weeks ago," he told her bluntly. "I know I've changed. I don't like it either, but it's in the past, and we're stuck in the present. You'd better get used to that fact."

"That's no justification for attacking the ADP!" she flared suddenly.

"I tried explaining what happened, but you wouldn't listen," he replied flatly. "If you want to see the exact events, go look at my flight recorder data; it's all there." Thick silence dropped smotheringly over the room.

"I was trying to call, every day, for over a week after that night," he said tightly, breaking the fragile silence. "But you shut me out, totally, without even a chance to defend myself. That hurt. I still love you..."

"Then why were you going out with Priss?!" she suddenly burst out, her voice sounding like she was close to crying.

"Pardon?!" he blurted, caught unprepared by the sudden change of topic. "I haven't been going out with Priss! What the hell are you talking about?!"

"I saw you out with her five days ago," she informed him. "Naoko and I were on our lunch break, and I saw the two of you walk by, laughing and joking with each other." Her eyes started brimming with tears, and her voice turned choked. "That's it, isn't it? You quit phoning because you're dating Priss now, aren't you?"

"Now wait just a minute," Bert ordered, holding up a hand as he tried to sit up a bit in the bed. "We had lunch together, and the only reason that happened was because I was helping her pick up some packages. That was it. I have NOT been dating her, and I think you're jumping to the wrong conclusions here."

"Am I?!" she retorted. "Then why is she always the first one who finds out that you're having problems? Well?! You've never confided in me; you've always gone to her first. Why is that? You said you love me, but you won't even talk to me!"

"Nene, you're blowing this out of proportion!" he protested. "The only reason she found out about some of these things first is because she hunted me down and forced me into talking about them! Damn it, I AM in love with you! YOU'RE the one who said you never wanted to see me again!"

"I didn't say that!" she denied hotly. "I said I didn't think I wanted to. I needed time to think it over."

"Oh, so in the meantime I'm supposed to sit at home and be miserable while waiting for a decision?!" he demanded, his anger finally boiling over into full blast. "Since when has it been decreed that I can't have other friends?! I've had enough; Nene, you're acting like a bloody schoolgirl, and you're old enough to know better. I haven't been dating Priss; we are good friends, nothing else. You're getting jealous over nothing, and it's goddamn well got to stop."

"I think this conversation is over," she said icily, green eyes flashing angrily.

Bert stared helplessly, again unable to think of anything to say to her as she stood, gathered her jacket up, and left, banging the room door closed behind her. He flopped back to the pillow, staring despairingly at the ceiling as the faint hope of reconciliation he'd entertained turned into ashes.

"Well now what the hell am I supposed to do?!" he asked out loud. No answers miraculously appeared, however. He lay there awash in a sea of regrets, slowly drowning under a tide of bitter, depressing thoughts.

 

TWO DAYS LATER....

"Hey, Bert, you in here?" Priss called, sticking her head around the doorjamb; the door to his apartment had been slightly ajar when she'd arrived, which she assumed meant he was home. Her red-brown eyes gazed searchingly at the slightly cluttered-looking, dimly-lit apartment, coming to rest on a body sprawled limply in a reclining chair, a blanket draped untidily over it. A low droning noise was coming from the comatose shape, and she sighed as she realized he was asleep.

Stepping into the apartment, the attractive singer shook her head in amusement; for the two days he'd been bedridden, all she'd heard from him was how he couldn't wait to get up and do something. Now that he was officially healthy again, and allowed to resume his normal activities, here he was snoring the day away. She shucked off her coat, tossing it into a chair as she walked over to the coffee table area, and sat down on the couch. Folding her arms behind her head and propping her feet up on the coffee table, she waited, listening to the rumbling snores coming from her friend.

It took another ten minutes or so before there were any signs of movement from the slumbering red-head. The blanket-draped body shifted around and fidgeted, and he coughed a bit. There was a moment or two of silence, then he muttered something low under his breath that she didn't catch, and sat up. The blanket fell away revealing a very grouchy-looking young man; his hair was a tangled, matted mess, his eyes were red-rimmed, and his face bristled with two days' growth of whiskers.

"Good Lord," Priss observed before she could stop herself. "You look terrible!"

"Well, thank you so much for making me feel better," he snapped back. "I didn't ask for comments from the peanut gallery. What are you doing here?"

"I, uh, came to see you," she said slowly, taken a little aback by his brusque manner. "I was wondering ...."

"Well, you've seen me," he interrupted bitterly. "Go away and leave me alone."

Priss stared at him in disbelief, a mixture of shock and hurt flashing through her. He didn't look at her, but stood and stomped over to the washroom, slamming the door behind him. For a moment, she was half-tempted to leave and let him be miserable, and stood, preparing to walk out and leave him alone with his lousy mood.

After a moment though, she sank back to the couch. She wasn't leaving; she'd come here to ask him something, and considering the length of time it had taken her to finally get together the nerve to come over, she wasn't going to just give up. Running a hand thoughtfully through her hair, brushing the long brown strands back over her shoulders, she instead tried to determine just what his problem was. He hadn't looked good; only the fact that she knew he didn't drink prevented her from assessing his condition as being hung-over. What did that leave?

The door to the bathroom opened again, and Bert shambled out. He'd shaved and cleaned himself up, drastically improving his appearance. His usually snarled thatch of hair was damp, and had been combed into a rough semblance of order. He didn't look as angry as he had when he'd stormed in, and she relaxed a bit. Standing up, she walked over towards him; he had stopped outside the bathroom door, and was standing awkwardly, as if uncertain what to do next.

"Hi, uh, Priss," he greeted her tentatively as she came up to him, determination written all over her face. "I, umm....."

"Mind explaining that rude greeting I got?!" she demanded. "I know you're a lousy morning person, but that was the most uncivil reaction I've ever seen out of you." She folded her arms and waited, tapping her foot as she glared at him. Her anger faded at the remorseful look he gave her.

"I know, I acted like an asshole, and I'm ... I'm sorry," he stammered, unable to meet her gaze for more than a couple of seconds. "I just....I just don't feel up to any company right now; I'm sorry." There was a lackluster, dead look in his eyes that she hadn't noticed before. He turned away from her, and walked listlessly over to the kitchen counter, where he started boiling a kettle of water for some tea.

The last traces of her brief flare of anger died, being replaced by concern. He wasn't grouchy, he was depressed, badly from the look of it. Having experienced it herself a few times, she knew the signs, and it certainly helped explain his behaviour earlier.

"Hey," she called, following after him. "What's wrong? Why the long face?"

"I really don't want to talk about it," he evaded, still not meeting her gaze. His eyes were very firmly fixed on the kettle, watching as wispy bits of steam began to curl upwards from the spout.

"Bert, come on," she said firmly, reaching out and putting a hand on his arm. "I want to help."

"You can't."

"I certainly can't if you don't tell me what's bothering you," she persisted stubbornly. She grasped his arm and pulled him around to face her. There was a pained, defeated look in his eyes as he looked at her. "Come on, you can tell me what it is. Please?" She had to snap him out of it somehow; prolonged depression wasn't healthy, and he'd always been introspective enough about certain topics that he could certainly make it worse without trying to.

A long silence fell, broken only by the whistle of the kettle as it started to boil. Priss reached past him and unplugged it, and the kettle fell silent. She returned to looking her tall, red-headed friend in the eyes, trying to will him to say something....anything. After a moment more, he sighed deeply, running a hand over his face wearily.

"I ... I think Nene and I have split for good," he told her, his voice turning choked. "We had another argument a couple of days ago, and ... and she left. When I got out of the infirmary, I realized that she'd cleaned her stuff out of the apartment." He turned away from her, struggling to maintain his composure. "Since then, I just haven't been up to doing anything, and I didn't feel like seeing anyone. I ... I'm sorry I let my mood get the better of me; you deserved better than that."

"Oh hell, Bert, I'm so sorry," she said sympathetically, reaching a hand out towards him in an attempt to offer some solace. He didn't notice, but went about making a pot of tea. When he turned around, she stepped up to him and hugged him tightly, not giving him a chance to back away from her. After a long moment, she felt his arms wrap around her, hugging her back. He started shaking as she held him, and she realized he was crying.

"It'll be okay," she tried soothing him, knowing how inadequate the words were, but wanting to say something comforting regardless. "It'll work out somehow." He didn't reply, but continued to hug her tightly, like a drowning victim clutching at a life-preserver, quietly crying.

****

"Well, THAT was useful," Sylia muttered disgustedly, pitching the last set of test results onto the console top in a flurry of printout pages. Turning off the computer, she leaned back in her chair, sighing and agitatedly running a hand through the disarray of her blue-black hair. Faint dark smudges marred the skin beneath her slightly bloodshot brown eyes, and the white lab coat covering her old sweater and jeans was wrinkled and stained with hardsuit lubricants and other grimy compounds. She looked worn-out, and it was becoming a struggle staying awake. She grimaced to herself as she caught a faint reflection of what she looked like in the shut-down computer monitor.

With a weary sigh, she forced herself to her feet, using her hands braced on the console top for some leverage. A wry smile flickered briefly across her face as she realized she'd become guilty of what she kept telling Bert not to do: overdo working on the suits. She hadn't pulled any all-night work sessions, but almost eighteen hours a day came pretty close. Her smile faded a moment later as the fruitless efforts of her labours again taunted her.

Damn it, there HAD to be something that had caused a major malfunction of SkyKnight's primary and backup sensor and visual systems. That meant a major system crash, and it was flat out impossible that a malfunction of that type could leave no trace that it had ever happened. She had to be missing something....

Sylia caught herself before she could spiral back into succumbing to the obsessive urge to check the suits over again. She needed sleep at the moment more than anything; maybe she'd be able to figure out what she'd missed with a clearer mind. A wry smile again flickered over her face; if Bert ever found out about the way she'd been driving herself over the last couple of days, he'd never let her live it down.

Flicking off the lights, the fatigued leader of the Knight Sabers left the computer analysis room to seek the comfort of a warm, soft bed.

 

TWO DAYS LATER ....

"Nothing?" Bert echoed skeptically. "You're sure?"

"Yes, goddamnit, I AM sure!!" Sylia snapped peevishly. She caught herself, running a hand over her face; the strain of days of unproductive investigation was finally eroding her normally imperturbable calm. "I'm sorry," she said in a milder tone. "I can't find anything wrong with your suit at all; it's functioning perfectly. I don't understand it."

"Well, that makes two of us then," Bert sighed, slumping against the worktable. On top of the table, the gleaming silver-and-blue armour of SkyKnight lay quietly. He ran a hand aimlessly over the smooth plating as he considered everything they knew, or didn't know.

Days of exhaustive system tests hadn't yielded Sylia any insights. Deciding that actually putting the suit through its paces in a controlled environment might reveal the problem, she'd contacted him, and gotten him to meet her at the hardsuit testing facilities concealed beneath Raven's Garage. He complied readily enough; he'd finally accepted the fact that he had to move on and try to carry on normally again.

Sylia had already been there when he'd arrived. He had the faint suspicion that she'd been there for quite some time, but she deftly parried his questions and diverted him. Shortly afterwards, he'd found himself in his hardsuit, sweating like a racehorse as Sylia directed him through some of the most grueling 'controlled tests' he'd ever had the misfortune to have participated in. Even fighting hordes of ravening combat boomers would have been a welcome relief.

Despite all that expended effort, she hadn't detected a single fault with his suit, or with his performance. Instead of being happy with the results, or even merely relieved, Sylia seemed to be taking it as a personal affront. The tall red-headed young man was more than a little surprised at the vehemence she was showing in relation to the matter; he hadn't thought she could become so driven about something. After some careful consideration, he decided that she was just exhibiting frayed nerves and intense feelings of responsibility, like he tended to do when he perceived something as his fault. It did make some sense, in a way, since his designs were based on her original work.

"So what do we do now?" he asked tentatively.

"I don't know," she shot back irritably, pacing up and down the confines of the lab, her lab coat fluttering in unconscious mimicry of her agitation. "All the evidence indicates that nothing is wrong."

"So does that mean we're putting my suit back into service?"

"I'm not happy about it, but I don't have any reason not to," she said, throwing her hands up in disgust and stopping her pacing. She ran her hands through her hair in frustration, almost like she was getting ready to try pulling it out. "Whatever it was appears to have been a single-shot phenomena." He nodded, understanding her state of mind perfectly.

"So was that it for the day then?" he asked.

"Yes, that was all I had planned," his boss nodded wearily, gathering her notes and printouts from the testing into neat bundle. Picking them up, she tucked them under her arm. "We'll transport your suit back to the building later on; right now I need some rest instead."

"No arguments there," he grinned tiredly. "I'm going to go home and have a shower and then snooze for the afternoon." She smiled slightly, nodding in understanding. He held the door for her as they left the laboratory, hitting the switch for the lights.

****

Sylia stretched languorously, yawning as she padded barefoot across the bedroom carpeting, adjusting her snugly-fitting bathrobe. With a heartfelt, weary sigh, she collapsed onto her bed. Too tired to even crawl into it, she reached over and pulled on the down comforter covering the bed, wrapping it around herself, and closed her eyes. She surrendered to the pleasantly drowsy feelings that her hot shower had produced, and was soon soundly asleep.

However, even asleep her mind refused to let go of all of her concerns from the last few days, and her dreams were a confusing, variegated tangle of images and feelings. It was almost a relief when the shrill blast of the telephone punctured her disturbing dreams to wake her up. She glanced at the clock as she rolled over on the mattress, still shrouded in the comforter, as she sleepily inched towards the telephone on the nighttable next to the bed in a floundering crawl. Only about a half-hour's worth of sleep; not nearly what she'd been hoping for.

"This had better be worth it," she muttered tiredly to herself. She picked up the phone as it rang for the sixth or seventh time, dimly noting in the back of her mind that the flashing light on the phone's control panel indicated that whoever was phoning was using the secure line.

"Hello?" she queried into the mouthpiece, letting her head drop back to the pillow while closing her eyes.

"Hello, Sylia," a man's voice replied. "Been a long time, hasn't it?" Sylia's eyes flew open as she recognized the voice, and she sat up on the bed as her mind returned to full alertness.

"It has indeed," she replied coolly. "I'd expected to hear from you a lot sooner than this; you're usually much quicker."

"I don't think you fully realize what you asked me to do," he replied. "The information you were after is a very hot item. Almost too hot." She sighed to herself; that had sounded like the prelude to some bargaining, and she really wasn't up to it right now.

"The usual place this time?" she inquired. "We can discuss the matter in detail there."

"Tomorrow," he replied. "I've got other business tonight."

"Understood. Tomorrow, then."

Sylia hung up the phone as the line went dead, and slowly lay back into the pillow, gathering her comforter closer about her body as if to ward off a chill. She stared at the ceiling for a few minutes, mind whirling chaotically. After a few moments, sleep pounced on her again, mercifully dropping curtains of dreamless darkness across her mind.

****

Yawning tiredly, Bert toweled the last of the excess water from his hair, grabbing a comb long enough to try and make the auburn thatch appear neatly groomed. He knew it wouldn't last; the minute it was fully dry, it would gleefully revert to its usual chaotic tangle. Short of gluing it down, there just wasn't any way to force it to behave. He examined his reflection in the steamy bathroom mirror; he looked as presentable as he was ever going to get.

Snapping the towel from around his neck, he hung it on the wall rack and stepped out into his living room. He stretched for a brief moment, another yawn escaping him. Grabbing the pillow and blanket from the couch, he flopped onto it, making himself comfortable. His breathing slowed as he relaxed, letting his mind drift as he closed his eyes.

Sleep had just started to invade his mind when a knock on the door roused him, and drove it back. Growling irritably at the impertinence of the visitor who'd decided to come calling, he sat up, flipping the blanket off and leaving it draped untidily over the back of the couch. Standing, he walked over to the apartment door just as another knock sounded. The red-haired young man smoothed out his expression in an effort to at least appear civil, and reached for the doorknob.

"Hi," Priss greeted him when the door opened, smiling brightly. "Got a few minutes?" The attractive singer was dressed in a form-fitting, yellow and black leather biking suit with matching boots, her long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. There was a sparkle of cheerful exhilaration in her red-brown eyes, which indicated that she'd obviously just been roaring around the city on her souped-up street machine; other than brawling with renegade boomers, that was the only thing he could think of that left her with that kind of an excited look.

"Sure, come on in," he replied, stepping back. She stepped through the door, swinging it closed behind herself as he tried to keep himself from blushing. Since he'd broken down and literally cried on her shoulder a couple of days ago, he'd been unable to shake the uncomfortable, embarrassed feeling that spread through him when he saw her. He knew that she'd never reveal to anyone else what had happened, but what was bothering him was the fact that it had seemed.... somehow undignified. He kept trying to tell himself it was misplaced egotism, but it didn't help much.

"You doing okay?" she inquired, unzipping and opening the neck of her bike suit a bit as she toed off her boots, absently kicking them onto the mat meant for shoes.

"Surviving, I guess," he replied, shrugging awkwardly. "I feel a lot better than the other day, at least. Thanks again."

"You needed it," she replied soberly. "You had to get it out of your system somehow." She shook her head, rolling her eyes as she watched him turn bright red. "I wish you'd quit that," she told him crossly. "I'm not about to tell anyone about it, so your 'noble knight' image is safe. Besides, the last time I checked, it wasn't a crime to show emotions, so stop treating it like it was one. " He mumbled something under his breath, then sighed.

"So did you stop by just to check on me?"

"Partly," she admitted with a wry smile. "Partly it was also because I had to ask you something; I never did get the chance to the other day."

"What was the question?" he asked, looking at her curiously.

"Well, are....are you busy tonight?" she asked, flushing slightly. For days, she'd felt nervous and jumpy for some reason, ever since deciding to ask this question. She couldn't isolate a reason for the feelings though, and it was irritating her. She clamped down on herself, trying not to let her agitation show.

"No," he answered slowly, "I'm free as far as I know. Why?"

"How'd you like to go to my concert tonight? I'm pretty sure I can get you a decent seat if you do." Bert blinked, looking a little surprised.

"Anyone else going?" he inquired. She shook her head.

"Linna's got a rehearsal, Sylia's being mysterious and says she's busy, and Nene said she had to work as well." Priss had wondered about that last turn-down; Nene had been terse, almost abrupt in her reply before hanging up on her.

"What about Anri and Sylvie?"

"Anri's studying late," Priss sighed. "She's really throwing herself into the paramedic training."

"You know, having a medic isn't a bad idea," Bert noted with a straight face. "It'll give us someone qualified to bandage you up after an outing."

"Oh yeah?! Look who's talking!" she shot back defensively. He chuckled and bowed slightly, acknowledging her point. Priss glared at him, then continued speaking.

"Anyway, Sylvie won't go near Hot Legs because she's afraid someone might remember her; she caused a big sensation the last time she was there." The brown-haired singer had tried arguing with her friend, pointing out that it had occurred almost two years ago, and it was unlikely anyone would remember her after such a long time. Sylvie had been adamant however, and stuck to her refusal to go. She'd been extremely apologetic about missing the performance, but hadn't changed her mind. "Besides," she added, "you know she's working at Sylia's store now. Tonight's her night to close up." Bert suddenly developed a sly grin.

"So how does Sylvie like working for Sylia?"

"Oh, she's got no complaints about the work," Priss replied, a touch of dryness in her tone. "She likes meeting most of the customers. But there suddenly seems to be a lot more guys finding excuses to walk by and peer in the storefront now." Priss suddenly grinned herself. "Actually, her biggest gripe so far is that she's got to dress up for the job and look respectable."

"Well, selling lingerie in a bike suit would look a little strange," Bert admitted blandly, trying to hide a smile. Priss snorted, smirking, then turned serious.

"You didn't answer my question," she noted, jabbing him in the chest with a finger while looking up at him. "Did you want to go?"

Bert gazed at Priss, greenish-brown eyes thoughtfully meeting red-brown ones as a somehow tense silence fell over the apartment. He couldn't see a reason why he couldn't go; he didn't have anything else to do, really. The idea of going to her concert gained appeal as he considered it; he did like her singing, and it had been a while since he'd gone out anywhere. At the very least, there was the possibility that it would finally clear away the cloud of gloom he'd been labouring under lately.

As he looked at the tense-seeming young woman in front of him, it suddenly occurred to him part of the reason she was asking was because she was hoping to have a friendly face there as moral support. It was going to be her first time back on a stage in quite a while, and she had to be feeling the pressure from that. Some uncertainty about her leg injury was probably bothering her as well.

"Sure, I'll go," he answered finally, giving her a warm smile. "I'm honoured you asked."

"Thanks," she said, smiling and hugging him in relief. "It really means a lot to me."

His arms wrapped around her, returning the hug. As she started to release him, he leaned down towards her, and his lips met hers in a soft, tentative kiss. After a moment of surprise, Priss hesitantly kissed him back, her arms tightening a bit, pulling him closer. They stood like that for a moment, then he suddenly pulled back, out of her embrace. As she looked questioningly at him, he flushed bright red, looking away.

"What was that for?" she asked. In the back of her mind, her surprise was being prodded by a faint, growing suspicion.

"Uh, nothing, really," he stammered, abruptly looking panicky. "I, uh, just, er, felt like it," he floundered. "No real reason." He steadfastly refused to meet her gaze, either looking at something past her shoulder or at the floor.

"Bert, look at me," she commanded. When he didn't respond, she stepped closer to him, reaching up and gently turning his head so that he had to look at her. "Are you sure it's nothing?" she asked quietly. She felt him become tense, as if scared of something.

"I'm not...I mean...I can't...." he faltered, swallowing nervously. Priss continued to gaze into his eyes, and saw the whirling mix of confused emotions he was trying desperately to keep under control. "It's not.... I mean .... I'm...not sure," he rasped, clearing his throat uncomfortably. "I've...I've got to go. I'll meet you later on, at the concert."

"No, Bert, wait a minute...." she started to say, but he pulled free from her grasp, and almost ran from the apartment. For a brief moment she considered following him, but reluctantly decided to let him go; hopefully he'd try and resolve his feelings himself. She concentrated instead on trying to determine just what her feelings were on the sudden turn of events; she wasn't so sure that it was nothing.

Priss hunted around in his refrigerator for a moment, then grabbed a can of beer from the door rack. Opening it and sipping it slowly, she walked over to the couch, and sat down. As she drank, she gazed unseeingly across the room, trying to sort out her own complicated tangle of emotions.

****

Mind churning in confused disarray, Bert slumped down on stool next to the shop workbench, pillowing his head on his arms on the bench top. He couldn't seem to stop himself from shaking, and it was difficult to sort out specific thoughts from the seething mess his mind seemed to have degenerated into.

What the hell was the matter with him?! What was he scared of?! That was the best name he could give what he was feeling right now; his pulse was racing, and he couldn't seem to keep his hands from trembling.

He took a deep breath, sitting up and trying to force himself to calm down and relax long enough to determine what exactly was bothering him.

Well, partly it was Priss asking him the reason for him kissing her that had sparked it. He hadn't been able to stop himself; it had been almost like someone else had taken over briefly, and it had happened a couple of times before. She'd looked lonely and vulnerable for a brief instant; something in him had wanted to comfort her, and that had translated into him kissing her. Something had happened, though. Now, he couldn't get the feelings he had gotten from kissing her out of his mind. He'd been able to do that before, but now he didn't know why he couldn't now....did he?

As he sat thinking it over, an image of the attractive singer flashed in his mind, and he found himself flushing at the memory of how soft and inviting her lips had felt. Holding her curvaceous body close to his had felt very nice as well, prompting a warm feeling to spread through him.... A horrible sinking feeling abruptly hit him in the guts as he realized that he'd fallen for Priss, and fallen hard, despite trying to deny it.

Desperation raced through him; he couldn't be in love with Priss! He loved Nene!! He did! He sank back to the workbench, putting his face in his hands as he groaned at the predicament he was in as he reluctantly accepted the truth of his realization: he was in love with the attractive, vivacious rock singer.

This is a problem? his subconscious asked dryly. You and Nene split up, remember?

"I can't be in love with her!" he half-snarled out loud in reply, a hint of desperation in his tone. "I just can't! It's not right! We're just friends!!"

Very close friends, his subconscious agreed. But you want to get closer, don't you?

Bert strangled off the insinuating whisper from the back of his mind, shaking his head violently, trying to deny it. Unfortunately, he couldn't do that any more; the feelings had been recognized, and were now slithering through his mind like agitated snakes.

Was it just the fact that he was afraid of being alone, now that Nene had left him? He considered that notion for a moment, trying to be as honest as possible with himself. After a moment he conceded the possibility had existed, once. Despite his problems with the red-headed ADP officer, he had retained the faint hope that they would get back together again, and he'd clung tenaciously to that hope. That hope had crumbled a few days ago, and him with it. Priss had pulled him back from dropping over the edge.

Could it be misplaced gratitude for the help she'd given him? For her being there to confide in? He dismissed the notion; they'd helped each other out a lot in the time they'd known each other. He was grateful, yes, but that hadn't evolved into what he was feeling now. At least, he didn't think it had....

He took swallowed against a suddenly dry mouth, as his mind teased him with another mental image of the alluring, brown-haired woman. Was that it? Was it just physical attraction?

He sat there, his mind whirling as it tried to solve his questions, while the clock on the wall kept patiently relaying the advancing time of day.

 

THAT EVENING.....

"Come on Priss!! You're due on the bloody stage in twenty minutes!! I am NOT going to put up with being stood up AGAIN!!! Are you listening to me?!" the manager of 'Hot Legs' fumed, biting the words off angrily. Middle-aged, balding, and with a mustache and reeking cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth, the slightly portly manager was almost foaming at the mouth from frustration.

"I said I'd be ready, and I will be!! Now bugger off for a minute, goddamnit!!" the tense, red-brown eyed singer snapped. "I'm trying to find someone!!"

"You'll be trying to find the unemployment line if you blow this one!!"

Sighing in bitter disgust, Priss turned away from her intent scanning of the restless crowd of rock fans congregated out in the rest of the bar. The manager grunted in satisfaction, then hustled off to another section of the backstage area, evidently thinking she'd been chastised into obedience.

A feeling of intense hurt spread through her as she started walking away from the backstage door that opened out into the bar; despite promising he'd be there, Bert still hadn't shown up. Why?! Didn't he realize how important this was to her? Didn't he care enough to just show up?! She fought off the hurt, turning it into anger at him as her eyes narrowed with grim promise. If she found him after the concert, she was going to...

"Damn it, I was INVITED! I'm not bullshitting you!! Look, go find her, and ask!! How long could that take?!" Priss stopped as a familiar voice briefly overrode the noise of the audience, coming from one of the backstage entrances to the street. Relief bursting inside her, she sprinted for the doorway the voice had come from.

"Look, buddy," the bored voice of the bouncer replied. "I've never seen you at all around here before, and you're the fifth fanboy to try this particular stunt tonight. I've already filled up that dumpster over there with persistent fans, so get lost before I call the cops!"

"Bert!" Priss burst out in relief as she skidded to a stop next to the imposing, six-foot-four bouncer. "You made it!!"

"You know this guy, Priss?" the bouncer asked skeptically, jerking a thumb at the familiar figure standing out in the street. Bert had his arms folded across his chest, a look of strained patience on his face. Irritated determination flashed in his greenish-brown eyes as he glared at the intractable backstage sentinel from under his hatbrim.

"He's a friend I've been expecting," she explained to the big man, reaching past him, and hauling Bert through the door by an arm. "It's okay, Masato, really."

"Okay, if you say so," he replied dubiously, giving the tall read-head an inimical glance, one that was returned with equal force. The bouncer closed the door, bolting it, then vanished into the backstage darkness as Priss whirled on Bert.

"It's about goddamn time you got here!!" she hissed angrily, eyes flashing. "Where the hell were you?!"

"Finding a place to park wasn't easy; the neighborhood is packed right now," he replied, shrugging helplessly. "I'm here now; You know I keep my word."

"What were you doing before now? If you'd gotten here earlier, like I'd thought you were going to, you wouldn't have had that problem."

"I just had some things to think over first," he told her quietly. "I think I've managed to resolve them." She opened her mouth to ask what he'd been resolving, when an angry roar cut through the air.

"PRISS!!! You've got twelve minutes!!! Get the goddamn lead outta yer ass, will you?!?!"

"Relax, that's the manager," she admonished Bert, putting a hand on his chest to hold him back as a dangerous look crossed his face at the way she'd been addressed. "He's an asshole, but he's right; I've got to go get ready."

"Okay," he relaxed, sighing. "Where do I sit?"

"Well, er, you can't," she said awkwardly. "It's standing room only out there; the best I can do for you is watching from the wings. Sorry."

"That's fine with me," he assured her. "Just show me where to stand." The attractive rock singer quickly pointed out where it was safe for him to observe from, then sprinted for her dressing room before the manager could cut loose with another diatribe. Bert watched her go, his eyes thoughtful.

He briefly hoped he was making the right decision.

****

Leon shoved his way through the tightly packed crowd, angling for the bar, irritation flashing in his blue eyes at the overcrowding of the place. Around him, the mass of music fans hummed with anxious anticipation of the forthcoming concert; it had been a while since Priss and the Replicants had put on a big show, and some had begun to speculate that maybe they'd quit performing.

The tall ADP inspector finally succeeded in bulling his way through to the bar, and ordered himself a drink. Once he had it, he turned around, leaning against the bar as he sipped at his glass, his eyes roving over the crowd. Even though he was in the last week of his vacation time, he found he was still observing everyone as if on duty; sheer force of habit wouldn't let him relax in some ways.

Leon stared into his drink for a moment, swirling the ice cubes around in it aimlessly. He'd really needed those last couple of weeks off; although he hadn't been relaxing the entire time, the absence of the stress from the daily grind of the ADP offices had been welcome. He didn't feel as burned out anymore, and it had helped him to come to a decision on his future.

He'd finally decided to stay with the ADP. No matter how much all the political bullshit and red tape pissed him off, that didn't change the fact that there was a job to do. He was one of the few who actually cared enough about the job, and their duty to protect the public, enough to stick with it through all the risks and adversities. Leon took a great deal of pride from his job, and he'd found that he couldn't just walk away.

Besides, one way to solve the problems the ADP was having was to stick around and keep trying to change the status quo. Abandoning ship would just be giving in to the politicos, and he wasn't about to do that. They'd have to carry him out feet first before he'd give the bureaucrats the pleasure of having driven him off.

The main lights in the bar dimmed suddenly, indicating the concert was about to start. Hurriedly gulping down the last of his drink, the brown-haired inspector slapped his glass back on the bar, and forced his way back into the crowd, making his way to a spot where he could get a good view of the stage.

He was really looking forward to this concert; he'd immediately seized the opportunity to get a ticket when he'd heard about it. He was a real fan of Priss's music, although not as rabid about it as some of the people in the audience were; he'd already spotted a few young women wearing outfits similar to Priss's usual costume.

After a moment he admitted to himself that he'd also bought the ticket hoping for the opportunity to see her after the concert for a couple of minutes. Maybe she'd accept a dinner date proposal for a change.

Coloured strobe lights began flashing and rotating over the stage, and spotlights flicked on, illuminating the center-stage microphone as a young woman with long blond hair, edged with brown, wearing a very revealing leather costume stepped up to it, grasping it in a gloved hand. Behind her, half-a-dozen or so musicians picked up their instruments.

With a triumphant blast of sound, the concert began.

****

Bert winced a bit at the decibel level he was being subjected to; unwittingly, he'd picked a spot in the stage wings that was near some of the amplified speakers, and the volume was just short of the pain threshold. He couldn't really see Priss from his vantage point, either. The drummer and some of the guitarists were screening all but occasional glimpses of her from him. He sighed, deciding he was going to have to put up with it; it was too dark backstage to try moving, and he didn't want to accidentally do anything that might ruin her concert, like tripping over power cables.

He lost all thought of his discomfort and poor viewpoint when Priss's melodic voice joined in with the notes of the hard-driving rock music being provided by the band. A slow smile spread across his face as he listened to her rich tones belting from the speakers; her voice was instantly captivating, and immediately conveyed the feelings of the song lyrics to the listener. He didn't recognize this particular opening song that they'd picked, but it was a nice piece nevertheless.

He lost track of the time as he listened to her singing; it seemed to go on for hours as the Replicants went through some fast-paced, pulse-pounding rock to some other, slower pieces. He recognized several of the pieces among the selections, some of them his favourites: 'Crisis', 'Mad Machine', 'Victory'..... Throughout it all, Priss's soaring voice provided an unrivaled counterpoint to the instrumentation.

There was a brief pause in the flow of the music, but it was far from silent; the fans clamoured for more during the brief interlude, cheering and whistling, intoxicated with the music they'd heard so far. Priss had turned for a quick conference with the band, then she turned back to the audience. The band struck up the unmistakable opening notes for 'Konya wa Hurricane', and after the intro bars, Priss's voice twined with the music, weaving with it to create an uplifting tapestry of sound.

The song didn't last nearly as long as he would have liked it to, ending on a crescendo of exultant notes, and Bert was momentarily left blind as the spotlights focused on the stage flicked off; dim secondary lighting came back up a moment later. With the music over, he felt slightly deaf, and there was a faint ringing in his ears. The fans continued cheering at overpowering levels as Priss and her band exited the stage; some of the human sea surged towards the doors to the backstage area, mostly groupies. They were easily repelled from their goal by the hulking bouncers stationed there against just such an occurrence.

Straightening up from the wall he'd been leaning against, the tall red-headed young man left his side-stage vantage point, and quickly steered his way through the maze of sound equipment and wiring to where the band and their lead singer were finally emerging. The guitarists, keyboard player, and drummer more-or-less ignored him; they were busy slapping each other on the back in a congratulatory manner. A couple tried to include Priss in the rough camaraderie, but she deftly avoided anything more than a quick handshake or high-five. There were some disappointed-looking musicians behind her as she veered off upon seeing him.

There was an exultant glow in her red-brown eyes as she came up to him which seemed to illuminate even the dimly-lit backstage area. She was flushed with the success of the evening's performance, and breathless from the effort she'd put into it tonight; she hadn't held anything back, and it had been one of her most exuberant shows. She grinned excitedly at him, and said something, but whatever it was became lost in the enthusiastic cheers and applause from the audience out beyond the stage. Her grin turned wry, and she shrugged slightly, as if apologizing for the noise level. Turning, she gestured towards the corridor with the dressing and equipment rooms, an eyebrow quirking upwards questioningly. Nodding, he followed her to her room.

****

"Now that wasn't so bad after all, was it? I told you there wasn't any reason to worry," Bert grinned at Priss as he leaned against the wall, just inside her dressing room door. Outside the door, the cheering from the concert-goers had finally faded into relative silence.

"That's easy for you to say," the reddish-brown eyed singer returned wryly, her lips twisting in a half-smirk. "You weren't the one up on stage, hoping that you weren't going to fall flat on your face in front of the audience." She was wearing her usual performance attire: high-heeled boots that came to her knees, dark-coloured tights with a very short leather miniskirt, a tight leather top with a low neckline that accentuated her figure, elbow-length leather gloves, and a blond wig. Some costume jewelry, bracelets and a necklace, completed the ensemble. It was the first time he'd gotten a good look at her that night, and he liked what he saw. She looked sexy as hell.

With a sigh, she reached up and pulled off the wig, dropping it onto its head-shaped stand on a small side-table. She stretched a bit, arching her back as she ran her hands through her natural hair, fluffing it out a bit; the wig was almost as hot to wear at times as her hardsuit helmet was, and removing the wig was always a relief. Straightening up, she began pulling off the costume jewelry, dropping it into a box on the makeup table.

Bert cast a quick glance again around the small, cluttered dressing room, although there wasn't really all that much to see. A set of hangers by the door held her normal clothes, while a small closet in the corner held some of her skimpy singing costumes. A small makeup table sat by the wall, in front of an almost full-length mirror with lights around it, and there was the small endtable that had her wig sitting on it. A few faded rock posters were tacked up on the walls, hiding the cracked paint job behind them, and there were even a couple from when 'Priss and The Replicants' had just started performing. He glanced briefly from the posters displaying pictures of a much younger version of the brown-haired singer to the real woman standing nearby, mentally comparing the differences he could see.

The most immediately apparent difference, of course, was age: while Priss had lost none of her looks in the intervening years, she'd matured both physically and emotionally, and it had added nothing but allure. The energetic enthusiasm displayed in her poster picture was somewhat more restrained now, the fire still burning brightly, but banked and a little more under control.

There was also a weight of self-assurance to her now that seemed to be absent from the photo of her younger self, and he knew that experience was the main reason for that. Her life hadn't been what would be considered 'normal', even before she'd become a Knight Saber. As a result, she'd had a breadth of experience that few other people were likely to acquire. He himself knew only the barest outline of her past, even after seeing the anime; her past was one of the things Priss did not like to talk about. He'd respected her privacy, and refrained from asking questions. In time, if she felt like it, she'd discuss it with him.

Priss closed the lid on the jewelry box, and stretched languorously again, sighing, her body-hugging leather outfit creaking slightly with the movement. Bert flushed guiltily to himself as he caught his eyes roving up and down her trim, voluptuous curves, and he looked around the room again.

"There was something I've always wanted to ask," he spoke up suddenly, as his glance fell on her wig on its stand. A faint grin flickered across his face; it was a ridiculous question, but he was feeling whimsical tonight for some reason. Priss turned around, stripping off her gloves as she did, looking quizzically at him.

"And that is?" she prompted him, tossing the gloves aside onto the makeup table. He was unable to keep a smirk from appearing on his face as he looked at her.

"Do blondes really have more fun?" he asked innocently. Priss grinned at his question, then her grin slipped into a sly smile. She stepped a bit closer to him, looking up slightly into his face, still smiling. There was a faintly challenging look in the depths of her red-brown eyes as she smiled lazily at him.

"I don't know," she replied, noting he was blushing just a bit now. Her smile widened as an eyebrow quirked upwards. "Shall we find out?"

"Oh? And what would you suggest?" he asked, unconsciously leaning towards her slightly. There was an unfamiliar feeling stirring in him, a sort of shaky, trembling anticipation, although anticipation of what, he still didn't want to admit to himself at the moment. He was finding himself in some unfamiliar territory, and he suddenly wondered why it seemed so hot in the narrow confines of the dressing room.

Priss's one arm went around his waist as she moved right up to him. She reached up with her other hand, sliding it around to the back of his head, pulling him down towards her. His own arms went around her at the same time. Her firmly-muscled body felt very warm against his, every flowing curve seeming to mold to him as he held her close. His heart suddenly started hammering erratically at his ribcage.

"Something like....this?" she breathed, just before kissing him. Her lips pressed into his, and his arms tightened around her a bit at their warm, vibrant feel. Something stirred inside of him, and he felt a wave of somehow pleasant-feeling heat spread through his body. Priss's mouth twitched slightly against his as if she was smiling, and then her lips parted a bit. The kiss turned into a very thorough, very passionate and lengthy deep one, and he was beginning to run short of air when she finally withdrew.

"Something...like that," he replied a bit hoarsely, breathing heavily. The attractive singer's breathing also sounded a little heavier than normal; her shapely body was still pressed against his, and she was looking up into his face with an almost seductive gaze, her eyes half-lidded. He thought he could feel her trembling a bit, but it was hard to tell exactly, because he was doing a fair bit of trembling himself. He swallowed, trying to regain control of his thundering pulse, and desperately trying to subdue the feelings that had erupted in him during their kiss; that kiss had gone way beyond anything he'd ever experienced. He felt clumsy and awkward suddenly, and blushed self-consciously.

"I'd, uh, better let you get changed," he stammered, grabbing the first excuse he could think of. "I'll, uhm, wait outside, okay?" Priss gazed into his greenish-brown eyes, a flicker of sly humour suddenly appearing in hers.

"Sure you wouldn't like to stay and help me?" she asked teasingly, running her fingertips lightly down the side of his face.

"Priss!!" Bert turned bright red, right to his hairline, and she laughed, although not unkindly.

"Okay, I'll meet you outside, but you'd better wait a minute before you go," she replied, smiling and shaking her head. She disengaged from him, turning towards the nearby makeup table.

"Huh? Why?"

"Because," she said dryly, turning back towards him with a wad of tissues in her hand. She reached up and wiped around his mouth with them; he could see red smears on the white tissues as she took her hand away, tossing them into the nearby garbage. "You don't look good wearing lipstick," she grinned impudently. Bert flushed again, and irritably swiped at his mouth with the back of his hand just to make sure there weren't any traces of the makeup left. There weren't, and he quickly left, closing the door behind him.

****

Bert paced the hallway outside the dressing room door, ignoring the chaos that swirled around the backstage area as people cleaned up the equipment and instruments, packing them away for the next time. There wasn't much noise coming from the bar proper anymore; those who weren't staying to drink or try and get a glimpse of their favourite singer had already left, undoubtedly clogging the streets with traffic.

As he paced, he was getting a few speculative looks from some of the people churning around the backstage, and he could take a good guess at what they were thinking as well. He really didn't care what they thought at the moment, however; his own thoughts were preoccupying him, distracting him with thoughts of the alluring young woman inside the dressing room. He firmly squelched off his imagination as it tried showing him what might be happening inside as she changed.

The door to the room opened, and Priss stepped out, her customary motorcycle jacket draped over one arm, dressed in a more subdued fashion than her concert persona. She was wearing a light blue blouse, held closed at the throat by a matching pin, and jeans with her motorcycle boots. She'd scrubbed off the makeup on her face, but she still looked very lovely. He firmly suppressed the desire to kiss her again; that could wait until they were someplace private.

"Ready to go?" Priss asked, smiling at him.

"Sure. Where'd you want to go now?" he inquired. Priss started pulling on her jacket, looking thoughtful.

"Your place," she decided after a moment. "We can talk some more there; I'd say we've got a bit to talk about." He nodded, a slight, wry smile tugging at his lips at her observation. After a moment's hesitation, he offered her his arm; she took it, and they walked off towards one of the entrances to the back street.

****

Leon frowned at his watch, casting another glance around the bar. Strange; it had been almost forty-five minutes since the end of the concert, and still no sign of Priss. That was odd, because usually the brown-haired singer mingled with the crowd in the bar for a while after a performance, and usually still in costume. One of the reasons he was still here was the hope that he'd get the chance to talk to her.

He sighed, taking another pull at the drink he'd ordered; this made his fourth of the night, and his last, since he was going to have to drive home before too much longer. He glanced around irritably again. Where WAS she?! He must have accidentally spoken aloud, because a tall, heavily-built man a couple of stools away turned towards him. After a moment, Leon recognized him as one of the bouncers he'd seen earlier.

"If you meant Priss, you can stop wasting your time," the heavy-set man advised. "She left over a half-an-hour ago with some guy."

"What?! Who?!" Leon blurted in shock, an awful sinking feeling hitting him in the stomach. The bouncer shrugged.

"Never seen him before. He's tall, and was wearing a hat. That's about all I can say; never did get a good look at him." The man turned back to his drink, thinking the subject finished. After a moment, Leon stood and made his way to the door, leaving his drink unfinished on the bar. Suddenly, it didn't taste all that great anymore.

****

The door to the basement apartment swung open, letting the diffuse lighting from the corridor spill into the room. Bert entered first, flicking the wall switch; lamps positioned on small tables in the corners of the room lit up, providing a warm, friendly glow. He stepped out of the way of the doorway, kicking his shoes off, and Priss stepped in behind him, closing the door.

She looked around as she shucked off her red leather jacket, hanging it the closet just off to the side of door; the apartment was slightly messier than the last time she'd been by, but it was a comfortable mess, giving the entire place a homelike feel. Actually, most of the clutter was books, and a few newspapers; they'd been piled almost everywhere EXCEPT the bookshelves. She half expected them to avalanche down and bury the room without warning. Stray socks were located at strategic points around the room, adding uniqueness to the scene, if nothing else.

Priss sighed and fluffed out her hair a bit, stretching, while Bert quietly went about hanging up his coat and hat, and tucking his shoes out of the way. He gave her a quick, friendly smile before padding across the room in his sock feet towards the kitchen. Probably needs his caffeine, she thought sardonically to herself, a wry smile twisting her lips as she watched him for a moment while pulling off her boots. It was almost a certainty that his first move would be towards the teapot when he got home or got up; he couldn't seem to live without it. She herself like the occasional tea or coffee, but wasn't as addicted to it as he seemed to be.

She wandered across the carpet towards the bookshelf while Bert puttered around in his kitchen area, stuffing things into cupboards. She managed to hide a smile; if he was cleaning up because she'd come by, he was wasting his time. Her apartment was much messier than his was.

Since she had nothing better to do, she grabbed some of the most unstable-looking books, and stuffed them into whatever space happened to be on the bookshelves. She didn't really want to become the accidental victim of a cascade of literature. After a few moments, she felt a little safer about moving around the room.

"You hungry?" his voice floated over to her. "I can put together a sandwich or two if you'd like."

"Got anything to drink, instead?" she asked, idly running a hand down the spines of some of the books lining his bookshelf. "I'm not really hungry." She read a few of the titles as her fingers brushed across them, shaking her head at the strange mix of science fiction and fantasy novels. Scattered among the well worn paperbacks and hardcovers were a few science and history textbooks, looking incredibly out of place among the fiction volumes.

"Anything in particular in mind?" his muffled voice came from under his kitchen sink, where she could hear him rummaging around for something. "Tea? Coffee? Something else?"

"What's in the 'something else' category?" she inquired, turning and walking over to his kitchenette counter, leaning on her elbows on it. Bert surfaced on the other side of the counter across from her, holding a squarish, dust-covered bottle containing an amber-coloured liquid.

"This," he replied, setting the bottle on the counter between them. "I usually keep it around for medicinal purposes or special occasions, and I'd say your getting back on-stage counts as a special occasion." Priss looked at the bottle, but couldn't read the label, since it was in English.

"What is it?"

"Rye whiskey."

"What the heck kind of 'medicinal purposes' would that have?!"

"It works great on colds," he replied with a slight grin, shrugging. "One stiff jolt of this before bed, and you don't have any problems sleeping at all."

Priss grinned back. "Got anything to mix with it?" He nodded, and got a bottle of pop and some ice cubes out of the fridge. Glasses came next from an overhead cupboard, and he plunked them down on the counter in front of her. Priss cocked her head at him curiously. "How strong did you want it?" she asked, reaching out and picking up the whiskey bottle. Bert looked thoughtful for a moment.

"Not very," he finally decided. "I don't drink all that much. Hardly ever, in fact, so I'd better take it easy."

"I'm not a boozer either," she retorted dryly, pouring a small amount of the liquor into each of the glasses and capping the bottle. "I just like having a drink every so often, that's all." She added pop and ice cubes to the drinks, and slid his across the countertop to him. He picked up the glass, and his eyes briefly met hers. She smiled back at him, and he blushed a bit, as if caught at doing something he shouldn't have.

"Come on; it'll be more comfortable sitting down," she advised, jerking her head towards the couches. Picking up her glass she turned and walked over to the couch, carefully sitting down in it. He followed her a moment later, coming over to the couch area. He hesitated a moment, as if trying to decide on something, then he slowly sank into the cushions next to her. She sidled a little closer to him, and took a sip of her drink, letting it slowly roll over her tongue and down her throat, savouring it. Bert wordlessly followed suit, and they sat there in companionable silence for a while, drinking.

Priss watched him out of the corners of her eyes as she worked her way through her drink. His expression indicated his mind was very far away from them at the moment; he was staring off into space, a faintly wistful look in his eyes. She had a good idea of what was preoccupying him; even though it had been a little over three weeks, he still was feeling the effects from the rift that had developed between him and Nene, especially given their argument of a few short days ago. The walls of silence they'd had between them before had transformed into gaping chasms of separation. Bert was still blaming himself in part for the split, since it had initially been his remarks that had precipitated the whole mess.

What was complicating his guilty feelings over the breakup was the fact that his attraction to Priss had finally come fully into the open. She'd known that the sense of attraction he'd felt towards her had been there for a while, although it had been kept very tightly concealed at times; he hadn't been willing to admit to himself that he did have deeper feelings for her. He'd been denying it vehemently to himself, and it hadn't been until she'd pressed him that she'd been able to get him to at least partly admit to it.

She herself knew how hard that must have been for him, because she hadn't really admitted to herself until recently that her feelings for him now ran a bit deeper than 'just good friends'. It hadn't been easy for her, either; she'd always been the tough, independent loner, and admitting that she was lonely, and....needed ... someone else went against the grain. She still wasn't entirely comfortable with her feelings, but she was trying to reconcile them.

Ice cubes clinked in her empty glass as she set it over on the coffee table. She turned towards him on the couch, folding one leg under the other, leaning her arm on the back of the couch, and propping her head on her hand. She gazed at him quietly for a few moments, but he appeared to be oblivious. She sighed quietly, then reached out and gently and took his empty glass from his hand, setting it over on the coffee table; he didn't appear to notice.

Priss shifted to her knees on the couch, and then slowly leaned closer to him. His eyes shifted over to meet hers, and she could see a complex tide of emotions swirling around in them. She moved a bit closer, her gaze still locked with his, and watched acceptance of her nearness slowly appear in his face. He reached up and gently brushed her hair back out of her face. She smiled, then leaned the last few inches over and kissed him, feeling the first faint stirrings of desire awaken.

Bert's lips molded to hers as his arms slowly came up, almost reluctantly this time, and wrapped around her, holding her close. Priss sighed contentedly, and scooted a little nearer, her own arms going around him. They sat like that for a minute or so, enjoying the kiss and the feelings of warm intimacy it produced. They parted for a moment, long enough to draw a couple of breaths, then their lips eagerly met again.

Shifting one of her hands to his chest, Priss began gently pushing him over onto his back on the couch as the kiss turned deep and passionate. She felt him stiffen slightly, surprised, and he pulled his head back from hers for a moment, breathing heavily and licking his lips, a bit nervously, she thought.

"Uh, Priss?" he queried uncertainly. "What....what are you doing?" She looked into his eyes. In the greenish-brown depths she could see lurking traces of fear, and realized that he was still slightly reluctant to admit to himself that he did want her, and was scared to take the final step. She could also feel him shaking just a bit.

"Do you really have to ask?" she asked softly, looking deeply into his eyes, brushing her hand down his cheek. "Come on; you can't deny what you're feeling, not now, not after the way we kissed just now, or back in my dressing room." Bert flushed guiltily, swallowing; his arms had slid back a bit, and his hands were on her waist, almost like he was preparing to push her back. "If you can sit there and honestly tell me with a straight face that you don't l... don't have feelings for me, then I'll leave," she finished. His eyes turned wild and panicked at her words.

"No! I ... I ... I don't want you to leave," he said awkwardly, the words coming out in a rush at first. "I do..." he paused for a moment, then seemed to gather himself, taking a deep, shuddering breath. "All right, I am in love with you," he stated quietly, swallowing again, "but I don't think we should...."

"Is it because of Nene? You feel like you're cheating on her?"

"Not .... exactly," he evaded, flushing and clearing his throat nervously. "I mean, it's not entirely that. I .... we never..... I don't want to hurt her, but....."

"Nene's a big girl now," she told him gently, brushing his hair out of his eyes. "It may take some time, but she will understand, eventually. You can't go around afraid to do anything else, or to be with anyone else because it might hurt her." She sighed, a little sadly. "I realize it sounds hard, but it's going to happen anyway. She's still mad and upset, and she's going to feel hurt by anything and everything you do, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem to you at the time."

"I know, but it's .... it's not just that," he stammered, flushing bright red. "I've never .... never..." He couldn't seem to get the words out, and Priss suddenly realized what he was trying to say.

"Never made love with anyone before?" she finished. He nodded mutely, looking away from her, embarrassed. She smiled gently, her hand tipping his chin back so she could look him in the eye. "There's nothing to be ashamed of in that," she told him. She placed her hands on his chest again, and shoved him over on the couch, sliding onto him a moment later until she was laying on top of him, chest to chest.

Priss kissed him softly on the lips, sliding her arms around his neck. She felt his arms start to wrap around her, then they stopped. She pulled back a bit, looking quizzically down at him.

"You're...you're sure about this?" he asked weakly. A slow, sly smile crept across Priss' face as she lowered her head to his, her breath feeling warm and moist on his skin. She could feel slight, nervous tremors running through him.

"Trust me; I know what I'm doing," she breathed, just before her lips fastened onto his again.

 

THE NEXT DAY.....

Steam started curling from the spout of the electric kettle sitting on the counter as Bert quietly stuck the clean glasses back into their accustomed places in the cupboards, carefully shutting the door. Turning, he took quick glance around his kitchenette again; everything was already cleaned up and put away. After all, they hadn't had a chance to make much of a mess the night before. He suddenly flushed at the cascade of memories that boiled up inside of him, swallowing uncomfortably. Well, they'd made a mess, all right, but not the easily solved kind.

The water started to boil, and he quickly whipped up a pot of tea. As he waited for it to steep, he paced back and forth across his kitchen, trying vainly to figure out just what he was going to do next.

The one sure fact of the matter was that nothing was ever going to be the same; it was just flat-out impossible, especially given the depth to which he and Priss had become....involved. Once Nene found out, hurt was probably going to be the mildest term one could use to describe her feelings. In almost three years of having a relationship, they'd never gone as far as he had with Priss in just a few short days. Hell, in one night.

He quickly got himself a cup of tea, dumping in milk and sugar and stirring it up. Sipping cautiously, he walked over to the couch and sat down on it, carefully trying to avoid spilling his hot drink on himself. Leaning back with a sigh, he slowly worked his way through the drink, thinking to himself, trying to analyze just what he was feeling. After a few moments, he set his mug over on the coffee table, and leaned back again, putting his head back and closing his eyes for a few moments.

His eyes snapped open, startled, as Priss suddenly slid into his lap with a rustle of cloth. Her arms went around him, and before he could say anything, her lips had met with his in a passionate, sensuous kiss. His own arms automatically went around her as he kissed her back. After a few moments, she withdrew a bit.

"Morning, lover," she greeted him in a low, melodic voice, her lips quirking into a crooked, charming smirk. Her red-brown eyes had an amused twinkle in them, and her long, brown hair was hanging loose around her shoulders, framing her attractive face. "Sleep well?"

Bert flushed, partly from the way she'd framed the question, and partly from the realization that she hadn't really gotten dressed yet; she was barefoot, and dressed only in panties and an oversized grey sweater she'd dug out of his closet from somewhere. It didn't make her any less appealing, though, and he forcibly clamped down on the feelings of desire she was stirring in him again.

"I slept okay," he replied, blushing a bit. Priss' smirk widened into a sly, teasing grin as she watched him. Bert swallowed, and tried to keep his voice steady. "Priss, I think... uh, we need to talk," he stammered.

"Just talk?" she asked, smiling and languidly running her hand down the side of his jaw in a gentle caress. "You sure that's all you want to do?" she whispered, leaning a bit closer, her enticing lips scant millimeters from his. His pulse started picking up a bit.

"Priss, please," he uttered in a strained-sounding tone, swallowing. "I'm serious."

"That, I think, is part of your problem," she told him, sighing disgustedly and dropping her hand. "You're too damn serious most of the time. All right, just give me a few minutes then." Her lips brushed his again in a quick, fleeting kiss, and she got off of him, standing up in an easy, fluid motion. She stretched briefly, sighed, then went back into the bedroom, scooping up her clothes from where they sat in an untidy heap on the floor next to the couch on the way.

Bert sighed shakily himself, running a hand through his hair, snarling it up even worse than it had been before. Grabbing his mug from where it sat nearby, he quickly quaffed what remained of the now-cold tea in it, and then hauled himself out of the couch. Walking back over to the kitchenette counter, he refilled his mug. Sipping at it, he leaned against the counter.

After a couple of minutes, the bedroom door opened again, and Priss re-emerged, pulling her hair back into its accustomed ponytail, a few strands escaping her to hang down the sides of her face, as usual. She was still barefoot, and wearing his sweater, but she'd pulled on her jeans as well. Her eyes caught his as she walked towards him, and a half-amused, half-resigned expression flitted across her features.

"You really are a stick-in-the-mud sometimes, you know that?" she told him. Shaking her head, she poured herself a cup of tea, and adjusted it to suit her tastes. "I presume this is about last night?" she inquired, sipping her drink.

"It is," he confirmed, sighing. "I think we need to decide just where we're going to go from here."

"What's to decide? You and Nene aren't seeing each other anymore, so I don't see why you should have a problem with us having a relationship, or sex." Bert winced at her bald phrasing of the situation.

"It's not that simple, Priss," he replied. "I wish to God it was, but it isn't. I.... we ...." Bert stopped, trying to get his whirling thoughts in order. "I still have some feelings for Nene," he stated quietly. "I don't think it's possible to just cancel out any feelings you've had about someone else, especially given the length of time we were dating. She was having emotional problems when we split up, and I don't think they've improved any in the interim." He sighed, running a hand over his face. "She's going to be incredibly hurt when it comes out that we're ... involved with each other."

"I told you before," she said gently, "That's going to happen anyway. Worrying about it isn't going to change that, and it's not going to help you any by stewing about it."

"I...I know that," he replied painfully. "But the...speed... with which we ... got together after our breakup is going to look suspicious."

"Suspicious?"

"Maybe if we'd split on friendly terms I wouldn't be worrying so much," he told her. "At least if it had happened that way, I'd have a clear conscience about becoming involved with you. Unfortunately, it's going to look like I used you to get back at her out of spite, and that simply isn't true." Bert took a slug of his drink to ease the dryness of his mouth, setting the empty mug on the countertop. "The other possibility is that it's going to look like I dumped Nene just so I could start up with you, as if I was tired of her, which also isn't true."

"I think you're worrying needlessly," she told him quietly. "Okay, so it doesn't look the best; that doesn't mean everyone's going to automatically assume you're being a creep. Anyone who knows you would realize that's not something you'd do." She sighed, and finished her drink. "You've got to stop brooding on it," she continued, setting her mug aside. "This isn't like a hardsuit repair, where you can just change parts and have everything work perfectly without problems. These things take time to resolve." She came over to him, looking up into his face, meeting his troubled gaze with a calm one of her own.

"I know you don't want to hurt Nene," she said softly, stepping up to him and putting her arms around his waist. "I don't either. She's a friend, after all, but there's some things we just can't avoid, and this is going to be one of them." She stretched up and kissed him lightly on the lips, looking into his eyes as she pulled back. "Just let it go, and let whatever's going to happen, happen. There's nothing we can do that will prevent it. I know it sucks, but life's like that a lot of the time."

"I...I'll try, but I can't promise anything," he replied awkwardly. "You should know by now, though, that I can't always 'just let it go'."

"Fair enough," she said, a wry smile appearing as she hugged him warmly. "And I do know, trust me on that score." Bert hugged her back, drawing a measure of comfort and strength from the contact. After a few moments, Priss gently broke the embrace, and stepped back slightly.

Reaching around him, she snagged his mug and her own, refilling them and stirring in portions of milk and sugar. Handing him his drink, her eyes met his, then slanted towards the couch area. His eyes followed her wordless indication, and he nodded slowly, sipping at his tea. She carefully carried her beverage over to the couch, waiting for him to sit down first. After he'd eased himself into the couch cushions, she sat next to him and nestled a little closer, leaning against him. He hesitated a moment, then slid an arm across her shoulders. She gave him a quick smile, and they sat there like that for a few minutes, drinking and enjoying the quiet feel of each other's company.

"Well, we can't sit here all morning, as pleasant as that option sounds," Bert finally sighed, glancing at the clock. He started to sit up, taking his arm from around her shoulders. "I'll get some breakfast put together and then...." His voice cut off as Priss shoved him back into the couch, standing up long enough to drop her cup on the coffee table, turn around, and then sit on top of him with her legs straddling his lap. Before he could protest, her lips were on his, moving delightfully. As she kissed him, she slid a hand down his arm, and gently but firmly removed his empty mug from his grasp, dropping it off to the side on the carpeted floor with a muffled thud.

"Wha..?!" he gasped for breath as she withdrew a bit. "Priss?!"

"Well, you said we couldn't just sit here," she replied, her lips quirking into a sly smile again. "I figured this was a good alternative."

"Oh, it's good all right," he agreed, looking uncomfortable. "But don't you think we should maybe...." Her lips melded with his again for a moment, muffling his words. "...tone it down a bit?" he finished breathlessly as she paused for air. Irritation flickered across her face for a moment.

"Why?" she asked bluntly, looking into his eyes. "You said you love me, right?"

"Right," he admitted.

"Well, I..." she paused, and suddenly flushed. "Well, I'm in love with you, too," she told him, flushing again; it was the first time she'd ever actually said the words, and it felt ... funny, somehow. At the same time, it also felt right. "I'm in love with you and I want to be with you," she repeated fiercely. "That clear enough?"

"Yes," he replied slowly, "but..." He took a deep breath, and looked into her eyes. "I don't want this relationship to be based only on physical attraction," he said awkwardly. "I want it to be more than that. I'm in love with you," he emphasized, reaching up and gently caressing her cheek. "Not just your body, but your personality as well." He suddenly blushed furiously. "Am I making sense to you at all?" he finished plaintively. "I love you, damnit, but I don't want sex to be the only reason we started this relationship. I'd....I'd like to think we have more than that."

"I'd like to think we do, too," she replied, smiling at him and running a hand through his hair. "Let's give it a bit more time before we start worrying about that, though, okay?" She leaned down and kissed him gently, sliding her arms around his neck. His arms went around her waist without hesitation as he kissed her back, leaning into it. "There's nothing wrong with having some fun, though," she added a moment later as they parted a bit. An amused glint appeared in his greenish-brown eyes for the first time as he smiled warmly at her, shaking his head a bit.

"I guess I could live with that," he conceded. Priss's smile became sensuous.

"I'm so glad you agree," she breathed, kissing him deeply again.

****

A smoky haze hung suspended in the air of the dingy barroom, seemingly frozen in place. Not even the softly spinning ceiling fans seemed to be able to move it, and the stale odour of spilled beer and burned tobacco permeated everything. The only real lighting was along the bar itself, illuminating the forest of dark liquor bottles that obscured the lower portion of the mirror behind the bar, and the stools lining the counter. The rest of the room was very sparingly lit, giving the shadow-draped room a clandestine feel to it.

The door to 'C'est La Vie' opened, and as elegantly dressed woman stepped through the door, closing it behind her as she looked around. Tall and attractive, she had dark blue-black hair, and was wearing a dark burgundy skirt, with a matching jacket over a white blouse. She had brown eyes that normally would look warm, even friendly, but at the moment were coolly attentive as she scanned the room with a searching gaze. She had a handbag of some kind in her left hand, and was keeping a very secure grip on it.

"Over here," came a low voice, drifting from one of the shadow-cloaked alcoves. The woman turned as if unsurprised, and walked over to the dark nook. She gracefully sat down at the table, opposite from the blond-haired man slouched in his chair. He was fairly tall and well built, wearing a very wrinkled greyish suit. A thin wisp of smoke curled lazily from the ashtray in front of him, and there were two empty beer glasses next to it. A third, full one sat near his hand.

"You haven't changed in the slightest," Sylia Stingray noted, placing her purse on the edge of the table, within easy reach.

"Neither have you," Fargo smirked, taking a drag on his cigarette. "You always say that." He eyed her up and down in a way that made her slightly uncomfortable, but she didn't let it show. "You're lovelier than the last time," he noted. She ignored the compliment as well.

"You said you had the information I was after," she noted evenly, driving straight to the point. "Let's have it." The slight traces of amusement that had marked Fargo's saturnine features vanished abruptly; for the first time since she'd known him, he looked nervous.

"We can discuss extra fees later," he told her bluntly, casting a furtive glance around the bar. "I'll just be glad to get rid of the information." Fishing in an inner jacket pocket, he pulled out a data disk and a thin, folded sheaf of papers, and slid them across the table to her. Sylia took them and slipped the disk into her purse, taking a moment to take a quick glance at the papers. They appeared to be personnel files, and a couple had pictures attached to the top.

The first one was of a man with blond hair wearing a light blue-grey suit. The man appeared to have a permanent self-satisfied smirk on his face, but the steely blue eyes that glared out of the photograph were devoid of any feelings at all. The second photo was of a much older man, well into his sixties or early seventies, with grey, shaggy hair. A pipe was jammed between his teeth, and it made him look good-natured and friendly for some reason.

"Ethan Hollister," Fargo's lowered voice dragged her attention away from the photos, and she quickly stuffed the files into her purse as well. "That's the iceberg wearing the suit in the first picture. You wouldn't believe how long it took me just to find a first name for him; nobody wants to admit to knowing him, even slightly."

"Why the recalcitrance?" Sylia asked. "From what we encountered, he's part of a group developing illegal weapons and technology. There's enough of them around that he shouldn't be unusual."

"It wasn't recalcitrance, Sylia," he corrected her softly. "It was fear, bordering on terror in some of the people I had to track down." He took another long drag on his cigarette, and his hand was shaking slightly as he lowered it to the table to flick the ash from the end. "I've never even met the man, and I'm scared of him."

"What did you find out?" she inquired quietly. Fargo had seen a lot of things in his dealings with the shadowy underworld that he inhabited the fringes of; someone who could make him nervous was someone to be very wary of.

"Ethan Hollister is about thirty-five," Fargo told her. "He's British, but he's managed to lose the accent. For a while, he was one of the best agents in MI-9."

"A spy," she said, suddenly looking around the dark room uneasily. Fargo nodded.

"He was extremely adept at gathering information and investigating, and he was a master at organizing covert operations, and at making sure they stayed that way. He wasn't too bad at participating in them either. Well, he was good enough that the Americans borrowed him for a while, and he spent about three years with the CIA. After that, he briefly worked as a consultant to some other foreign countries on internal security, including Japan. It looked like he had a brilliant career lined up."

"But?"

"But he had a ruthless streak that just wouldn't lie down," the rumpled fixer informed her. "There's a list of about ten reprimands for use of unnecessary force in his British records; only the fact that he was one of their best agents kept him from going to the cooler a couple of times. The CIA was taken a little aback by his methods as well, and that's why his stay with them ended after three years. It was supposed to have been five." Fargo paused, taking a large gulp from his beer. Wiping his mouth on the back of a hand, he continued.

"Then about two to three years ago, everything changed. Hollister decided to participate in an infiltration operation that was taking place somewhere in the Middle East. I never could get specifics, but the entire team just seemed to vanish off the face of the earth. Hollister reappeared after having been missing for two months, but he'd changed. He'd become utterly cold, and his ruthlessness had translated into something just short of sadistic viciousness. The frightening thing about him is that he's completely emotionless and matter-of-fact about it; he just doesn't care."

"How certain is it that it was indeed Hollister?" Sylia queried. "Facial appearance can easily be altered; someone else could have assumed his identity." Fargo shook his head.

"It was the real him; DNA checking guaranteed that much, at least." he told her. "And nobody could just assume his knowledge of the intelligence business; it was too extensive." He paused, draining the last of his beer. "No one ever got the chance to inquire what had happened to him, however; as soon as it was verified that he was the genuine article, he quite calmly killed one of his superiors and disappeared. For him, it was absurdly easy to accomplish."

Sylia sat quietly, her mind going over the unpleasant news. It had been worse than she'd expected; someone with connections to the espionage world could draw on some unique resources, ones that not even GENOM had access to. Given enough time, it was conceivable that he might even be able to expose the Knight Sabers' identities and use it as leverage against them. He might even be aware of who they were already, and what they were doing right now. She suddenly felt exposed and vulnerable, and was briefly glad that she had a gun stashed in her purse, just in case. Fargo watched her silently, only the darting glances he shot at the rest of the darkened bar revealing his inner agitation.

"And now what is he doing?" she finally asked.

"He's involved in developing illegal weapons technology, as you already know," Fargo told her. "He gets the tech by any means necessary, from espionage to outright murder. It looks like money is his only motivation now, but we can't be sure of that. The majority of the group he's assembled are profit-driven mercenaries; some of the men with him appear to have personal loyalty to him, but I seriously doubt that he has what you could call friends. His organization is very widespread, and it's impossible to find its headquarters. In some ways, he's more powerful than GENOM."

"I really needed to hear that," she noted sourly. "As if we didn't have enough problems worrying about GENOM alone." Fargo suddenly leaned towards her, and one of his hands clasped hers with a sudden sense of urgency. She stiffened, and was about to forcibly remove his hand from hers, but his intent, serious gaze stopped her.

"Don't underestimate this man, Sylia," he told her earnestly, his voice pitched low. "He's absolutely amoral, and his organization makes GENOM look like a pack of wet-behind-the-ears schoolboys at times. The Old Man doesn't get personal about things; he just sends someone else to do the dirty work. Hollister does get personally involved. He can literally kill someone without turning a hair, and he's done it several times, usually with a smile on his face. Please, just be very careful." He released her hand, slouching back into his shadowed chair. Sylia slowly reached out and gathered up her purse, feeling the reassuring weight of the sidearm it contained.

"Thank you," she told him quietly, rising and preparing to leave. "Was there anything else?"

"There may be some job offers coming your way soon," the scruffy-looking fixer replied. "I'll know better in a few days; so far it's just been tentative inquiries."

"Understood," she replied crisply, standing up. "I'll contact you in the usual manner. So long."

"Be careful," Fargo advised again from the shadows. She nodded, and after an uneasy glance at the rest of the bar again, left through the front door.

****

"Ready?" Bert asked, shrugging into his jacket. Priss nodded, zipping up the front of her jacket, the red leather garment hugging her body tightly as she settled it into place more comfortably. A faint smile quirked at her mouth as he looked at her.

"Ready," she confirmed with a sigh, shaking her head. Stepping close to him, she put her arms around his waist. "You're sure you want to handle things this way?"

"Positive," he said firmly, as his arms went around her. "It'll be easier on everyone else, especially Nene."

"Okay," she replied, nodding. "I understand your reasons; I just wanted to make sure that's really what you wanted to do." She stretched up towards him, kissing him lovingly on the lips. He responded enthusiastically, holding her close. The passionate kiss stretched for a few moments before they broke apart, breathing heavily.

"We'd better go," he told her reluctantly. "At this rate, we're never going to make it out of the apartment today."

"And this is a problem?" she asked lightly, smiling teasingly as she brushed a hand gently along his jaw. Amusement sparkled in her eyes as he flushed slightly.

"Later," he told her, giving her one last lingering kiss. "We've both got things to do today, and they're not getting done by us standing here."

"Spoilsport," she accused, scowling at him in mock-irritation. He grinned, bowed, and swept the door open for her.

"Ladies first," he said politely, gesturing. Rolling her eyes, Priss stepped out into the corridor, and he followed a moment later, closing the door behind him.

 

THE NEXT DAY.....

Night draped inky shrouds of smoggy darkness across the sprawling metropolis of MegaTokyo. As the concealing darkness thickened, the nighttime denizens of the city began to stir, resuming their usual nocturnal activities. Some of the activity spawned by the cloaking blackness was of the kind that honest citizens preferred not to think about, but it happened regardless of what they thought.

In one of the shadier, dirtier downtown areas, the door to a seedy bar opened, and a short, stocky man with short-cropped black hair stepped outside. About five-ten, the man was modestly dressed in a nondescript brown shirt and pants, wearing a black jacket. Attentive eyes might have been able to discern the slight bulge in his jacket under his left armpit, indicating a shoulder holster. The man gave the dimly lit street a wary, searching gaze in both directions, noting the usual sparse traffic of cars and the occasional motorcycle, but finding no cause for alarm. Putting his hands in his pockets, he started walking briskly up the street.

The man quickly navigated through some twisted back streets, coming out into another run-down section of city, and again he looked carefully around. Seeing nothing, he started across the street, and he was about halfway across when a voice called.

"You are the man called 'Stryker', correct?"

The man froze in midstep, then slowly turned towards the direction that the cold, deep voice had come from. His chilly gaze landed on the individual who had called him by his street name; in his line of business, only those wishing to meet an untimely demise used their real names.

Standing about twenty feet away in the middle of the street was a VERY big man. He was at least six-foot-five, and looked almost as wide. He was wearing dark glasses despite the fact that the sun had gone down hours ago, and he was dressed in a dark blue suit. He didn't appear to have any weapons, but he didn't look like he needed any.

"That's what they call me," the man replied. He kept his face absolutely expressionless, but inside, he was far from relaxed. That goon standing out there had all the earmarks of a combat boomer, and he couldn't think of any of his former customers, or even his current ones, who were pissed off enough to send a boomer after him. He made it a point to make sure that he didn't leave behind any unsatisfied customers; it was bad for the reputation.

"My employer desires a conference with you to discuss 'business'."

"Oh, really? And just who is your employer?" Stryker's mind raced frantically, and the inside of his mouth had gone dry with fear; a man he could deal with, but a combat machine was something else entirely. If it came down to a fight, the biomechanoid would probably eat his pistol for him. He braced himself and got ready to run if necessary.

"Someone not to be trifled with," the hulking shape replied menacingly. "You will come with me. Now."

"Like hell I will!!" Stryker snarled. His hand flashed to beneath his jacket, tearing a large-bore automatic handgun loose from its holster; a moment later, the gun bellowed, and an explosive-tipped bullet tore the head off the figure as it started to charge towards him. The decapitated boomer crashed to the ground, oily fluids spraying all over the pavement. Stryker watched the dead biomechanoid twitch for a moment, then started slowly backing away.

"That wasn't so tough," he noted, breathing hard from combined fear and relief. "So much for boomers being...." He never finished his sentence, as a blur off to the side drew his attention; he whirled, realizing with a sick, sinking certainty that he was too late.

Something smashed him with a numbing blow to the stomach, sending him reeling to the pavement retching and fighting for breath. He felt someone....something grab his gun hand, and before he could release the pistol, the grip on his arm tightened excruciatingly. Stryker was unable to keep from screaming as he felt bones shatter in his wrist, and his gun dropped from suddenly nerveless fingers. He dropped to the pavement on his knees, sobbing in agony and clutching his maimed arm.

A huge blue C-55 boomer glared balefully down at him as it loomed over the unfortunate man. Demonic glowing red eyes scanned the quaking human at its feet, analyzing it to see if it would present any more momentary problems. Reaching down, it picked up the unresisting gunman up by the scruff of his neck, and a moment later it sprang into the air on brightly flaring thrusters, leaving the remarkably quiet and suddenly deserted street behind.

****

"Excellent," Madigan replied, looking at the display monitor with a cold, victorious smile. The image showed a short stocky man dangling from a large blue fist. The angle of the view was a little strange, but that was to be expected, since the image was being relayed from the optics of a distant C-55 combat boomer. "Is he injured?"

"He is not critically damaged," a cold, mechanical voice replied, crackling from a speaker next to the monitor. "He has already lost consciousness from a combination of fear and pain, however."

"Even better," Madigan muttered to herself. "See to it that he does not regain consciousness until after he is secured," she directed the boomer. "But don't kill him; we need him alive and able to talk."

"I obey," the biomechanoid replied. "He will not be irreparably damaged."

Madigan shut down the channel to their returning hunter, and began walking swiftly down the long control room. Around her, the hum of constant activity pulsed as several computer operators monitored their workstations, analyzing the incoming data and reports from around the city, and other locations around the world. The room was but one of many communications nerve centers located within the GENOM tower, and almost any remote location could be monitored from one of the consoles, including distant boomers on a mission. Although hideously expensive to maintain, GENOM's information and surveillance net was indispensable; without it, the company could not maintain its iron grip on its far-flung ventures.

Madigan glanced at several of the data screens as she walked by, but nothing seemed amiss. She ignored the faint air of tension that surrounded each of the computer operators as she walked by. Even though it wasn't officially acknowledged, the fact that Madigan reported only to Chairman Quincy made many people nervous, especially given what had happened recently to several ambitious executives who'd tried to bribe her into betraying him. The results hadn't been pretty, and had established beyond anyone's doubt that Madigan was loyal to the Old Man, and had his complete confidence.

Madigan turned her mind towards the task at hand as she left the data room, beginning the long walk that descended to the shielded chamber containing the Deep Psychology Scanner. A small, triumphant smile wreathed her lips as she moved through the long corridors and halls, passing through the warren of rooms and chambers with the ease of long familiarity. Eventually, she reached a large metal doorway with a control console next to it on the wall. Sliding her ID card into the console slot, she keyed in her access code, and the door noiselessly slid open. Extracting her card from the reader, she stepped through the doorway.

The brightly-lit, humming consoles of the DPS controls greeted her as she entered, and the on-duty technician sprang to nervous attention upon seeing her. He slowly sank back into his chair at her impatient, imperious gesture and went back to monitoring his consoles as she stepped over to the thick observation window looking into the interrogation chamber.

As she watched, a large metal door in the side of the room slid open, and a hulking C-55 boomer stomped through, dragging a slack figure dressed in non-descript brown clothing and a black jacket. Almost negligently, the boomer jerked the comatose body into the air, letting it drop heavily onto the central tabletop. At Madigan's direction, the boomer then locked down the heavy metal restraints built into the table, securing its prisoner to the metal slab before turning and exiting the room.

Madigan smiled grimly at the unconscious captured man. It had taken a few days, but her sources had finally located the contact that had been brokering some of the deals for the defunct mercenary group that the ADP had captured, including their disastrous last mission. Now, finally, she'd get closer to the truth. Still smiling in a chilling manner, the lavender-haired exec turned to the DPS technician.

"Wake him up," she commanded. "We have a lot to talk about."

 

FOUR DAYS LATER .....

"Concentrate, will you?!?!" Linna barked, running her hands through her short black hair in frustration, then disgustedly stuffing it back under her headband, out of her eyes. Bert once again picked himself up off the mat, moving slowly, one hand clutching his guts in pain while she continued lecturing him. "If you can't pay attention any better than that, then we'll stop right here, buster!! I've got better things to do than waste my time trying to drill this stuff into you if you won't try!"

"Okay, okay, I'm sorry," he wheezed, wincing as he straightened. "But I am trying, honest!"

"Well try harder!" she snapped, assuming a ready stance. "You've got to focus on what you're doing, not daydream! Now let's do that again. I'll go slower for the first couple of sets, but we'll be picking up the pace as we go, got that?"

"Whatever you say, Sensei," the red-head sighed. He dropped into a ready stance, matching her, as he tried to follow her advice and concentrate on the lesson. Linna eyed his stance critically, then nodded in grudging approval.

"That's a bit better," she conceded. "At least you've got your feet positioned right this time. You'd better be ready," she warned him again as she started attacking. She'd been trying, unsuccessfully, to teach him how to use the forms she'd been teaching him in a practical application, a genuine fight.

After his initial request for some extra training, Linna had opted for trying him out on few a stripped-down fighting techniques, sort of a 'quick-and-dirty' martial arts program; his initial lessons hadn't been this difficult, but the lessons had now moved into some more advanced moves. Practicing the forms had gone reasonably well, but now that he was trying to use them realistically, he was encountering a few problems with his co-ordination. Or lack thereof, he reflected sourly; despite at times strenuous effort on his part, he couldn't seem to get some of the proper moves hammered into his thick skull. It was causing Linna unending frustration, and giving him an impressive collection of sore spots.

He snapped his mind back to his teacher, as she started slowly launching light punches and kicks at him. He parried them, trying to keep to the forms she'd been showing him, an intense frown of concentration on his face. The first few sets went well enough; he was successful at blocking all of her strikes, and was able to return the attack properly. Then she started to increase the speed and force of her moves. Inside of about ten minutes, he was again asking himself what he'd gotten himself into.

Sweat trickled down his face, his heart pounding inside his chest as he knocked aside another thrust at his stomach. His breathing was laboured as his lungs struggled to meet his body's urgent demands for air. He'd always considered himself to be in decent enough shape, but Linna's workouts always made him feel like he was running uphill against a landslide. Her conditioning was much better than his; she was sweating a bit, but her breathing was easy and unhurried, unlike his, which now sounded like a steam engine at full throttle.

A faintly satisfied look flickered across Linna's face, and then her bright blue eyes narrowed in determination. He didn't even have time to become worried as she stepped up the level of the sparring match again, changing some of the combinations she was using. It went well for another two minutes; then he lost the pattern, and missed a block.

The tall red-head's breath deserted him instantly as Linna's fist impacted agonizingly with his solar plexus. Desperately fighting for breath, he knocked her follow-up strike aside; she'd been moving fast enough that it was impossible to quickly break off her attacks. Still trying to draw air into his lungs, he succeeded in knocking her off balance as he parried, then swept her feet out from under her with one of his legs. That accomplished, he hit the mat himself, doubling over in pain as he clutched his guts. Linna bounced back to her feet, then rushed over to him.

"Bert! Are you okay?!"

"Oh, just wonderful," he gasped as his breath reluctantly returned. "I think that was the only place I wasn't bruised before." Gritting his teeth, he got to his knees, Linna offering a supporting hand under his arm. Her blue eyes radiated concern.

"I think we'd better call it a day," she told him, sighing as she helped him to his feet. "You did a lot better that time, but your mind obviously isn't in this today."

"I was paying attention," he protested defensively, then winced, rubbing his guts. Linna sighed again, shaking her head ruefully.

"You were for a while," she admitted, "but your attention was definitely wandering after a few minutes." She gave him a thoughtful appraisal, her arms folded across her chest as she tapped a finger contemplatively on her chin. "You're nervous about tomorrow, aren't you?" she suddenly asked quietly.

"Pardon? What have I got to be nervous about?"

"Your club opens, right?" she reminded him. "Nervous about how it'll do?" He stood silently for a minute, still rubbing cautiously at his stomach.

"Some," he conceded, running a hand through his snarled hair. Turning slightly, he indicated the benches lining the wall; at her nod, they walked over to them and sat down. "I'm not really worried about whether the business will pay off or not," he sighed, resting his elbows on his knees. "I'm not doing it for the money. I just needed something else to occupy myself with, something not engineering-related. This," he gestured broadly at the room, "is something I figure I can get some relaxation value out of." He grinned suddenly, glancing sideways at her. "And it's a convenient place to work out, certainly more private than the health club you used to work at."

"True," she smiled. Shifting on the bench, the black-haired woman tucked her legs under herself in a cross-legged position. "And there's no spectators, right now anyway."

"I wasn't planning on being open every day," he told her. "It's just me running things right now, and I figure three days a week is all I can handle by myself. The time in-between will give me a chance to either unwind, work on the suits for Sylia, or fix up anything that might get damaged here." He sighed and stretched cautiously, then looked over at her. "You and the rest of the team can get access at anytime, though," he told her. "I've got some coded security access cards up in my office that I'll be giving you a bit later."

"That's not a problem. I'm going to be fairly busy myself," she sighed. "More performances to choreograph, more dancers to break in..."

"You mean more people for you to torture and gloat over," he accused, smiling crookedly.

"That too," she admitted blandly, then grinned back at him. "Most of the performers I've dealt with are really good about it, though; there's only a few whiners, but I think they just do it to keep up appearances." Bert chuckled, gazing out across the room. Linna unfolded her legs and put her feet on the bench seat, tucking her knees up under her chin as she wrapped her arms around her legs. Resting her chin on her knees, she watched him for a few silent moments.

"Have you and Nene managed to patch things up?" she asked him suddenly. He stiffened, and a flash of pain crossed his face.

"No," he told her curtly. "If anything, we've torn it apart even further. Why?"

"Oh, well, uh," Linna stammered, flushing a little, "you just seem a lot more relaxed than you've been lately. I thought maybe you'd gotten back together with her." She couldn't completely mask the curiosity in her bright, blue-eyed gaze as she wondered what had happened. Given the way he'd been before, the fact that he seemed calmer and more relaxed was strange. He'd been despondent over the split, with an almost visible cloud of gloom following him everywhere; now it was gone. Bert flushed slightly as she looked at him.

"I.....decided to try and move on," he told her awkwardly, unable to keep some of the raw pain he'd felt at the time from leaking into his voice . "I still .... still love her in a lot of ways, but I can't .... couldn't just sit drowning in regrets anymore. She left, and I finally was able to accept that." He kept silent about what had followed that decision, flushing slightly as memory replayed some brief flashes of the .... results.

"So now what?" she asked him.

"Now it's up to her," he said simply. "She's got to decide to move on herself; I can't force her to, and neither can anyone else."

****

The Chief Inspector glared inimically at the stack of reports that had landed in her inbox; it looked like someone had succeeded in clearing a paper jam out of the office photocopier, or something like that, anyway. There had to be about fifteen file folders sitting there, about a weeks worth of work that had materialized almost overnight. She sighed disgustedly, loosening her uniform tie just a bit. With another sigh, she picked up her tankard of steaming coffee, and took a stiff drink of it before reaching out and selecting the first file folder.

She was surprised at how little there was for her to do with the stack of reports; whoever had prepared them had been remarkably complete and thorough. They were concise and detailed, and answered all of her questions immediately. Inside of half an hour, she'd read through them all and signed them off, destining them for their own place in the ADP archives.

Sipping again at her coffee, Hitomi thoughtfully regarded the signed-off pile of investigative synopses. She'd have to find out who'd prepared those reports; they were much more detailed and informative than the usual ones that crossed her desk. That indicated a talent for investigative work, talent she could use in the department.....

A knock on the door roused her from her reverie. Setting her mug down, Chief Ichinohei smoothed out her blouse a bit, and sat up straighter. A second, slightly more tentative-sounding knock rapped on the door.

"Come in," she called. The door opened, and a slender, red-haired and green-eyed young woman peered around the door, her expression filled with trepidation. "Come in, Nene," the Chief directed with an encouraging, wry smile. "I don't bite, despite what some people say, so quit looking like you're entering a lion's den." The younger woman entered her office, looking somewhat reassured. Hitomi managed to keep her face straight when she saw the stack of file folders Nene was carrying, sighing internally. More paperwork. Just perfect.

"I, uhm, just completed these reports," Nene stated quietly. "Some of the detectives were a bit backlogged, so I gave them a hand."

"Thank you, Nene," the Chief replied, thoughtfully appraising her. Nene looked tired and worn, with maybe a slight shadow of depression evident. She looked less despondent than office rumour had reported her to be a few days earlier; she may not have been able to mingle with the rank-and-file as much as she would like to, but the Chief tried to keep up-to-date on situations in the offices. "You can just drop them there in the inbox." Nene nodded, placed the files in the box, bowed, and then left, closing the door and leaving the aquamarine-eyed Chief to stare in veiled distaste at the latest batch of reports.

"Might as well get it over with," she sighed out loud, draining her coffee cup of the last mouthful or so of caffeine-laden liquid. She picked up the top file, and again started reading.

Hitomi's eyes narrowed as she read through the report; it was in the same concise and detailed format that the previous batch of reports had been. She quickly checked all the other newly delivered files, noting the similarities. Thoughtfully, she leaned back in her chair, thinking.

If Nene had prepared these reports, she had to have done the bulk of the investigative work herself; they were all minor cases of boomer disturbances, and as such had been relegated to the backburner since they didn't have any immediate urgency. Typically, they were saved for slow days at the office, when all the critically important cases were either solved or held up. Usually, the rest of the office staff was too swamped with work of their own to even look at anything else, but the fact that Nene had just completed a large portion of those cases, almost half of them in fact, indicated that she'd evidently completed her own normal workload.

Chief Ichinohei's eyes narrowed again at a thought; swiveling her chair around, she logged into her computer terminal, and started scanning through the employee database. After a moment or so of searching, she found the information she was after, her lips thinning in annoyance as the data confirmed her hunch. Logging out and shutting down the terminal, she stood up, smoothing the wrinkles out of her uniform skirt, and took her jacket down from the wall hanger, donning it. She swept her long, straight red hair back over her shoulders, freeing it from being caught in her jacket collar, and straightened and tightened her tie a bit. Wearing a look of extreme determination, she stepped around to her office door, and walked out into the open office space of the Inspection division.

The offices were mostly deserted, and after a quick glance at the clock, she realized that it was the middle of the usual lunch break for most of the office staff. Most of them; as she strode briskly down the aisle between the desks, heading for the area where the support staffers were stationed, she could see a young red-headed woman tapping determinedly away at her desktop computer terminal. Nene wasn't even aware of what was going on around her; she never saw the Chief coming.

"Nene," Chief Ichinohei said crisply. "Why are you still at work? You've already worked the equivalent of a quadruple shift. You should be at home, getting some sleep." The slender red-head jerked in surprise at her words, unable to keep guilt from showing.

"I ... I wasn't tired," she stammered in reply. "And I had a lot to do, so I worked late."

"'Worked late'?" the Chief repeated, raising an eyebrow. Past Nene, she could see a garbage can overflowing with candy bar wrappers, styrofoam coffee cups, and what looked like the crumpled box from a small chocolate cake; caffeine and sugar were likely the only things fueling the younger ADP officer right now. Hitomi felt mildly hypocritical over taking Nene to task for overworking, since she wasn't entirely blameless in that department herself; it was a good thing nobody knew how much caffeine she managed to go through during a 'normal' week. Part of her job, though, was to look out for the welfare of her people, and this definitely counted. "This goes a little bit beyond just 'working late'. Is there something wrong?"

"No! No, nothing's wrong; I'm fine," Nene replied quickly. Too quickly for her liking. Hitomi eyed Nene skeptically, but decided to respect her privacy and not inquire any further. If her private problems kept affecting her in this way, however....

"Well, you're finished now," she told the younger woman, her tone becoming a bit more gentle. "Go home and get some sleep. I don't want you back here before Tuesday at the earliest. Don't worry, I'll talk to your supervisor about it," she cut off the protest the green-eyed woman had been about to make with a hand gesture. Reaching over, she saved the file up on Nene's computer screen, then shut down the terminal for her.

Sighing morosely, Nene slowly stood and gathered up her jacket and handbag. After one last, questioning glance at her unwavering superior officer, she left, followed by the Chief's thoughtful gaze.

 

THE NEXT DAY.....

"TAKE THE LINE!!!!!!!!!!!"

The last echoes of his bellow dying out, Bert stepped back a pace from the broad red stripe on the floor that demarcated the archery firing line. A pleased grin spread across his face as he watched the twenty or so archers lined up start firing arrows at the distant targets. The satisfying sound of twanging bowstrings and multiple impacts racketed through the large room in a steady rhythm. His greenish-brown eyed gaze was critical as he watched the archers, making sure that nobody was using bad or dangerous techniques.

The archers assembled in the range were an assorted group, both young and old, with a good number of women present. Almost half of the people had brought their own equipment with them, and the mix of shooting styles and equipment was somehow oddly fascinating. His own bow was the only longbow in the facility at the moment; everyone else was using light recurve bows, compound bows, and some very exotic-looking Asiatic bows. The main thing was that everyone was enjoying themselves immensely.

"Did you really have to yell like that?" Sylvie inquired plaintively, taking her fingers out of her ears. "I think they must have heard you out on the street!" The tall young woman was just barely recognizable at the moment, having dropped in while on her lunch break. She was wearing a light grey, knee-length skirt, a form-fitting white blouse trimmed with some ruffles, high-heeled shoes, and her long, dark-brown hair was artfully concealed under a wig that gave her lustrous, shoulder-length black hair. She was also wearing tinted glasses; they didn't affect her sight in any way, but served to mask her distinctive golden-brown eyes. She was a knockout in the disguise that Sylia had helped her devise, looking elegant and sophisticated, a radical change from the carefree manner and appearance she preferred to cultivate.

Bert quickly suppressed the grin that tried to appear as he looked over at his friend; she'd already threatened to belt him if he commented on how she looked. Since she'd had to fend off several friendly advances from some of the people now crowding his recreational facility, he could see why she was sick of hearing about how nice she looked. She looked back at him defiantly, knowing what was running through his mind, her look daring him to say anything. He smiled innocently, then turned back to watching the archers. The faster shooters had stepped back and set their bows on the racks provided, waiting for the round of practice to finish.

"I'm sorry about the yell," Bert spoke up a moment later, flashing her a quick, sideways grin, "but I need to be heard over everything else." He gazed across the range again, memory taking hold of him briefly. "I was an archery rangemaster back at university for a while; you had to really shout the range commands in order to be heard over everything else that was going on in the rest of the gym building."

"You were heard, trust me," Sylvie assured him wryly. She glanced around at the people who populated the range at the moment. "Were any of the others coming by?" she inquired. Bert nodded.

"Linna was here for a couple of hours this morning," he told her. "Priss said she'd be by later this afternoon, Sylia couldn't say for sure what she was doing, and Anri had to go to work, but she did stop by to say hi really quickly."

"What about Nene?"

"I asked her," he said tonelessly. "Or rather, I asked her voice-mail." Depressed hurt pulled at his expression briefly, then disappeared as he squared his shoulders and glanced at her. "I don't think she'll be coming though."

"I'm...sorry about that," she said awkwardly, hesitantly touching his arm in sympathy. He nodded in terse acknowledgment, but let the subject drop. She did as well, thoughtfully regarding him.

She could tell that he'd changed a lot in the last couple of weeks. He was less somber and definitely more easygoing than he'd been, and there was something else about him, a ... a feeling of .... of something. Her unique 'abilities' included heightened sensitivity, allowing her to pick up on people's moods and feelings more quickly than normal people. She couldn't quite define what it was she was getting from him, since he was very tightly suppressing whatever it was. She shrugged mentally, and decided to try and figure it out later. She glanced at the clock on the wall, and realized she'd have to go back to work now.

"Well, good luck with the rest of the day," she told him, smiling reassuringly. "I'll see you later."

"Take care," he smiled warmly back at her. She gave him a quick good-bye wave, and strode to the door out to the front lobby, wincing as he bellowed another command across the range as she left.

"HOLD!!!!!! OKAY, GET YOUR ARROWS!!!"

****

"And why have you been unable to convince him to part with the information?" Quincy's gravelly voice rumbled ominously. "You've been questioning this 'Stryker' fellow for almost a week now. What is the delay?" The craggy faced old man sat behind his massive desk like a magistrate about to pronounce sentence. His long grey-white hair and light-coloured suit never seemed to change. He looked as unshakably in control as he always had before.

"We are treating him with more care than our last subject," Madigan replied evenly, her blue-grey eyes calm and unworried as she looked at GENOM's CEO. "He has a great deal of information we need, and we cannot risk accidentally killing him before we have what we want. Further, if we do succeed in obtaining what we want, I had intended to used him as a method of contacting this organization we appear to have discovered."

Quincy sat back in his chair, rubbing at his jaw thoughtfully. What his lavender-haired effective second-in-command had suggested made sense; using the captured 'fixer' as a go-between would eliminate anyone associated with GENOM becoming too involved, and hence visible. Besides, the fixer was expendable, and the only people Quincy trusted enough with matters this covert, weren't. After a moment, he nodded in approval.

"Proceed, but try to hasten the process if you can. I'm growing tired of waiting."

"Understood, Sir," Madigan replied crisply, bowing. As Quincy watched, she turned and left his office without a backwards glance.

****

Sighing tiredly, Bert tossed the last piece of discarded paper into the garbage can, giving the now-deserted range one last glance. Everything seemed to have been cleaned up satisfactorily. He grabbed the broom he'd swept everything up with, sticking it in the closet allocated to cleaning supplies, and turned his attention to checking the equipment. After ensuring that everything was properly stored and put away, he flicked the lights off, closing the door.

It was an effort to get up the stairs to the second floor, but he finally managed it. He did a cursory inspection of the exercise rooms, and the small video arcade, but they were clean and looked undisturbed; they hadn't gotten a tenth of the traffic that the archery range itself had received. He hadn't realized that there were quite so many people who wanted to shoot holes in things as a way of relaxing. With a rueful grin at the thought, he wearily made his way to the small lounge, where he was reasonably sure there were still some snacks left over.

His hunch proved correct, and after getting a cup of coffee, he sank into the couch with a plate holding some of the leftover sandwiches that had been provided for the range's opening day. They'd gone a little dry, but they tasted fantastic at the moment. He wolfed them down, taking a long draught of coffee as a chaser, then set his cup aside and stretched out on the couch, sighing in relief. Peace and quiet at last.....

"This a private celebration, or can anyone join?" A woman's voice asked, amusement in her tones. He sat up, a welcoming smile spreading across his face.

"One more wouldn't hurt," he conceded as Priss came over to the couch, sitting down next to him. She was wearing her usual red biking leathers, her hair pulled back into its accustomed ponytail. "Might even add to the enjoyment," he added, just before leaning over and kissing her. She kissed him back, her arms wrapping around him and hugging him closer. Their greeting stretched for a couple of moments, before they separated and sat back on the couch, keeping one arm around each other.

"You look a little worn out there," she noted, brushing his hair out of his eyes.

"You try shepherding one-hundred and fifty or more people around all day, making sure nobody accidentally turns someone else into a pincushion, and we'll see just how energetic you are afterwards," he sighed, letting his head drop back to the back of the couch and closing his eyes. "It was exhausting."

"I saw you directing the traffic," she told him dryly. "You can keep the job, thanks."

"You did? When? I don't recall seeing you during the afternoon."

"You were busy enough that I figured it would be better not to disturb you," she explained gently. "I hung around the place for a couple of hours, then left to get some dinner. By the time I came back, you'd kicked everyone else out and cleaned up. I let myself in, and here I am," she said simply.

"Well, I'm glad you're here," he told her. "I need the company right now." She smiled at him, and they sat together quietly for a while. Bert started to nod off as he sat there, the long day catching up to him finally.

"Hey, don't zone out on me now." He was dragged back to the here and now as Priss gave him a very ardent kiss, pulling him close. Despite his tiredness, he found himself responding, his lips melting into hers as he held her tightly, enjoying the warm closeness of her body and the sweetness of her lips against his.

The phone hanging on the wall rang urgently, but he ignored it, concentrating on the woman he was holding; he'd already answered enough phone calls today, and he wasn't answering any more for any reason. He withdrew his lips from hers long enough to take a breath as the phone rang again.

"Aren't you going to answer it?" she asked, her red-brown eyes on his as she gently caressed his face. He shook his head slightly, tightening the grip his arms had around her.

"There's only one way I'll answer the phone right now, and it hasn't happened yet," he told her. He kissed her again, ignoring the persistent clamour of the phone. She didn't protest, her lips parting as he kissed her deeply. The phone fell silent as they gave some serious attention to the kiss.

The phone abruptly exploded in a cacophony of ringing again. At the same time that it rang, both of their pocket-pagers added shrill beeps to the noise.

"God damn it," Bert muttered, as Priss broke off the kiss; she bore the same disgusted look he knew he had on his face at the moment. "Why NOW?!?!" The phone and pagers shrilled again in perfect unison.

"You'd better answer it and find out," she sighed. He reluctantly released her, and stood up, wiping his mouth with the back of a hand. Priss flopped over onto her back on the couch staring at the ceiling. It figures, she thought resentfully, just when we start getting warmed up....

"Yeah, what is it?!" the tall red-headed young man answered the phone, unable to keep from snapping.

"And a pleasant evening to you, too," Sylia Stingray's voice replied coolly over the phone. Bert sighed and placed a hand over his eyes, leaning against the wall as he did so.

"I'm sorry, Sylia," he sighed apologetically. "It's just been a really long day; I didn't mean to sound snarky."

"I understand," she replied, her tone warming up slightly. "I'd heard that you were really busy today. Well, I'm sorry to have to call you up like this, but we've got some work to do tonight."

"Give me the details."

"It's a combat boomer rampage," she said simply. "We're going out to stop them before they can do any more damage."

"Okay, I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Fine," she approved. "We'll be ready and waiting. Oh, do you know where Priss is?"

"Yes," he answered truthfully enough, looking across the room to where the attractive rock singer was sprawled on the couch. "She's here giving me a hand at, uh, putting everything away."

"Pass the word on to her as well," his boss directed. "We'll need everyone tonight." After his assurances that he'd pass the information on, she hung up. He irritably banged the receiver back into its cradle, turning towards Priss. She'd already stood up, resignation in her expression.

"Duty calls," he told her sourly as he walked up to her and put his arms around her waist. "That was Sylia," he informed her. "There's some boomers running loose that we've got to go and stop." A reckless grin spread across her face at the news, eliminating the dissatisfied look she'd had; belatedly, he remembered that fighting boomers was one of her biggest kicks. Okay, so it was one of his as well; he didn't really feel up to it at the moment, and instead would have preferred a quiet night at home, with her.

"Don't look so glum, lover," she told him giving him a quick, teasing kiss. Eager sparks were flashing in her eyes. "There's always later. Come on, or we'll miss the fun!" She pulled loose from his grasp, and ran out the door, snatching her motorcycle helmet from the chair by the door as she passed it.

"Fun, she says," he snorted to himself as he watched, grinning ruefully a moment later. He had to admit that he was looking forward to some action himself, despite the fatigue. Shrugging to himself, he flicked off the lights and left.

****

"Hi Priss!" Sylvie greeted her cheerily as the brown-haired singer entered the changeroom, peeling off her jacket. The tall, golden brown-eyed woman was already dressed in her softsuit, the stretchy, revealing garment hugging her curvaceous figure perfectly. She looked excited, an excitement Priss shared, but for different reasons. It was going to be their first time out on an actual boomer hunt in a long while.

Sylvie was looking forward to actually using her suit in a real situation, while the young rock singer was just looking forward to a good fight. Since her concert success, she was positive that her leg was, finally, completely normal again; it didn't hurt in the slightest. There was a reckless eagerness crawling through her at the thought of being able to trash boomers again.

"Hi Sylvie," she replied, chucking her jacket into her locker as she started undoing her blouse. "How was work today?" She was unable to keep a mischievous smirk from forming as her friend blushed slightly. While Sylvie knew she had an attractive body, and was completely comfortable with that fact and knew how to use it to her advantage, she still found it slightly embarrassing to have complete and total strangers showing up at odd times of the day to ask her out for a date. When she'd stopped in at Bert's archery range, no less than fifteen guys she'd never seen before had approached her, praising her looks before asking for dates in the same breath.

She had no problems at being able to discern the real reasons they'd approached her; her senses were attuned to picking up those kinds of feelings from people, given what she was. She sent them all packing as soon as they showed up, but it was beginning to become tiresome. She'd only ever told Priss once, in confidence, that she hoped she could someday find some nice guy who liked her for something other than her figure, but so far all she'd encountered were men with one thing on their minds, and it wasn't getting to know her. Well, not in the sense she would have preferred, at least.

"It was okay," she replied noncommittally, watching as Priss stripped off her clothes, and donned her softsuit. "About the usual."

"More broken hearts, huh?" the red-brown eyed woman grinned slyly. Sylvie flushed again, becoming a bit irritated.

"What have you been up to?" she changed the subject with an effort. "I haven't been able to get hold of you at all, lately. I even stopped by your place the other night, but you weren't home." She studied her friend closely, paying attention to her intuition as she watched Priss pull her softsuit up, sliding her arms into its sleeves.

"Me? Oh, nothing much," Priss answered vaguely, reaching behind herself and fastening the softsuit closure snaps. "I've just been out and around, that's all." She finally succeeded in getting her suit secure, and spent a minute or so getting it settled more comfortably on her body.

"'Out and around'? With who?"

"Nobody," Priss replied quickly. "I've been biking a lot; that's why I haven't been home." Sylvie detected a definite trace of defensiveness in the reply.

"Priss," she said seriously, looking her friend straight in the eyes. "Please don't lie to me. I can tell that something's up, because that's the vaguest answer you've ever given me. You've always been honest with me before, why won't you do the same now?" Her question had a somewhat plaintive note to it, making the attractive, brown-haired singer flush guiltily.

"I .... I'd like to tell you, really I would," she said awkwardly, not quite meeting Sylvie's gaze. "But, I ... I can't, not right now. Maybe later." Sylvie gazed thoughtfully at Priss for a moment, considering everything she'd observed over the last few weeks. She opened her mouth to say something, but was cut off by an impatient yell.

"Would you two please hurry up?!?!" Linna shouted into the room. "We haven't got all night to wait!!! Come on, the damn boomers aren't going to just leave by themselves!!"

"We're coming!!!" Priss hollered back. "Hang on a second!!" She and Sylvie exchanged a quick glance, nodded, then sprinted for the door to the changeroom.

****

Sylia looked around the somewhat crowded hardsuit storage bay room. We've come a long way, the thought briefly flickered across her mind. Counting herself, there were six brightly enameled hardsuits crammed into the small room, a private army. She'd originally created the Knight Sabers as a means of striking back at GENOM for everything they'd done to her, and their perversion of her father's work.

Over the years, however, the original purpose of revenge against the mega-corporation had become clouded and diffuse, no longer her sole motivation. She still hated GENOM, and wanted to bring the company down, or at least reduce it somehow, but that had proven to be more difficult a task than she'd imagined it would be. Instead of extracting vengeance, the Knight Sabers were fighting a rearguard action in trying to stop boomer depredations, a rearguard action that, at times, seemed to be losing.

The problem, she realized wryly, wasn't a lack of effort on her part, or on the part of her teammates. The problem was that her conscience wouldn't let her just stand idly by while innocent people were being killed; she cared too much about the city, and couldn't abandon it in order to pursue her own vendetta. Everyone gathered in the room with her right now shared that quality to a greater or lesser extent, that determination and drive that allowed them to keep going despite the apparently overwhelming odds and do 'what was right'. That was partly why she'd chosen the people she now counted as close friends to join her on her crusade.

Or had them chosen by circumstances, she amended silently, looking over to where Sylvie was donning her helmet; the tall young woman was visibly excited at the prospect of getting to use her new suit in a real fight, and was fidgeting as she stood there. In a way, Sylia found it ironic that someone who had been created as an extension of her father's work on boomers was now a member of the Knight Sabers. It was somehow oddly fitting that Sylvie was helping them carry on their crusade against GENOM, a company that wouldn't scruple to use her in an instant for their own dark ends.

Sylia's glance slid sideways to a tall, silver-armoured shape. SkyKnight was leaning against the wall, his helmet already on, his visor down so that his expression was concealed. His arms were crossed over his chest, and he almost looked relaxed. The eerily glowing red eyeslot in his helmet visor seemed to be surveying everyone else at the same time, an effect she knew he'd purposefully designed into his suit. SkyKnight was the random factor that had changed everything irrevocably, the first new Knight Saber that circumstance had brought to her.

In the beginning, Sylia hadn't been going to increase the membership of the Knight Sabers to beyond the original four, unless a severe accident or injury removed one of them from being able to participate for an extended period of time. She'd fervently hoped that she wouldn't be forced into that task; it hadn't been easy locating people with the right qualities the first time.

Fate had promptly thrown a wrench into her carefully laid plans with the arrival of a tall, red-headed stranger who knew an uncomfortable lot about her and the Knight Sabers organization. Compounding the shock had been the unique reasons he'd given her for his knowledge. Careful checking hadn't found any reason to disbelieve his story, and she'd decided to accept him into the group. She'd had some reservations at the time, but she couldn't just let him walk away, not with everything he seemed to know about them. Something within her had balked at the thought of cold-blooded murder of a total stranger, so that left allowing him to join as the only viable option.

Sylia's lips twisted in a brief, wry smile. There'd been a few times since then that she'd questioned the wisdom of that decision, mostly after discovering his unfailing knack for getting into jackpots of some description, usually because of his chivalric leanings. That, and his penchant for inventing things guaranteed to exasperate her. In retrospect though, she wouldn't have changed anything.

Well, maybe one thing, she corrected herself, gazing across the room to where Nene was standing. Like SkyKnight, she had her helmet on and the visor sealed already. Standing ramrod straight, her body language very pointedly indicated that she was ignoring him. He was reciprocating by seeming to ignore her ignoring him. Sylia felt like slapping the both of them at times over the way they were behaving, and unclenched her gauntleted hands before she could succumb to the urge to carry out the thought.

She could understand some of Nene's difficulties in adjusting to the way Bert had changed since his encounter with Hollister; she didn't think she'd fully adjusted herself yet. At the same time, she could see why the tall red-head had been hurt by her remarks. The problem was that they were both firmly entrenched in their opinion that it was the other's fault, and that they weren't going to apologize first. The result of their combined intractability was the gulf of silence that stretched between them now. She hoped they'd be able to bridge that chasm before too much longer. The team couldn't afford divisions between its members, not with their foes ready for the slightest opportunity to exploit.

With a sigh, Sylia picked up her own helmet, shaking off the gloomy and unwanted thoughts for the moment; they'd just be a distraction for what they had to do now. The helmet slid easily over her head, like it had countless times before, the contacts between the helmet, softsuit and hardsuit clicking into place. Her viewscreen flashed into brightly glowing life, proclaiming her suit ready for action. She stretched for moment, settling her suit into place a little more comfortably.

"Everybody ready?" she asked rhetorically, unable to keep a small smile from pulling at her lips at the enthusiastic responses her query received. Turning, she led the Knight Sabers forth to battle once again.

****

"I guess they knew you were back from your vacation, Leon," Daley half-joked, glancing at his partner. "They decided to give you a party." Beside him, staring fixedly through a pair of binoculars at several distant blue boomers as they blew apart storefronts and hastily-abandoned cars, Leon didn't reply to Daley's remarks as he lowered the binoculars.

His squad was stationed at the entrance to the street, and had erected some barricades to shelter behind. They were setting up some heavy weaponry and getting ready for a fight. This time, Leon was going to let the boomers come to him, even though the fighter in him hated the idea. He didn't have much choice though; there weren't any K-17 units in the area and he didn't want to lose any more men.

"Well, they're going to be sorry they did, and goddamn soon," the tall, brown-haired inspector growled. He directed a steely, blue-eyed gaze of resolve at the approaching biomechanoids. "I'm going to make sure they get the message this time." He raised an arm, and his men quickly took up their positions, loading and readying their weapons. Intently, Leon watched as the boomers began moving their destructive rampage towards the entrenched cops, preparing to give the order to fire.

"CHAAAAAAAAARRRGE!!!!!!"

The somehow cheerful-sounding battlecry split the air, making all the gathered officers wince in pain at the volume level. The snarl of powerful jets from above made everyone duck as something silver flashed by in the night, whipping up papers and dust with its passage. As the ADP officers looked up, SkyKnight landed smack in the middle of the crowd of boomers.

"Oh SHIT!! Everybody, TAKE COVER!!!!!!" Leon bellowed, as the boomers snarled, all converging on the gleaming silver figure at the same time.

Instantly, the scene dissolved into a chaotic mle of flailing weapons, laced with the occasional bolt of bluish-white or red energy, followed by explosions. As the ADP dove for whatever protection they could find, hissing thrusters announced the arrival of the rest of the Knight Sabers. Leon carefully lifted his head far enough to peer over the hood of his patrol car; as he watched, five more armoured shapes landed, three of them immediately plunging headlong into the tangled swarm of combatants.

The white Knight Saber who always seemed to be in charge hung back, shooting at the biomechanoids on the fringes of the combat; periodically, a headless boomer crashed to the pavement, proving the efficacy of her weapons. The red-pink Knight Saber was also hanging back and sniping, her shots precisely timed, and damaging the boomers in critical areas like the optics; what the red-pink suit lacked in raw firepower, it apparently made up for in finesse and accuracy. Daley suddenly grabbed his arm, and pointed into the seething fight.

"Leon! There's six of them now!!"

"What the hell did they do?! Take an ad out in the paper?!" Leon demanded, squinting into the churning confusion. White, red-pink, green, blue, silver-blue....and red-gray. As he watched, the red-gray suit was slugged in the wind by a boomer and knocked sprawling. As the boomer sprang savagely at the downed battlesuit, whipping its claws downwards, a sizzling red-white energy beam from SkyKnight tore it in half.

As the red-gray hardsuit struggled to regain its feet, the blue and green suits stepped smoothly in front of their fallen comrade, deflecting the other boomers who tried to exploit the momentary advantage. SkyKnight continued to hammer at the other boomer he was occupied with; it seemed to be more advanced than the other C-55s, and it was giving the silver-garbed hardsuit a good fight. He didn't seem to mind in the slightest.

"Their new recruit isn't doing so great," Daley noted, as the red-gray suit was flattened again. Leon nodded silently; obviously the newest Knight Saber wasn't as proficient at fighting as the rest were.

As he watched the fight, it suddenly struck Leon that there was something familiar-seeming about the Knight Sabers' newest recruit. It was impossible, since he'd never seen anything even like that design before, but he couldn't shake the feeling he'd seen it somewhere. Shaking off the vague, disquieting feeling, he turned to his men, who were also speechlessly watching the fight.

"Okay, everybody listen up!" the tall Inspector barked over the howl of the glorious-looking brawl that was unfolding a few metres away. "I know what our standing orders are supposed to be, but this is what I want done right now..."

****

"There's a lot of them tonight!" Linna panted over the comm channel. "They're everywhere!!" Jerking aside from a scything claw strike, she whipped her mono-streamers through the offending blue combat machine, slicing it lengthwise into harmless chunks. Spinning smoothly, she drove her knuckle-bomber into the back of another boomer, destroying it instantly.

"They're interfering with each other more than anything else," SkyKnight replied coolly. "That gives us the edge. Speaking of edges...." The biomechanoid he was facing let out an unearthly mechanical howl as he savagely gutted it with an uppercut, his sword-blade extended. The dead boomer joined the growing heap of spare parts on the pavement, spewing orange-brown liquids everywhere.

"Don't get overconfident," Sylia's voice warned crisply. "It only takes one to kill you."

"Aw, lighten up, Sylia!" Priss's voice replied cheerfully. "These guys are pushovers!" As if proving her point, she blew the legs out from under one killer C-55 with a leg sweep, the impact-blasters on her suit boots doing most of the work. Dropping under a nearly point-blank plasma beam shot, she nailed her attacker with a volley of railgun bolts. Riddled with the long spikes, the dying cyberdroid collapsed in an oily heap. "Yeah! Take that, you boomer bastards!!"

As she lined up on another biomechanoid, there was a crashing report from the direction of the ADP lines, and the boomer she'd been about to trash flew apart as an explosive shell tore through its armour carapace. The blue-hardsuited woman whirled towards the direction the shot had come from.

"HEY!!!" she hollered angrily. "That one was mine, you assholes! Go find your own!"

"There's plenty to go around," Sylvie reassured her, firing her arm guns at a dodging C-55. She wasn't doing quite as well as she'd expected; actual combat was proving to be more work than she'd anticipated, and she'd already learned the hard way not to underestimate her opponents. If her friends weren't around to help....she shivered slightly at the thought.

"Watch your back!" A crackling red laser bolt distracted the blue boomer who'd loomed up behind the red-gray hardsuit for an instant, just long enough for Sylvie to spin around and end the matter by driving her swordblade through the boomer's skull.

"Thanks, Nene," she gasped, breathing hard from the shock of the near miss as she stepped back from the dead 'droid. Another crashing report rang out, and another boomer died messily on the fringes of the main fight as she did.

"Well, how about that?" SkyKnight remarked as he casually crushed another rogue C-55 headfirst into the pavement. "The long arm of the law is actually being effective tonight!"

"Keep your mind on the job!" Sylia snapped. Her palm-cannons fired, spitting a hailstorm of red energy beams at the hulking boomer that had just appeared behind the silver hardsuit. SkyKnight didn't even look back; as the boomer staggered backwards from the white hardsuit's shots, he thrust his right arm back over his shoulder and fired his particle lasers. The boomer flashed into a spinning storm of scrap and debris.

"I did know he was back there," SkyKnight commented mildly, his glowing eyeslot swinging around to regard her. "But thanks anyway."

"Hey! Come back here, you cowardly pile of shit!!" Sylia and the silver hardsuit turned in time to see Priss's blue hardsuit charging off up a side street, after a boomer which seemed to have exercised the better part of valour, and was retreating. The two blue forms vanished into the darkness, propelled by their thrusters.

"Priss!! Come back!!" Sylia shouted over the comm. "We don't want to get split up!!"

"Relax! This'll only take a second or two!" she shot back.

"I'll make sure nothing happens to her, boss," SkyKnight volunteered. Before the white hardsuit could answer him, the silver-blue battlesuit shot into the darkness after them, jets droning sonorously.

"Damn it!!" Sylia swore loudly. "SkyKnight, get...."

"Sylia!! Look out!!" Linna cried, just before a blue C-55 took advantage of her momentary distraction, and slugged her in the stomach. Her breath left her lungs in a jarring whoosh as she hit the pavement, bright lights flaring briefly in her sight. As she fought to roll over and get up, the boomer was blasted from behind by a combined salvo of fire from the remaining Knight Sabers. As the boomer floundered, momentarily uncertain of which foe to go after, the white-hardsuited woman rolled to her feet and neatly bisected it with her arm blades.

"Are you okay?" Nene's voice asked concernedly. The red-pink suit was there next to her suddenly, giving her an arm to lean on.

"I'm...fine," Sylia gasped, gratefully accepting the support nonetheless. "Just...winded." It suddenly dawned on her that the battlefield had fallen mostly silent. "Any... any more boomers?" she asked, looking around the battlefield.

"Nope," Linna answered with a great deal of satisfaction, surveying the scattered wreckage. "We got 'em all." Behind her, Sylvie was standing hunched over, her hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath. Her red-gray suit was dented and scratched-up a bit, but otherwise unharmed.

"That was almost too easy," Sylia muttered to herself, unease trickling through her mind. Her blue-visored helmet swung towards Nene. "Are we clear, Nene?"

"Nothing else nearby, Sylia," she replied easily. "We're clear."

****

"GOTCHA!!!" Priss crowed exuberantly, dropping feet-first onto the fleeing C-55 from behind. The boomer crashed to the asphalt on its face, skidding to a stop as the blue-hardsuited woman rode it like a surfboard. As the downed biomechanoid struggled to rise, she fired a railgun spike through the back of its skull casing, stilling it.

"Having fun yet?" SkyKnight asked dryly, swooping up next to her and landing with a slightly ponderous-sounding clank.

"You'd better believe it!" she told him as she clambered off the dead biomechanoid. Judging from the tone of her voice, she was grinning from ear to ear. "It's great to be back in action; I haven't had this much fun in ages."

"Well, gee, thanks a lot!" he replied in a wounded tone, grinning inside his helmet.

"You know what I mean, you smartass!" she retorted with a laugh, elbowing him in the ribs. "Admit it; you enjoyed it too, didn't you? The fighting, I mean," she added warningly. Bert smirked to himself, and changed what he'd been going to reply.

"I guess I did," he admitted, then frowned to himself. "It seemed awfully easy, though," he noted. "Those boomers weren't nearly as tough as the last time."

"You worry too much," she told him. "Come on, let's get back to the others before Sylia has a fit."

"No arguments from me on that score," SkyKnight chuckled, turning slightly to wave in the direction their friends were. "Well, ladies first and all that...."

The harsh scream of a crackling, greenish-white particle beam cut short his speech as it slammed square into his torso, hurling him backwards to smash into the concrete side of a building. SkyKnight didn't touch the ground between the point where he'd been standing, and when his faceplate hit the pavement after being shot and bounced off the wall. After a moment, the silver battlesuit groggily started moving, trying to get up.

"BERT!!" Priss started to run towards him, forgetting about everything else momentarily in her concern. The whining crackle of more particle bolts burning past brought her up short. Dodging, she spun towards the source of the offensive fire, charging her own weapons.

Her stomach seemed to drop as she saw about twenty wickedly-fast C-55 combat boomers charging towards them. A few of the killer machines spat some more searing, incandescent green beams at her as they drew closer, coming uncomfortably close to hitting her as she ducked. Belatedly, she realized that these boomers were the uprated C-55 types, the C-55Es that she'd heard about.

"Sylia!! Come in!! Sylia?! We could use a hand here!" she radioed, blasting away with her laser cannon and railgun. The boomers almost contemptuously dodged her fire, and she realized that this fight wasn't going to go quite as easily as the last one had. Twenty boomers was just too many for her to handle by herself. She briefly prayed that no red boomers, the really heavy-duty combat ones, would show up as well.

"Shit," she muttered, casting a quick glance backwards; SkyKnight was still getting to his feet, stunned by the unexpected shot. Well, you always wanted to go out fighting, her mind pointed out. It looked like she was going to get her chance. Shouting her own war cry, Priss leaped forwards to the attack, blasting away, hoping to buy SkyKnight enough time to recover.

The blue hardsuit disappeared under the wave of snarling boomers, as the sounds of heavy impacts and energy beams exploded through the street.

****

Bert woozily shook his head as his breath returned and the ringing in his ears subsided. Damn, but that shot had hurt! More because he hadn't been expecting it than anything else. It hadn't breached his armour, but being knocked backwards into the unyielding wall behind him, and then falling on his face had a good deal to do with why he'd been shaken up by it.

His helmeted head jerked up as explosions piercing the air, just in time to see Priss get swarmed by a horde of snarling C-55E boomers. An icy clarity dropped across his mind as he struggled to his feet, drawing upon some hidden reserve and forcing himself to remain steady.

For a minute, it looked like everything was going well; one boomer was down on the pavement, its biomechanical guts spread all over the pavement, and Priss was liberally hosing down the other blue machines with laser fire. Her fire was not very effective, though; because there were so many boomers, she couldn't concentrate on any one long enough to be able to down it.

As SkyKnight watched, still trying to pull himself together, she was suddenly double-teamed by a pair of boomers who sprang from between their cohorts. The blue hardsuit was simultaneously hit in the head and the small of her back by the boomer strikes. With a strangled scream, Priss dropped to the pavement, only to get hauled up by another boomer and held immobile by an armoured arm around her neck. Two other boomers seized her arms, and a third one stepped around to in front of her, drawing back its arm for a lethal strike as its claws popped out. The helpless Knight Saber struggled feebly against her assailants, still dazed and unable to prevent what was coming as the boomer's arm speared forwards, centering on her chest.

SkyKnight shot forwards, his flight system screaming as he raced the boomer's thrusting arm, time seeming to suddenly slow down to a crawl. Correctly interpreting his intent, several boomers sprang forwards to delay him, slashing with claws and firing particle beams. Twin snap-hisses cracked through the air, as huge, glowing blue arcs were carved through the space in front of the charging silver battlesuit; two boomers dropped in their tracks, rent asunder by the sizzling plasma blades extending from his hardsuit arms, and the rest retreated out of reach.

Just as the boomer's arm was a hairsbreadth away from forever ending Priss's career, SkyKnight reached the embattled woman and whipped his lightsaber blade through the boomer's arm, severing it at the elbow. The momentum of the boomer's strike carried its clawed hand onwards, striking Priss's hardsuit in the chest, pointed blades first. The arm fragment flipped up and struck her helmet faceplate as the blades scratched twin shallow gashes across her breastplate armour.

The severed arm dropped uselessly to the pavement as the silver Knight Saber whirled towards the boomer that had just attempted to kill his comrade; it was extremely risky using his energy blades this close to her, but he had no choice, not if he wanted to save her. The one-armed boomer started to draw back further, snarling in thwarted fury, but a downward slash from SkyKnight's other lightsaber blade bisected it diagonally across the torso, dropping the renegade boomer in its tracks.

The blue energy blades snuffing out, the silver Knight Saber spun back towards his captive teammate, launching a blistering punch apparently at her head. Priss gave a strangled shout, and jerked aside, or tried to; with all the boomers holding her, her movement was drastically curtailed. SkyKnight's arm whistled past her head, over her shoulder; she heard a loud mechanical snap-clang noise, closely followed by the solid 'thunk' of an impact of some kind. Almost instantly, the armoured arm around her neck loosened and fell away.

SkyKnight tore loose his extended swordblade from the head of the boomer that had been slowly choking Priss from behind, using the momentum to backhand the boomer on her left that was still holding her arm. The boomer ducked and released her, springing away as Priss ripped her other arm free.

"Hey!! What the hell...?!?! OOOF!!!" was all Priss was able to get out before the silver hardsuit grabbed her armoured form around the waist, and then catapulted into the air in a parabolic trajectory that carried them clear of the murderous pack of biomechanoids. At exactly the same time, several boomers recovered from his charge enough to try and kill them. Claws and energy beams sliced the air just scant inches beneath the two hardsuits as they shot upwards.

"You....you jackass!!" she wheezed as he dropped her to the pavement, then spun towards the boomers and braced himself to receive the brunt of their next attack. "You could have at least warned me what the hell you were going to do!!"

"No time," Bert's modulated voice replied laconically, sounding eerily calm. "Had to get you clear of the pack; quickest way." The fifteen or so boomers remaining began to spread out in a skirmish line as they advanced menacingly towards the two Knight Sabers.

"Well, thanks anyway," Priss said quietly, reaching out and touching his shoulder, even though he couldn't feel it through the suit. "I owe you one."

"I'll collect later," he replied whimsically, risking a quick glance back at her. "Right after I finish cleaning up the garbage."

"Oh, riiiiiight," she snorted derisively. "Not even you can handle fifteen-to-one odds, Mr. Invincible 'Heroic-is-my-middle name' Knight!"

"Never tell me the odds," SkyKnight admonished her cheerfully. "I like gambling once in a while."

"Besides," she added, a rising whine coming from her laser cannon as she began targeting the C-55Es, "I want my share of the action, so don't bother trying to hog all the fun."

****

"I'm sorry, but orders are orders," Leon called across the hood of his patrol car.

"Well, we're not surrendering," the white-suited Knight Saber replied flatly. She was standing ramrod-straight as she faced him, separated by a twenty-foot stretch of open pavement. Behind her, the remaining multicoloured hardsuits were standing tensely, waiting to see what would happen. "Now if you'll excuse us, we have got work to do."

"And I've got mine to do as well," Leon replied levelly. The white hardsuit nodded, as if in understanding, and made a hand gesture to the rest of the hardsuited vigilante group. They started slowly backing away from the gathered cops, alert for any sign of aggression. Sighing internally, Leon started to give the order to fire, intending to try disabling the Knight Sabers, when the squeal of the dispatcher's frantic voice erupting from the radio cut him off.

"Unit 12!!! Come in Unit 12!!!! Reports of a massive boomer firefight approximately twenty blocks east of your location!!! Two battlesuits are reported already on-scene, and they're reportedly engaged with about ten C-55 boomers!! Please respond, over!!!"

"Shit!" Leon snarled, forgetting about the armoured women, and diving for the radio microphone inside his patrol car. As he lunged inside the cruiser, grabbing for the mike, four furious blasts of hissing sound announced that the Knight Sabers were already on their way.

****

"Well," Bert panted hoarsely, sweat trickling down his face inside his helmet as his eyes raked the displays. "At least we're down to ten boomers." Around him, the blue ring of biomechanical killers tightened a bit.

"That's still five-to-one odds," Priss retorted, warily watching the boomers as well, her breathing every bit as laborious as his. She and SkyKnight were standing back-to-back, encircled by the remaining C-55E boomers. They'd fought off the killers several times, managing to disable some of them, but it hadn't been easy. The noose was slowly tightening now, and she knew it was only going to be a matter of time before they got hit more seriously than they already had been. "You okay?"

"Fine; just a scratch," SkyKnight replied, ignoring the cold feeling that slid through his innards whenever he thought about the gash through his neck armour, the thinnest armouring on his entire suit. It had bled slightly, but not seriously. Another inch or so over to the right, however .... "What about you?"

"I'll live; I've had cracked ribs before."

"No reply on the comms?"

"If yours won't get through the jamming, I doubt mine will," she replied tightly, flexing her gauntleted hands, wishing she could stop sweating.

"It was worth a try."

The boomers stopped their circling motion, and the cornered Knight Sabers tensed, getting ready to sell themselves dearly; the fight had been anything but a picnic, a fact that the shattered buildings around them gave mute testimony to. Everywhere was littered with splintered glass, riven brickwork and masonry, and smoking asphalt. The two hardsuits were also scorched and gouged, as were a few of the boomers.

"That tears it," Priss inhaled sharply, as all ten boomers popped open their chest cavities, revealing complicated-looking emitter arrays. "We can't dodge ten damn heat rays all at once." A fatalistic resignation seemed to settle over her, as she realized that this was the end. She opened her mouth to try and say something before it was too late, but ...

"SHIT!!!!!!!!!! GET THE HELL DOWN!!!" SkyKnight barked sharply. Before Priss even knew what was going on, Bert tackled her at the waist, sending them both crashing to the pavement. Her abused ribs complained strenuously as her much heavier, armoured compatriot landed on top of her, driving her air from her lungs.

Just as the air lit up with an evilly crackling, bright blue-white coronal discharge.

"Electrical generators," SkyKnight gritted hoarsely, shaking violently and clamping an unbreakable grip onto her. Priss abruptly remembered how he and electricity got along together, just as he told her, "HANG ON!!!"

With a sudden brutal slam of accelerative forces, SkyKnight's jet turbines shrieked, propelling the two hardsuits in a sparking, scraping slide across the pavement. There was a secondary jolt as they knocked a hole through the ring of boomers like an armoured bowling ball striking tenpins, but they managed to get clear of the biomechanoid formation.

The world rocked and tumbled crazily as they rolled and slid to a stop several metres away from the boomers. As Priss unsteadily forced herself to her feet, she noted that the boomers had fried two of their number with the electrical cross-fire; two smoking blue shapes were down on the pavement, unmoving.

"Go on, run damnit!" her silver-armoured comrade snapped, shoving her back as he stepped in front of her, his red-lit gaze solidly on the boomers as they turned towards them. His right-hand lightsaber handgrip snapped into his gauntlet as he pushed at her. "Go and get Sylia; I'll handle this! GO, godammnit!!"

"Like hell I will, you jackass!!" she snapped back, slapping his hand away. "I'm not leaving you here by yourself to get electrocuted!! You don't react well to electricity, remember?! I'm not leaving!!" To punctuate her statement, she fired a salvo of particle-laser bolts at the boomers. Immediately, writhing bolts of blue energy flashed back at the two Knight Sabers.

"MOVE!!" A jarring shock shook Priss as SkyKnight roughly shoved her out of the way and onto the pavement, ducking and weaving himself, trying to avoid being hit. An electrical snap-hiss briefly overrode the noise of the other weapons fire, as SkyKnight whipped a blazing blue-white energy blade over, trying to deflect some of the energy streams he knew were going to hit him.

The air abruptly became very hot, as liquid agony wrapped around him with a crackling noise. He jerked and spasmed uncontrollably as some of the current leaked through the dampers in his suit, burning into him. With an effort, Bert kept the surging tide of torture memories suppressed, clenching his teeth together with the strain of trying to prevent a relapse. His suit viewscreen flickered wildly, and for a moment his hardsuit teetered on the brink of a total shutdown from the EMP effect the electrical bolts were having on him. His various system safeguards were working, but only just.

As abruptly as it had begun, the ordeal ended. Shaking his head and blinking, trying to clear his hazy mind, SkyKnight weaved a little on his feet, watching the boomers. They weren't advancing any closer, but they weren't retreating either.

"Priss, now's your chance; get going before they fire again."

"What part of 'I'm not leaving you' didn't you understand?!" she asked angrily, rolling back to her feet. The flat thundercrack of her railgun echoed through the night as she shot back at their assailants. The boomers dodged her fire, and obligingly replied with a mixed volley of particle and electrical beams.

SkyKnight whipped up both lightsabers this time, stepping over and trying to shield Priss; he was only partially successful, as the backwash from the electrical blasts hitting him caught her in the fringes. As he convulsed himself, caught between searing pain and burning flashbacks, he heard her scream in agony. There was a loud clang behind him, and when he glanced back as the assault momentarily ceased, he could see her blue-hardsuited body laying on the pavement, jerking spasmodically.

"Priss?! PRISS!!" An icy chill of fear washing through him, Bert dropped to his knees next to her, cradling her shoulders with one arm, ignoring the boomers and the immediate dangers they presented. If she was badly hurt...

"G-g-god d-damn, that hurt," he heard faintly. "I'm....okay. Know what you went through now, I guess...."

"Brace yourself," he warned her, resolve suddenly crystallizing in his mind. With a swift movement, he hoisted her up from the pavement, looping her left arm around his neck. "We're getting out of here before those bastards kill us."

The boomers were of a different opinion; as SkyKnight straightened up with his injured comrade, they charged the battered Knight Sabers, spitting particle beams in a green-lit storm of energy.

"You asked for it, you biomechanical junkheaps!!" the silver-garbed battlesuit snarled. His left arm snapped up as energy crackled ominously in the apertures of his beam cannons; a split second later, a shaft of bright white light wreathed in red flames stabbed at the attacking biomechanoids. The blast of annihilation lanced into the boomers, striking two of them. One C-55E was struck squarely in the torso, and dissolved into spinning armour shards and superheated nutrient fluids; the second boomer lost an arm at the shoulder. Instantly, the remaining boomers veered aside, dodging and leaping as two more crackling blasts tore through the air after them, missing completely.

"Why....why the hell didn't you do that sooner?!" Priss asked. Her voice was getting stronger, a pretty good indication that she was getting over the jolt of electricity she'd taken.

"Because I didn't have the juice earlier." Bert lashed out with a few more particle-laser shots, keeping the boomers agitated. "I can explain in detail later if you want, but my suit batteries absorbed some of the electricity." He kept slowly backing them away from the boomers, trying to get enough space to be able to take off without fear of being seized or shot down.

Priss didn't reply, but raised her own gun arm, shooting at some of the boomers that were trying to flank them. The blue combat machines easily dodged, and kept advancing, splitting into two small groups, trying to spread out and surround the hardsuits. She noted that they weren't firing quite as often as they had previously.

"Hey, I think maybe they're running out of gas," she noted. "They're slowing down."

"They're drawing it out," he replied grimly, his helmet swiveling to look at the boomers. "They think they've got us; that's why they aren't hurrying." With terrifying abruptness, all seven of the remaining boomers leaped at the isolated hardsuits, roaring triumphantly as their claws snapped into extension.

Multiple energy beams speared through the air, angling downwards from above. The boomers were caught by surprise as a battle formation of three hardsuits swept through their midst, raking them with weapons fire; a red-pink hardsuit continued sniping from a nearby rooftop. Recovering rapidly from the surprise of having their teammates arrive, SkyKnight and Priss opened fire from where they were positioned, both being too tired and sore to charge headfirst back into the fight.

The fight turned into a mop-up action after that.

****

"Tell me again," Sylia directed, an intense frown of concentration on her face. "All of it, and don't leave anything out."

"I didn't leave anything out the last time," Bert protested, wincing as the old doctor standing next to him carefully applied a bandage to the shallow cut on the left side of his neck. "Couldn't this wait until tomorrow?! I'm bushed, Sylia!" At her raised eyebrow and level look, he sighed deeply, and again told her everything that had happened, from the time he'd taken off after Priss, to the instant when she'd come charging in with the rest of the team to save his and Priss's necks. She stood quietly as he finished, arms folded with one hand on her chin thoughtfully.

"Somebody was directing those boomers," she finally decided. "The coincidence is just too perfect. They saw two of us becoming isolated, and then ambushed you. That means somebody was watching and waiting for just such an opportunity."

"And to win the grand prize, just answer this skill-testing question!" Bert remarked sourly. "It's not hard to figure out; that operation had GENOM written all over it." Sylia nodded wordlessly, watching as her uncle finished taping down the bandage on the red-headed young man's neck. The old physician glanced briefly at her as he stepped back from his patient, nodding reassuringly. She relaxed slightly, relieved.

"Are you all right?" she asked quietly. "You mentioned that those boomers used electrical weapons." She remembered the brief flash of anxiety she'd felt over that news, but it had proved to be a pointless worry; he'd obviously maintained control of himself.

"I'm fine. How many times do you want me to repeat myself?!" he demanded crankily. "I told you that I'd built some surge protection circuits and storage batteries into my suit just in case I got zapped like that. They worked fine, and it gave me a bit more power to play around with. Some of the current did get through to me, but I held on."

"I was concerned about you," she replied mildly. "There's no need to snap at me."

"I'm sorry." He rubbed at the bridge of his nose with his fingers, closing his eyes and sighing. "I'm just tired." Sylia nodded, sympathy evident in her eyes as a brief silence fell. It didn't last long, as a pained exclamation volleyed from the adjoining room..

"YEEEEEOW!!!"

"Well I told you to hold still, Priss!!" Anri's voice said crossly. "I can't do this if you don't stop fidgeting!! Now hold still, or I'll sedate you!"

"That tone of voice sounds familiar," Sylia remarked dryly as she glanced at her uncle, a smile carefully concealed. Bert chuckled quietly to himself, imagining the scene in the next room.

"She's an apt pupil," the old man replied blandly. "She picked up on how to handle problem patients with remarkable quickness. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go check on my assistant."

"I think I'll get going as well," Bert yawned as the old medico stepped into the next room. "I need some shuteye, or I'm going to collapse."

"Not just yet," Sylia demurred. "There's still a couple things we have to discuss...."

****

"The final field test was a complete success," Madigan informed Quincy. A coldly pleased smile crawled across his craggy features.

"You believe they are ready?" he queried. She nodded confidently. "Then proceed," he ordered. "We have delayed this particular operation long enough."

"At once, sir," she replied crisply. Madigan turned to go, then hesitated.

"You had a question?" the old man rumbled.

"Yes, sir," she nodded. "What were we going to do about the sixth one?"

"For now, nothing," he replied calmly. "All things in due time, Madigan."

****

"Great, just grrrrreat," Bert muttered to himself, looking briefly at the list in his hand as he made his way back to his basement apartment. The list detailed which of his suggested hardsuit improvements Sylia had approved. The catch was that she wanted it done in the next week, and right now, he didn't want to think about anything even remotely resembling work.

"Me and my bright ideas," he grumbled again, stuffing the list into a pocket. "All in the name of progress." He snorted to himself. "So much for technology improving one's lifestyle."

"Do you always talk to yourself?" Priss's voice asked from the darkness of a stairwell.

"It's the only way to get intelligent answers," he replied promptly, unable to keep a smile from appearing as he turned towards where her voice had come from. "What are you doing here?" The attractive singer moved into the dimly-lit hallway, her motorcycle jacket tucked under one arm. She looked tired and rumpled; her blouse was a bit wrinkled and open at the throat, and there were some dark smudges under her eyes that hadn't been there earlier in the evening. Her long brown hair was hanging limply around her shoulders, and her red-brown eyes were without their usual energetic sparkle

"Despite what I told Sylia, I really don't feel up to driving home tonight," she told him. "I'm too tired and sore to sit on a motorbike right now, so I doubled back and snuck in after the others left. My bike is next to yours at the back of the garage, and they're both covered with a tarp, so don't worry; no one saw me come down here."

"I'm not complaining, believe me," he smiled at her, then gestured towards the door to his apartment, a few more metres down the corridor. They walked side by side down the hallway in companionable silence, Bert unlocking the door as they reached it.

"Oh my God, I'm beat," Priss groaned, limping through the open entrance to the room, utterly exhausted. Feet dragging, she dropped her jacket on a chair by the door, then shambled over to the couch and flopped lengthwise on it.

And then rolled off onto the floor on her hands and knees, clutching at her cracked and bruised ribs, gasping in pain; she was so worn-out, she'd almost forgotten about the fact that she'd been nailed there a couple of times. Even though Anri had taped them up very securely, they were still very tender, and the painkillers were wearing off already.

"No griping," Bert admonished, grinning wearily as he closed the door behind himself. "You were the one who said it'd be fun, so to borrow a quote, 'YOU asked for it!!'" With a sigh, he carefully eased off his jacket, wincing at the aches and strains he was feeling; he hadn't had to exert himself that completely in quite a while, and it was giving him an inadvertent anatomy lesson, as he discovered muscles he hadn't realized he had.

"I didn't ask for smartass remarks," she noted tartly, carefully standing up. She glared at him as he walked over to her. "So just knock it off, right now."

"Whatever you say," he agreed easily. "I'm too tired to argue. Besides, you get irritable when you're injured, and I'd rather not aggravate that condition."

"I'm irritable?! I'M IRRITABLE?!?! Why you....!" her voice cut off as Bert gathered her up in a hug, firmly kissing her at the same time. Despite the pleasant sensations of the kiss, she made a pained noise of protest; Bert quickly eased off on the hug, letting his arms slide down to around her waist. She relaxed her stiffened posture in relief, and kissed him back, putting her arms around his neck. She quickly dropped them when she felt him wince, belatedly remembering he'd taken a neck injury. After a moment they parted, still holding each other carefully.

"I'm glad you're okay," he told her. "I don't know what I'd have done if you'd been badly hurt."

"I'm glad you're okay too," she replied, smiling warmly. A sudden yawn seized her, spoiling the moment with reality as sleep threatened to take her right then and there. Bert smiled, and quickly kissed her lightly again.

"You can have the bedroom," he said quietly. "I'll crash on the couch."

"What for?" she asked, looking at him strangely.

"Because I toss a lot in my sleep," he said simply. "I don't want to accidentally hit you in the ribs." Priss sighed disgustedly.

"You worry too damn much," she told him flatly. "I don't particularly want to be alone, thank you; after what nearly happened tonight, I could use the company, so just get your ass in there."

"If you insist," he replied, straight-faced.

"I do insist," she mock-growled, then yawned again. "Let's go before I pass out on the carpet." Weaving unsteadily, she led the way to the bedroom, sleep beckoning her onwards.

 

THE NEXT DAY......

Consciousness slowly trickled through the murky haze of sleep shrouding his mind, pushing it back. Bert grudgingly cracked open his eyelids, squinting at the cheerily glowing clock across the room on the dresser: 6:43 A.M.

Sighing disgustedly, he closed his eyes again, throwing an arm across them, and tried to go back to sleep. No such luck; now that consciousness had returned, it wasn't letting him sleep in. Like a merciless taskmaster, it was reminding him that he had a lot of things to do today. Like it or not, he was going to have to get up.

As he lay there, mentally railing against his intractable conscience, he both heard and sensed the woman in bed next to him shift a bit. Priss was still sound asleep, a combination of her usual habit of sleeping in until just before lunchtime, and the painkiller she'd taken before going to bed. She likely wouldn't wake up right now if a bomb went off, and she'd probably be very cranky if she was roused from her slumber. Bert wisely decided against disturbing her; at the moment, it would probably have an effect similar to dropping a bottle of nitroglycerin.

Moving very slowly, he carefully eased himself out of the bed, stifling several curses as his stiff joints and muscles complained at the movement. The price for recreational brawling last night, he reflected wryly. He must be getting old; the stiffness and minor aches never really bugged him all that much before.

Moving silently through the darkened room, he located the dresser, and quietly pulled out an old, clean tracksuit and donned it. For everything he was going to be doing today, it was best to dress as comfortably as possible. He quietly padded over to the bedroom door, and carefully opened it, slipping through and closing it behind him.

Once in his kitchen/living room area, it took him a few more minutes to put together a makeshift breakfast for himself; since it was just himself, there was no point in fixing up a lot of food. A pile of toast and cheese silenced his rumbling stomach, and a reheated cup of old coffee jolted him fully awake. Thus reinforced, he left the apartment after pausing long enough to grab Sylia's work list from the coffee table.

****

"No more!!! Please, no more!!!!!!" pleaded the helpless black-haired man as he writhed tormentedly on the metal table he was secured to. "For God's sake, stop it!!!"

"Then tell me what I want to know," Madigan replied coldly into the microphone that projected her distorted voice into the room where the prisoner was. The vision panel that allowed her to see into the DPS chamber was two-way mirrored glass, ensuring that nobody ever knew who was questioning them. "Who hired those mercenaries?"

"I....I can't tell you that!!" Stryker whined, squirming frantically, caught between terror of more interrogation, and what appeared to be fear of whoever this mysterious employer was. "He'll...he'll kill me if I talk!!!"

"And we'll kill you if you don't," the lavender-haired exec returned dispassionately, nodding to the DPS technician at the control panel. In response to the tech's tabbing of a switch, the hum from the probe over Stryker's head increased, and the black-haired man began screaming again as his mind was sifted by the machine, remorselessly amplifying his worst fears and nightmares.

Madigan watched emotionlessly as the helpless fixer howled in pain, unable to escape. Inwardly, she was chafing at the delay in extracting the information she wanted from this petty criminal. Normally, she'd have had the wanted data within hours of acquiring the subject, but since they wanted to use Stryker, they had to treat him with a little more care; it wouldn't do to turn their eventual pawn into a drooling vegetable.

"I'LL TAAAAAAALLKK!!!" he managed to shriek suddenly. "JUST STOP IT!!!! P-PLEASE, STOOOOOP!!!" At Madigan's nod, the technician stopped the scanner, and Stryker collapsed sobbing in relief, laying limply on the table.

"You have ten seconds," Madigan informed him icily. "Who hired you?"

"Some guy I met a couple of years ago," Stryker gulped. "He..."

"His name. NOW," she cut the blubbering thug off flatly.

"His n-name is Ethan H-Hollister," he quavered, sucking in huge gasps of air as he tried to pull himself together. If anyone from Hollister's crew ever found out that he'd talked ....

"WHAT?!" Madigan jerked sharply, caught by surprise as her grip on the microphone turned white-knuckled. "What did you say?!?!"

****

Sylia sighed to herself as she sat down at the computer console, her practiced glance flickering across the myriad banks of monitors and readout displays. The main viewscreens were dark, since she hadn't logged on yet and activated the main computer functions. The secondary displays flickered brightly, as constant streams of data from the tangled web of electrons comprising the communications and computer networks flung across MegaTokyo and beyond were quietly monitored. From this central location it was possible to get information from almost anywhere in the world.

She wasn't hunting today, though; pulling a 'floptical' disk from her pocket, she inserted it into a console slot, and logged onto the computer. It acknowledged her, and then started downloading the disk's data for analysis.

Sylia sat back in her chair, allowing herself the brief luxury of a stretch. It was nice to be able to devote more of her time to research and the like again; hiring Sylvie to help run the store had paid immediate dividends in freeing up some of her time, and easing the stress she'd been under. At times she'd felt like she was beginning to burn out trying to run both the Knight Sabers and her cover business single-handedly.

The computer beeped softly to get her attention. She reached out and tabbed a few keys, activating the desired program. As the analysis program came up, she took a quick sip of the steaming cup of coffee she'd set nearby, in a place where it wouldn't get accidentally knocked into the keyboard. Settling more comfortably into her chair, she started carefully scanning through the data files, her brown eyes turning intent.

Images began to flash across the screen, mostly of blue type C-55 boomers, with the occasional glimpse of a hardsuit. Statistics scrolled by in a steady stream as the images rolled by; power consumption, sensor inputs, ranging information and the like. Sylia attentively watched the flight recorder log play itself out, occasionally making a note of something. The first file finally finished, and the program briefly paused before printing an analysis of the suit wearer's performance on the screen.

The time passed unnoticed as she carefully sifted through the recorder data from each hardsuit, alert for any possible way that their performance might be tuned up. It was a routine procedure, but an important one; the lives of her friends, not to mention her own life, depended on optimal performance of the suits, especially now that GENOM appeared to have raised the level in the hardware war. Sylia paused briefly, reaching over and picking up her coffee cup. The liquid within it was still warm enough to be drinkable, so she finished it off and set the cup down out of the way.

It was as she turned back to the monitor that she caught the tail end of a readout flashing by on the screen. Frowning slightly, she halted the playback and played it backwards, searching for the image she thought she'd seen. After a couple of seconds, the data in question came back into view.

Sylia stared disbelievingly at her screen for a few seconds, almost as if willing it to change, but it didn't. She sat back in her chair, her mind whirling in churning disarray as she tried to make sense of what the computer was showing. After a moment, her expression settled into grim determination as she stood up from her chair, and strode from the computer room.

****

Sighing wearily, Bert pushed open the door to his apartment and staggered through, letting it swing closed behind him. Swiping a grimy sleeve across his sweaty forehead, he yawned hugely, and started to stagger across the room towards the doorway to the bathroom.

"Well, hello to you too," came a grumpy voice from the couch. "It's about time you decided to come back."

"Oh, hi," he replied tiredly, veering over to the couch and leaning on the back of it. "Sorry, didn't see you there."

"I'd noticed," Priss replied dryly. She was laying on the couch, with a couple of pillows tucked behind her head, and a small comforter wrapped around herself. Nearby on the coffee table sat a half-full water glass, and a bottle of painkillers. "What were you so busy at that you were out all day?"

"What else?" Bert grinned, spreading his hands as he shrugged. "Sylia gave me a list of things that I could do to the suits, and I was working at that, in addition to fixing up the damage from last night. Speaking of last night, how are you?"

"Sore. Very, VERY sore," Priss winced, shifting uncomfortably. "My ribs are killing me, and I think my back and neck are out from getting slugged by those two boomers; I've had back and headaches all day, and I think I've almost depleted your store of medication."

"You're sure you don't want to ...."

"We're not calling that doctor again," she growled before he could finish the sentence, her eyes flashing sparks. "Or Anri either, for that matter. They've both already checked me over and said there weren't any other injuries, so just forget it. I've had it with being poked and prodded for now, okay?!"

"Okay, okay," he soothed. "I was just checking. I'm concerned, that's all."

"Well, thanks for the concern," she told him, letting her head drop back into the pillows. "I think I need sleep right now more than anything, though."

"I know you don't really want to think about this right now," he spoke up as she closed her eyes. "But how are we going to cover the fact that you're not at home at the moment?"

"Tomorrow I should be up to riding my bike," she mumbled drowsily in reply. "I'll take it back to my place, and then I can hole up there for a couple of days. If anyone asks, I'll just say I wasn't answering the phone. Easy."

"If you say so," he answered dubiously; personally, he didn't think she'd be up to motorcycle riding for at least another couple of days. She reached up and gently patted his cheek, opening her eyes long enough to smirk crookedly at him.

"You worry too much," she told him. "Trust me."

"That's not reassuring," he muttered sourly as he turned and made his way to the bathroom, suddenly wanting nothing more right now than a hot bath. Priss grinned briefly to herself, then dropped off to sleep again.

 

THE NEXT DAY .....

A red, white and blue-striped motorcycle carefully maneuvered through the dingy streets of the older downtown tenement section of MegaTokyo. The bike was a sleek machine engineered for speed, judging by its appearance, but it was being driven very slowly. The rider was a woman, her figure revealed by the form-fitting red biking leathers she was wearing. Her long brown hair was streaming gently from under her helmet, and she was hunched over on the handlebars, evidently in great discomfort. Periodically, the bike wobbled unsteadily.

Priss gritted her teeth inside her helmet, blinking her eyes against the sweat that was streaming down her brow as she tried to hang onto her flagging strength. Her cracked ribs ached and burned incessantly, aggravated by the exertion of riding the motorbike, and she resisted collapsing across the bike's gas tank only with immense effort. She swore under her breath at the now-deceased boomer who'd nailed her there; only a few more blocks, that was all she needed to hang on for.

The 'few more blocks' seemed to lengthen into several very long miles, but she held on grimly; eventually her bike broke free of the maze of buildings to emerge into a relatively open area near the Canyons. Sighing in relief, Priss pulled her bike to a halt in front of the battered-looking trailer she called home. As the engine fell silent, she finally allowed herself to slump over, clutching at her abused ribs.

As she painfully pulled off her helmet, gasping for air, the rumble of a second, heavier motorcycle engine emerged from the streets behind her, and roared over to where she was parked. She turned slightly, watching the dark blue motorcycle that had been shadowing her pull to a stop next to her. The rider of the second bike, a tall man wearing dark blue clothing, pulled off his mirror-visored helmet, revealing angrily glinting greenish-brown eyes and sweaty red hair.

"That is the absolute last time I listen to you about what kind of shape you're in," Bert told her flatly, slamming his helmet onto the gas tank of his bike, and stripping off his gloves. "I told you that you weren't up to this!"

"I'm fine, damnit," she retorted irritably, swiping a leather sleeve across her sweat-streaming forehead; it didn't really help much. "I'm just winded."

"Bullshit!" he snapped. "If you're fine, then let's see you sit up." He folded his arms across his chest and waited as she tried to sit up on her bike seat. She slumped back after getting maybe three-quarters of the way back upright, unable to keep from sucking in her breath sharply as pain stabbed her side.

"I rest my case," he muttered, swinging his leg over his bike as he dismounted. "Come on, let's get you inside; at least then it won't look as undignified if you collapse."

"I'm ... not ... going to collapse!" she gritted. "I don't need help!!" She didn't try to shove him away as he stepped around to the side of her bike however, and gratefully used his shoulder to lean on as she stepped off of her own cycle. "Thanks," she grumbled after a moment.

"You're welcome," he replied dryly, sighing as he helped her up the stairs to the trailer door.

****

"Leon, I thought time off was supposed to improve someone's mood?" Daley observed. "You've been cranky all morning, and you've only been back for a few days. Need some help relaxing?"

"I am relaxed," Leon snapped, pitching the file folder he'd been paging through onto his desk and rubbing his eyes. "I'm just not having any luck getting some information I need, that's all." Why did Nene have to have the day off today?! he fumed silently. If anyone could have gotten him the information he'd been after, she could have.

"What's the project?" Daley asked curiously, looking at the file folder.

"It's nothing, just some minor investigations I've been conducting in my free time," Leon tried dismissing the matter with a wave of his hand, leaning back in his chair and propping his feet on his desk. Daley shook his head.

"You get three weeks of vacation time, and you spend it working?! You need to get out more, Leon."

The tall, brown-haired inspector didn't reply to Daley's comment, but sat staring broodingly into space. He knew he really should quit worrying over this particular case, but it had been nagging at him for a long time now. Perverse stubbornness wouldn't let him just drop it, and it had been consuming most of his off-duty time, including all his vacation time. So far, the Chief's admonition to not spend department time on it was holding.

Aggravating his foul mood was the fact that he hadn't been able to get Priss off his mind all week. Ever since the night of her last concert, when he'd discovered that she'd already left with some other guy, he'd been trying to shrug it off and say it didn't matter. It kept preying on the back of his mind, however; it did matter to him.

He'd been attracted to Priss for quite some time, and he was positive she was aware of it. Despite that, she was continually putting him off. She hadn't really encouraged him, but she hadn't flat-out told him to get lost either. Because of that, he'd been privately entertaining the notion that maybe she would eventually go out with him; finding out that she'd left with some other guy the night of the concert had blown that hope out of the water.

As he brooded, his mind pointed out the possibility that he was overreacting. After all, she'd only left with the guy; there wasn't any proof that she was seeing him. That thought consoled him somewhat, but the nagging uncertainty remained in the back of his mind. He resolved to corner her about it sometime and see if he could get a definite answer.

"You really need to get your mind off your cases, Leon," Daley's voice cut into his ruminations. "I think I know something that might help: I overheard Henderson saying that there's a new shooting range that opened up a few blocks away...."

****

"Are you goddamn finished rearranging my trailer?!" Priss demanded irritably from where she was sprawled on her beaten-up couch. "I told you it wasn't necessary!!" Across the small room, Bert pitched the last scrap of garbage he'd been holding into a plastic bag, securely knotting the bag closed and tossing it over next to the door.

"Well I'm sorry if I offended your pride," he told her dryly as he walked over and sat down next to her. "But I got tired of the vultures circling your refrigerator eyeing me like I was their next meal. Haven't you heard of expiration dates?" He brushed his bangs out of his eyes as he shook his head, grinning crookedly at her.

"I just got that stuff the other day," she retorted, glaring. "There was nothing wrong with it."

"If the mold on that cheese had evolved any more, it would have been claiming 'squatter's rights' and throwing you out," he snorted, catching her hand as she tried to swat him. "And the rest of the food was having a Tenant's Association meeting to demand better living conditions."

"Why you..! You..!!!" she spluttered indignantly, torn between wanting to throttle him and resisting the urge to laugh at his comparisons. One of these days....!

"So are you going to be okay for today?" he interrupted her quietly. Priss sighed, rolling her eyes toward the ceiling.

"I'll be fine," she stated, pulling her hand loose from his grasp in exasperation. "I've lived here several years now without problems, so quit worrying, okay? Go open your range; I'll be okay."

"Yeah, well I can't help myself," he replied defensively, then sighed himself, smiling ruefully and shaking his head.

"I just wish you'd quit being so goddamn stubborn about this!!" they exclaimed as they looked at each other. Priss burst out laughing, then clutched at her sides in pain, trying hard to stop in order to get her breathing back under control. She waved off Bert as he started to move closer, concerned.

"I'm ... fine..." she gasped. "Just ... don't make me laugh again; it's not worth the pain." She sagged back into the couch, getting herself back under control. "You'd better get going; it won't look the greatest if you're late opening on just your second day of business."

"True," he conceded with a sigh. "I'll drop by later tonight then and check on you, just to make sure you're still okay...."

"I said I don't need to be checked on every......"

"... And I'll bring something by for dinner at the same time," he added with a grin before she could finish her sentence. "Sound fair?"

"You're ...." Priss fumed for a moment, then gave in, deciding it was easier to let him check up on her than try to convince him otherwise; he obviously wasn't listening to her. Now you know how everyone else feels about your stubbornness sometimes, a voice in the back of her mind noted dryly. "All right, fine. Make it a pizza or something."

"I knew you'd see it my way," he grinned impudently, just before leaning down and giving her a quick kiss. "See you tonight." He grabbed his jacket from where it had fallen to the floor and ducked out the door, taking the garbage with him. She snorted at his observation, and lay back on the couch, wincing as her ribs griped about the movement. After shifting around a bit and becoming relatively comfortable, she drifted off into sleep, trying to will her injuries into healing faster at the same time.

****

Sylia rapped on the door to Nene's apartment, unwavering determination in every line of her figure and face. She was dressed like she was heading off to a board meeting of some kind, wearing a dark jacket, skirt, and light-coloured blouse. Her immaculate appearance added to the aura of stern authority that was radiating from her at the moment. She reached out and knocked on the door again; this time, there was a series of loud thumps, followed by a bang. After a moment, the door opened a crack, then opened fully, revealing a disheveled-looking red-haired young woman.

"Sylia?! What are you doing here?! " Nene blurted, managing to look both surprised and worried. "W-what's wrong?!"

Sylia stared at the younger woman for a moment, concealing her own shock at Nene's appearance. In all the time she'd known the red-haired computer expert, she'd never seen her looking anything but clean and neat; now she looked like a wreck. She was still wearing her ADP uniform, but it was wrinkled and creased, as if she'd slept in it overnight. Her hair was tangled and matted-looking, and there were dark smudges under her slightly-bloodshot green eyes. Nene couldn't seem to stand still, either; she was fidgeting slightly and shifting her balance continuously as she stood there staring wide-eyed at Sylia.

"I thought I'd see how you were doing," the Knight Sabers' leader replied obliquely. "I hadn't heard from you all week. May I come in?" she added pointedly. Nene started guiltily, then stepped back, allowing her entry.

Sylia stepped through the doorway into the small cubbyhole apartment, shutting the door behind her as she took a quick glance around. The apartment was a mess, much like its owner at the moment. There were scraps of paper strewn everywhere, and a heap of dirty laundry was sitting in the doorway to Nene's bedroom. Looking into the kitchenette area, Sylia could see a stack of unwashed dishes in the sink. The small kitchen table was covered with old ... cake wrappers?!

As Sylia slipped off her shoes, Nene seemed to become aware of the disarray of her apartment. Flushing slightly, she hurriedly swept the couch free of its concealing debris, clearing a spot for her sometimes-boss to sit down on. As the young red-head dashed into the kitchenette area for a moment, Sylia carefully picked her way through the litter to the couch and sat down, after making sure there wasn't anything objectionable still on the couch cushions.

Nene set a steaming cup of coffee on the coffee table in front of her, then sat down with a cup of her own, sipping nervously at it. Sylia coolly appraised her as she picked up her own cup and took a sip; it took an almost superhuman effort to keep her face straight and resist hurling the cup across the room. The coffee the cup contained was so strong she was amazed it wasn't eating at the porcelain in the cup. She concealed her distaste at the flavour of the brew, and returned to her covert appraisal of her younger friend. Nene still hadn't spoken beyond her initial surprised greeting, and wasn't quite meeting Sylia's gaze.

"So how have you been?" Sylia inquired politely. "I haven't seen you very much lately."

"I'm fine," the red-head replied quickly, with just a touch too much force. "I've just been really busy."

"Busy? Is work at the office piling up again?"

"N-no...not really, I mean, there's always lots of stuff to do at work. I've just.... had some things I've been putting off doing for a while now."

"Such as?" Sylia feigned fascination as she watched Nene squirm and become more agitated at the question. She took another sip of the foul-tasting liquid in her cup, not really noticing the bitter savor of it.

"I ... well ... you know, things," the green-eyed woman said weakly. "Reading, checking out the 'Net...." Sylia's gaze flicked to Nene's computer, noting that it was running. If the way the codebreaker in the interface slot in the front of the machine was whirring was any indication, it was trying to break the security on something fairly sophisticated.

"You've been too busy trying to hack into databases to at least try and keep in touch with your friends?" she asked, a faint frown creasing her brow for the first time. "That's not like you, Nene; is something wrong?" Her mind flashed back briefly to when she'd first met Nene, remembering the young girl with the uncanny knack for computers and hacking who'd successfully infiltrated the protected 'job advertisement' she'd set up as a recruitment tool. She'd been impressed by the ability the young woman had displayed in cracking the countermeasures she'd set up, and had been sure that she'd found the asset that the Knight Sabers had needed.

The catch had been that she'd had to wean their newest recruit off of her computer dependence early on. Nene had been almost the stereotypical computer hacker at first, with no outside friends, almost living at her computer in order to break into things. Sylia had figured it was just a phase she'd been going through, a means of escaping her boredom and the sheltered life she'd had before leaving home.

It had proved to be something of an addiction for the young red-head, however, and breaking her of it had taken some serious effort, and some flat warnings. Once Nene had become 'in the know', it was imperative that she not get caught in some pointless database cracking that could possibly result in the unmasking of Sylia's project.

After some serious chats, Sylia had been able to impress upon her that it was necessary to be more circumspect in her 'tampering'. Nene had finally agreed, not wanting to jeopardize her new niche, or her new job with the ADP that she'd managed to 'arrange'. Sylia had known that she wouldn't be able to completely keep Nene from hacking occasionally, but at least she'd been able to break her of the outright addiction.

Unfortunately, it now looked like there was a reversion in progress, and a serious one; Nene had never allowed herself to fall this completely apart before, even to the point of apparently existing on nothing but cake and strong coffee. She had a pretty good idea of what had started Nene's deterioration, but she didn't know why it had progressed as far as it had. And there was too much at stake to allow it to continue.

"N-no, nothing's wrong," Nene stammered, flushing and looking away from her despite an obvious effort not to reveal anything.

"Oh, really?" Sylia countered, her tone turning steely. She'd given Nene enough of a chance to come clean; since she didn't seem willing to do that, it was time to force the issue. "Then perhaps you could enlighten me as to why you didn't report to me the fact that you knew that Bert and Priss had encountered more boomers the other night?"

"Sylia!" the young red-headed woman tried to look indignant, but failed miserably. Instead, she looked guiltier than ever. "How can you say something like that about me?! I ..."

"Because it's true," Sylia cut her off harshly. "Don't bother trying to play the wronged innocent, Nene. I was checking the suit flight recorders yesterday, and I found all the proof I need. You knew that Bert and Priss had been ambushed a full five minutes before the call came across the ADP bands." Sylia's eyes had turned cold and hard as she stared at the squirming ADP officer. "That has to be the most irresponsible act I've ever seen from you. Not only that, but your thoughtlessness endangered the lives of two of the team members; they were almost killed a couple of times before we arrived. I want an explanation young lady, and I want it right now!!"

"I...I...can't ....I didn't..." Nene denied faintly, shaking her head. There was a tortured look in her green eyes, and she was shoving herself backwards into the couch slightly as if she was trying to back away from Sylia and her flat declaration of the facts.

"You did," the Knight Sabers' leader bored in mercilessly. "Denying it isn't going to change that." She watched the younger red-headed woman flinch back from the words as if they were physical blows. With an effort, Sylia managed to maintain her control on the cold anger she'd been feeling since she'd discovered Nene's actions; she didn't want to start shouting.

"I don't know why you're so upset about this, Nene," she added a moment later, watching the anguished red-head carefully. "After all, this isn't the first time you've tried to kill someone." She deliberately phrased it as brutally as possible, trying to crack the barriers Nene was hiding behind. The young red-headed woman jerked as if she'd been slapped.

"No!! That's not true!! I haven't tried to kill anyone!!" Nene objected, her face white. "I haven't!"

"Then what would you call crashing SkyKnight's sensor and flight guidance systems with an ECM burst?" Sylia returned coldly. Nene turned even paler, her eyes going wide as she stared fearfully at Sylia. She remained silent as Sylia continued. "Your suit is the only one that is capable of that kind of offense against another mechanized combat suit, and the fact that our hardsuits don't have countermeasures against 'friendly' transmissions made it that much easier to do. I couldn't believe ... didn't want to believe that you were capable of such a thing. In any event, I've made my decision," she stated, standing up. "I'm sorry, Nene, but I can't trust you any longer. As of this moment, you're relieved of duty; you're no longer part of the Knight Sabers."

Shocked silence blanketed the room as she stood calmly, turning away from Nene as she started walking towards the front door of the apartment.

"No!!! Sylia, please don't ...!!!! I didn't...!!! I'm sorry!!! I'm sorry!!! I won't do it again!!!" Nene blurted, half-rising from the couch, one hand outstretched pleadingly.

"I know you won't," Sylia replied calmly. Stopping, she turned back to the young ADP officer. "I'm not about to give you the opportunity. I can't afford to allow someone on the team who's going to allow their personal problems to endanger the rest of the group."

"But I didn't mean for it to happen!!" Nene cried, tears starting to track down her cheeks. "I swear!! It was an accident!!" She sank back into the couch, wrapping her arms around herself as if hugging herself for warmth. Sylia regarded her impassively.

"How can you call deliberately causing someone's suit to malfunction and crash an accident?" she demanded.

"I ... I didn't know he was still airborne," Nene replied in a small, quavering voice. Her emerald-green eyes were shadowed by intense guilt as she looked at Sylia. "I ... I just wanted ..." She gulped and swallowed, her shoulders beginning to shake as she tried to keep from crying; Sylia walked back over to Nene and sat down across from her again.

"What was it that you wanted?" she prodded gently. Nene hunched herself smaller, trying to hold herself together.

"He ... he was showing off," she said faintly. "He ... wasn't supposed to be trying to get everyone, so I thought I'd ... show him that he wasn't as hot as he thought he was. I ... I couldn't see him after he vanished into the building; all I had to go on was a sensor signature. I ... masked an ECM pulse with a short burst to his communications array..." Her efforts at self-control fell apart, and she began crying. It lasted for a few minutes as she tried wiping her face off on the sleeve of her blouse, sniffling. "I thought he was going to come through the door, on the ground," she said when she could speak again. "I didn't realize he was up in the air still... I didn't know he was going to hit the beams inside the building. I just wanted to shut him down long enough to tag him when he tried coming out." There was no mistaking the remorse on her face, and Sylia felt the angry tightness within her ease just a bit.

"And your actions weren't prompted by the fact that the two of you had been having problems with your relationship?" Sylia asked quietly but firmly. Nene silently shook her head in denial, but Sylia didn't buy it. "Are you absolutely sure, Nene?" she said insistently. The teary-eyed ADP officer was silent for a long minute.

"I was still upset," she admitted slowly. She looked up at Sylia, her eyes imploring. "But I didn't want to hurt him, I swear. I just wanted to take him down a peg or two." She looked away again, fresh tears gathering in her eyes. "I've been so sorry it happened, I just can't stand it anymore," she whispered. She bit her trembling lower lip as she sat there, tears streaming down her face again. Sylia pulled a handkerchief from her purse and handed it to Nene; she swabbed at her face, mopping up the moisture leaking from her eyes.

"I see." Sylia gave Nene a long, thoughtful look as the red-head pulled herself together. "You could still have used a less drastic method, and one less potentially lethal at that, to 'take him down a notch'. And that also doesn't explain why you involved Priss in this vendetta of yours. I don't think you're telling me everything, Nene." The younger woman flinched again guiltily. "Well?"

"I ... I went to see him a couple of days after the ... accident," Nene said after a few moments of silence. She was now squeezing her hands together, turning the knuckles white, and her eyes were downcast, staring fixedly at the top of the coffee table. "I ... had some things I wanted to talk to him about."

"Such as?"

"Why he'd quit trying to call me, and ... and some other things I wanted to know about."

"Did it occur to you that he might have stopped calling because of your treatment of him?" Sylia pointed out gently. "You were shutting him out, you know."

"I ... I know it was wrong of me," Nene replied, her eyes beginning to water again. "But ... I wanted to make him sorry for ... for calling me a little girl a while back." She wiped at her eyes with her other sleeve for a moment, dropping the soggy handkerchief she'd been using onto the coffee table. "Well, we ... we had an argument...." Sylia listened expressionlessly while Nene haltingly told her about the vitriolic discussion she'd had with Bert, culminating with her storming out of the room in a huff. Sylia sighed wearily, reaching up and massaging her temples; it felt like the headache she'd gotten early on in the discussion was developing into a nasty migraine now.

"So based on one chance sighting during one of your lunch hours, you accused him of two-timing you, and then got offended when he told you to quit being immature about seeing him with a friend," she summarized. Nene flushed and looked away, nodding reluctantly.

"And despite his denials of your interpretation of events, you decided he was going out with Priss, and decided to get back at him for dumping you, and her for going out with him, correct?" Nene squirmed guiltily, flushing again.

"I thought he'd come back," she mumbled, eyes downcast. "But he didn't. He's always said he loved me, but he quit trying, and..." Her voice turned choked-sounding for a minute. "And then...."

"And then you jumped to a questionable conclusion when you saw him with another woman, one he's been friends with for quite some time," Sylia finished for her, sighing. "Nene, surely you can see that your behaviour is as much to blame as anything for him not coming back?"

"I....I know that, now," the young red-head admitted, looking ashamed. "I...wanted to apologize, I was going to, but...it sort of fell apart when we argued," she finished lamely.

"I could see that," Sylia replied, a faint touch of dryness in her tone. She gazed thoughtfully at the depressed-looking ADP officer for a few moments, trying to decide the best course to take. While Nene's actions had been spiteful and irresponsible in the extreme, Sylia was satisfied that they hadn't been intended to cause any real harm. The question now was how to handle this problem in a way that wouldn't irrevocably shatter the trust in each other that was so essential to the continued existence of the Knight Sabers. Sylia glanced at the clock on the wall, noting the lateness of the hour.

"Well, the first thing you're going to do," she told Nene, breaking the thick silence that had reigned for a few minutes, "is get yourself cleaned up and presentable-looking again."

"W-what?" Nene looked a little nonplused at Sylia's words; she'd been expecting a dire pronouncement of her fate after such a lengthy silence, not a commentary on her appearance.

"We're going to dinner," the Knight Sabers' leader replied, making it sound like an everyday occurrence. "It will give us an opportunity to discuss how to respond appropriately to your... 'activities'."

Sylia paused, frowning as she glanced around at the apartment's decor of candy bar wrappings and junk food packages. "And going to dinner will get you used to regular food again," she added critically. "That's something else that's going to stop as well; we need you healthy and rested, not frazzled and wired on sugar. Your job with the ADP is too valuable to jeopardize by completely falling apart like this." She watched Nene sit there for a moment, trying to frame a reply to her assertions.

"I'd like to get there sometime before the restaurants close, Nene," she remarked mildly. "Was there something you felt you needed to say? No? Well then, what are you waiting for? Go and get ready!" The younger woman gave up; standing with a sigh, she assumed the air of someone about to go to their last supper, and walked into her bedroom. After moving an itinerant pile of dirty laundry out of the way, she closed the door.

Sylia sighed herself, finally allowing her head to slump into her hands, her elbows leaning on her knees. Wincing, she massaged her temples, trying to ease the sullen throbbing that was going on inside her head.

"I need a vacation," she muttered quietly to the empty room. "This just isn't getting any easier."

****

"Door's open!" Priss's muffled voice called from the other side of the battered door of her trailer. Bert opened the door and carefully eased himself through, trying hard not to dump onto the floor the precariously-balanced pizza boxes and drinks he was carrying. A moment later, a pair of helping hands eased some of his burden by lifting the drinks and top box off of the stack.

"Thanks," he sighed in relief, letting the door bang shut behind him. "Dropping dinner would've made a poor start to the evening."

"True," Priss grinned, setting her load down on the battered coffee table that doubled as her dinner table. A moment later, she carefully sat down on the couch behind it, moving a bit stiffly. Bert gave her a sly, knowing grin as he placed the other pizza box on the table as well, shucking his coat and dropping it on a chair by the door.

"So, how much were you up and around today?" he asked innocently. His grin widened a bit as she flushed slightly.

"I didn't go out if that's what you mean," she retorted defensively. "But I just couldn't lie here all day doing nothing, so I cleaned up a bit."

"Just a second!" Bert started rummaging around in his pockets for something.

"What? Something wrong?"

"I just wanted to find a pen so I could mark this historic occasion down," he replied blandly, deftly catching the pillow she pitched at him a moment later. "Something I said?" he asked lightly, grinning as he tossed the pillow gently back to her.

"What else is new?" she retorted, glaring at him. A moment later, a grudging smirk appeared. "Sit down so we can eat," she directed him.

"I am M'Lady's most obedient servant," he proclaimed, giving her a theatrical bow before coming over and sitting next to her.

"Oh, really?" she snorted. "Would you stop with the smartass remarks if I asked you to, then?"

"No, probably not," he admitted with a smile. "Living dangerously is too thrilling to give up entirely."

Priss gave up, shaking her head with a rueful smile, and reached over to the first pizza box. Steam wafted the fragrant aromas of tomato sauce, cheese, and the other toppings from the pizza, filling the room. Her stomach rumbled loudly in response.

Approximately half-an-hour later, the pizzas were completely devoured and the garbage disposed of. They sat quietly, slouched next to each other on the couch as they relaxed. Both were feeling slightly drowsy, the combined aftereffect of a large meal and a long day.

"So how'd everything go at your end?" Priss finally asked, sipping at a beer, propping her sock feet up on the coffee table. "Busy day?"

"It was steady all day," he replied. "No really major hassles, but still enough people around to keep me hopping all the time." He paused for a moment, considering something, then sighed. "I have a couple of new members I'm not so sure I needed," he told her.

"What's that supposed to mean? I thought you wanted new members?"

"Leon and Daley?" he suggested dryly. "Daley I'm not really worried about, but Leon was apparently checking into my background a few weeks ago."

"Shit," Priss sucked in a sharp breath. "How'd that start?!"

"He got suspicious about Nene being off sick so much," he sighed, running a hand through his hair. "And it seems that he started looking into the possibility that I might be the reason for it. Sylia and Nene threw up enough of a records smokescreen to block him, but I've never felt that he entirely bought it. You should have seen the way he was looking around the range today when he thought I wasn't looking; it's like he was expecting to find boomers under the carpets or something." He chuckled a bit, remembering Leon's attempts to look covert; a C-55 wearing a trenchcoat and hat would've been more subtle, but not by much.

"You don't sound worried," Priss noted, cocking her head quizzically as she looked at him. Being found out had been one of his major preoccupations, once upon a time.

"I'm not anymore," he shrugged. "What can he do to me? There isn't a shred of hard evidence anywhere that can link me to anything."

"I'd still be careful around him," Priss warned. "Take it from someone who knows firsthand just how persistent he can get at times."

"I'll take that into consideration," he grinned slyly at her. A moment later he leaned over and kissed her. She kissed him back, blindly setting her beer can over out of the way so she could devote her full attention to the activity. After a few moments, they parted and settled back again, Priss shifting around so that she was leaning into him. He put an arm around her as she reclaimed her drink, and they sat quietly, listening to the subdued hum from the city outside the battered trailer.

The drone of a powerful motorcycle engine gradually filtered through the thin trailer walls, drawing nearer. Bert frowned to himself, carefully nudging Priss, who had started to nod off.

"Were you expecting company?" he asked her quietly. Outside, there was a slight screech as the motorcycle came to a halt, its motor dying out a moment later.

"Hm? What?" she muttered drowsily, sitting up. "What was that?"

"Somebody on a motorcycle just arrived," he told her, sitting up himself. "Were you expecting someone?" Outside, booted feet sounded on the steps to the trailer door.

"No, I don't think so," she replied. A memory resurfaced as she tried to figure out who it might be, and her eyes widened in sudden alarm. "Oh shit!" she hissed, grabbing his arm. "It's..."

"Priss!!!!" Sylvie's voice hollered from the other side of the trailer door, accompanied by angry-sounding knocking. "I know you're in there, so you'd better open this door!!"

"Oh. Shit." Bert's slightly panicked gaze swung towards Priss. "Now what?!"

"I don't know!" Priss whispered back, her mind racing. Neither of them particularly wanted to be found out at the moment, and Sylvie's precipitous arrival had just thrown a wrench into things.

"Priss!!" Sylvie hammered on the door again. "I'm not going to go away!! I think I at least deserve an explanation!"

"Just a minute!!" the red-brown eyed woman hollered back. "Well, unless you want everything coming into the open right now, you're going to have to either hide or sneak out somehow."

"There's only one door, Priss," he reminded her, glancing around the room as he stood up. "I think I'd be a little hard to miss going out the front past her. A window?"

"Not with your shoulders," she fretted, glancing around the room again. "You're too damn big. Hang on a second! Coming!!" She shouted towards the door again, buying a few more seconds at the most. Her eyes suddenly lit up with an idea.

"I've got it! Come on!" she whispered. Tugging on his arm, she stepped around the low coffee table, leading him to the back of the trailer where her little kitchen area was. Opening the door on a large, beaten-up closet, she gestured to the empty bottom half. "You should be able to fit in there."

"You've got to be kidding." Bert dubiously eyed the cramped space, and the heavily-laden shelves above it. "You are kidding, right?"

"Do I look like I'm joking?!" she hissed impatiently, pointing imperiously at the crawlspace. "It's either that or let the cat out of the bag!"

"Good point," he sighed. Pausing long enough to give her a quick kiss on the lips, he carefully squeezed into the closet.

"I'll try and keep it short," she promised him as she carefully closed the door. She quickly ran her hands through her hair, mussing it up, trying to make it look like she'd just woken up; her clothes were already wrinkled enough to support that possibility. Ignoring the twinges from her healing side, she sprinted to the door of her trailer, and opened it.

"It's about time," Sylvie noted icily, angry sparks flashing in the depths of her golden-brown eyes. "I was about to leave." She unzipped the neck of her blue-white bike suit as she stepped through the door, her glance flicking over everything as she dropped her bike helmet into the chair by the door.

"Sorry; I was asleep," Priss apologized meekly, shutting the door behind her friend.

"Really?" Sylvie's glance was skeptical, and Priss felt a momentary pang of guilt over having to deceive her. "Have you been asleep for the last two days then? I've been trying to call ever since our mission the other night, and I even stopped by the day after to see if you needed anything. You weren't home." The dark brown-haired woman folded her arms over her chest as she stood waiting for a reply.

"Uh, well, I...." Priss faltered, trying hard to think of a believable excuse. "I was asleep most of yesterday, and part of today," she evaded the implicit question of her whereabouts, opting for an embroidered version of the truth. "I've been taking some painkillers for my side, and they knock me right out. And the phone was disconnected while I cleaned up the trailer a bit this afternoon."

"Whose motorcycle is that outside with yours?" Sylvie asked suddenly.

"A friend's," Priss answered lamely. "They ran out of gas and left it here for the time being."

"Did they leave their coat as well so you could keep it warm or something?"

"Uh, well...." Priss flushed again. Caught by minor goddamn details!!

"That has to be the lamest attempt at a cover-up I've ever heard from anyone," Sylvie said evenly. Only her eyes showed the intense feelings of hurt she was holding inside. "Why are you lying to me, Priss? I'm not stupid, you know. I always thought we were friends." Priss flushed as she continued. "You've been really hard to find for the last week, and you've been evasive about whatever it is that you've been doing. If you don't want me around as a friend anymore, say so! But at least have the decency to tell me what I did wrong!" Her frustration boiled over finally, and angry tears began to gather at the edges of her eyes.

"Sylvie!" Priss's voice was anguished. "It's nothing like that, really! I..." She turned away, running her hands through her hair in exasperation. "It's a personal matter," she finally said in a low voice. "I don't really know how to explain it other than that. I...I'm sorry if I hurt you." She sat on the couch with a weary sigh, dropping her head into her hands. "I wasn't trying to avoid you," she stated dully. "I would never do something like that, ever. I'm sorry."

"Well can't you tell me what it is?!" Sylvie asked plaintively, sitting down in a chair next to the couch. "Priss, come on, you can tell me what's wrong. We've confided in each other before, right?"

"Sylvie, I'd like to, really I would," Priss looked at her, her expression pleading for belief. "But...I just can't! It's not entirely my decision to make..." Her plea was interrupted by a loud bang and rumble from the far end of her trailer. Both women jumped in surprise at the noise.

"What on earth was that?" Sylvie asked, frowning curiously as she stood and started walking towards where the noise had originated from.

"Uh, rats!!" Priss interjected quickly, trying to divert her. "I get them here occasionally."

"Rats?" Sylvie repeated, raising an eyebrow as she looked back over her shoulder. "It sounded more like something collapsed in your cupboard." She turned back in the direction of the closet.

"No! Sylvie, wait!!" Priss unwisely tried to lunge after her friend, leaping out of the couch. Her ribs screamed in pain at the abrupt, harsh movement, and she was forced to stop and gasp for breath. They were healing, but not that fast. Meanwhile, the tall, bikesuit-clad woman reached the closet and opened the door.

Sylvie jumped back a bit as the contents of the shelves, which had been tumbled against the door, fell out, spilling onto the floor in a loud clatter. As the noise subsided, Sylvie stared into the closet, before turning towards a sickly-looking Priss.

"Oh Priss," she called mildly. "You appear to have red-headed rats in your trailer." Despite being somewhat angry over the attempted deception, she was unable to keep the faint hint of a smile from twitching at the corners of her lips.

"I don't suppose you'd believe me if I said I was looking for something in here?" Bert's voice inquired from the pile of clothes, towels, tools, and cans of assorted things that were now sitting at the bottom of the cupboard, and on top of him.

"No, I wouldn't," she told him. He sighed, and started shoving some of the debris away from himself in order to stand up.

"It was worth a try," he said half-apologetically as he stood up. Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, he wiped at the shallow cut on his forehead, mopping up the trickle of blood from it.

"Shit! Are you okay?" Priss was instantly over to check on him. Sylvie looked from her to the tall red-head, her lips pursed thoughtfully as she nodded to herself.

"I got hit by the shelf that broke," he told her, waving off her attempts to look at his head. "I'd suggest in the future that your clean-ups be a little more comprehensive than just stuffing everything onto a shelf somewhere."

"Just shut up and sit down on the couch," Priss ordered, ducking into the small cubicle that served as her washroom. "I've got some bandaids somewhere around here."

Sighing resignedly, Bert gestured for Sylvie to proceed him as he started back towards the couch. Her smile a little more evident, she quietly walked back and sat down in the chair she'd been in before. He sat down on the couch, still holding the pad of cloth over the cut. The sounds of someone rummaging through a medicine cabinet came from the rear of the trailer.

"That's your bike out there, isn't it?" Sylvie asked suddenly, breaking the silence. "And your jacket?"

"Yes," he admitted, then fell silent. His eyes lifted to meet hers, and he was unable to keep from flushing and looking away guiltily.

"You've been dating each other, haven't you?" she asked as Priss came back carrying a small paper-wrapped packet. "That's why you haven't been around, isn't it?" She watched as her two friends swapped an unreadable glance before Bert sighed and nodded.

"For about a week," Priss added quietly, sighing herself as she sat down next to him. "We've been keeping it really low profile, especially since Nene's still a little...shaky, and we didn't want to accidentally hurt her feelings." Peeling the paper off the bandage, she moved Bert's hand and cloth pad away from the gash on his forehead, gently sticking the bandage down over it, smoothing it out.

"And you're still a little uncomfortable with it, right?" Sylvie suggested, glancing from Priss to Bert.

"He still is," Priss replied dryly, giving him a small smile coupled with a gentle nudge in the ribs, "although he won't admit it."

"I'm sorry," he muttered, flushing as he looked away from her amused glance. "It's nothing you've done, honest."

"I understand," she sighed, reaching out and laying her hand on his arm. "You don't have to worry about that." He smiled gratefully back at her, unconsciously reaching over and holding her hand with his as his eyes looked into hers.

"I was wondering when you two were going to quit dancing around the question," Sylvie noted, loosening the collar of her suit. She felt hot all of a sudden, and couldn't immediately isolate a reason for it; the trailer heating wasn't on, so why was she getting warmer so abruptly? She abruptly became aware of certain other ....feelings... within her that were stirring as well, and quickly stifled them, shifting around uncomfortably in her chair.

"What's that supposed to mean?! 'Dancing around the question'?!" Priss demanded.

"You two have been attracted to each other for quite a while now," Sylvie explained, distracted from trying to figure out why she felt funny. "It started mostly after that kidnapping incident, but the two of you were definitely starting to fall for each other," she judged, sighing as she reached up and swept her hair back behind her ears. "I don't think either of you will admit it, but I could certainly tell; if it wasn't the one of you being worried about the other, it was the other."

"Yeah, well, I was concerned about him," Priss admitted, looking uncomfortable. "We've always been pretty good friends, and I like to look out for my friends."

"Same here," Bert added quietly.

"Well, I'm just glad you decided to do something about it finally," Sylvie told him. "You were getting pretty unbearable the way you were moping around for a while there." An uncomfortable silence blanketed the air for a few minutes as she leaned back in her chair, stretching out while everyone searched for something to say. Bert and Priss glanced at each other, then sat back on the couch with him hesitantly putting an arm around the attractive singer and drawing her a bit closer. She snuggled a little closer to him while trying to seem like she wasn't.

Still a little reluctant to show public feelings, Sylvie noted to herself with a slight, bemused shake of her head. Damn, but it was getting warm in here! Her face felt a bit flushed, and she was about to open the front of her bike suit a bit more when it dawned on her that opening her suit further would start to look a little exhibitionist. Frowning to herself, Sylvie concentrated on tracking down the source of her agitation.

And realized that the source of the problem was her two friends seated nearby.

Sylvie carefully kept her surprise off of her face; she forgotten that she'd been concentrating on her intuitive feelings when she'd arrived, in order to try and sense Priss's feelings in an effort to determine what was going on. That was the only 'special' ability she had that she tried using, the almost empathic ability that sexaroids had to pick up on somebody's moods, and react accordingly.

A large part of that 'empathy' was based on pheromonal signals, signals that sexaroids were extraordinarily sensitive to. They could also emit their own signals, but theirs were much more potent, especially to humans. It was this combination that enabled Anri to do so well at her medical job; she could sense someone's pain, and then calm them with soothing impulses and a reassuring bedside manner.

That benevolent use wasn't why they'd been created however, she reflected bitterly. Sexaroids had been 'gifted' with heightened sensory perceptions, and the ability to stimulate those same perceptions in humans, for a more carnal-minded reason. Their creators hadn't stopped to consider the effects this sensitivity could have on them though; to the scientists, they'd been designing a machine, never realizing that the sexaroids had their own feelings and thoughts on the matter.

With an effort, Sylvie wrenched her mind off the unpleasant thoughts, returning to the realization that the reason she was feeling warm and flushed was because she was picking up pheromone emissions from her friends. She concentrated for a few moments, and quickly determined that the same kinds of feelings were coming from both of them, and at the same level: intense. After a few more moments, she had to forcibly turn off her empathy, as what she was picking up began to make her feel incredibly uncomfortable.

Like a bolt of lightning, it suddenly hit her just why what she was picking up was so intense.

"Ohhhhhh my," she breathed aloud, staring wide-eyed at them, unable to think of anything else to say. To think that they'd...they'd ....!!!

"What?! What is it?!" Priss asked, unable to keep from flushing as Sylvie stared round-eyed at her.

"You've been doing a lot more than just dating, haven't you?!" The way it was phrased made the question sound more like a statement of fact. Bert was unable to keep from making a guilty start, and turned a hot crimson colour as Sylvie turned her gaze to him.

"Uh, well, no, not really," he floundered. "I mean, uh...."

"How'd you guess?" Priss asked, resigned now to the inevitable; she should have guessed that Sylvie would figure it out. Bert flushed again and shut up.

"You two are broadcasting like radio beacons," the bike-suited woman informed them with a sly, knowing grin. "I don't think anyone else will notice, except maybe Anri. We can keep secrets though, so don't worry."

"Thanks," he mumbled. "I'd appreciate it."

"So tell me, Priss," Sylvie inquired, unable to keep sly amusement from sparkling in her eyes as she leaned forwards, "how'd you get Mr. Knight-in-Shining-Armour here out of his suit? That must've been some discussion, considering how he reacted to the thought of just taking my measurements a while back."

"Sylvie!" Priss said warningly, glancing at Bert as she blushed. "That's really none of your business."

"Well, you must've been really persuasive," she noted. "He was so square before, it was almost impossible to talk to him without him turning red."

"I need a drink of water," Bert muttered, avoiding everyone's eyes as he walked back to the sink in the rear of the trailer, red-faced. Opening a cupboard, he began rummaging around for a glass.

"Would you please stop that?" Priss asked, low-voiced. "Yes, he's loosened up a bit, but don't push him about it; he's still not entirely comfortable in his mind about it yet."

"Why not? Aren't you enjoying yourselves?"

"There's a bit more to it than that!" Priss replied a bit sharply. Damn it, but she wished she could stop blushing! "And that's really none of your business!"

"Need any pointers?" Sylvie couldn't resist one last teasing remark.

"SYLVIE!!" Priss's angry shout cracked through the confined space of the room, on the tail end of a spluttering, explosive exhalation from where Bert had been taking a drink from the glass of water he'd gotten. Almost dropping the glass, he doubled over the sink, coughing from inadvertently snorting a noseful of water at Sylvie's remark. "I said to lay off, goddamn it!! That's something private between the two of us, and it's none of your goddamn business!! Clear?!"

"I...I'm sorry," the tall, dark-haired woman apologized, biting her lip in contrition as she glanced from Priss to Bert, belatedly realizing that she'd overstepped some invisible boundary and intruded on some deeply private matters. "I...I didn't mean to...to pry or upset you, honest." She'd never really encountered the kind of emotions and deep attachment that was obviously at work here; all of her experiences with the sexual side of humanity had been superficial at best, and the thought that it was an expression of deeper caring between two people hadn't occurred to her before.

The brown-haired singer was standing now, her arms stiff by her sides with her hands clenched into fists as she glared furiously at her friend; Bert was still clutching the counter as he coughed and gasped into the sink, red-faced. Neither had replied yet, and she began to worry just a bit, hoping she hadn't managed to sink two friendships with one verbal torpedo.

Priss forced herself into a calmer state of mind, and sat down again. She knew Sylvie hadn't meant anything malicious by her questions, but at the same time she felt she should have known not to keep prodding. After a few more minutes of simmering in silence, she managed to dissipate most of her anger. Over by the sink, Bert managed to get himself and his breathing back under control.

"Okay," the red-brown eyed woman finally said, grudgingly offering forgiveness. "I know you didn't mean anything by it." That was as far as she felt she could go under the circumstances, but Sylvie relaxed immediately, and gave her a tentative smile in reply. Another uncomfortable silence fell over the trailer.

"Well, um, I guess I should get home," Sylvie finally noted, glancing at the time and standing up. "I've got to open the shop tomorrow, so I've got to get up early." She hesitated for a moment, glancing at Priss. "Would....you still want to get together for a ride later in the week?" she asked hesitantly. "I mean..."

"Sure, just as soon as I can sit on my bike without collapsing," she replied. "Right now I wouldn't last that long. I'll give you a call when I'm up to it again."

"I don't want to, um, take away from your time," Sylvie started to say, but was cut off.

"You won't be," Bert assured her, sighing as he came back to the couch area. "We weren't trying to exclude anyone, but being covert about this did kind of curtail some of our activities. Don't worry; we'll manage." He looked down at Priss apologetically. "I hate to leave, but I've got to go as well; I've got a lot to do tomorrow in the shop."

"Okay," Priss answered, sighing and standing up as well. "I know better than to try and talk you out of it."

Sylvie picked up her helmet and eased out the front door, quietly closing it behind her. A wistful smile flickered across her face for a brief moment, then disappeared as she jumped down the steps and walked over to her bike. She swung her leg across the seat, and eased the bike off its kickstand, keeping the machine balanced upright with her legs. Placing her helmet on the gas tank in front of her, she started pulling on her gloves.

The door to the trailer banged open and closed again as she started to don her helmet. Lowering the headgear, she watched as Bert sprang lightly down the steps, covering the few steps and the short distance to his own bike in what seemed like about four long strides. He straddled his own riding machine, and began making preparations to depart, humming cheerfully to himself.

"I'm sorry my teasing went a little too far in there," Sylvie spoke up quietly. "I didn't mean to hit any sensitive spots."

"No harm done," Bert replied, sighing. It was difficult to see his face in the dimly-lit darkness outside, but he sounded sincere. "Just don't make any more remarks like that when I'm drinking something, okay?"

"Okay, I'll try and remember that," Sylvie replied, stifling a giggle; he had looked a little funny hanging over the sink spluttering. She pulled on her helmet, and paused before hitting the ignition for her motorcycle. "I hope it works out for the two of you," she added, then hit the switch. Her bike roared into life, and she wheeled around and drove off into the darkness. Bert watched her leave, a faint breeze rustling his hair before he pulled on his helmet.

"So do I," he muttered to himself, hitting the kickstart. "So do I."

****

"All is in readiness," Kate Madigan reported crisply. "The non-essential personnel have been re-distributed to our other industrial facilities, and the equipment that can be moved without arousing undue suspicion has been relocated. The additions to the security systems you requested have also been implemented, and we have stationed some spare C-55s in key locations as an added precaution. All we require now is confirmation of the time and date of the inspection."

"Soon," Quincy rumbled, flicking through the pages of the report he held. Off to the left of his desk, a huge projection screen displayed blueprints and schematics of a large industrial complex. His icy-blue eyes lifted to meet the unrevealing blue-grey ones of his unofficial second-in-command. "I am awaiting one more report before we can proceed. You may continue with your other investigations in the meantime. Has anything else come to light so far?"

"No, sir," she admitted, an expression of irritation flickering briefly across her face. "We have extracted all the useful information we will ever get from this Stryker; he is currently being reconditioned in the medical wing. As for his employer," her face tightened as her eyes narrowed angrily. "We can find no trace of the man anywhere. He's every bit as ephemeral at the moment as the man he's supposedly looking for."

"No leads in that area either, I suppose?"

"We are still checking the employment records of all companies with engineering-related work, but we haven't found anyone close to this man's description."

"It isn't hard to change one's appearance, or merely drop from sight," Quincy noted. "Especially if this man knows, or even suspects that he has people searching for him. Don't get too upset at your inability to locate him, Madigan; he will turn up eventually."

"Yes sir," Madigan replied, a grim smile appearing. "I'm looking forward to it."

 

TWO DAYS LATER ......

Bert lay sprawled on the couch, one arm around Priss, who was slouched next to him, her head on his shoulder. They were both quiet, drawing a kind of quiet fulfillment from the feeling of each other's presence. Talk seemed to be largely unnecessary at the moment; they were content merely being together. Periodically, he brushed a hand gently through her hair, and they exchanged a warm, intimate smile.

In many ways, their relationship now went much deeper than his one with Nene had been, although he was constantly fighting himself not to make comparisons; they were two completely different women, with different personalities and backgrounds. Comparing them to each other was both unfair and unkind. Despite that, he was unable to stop himself from noting some of the contrasts.

The biggest change he'd noticed right away was the implied level of trust; he'd been able to tell that Nene had been uncomfortable around him ever since his kidnapping ordeal. She'd hidden it really well, but it had definitely been there. Priss appeared to have calmly accepted the fact that he'd changed, and was almost always relaxed around him.

There was also the level of intimacy that now existed between them. Because of its newness, it felt strange to him occasionally, which made him vaguely uncomfortable. At the same time it appeared to have filled a void in him he hadn't known existed. Ever since that first night when they'd slept together, he'd felt ... whole. They'd been good friends before, and had trusted each other, but becoming lovers had added a new level to that trust. As a result, he was finding it easier himself to open up. To her, at least; it was going to take some time before he was going to be as open with others as he had in the past, but she'd helped him to start, and that was more than he'd ever hoped for.

Priss shifted against him, turning to face him. Her hand reached up and gently touched his cheek, while a smile spread across her face. The warmth in her red-brown eyes stirred an answering smile from him, and he leaned over towards her, kissing her. She pulled him a bit closer, her body pliant against his while they kissed lovingly.

"So what were you thinking about?" she asked quietly when they separated, a quizzical look in her eyes. "You looked pretty far out for a few moments."

"Just thinking about you," he replied as quietly, gently brushing her bangs out of her eyes. "Thinking about our relationship."

"And what about me?" She shifted around so that she was laying on top of him, chest to chest, and folded her hands under her chin, propping her head on them on his chest. Her red-brown eyes were quietly serious as she looked into his eyes from a few inches away. "Is something wrong?"

"No," he answered honestly. "I was just thinking about how....different this feels." He squirmed a bit, flushing self-consciously. "I mean, I like the feeling, but it's...it just feels a little funny at times, I guess because I've never been this..."

"Intimate?" she suggested, a slight, teasing smile playing about her lips. The smile gave a slightly different emphasis to the word than what he'd been thinking of, and he flushed again.

"Intimate," he agreed with a sigh. "I mean, I've never gotten this close with anyone before, even Nene. I guess....I guess I was afraid to...go further."

"Why?"

"Well, I told you a long time ago why I couldn't scrape together the nerve to ask Nene out originally," he started; Priss nodded, a faint smile appearing as she remembered how she and Linna had finally forced him into it. "Well, because of that, I...just couldn't bring myself to trust anyone enough to confide in them beyond a certain point," he confessed. "I was afraid they'd take whatever I told them and use it against me somehow." He sighed. "I'd never do it to anyone myself, but the worry was always there."

"So you never told Nene about some of your past problems?" she asked, frowning slightly.

"Not really," he admitted. "We never really discussed my past very much, not in any great detail, and I....I didn't want her getting bogged down in my hang-ups."

"I think that was a mistake," she told him seriously. "You should have trusted her enough to have confided in her more often. Okay, I admit that some things take time, but maybe if you'd gotten more personal with her more often, she wouldn't have felt like you'd changed so much."

"Yeah, well, hindsight's almost always perfect," he noted sourly, a flash of pain speeding through his greenish-brown eyes. Priss was instantly contrite.

"I'm sorry," she said, biting her lip. She reached out and brushed his cheek in a gentle caress. "I didn't mean that to hurt."

"That's okay; no harm done," he replied, a look of self-reproach appearing briefly. "I rather reluctantly realized that myself not that long ago; it's an old pain, now." They lay quietly for a few more moments, Priss shifting around so that she was next to him again, while he slid his arm back around her shoulders.

"You've told me quite a bit about yourself," Priss spoke up suddenly, tilting her head back against his arm to look up into his eyes. "How come you've never asked about the same sort of stuff from me?"

"Because that's your decision," he replied simply. "I figured that if you wanted to tell me, you would, in your own way and your own time."

"I....do want you to know some of it," she said after another moment of silence. "I.... just haven't talked about it in so long, I... I'm not sure I can."

"Only if you want to," he repeated softly, giving her a gentle squeeze. "And you don't have to rush it if you do; we've got all night, or longer if you need it." He was a little surprised when Priss stood and started pacing agitatedly with her head bowed and her arms clamped tightly across her chest. Concerned, he started to stand, but she waved him back into the couch.

"I'm fine, really. I just have to do it this way," she told him. The look on her face indicated that resurrecting some of her memories of the past wasn't going easily, but he respected her request and stayed on the couch. She paced for a few more moments, her expression pained as he watched her silently.

"I can't really remember my parents all that well anymore," she began, swallowing painfully. "It's been so long, and so much has happened since then...." Bert sat listening quietly as she haltingly told him about the aftermath of the earthquake that had stripped her parents from her, and the unhappy childhood that had followed that. She paced constantly, as if the physical exertion was necessary to force the words from her, her face anguished.

It took a while to relate it all, the time she'd run with one of the motorcycle gangs inhabiting the fringes, discovering her talent for singing, the briefly happy period she'd enjoyed with the leader of her gang, and then his murder. When she came to the part of his murder, and how the ADP had sloughed it off as just an 'accident', her eyes blazed angrily, flames seeming to flicker in their reddish-brown depths.

"I saw the whole thing, but they wouldn't goddamn believe me," she half-snarled, fists clenched in remembered fury as angry tears tracked down her face. "I was just some other biker, and not important enough to be taken seriously. They told me I shouldn't stick my nose into police business and left."

"And then?" he asked quietly. She glanced at him, some of her composure returning.

"And then I went home, such as it was, and cried for a while," she said flatly. "Then I went out to go get the bastard who shot him. I didn't really give a shit if I survived or not, I just didn't want him to get away with it." She started pacing a bit more. "That was when I met Sylia, and she offered me a job." A faint smile twitched at her lips. "The 'interview' didn't quite go as she'd planned, I think, but she managed to convince me that her way was better, and here I am."

"A fact for which I'm extremely glad," he noted lightly, giving her a warm smile. She smiled briefly back, her gaze turning distant as she turned away from him, still caught up in the web of old memories.

Standing up, Bert gently reached out and turned her around to face him. Reaching out again, he gently wiped away the tear streaks from her cheek with a hand and gathered her close in a hug a moment later. Priss hugged him back gratefully in a suddenly vulnerable-seeming seeking of comfort. After a moment or so, he gently tipped her chin up with a hand, leaning down and kissing her softly and lovingly. She kissed him back, sliding a hand up to the back of his neck, pulling him closer. Her lips parted under his, and the kiss became very thorough and ardent, abruptly becoming much more than merely the gesture of sympathy and compassion he'd intended.

She withdrew long enough for them to take a couple of heavy breaths, and then she hungrily kissed him again. He responded equally eagerly, as a sudden sense of urgency became apparent in her movements. Her body pressed tightly against his, as her hands started slowly and surely unbuttoning his shirt, while she kept kissing him deeply. They slowly sank back into the couch, twined in a passionate embrace as his hands began working at her clothes as well.

****

Sylia moved through the basement corridor towards Bert's apartment, trying to think of a way to broach the subject she needed to discuss with him. Her chat with Nene had helped clear the air at that end of things, but that only solved half of the situation. In order to resolve things fully, she needed to know just what he was going to do. At the same time, she hoped to confirm whether or not Nene's worries about him and Priss had been needless jealousy.

She reached the door to his apartment and knocked. After a few moments of silence, she tried knocking again, frowning slightly. Still no response. Strange; she was sure he'd said he'd be around, and she'd already checked the shop. She started to turn away, intending to go back upstairs and try phoning the archery range, when a muffled thud sounded from the room.

Sylia stopped, frowning a bit more as she regarded the door, weighing her options. She knew no trespassers had entered the building, so it wasn't a prowler in his room. If it was Bert in there, it was uncharacteristic of him to ignore someone knocking. Could he have become ill? she wondered. It was a distinct possibility, especially since she knew he'd pulled another couple of 'all-nighters' recently, despite her standing order to the contrary.

She sighed at that thought; there were a lot of 'standing orders' that he still seemed to conveniently forget about from time to time. He was a lot better than he had been in the past, but there were still times when she wanted to slowly strangle him. Maybe if he'd become sick from overworking, he'd be more apt to listen to her from now on. Not very likely, a voice in the back of her mind noted wryly.

There was another soft bumping noise from the apartment, and she decided she'd better check, just to make sure. She stepped forwards, and tested the door handle; it was unlocked. Carefully easing the door open, she slipped quietly inside.

The apartment lighting was on, but dimmed to a very low level. Sylia glanced around quizzically; she couldn't see anyone or anything that would have...

Across the living room, the couch moved slightly; she couldn't see what was causing the movement, since the back of the couch was facing the door. Abruptly, she became aware that she could hear heavy breathing emanating from that region of the room, along with some other sounds she couldn't immediately identify. As she slowly started walking softly towards the couch, puzzled, she heard what sounded like someone whispering, and then a quiet, feminine giggle. Some soft, intimate-sounding murmuring could be heard for a moment, then the soft noises resumed, overlaid with the heavy breaths, and what sounded like cloth sliding against cloth.

As she opened her mouth preparatory to saying something, something whipped up over the back of the couch, nearly causing her to give a startled exclamation as it landed in a soft heap at her feet. She regained control of herself, heart pounding, and stooped, picking up the unidentifiable heap of cloth; it was a woman's blouse, pale blue with brown shoulder patches.

With a growing sense of unreality, Sylia recognized it, and her gaze lifted to the couch just as a young woman with long brown hair sat up on it, flipping her hair back over her shoulders and out of her face with a toss of her head, running her hands down her naked upper body in a sensual manner. After another moment of total, absolute shock, Sylia recognized Priss. The young rock singer abruptly noticed she had a spectator as well.

"Sylia?!? OH SHIT!!" she yelped, turning a hot red colour all over as she tried to cover herself with her hands and arms, and attempted to duck down below the couch back in order to get out of sight. Sylia just stared, her jaw almost on the ground, wide-eyed, her mind unable to fully grasp at the moment just what she was seeing.

"WHO?!?!" a second, male voice burst out from behind the couch. Priss jerked slightly as Bert, who was evidently under her, sat up just enough to catch a glimpse of the slack-jawed woman standing in the middle of the room, staring at the couch and its occupants. The movement unbalanced the two lovers however, and they fell off the couch with a loud thud, out of her immediate sight. The abrupt disappearance of Priss from her vision gave Sylia enough presence of mind to withdraw.

"I...I'm sorry, I didn't realize you two were...busy," she said faintly, feeling her own face turn hot. "I'll come back later." With that, mind numb, the leader of the Knight Sabers turned and left the apartment, closing the door behind her.

****

"Oh, this is just perfect," Bert groaned as he heard the door to the apartment shut, a hand over his eyes, letting his head drop back to the carpet. Having Sylia walk in on him while he was ... busy with Priss had been one of the furthest things from his mind before, but now that it had happened, he was kicking himself for not having foreseen the possibility. He made a mental note to lock the door from now on. The woman laying on top of him giggled suddenly.

"Did you see the look on her face?" Priss asked, unable to keep from snickering again. She shifted around, her smooth skin warm against his, sitting up slightly. "She looked like someone shot her."

"Well, it was certainly a surprise," he noted dryly. "From both ends." She laughed softly again while he sighed, realizing that some explaining was going to be in order; Sylia wasn't going to be very happy with the fact that he was having a relationship with Priss, and he certainly knew the reasons for that. With another sigh, he shifted around, trying to get up.

"Hey, just where do you think you're going?" Priss slid a hand along each of his arms, and grabbed his wrists, pinning him back to the floor. Her long hair fell forwards as she leaned down towards him, tickling his skin. Her hair and the dimness of the room had cloaked her expression in shadows, making it hard to tell just what she was thinking.

"Well, Sylia's going to want an explanation," he tried telling her, squirming a bit; she continued to hold him down firmly. "As the leader of the team, I think she deserves one."

"What for?" the alluring singer asked, leaning closer. Her breath felt very warm and moist on his skin. "We're both adults; we don't need to clear everything we do with her. It's not like she's our mother or something."

"That's true," he agreed, his pulse rate beginning to pick up just a bit as her head moved closer to his. "But now that she knows we're, uh, involved, this is going to affect the rest of the team, and I think she's entitled to an explanation in that regard."

"Later," Priss breathed, lowering her lips to his and kissing him. He decided not to disagree with her.

****

Sylia poured herself another cup of tea, noting that her hands had finally quit shaking. She'd often thought that there wasn't much that could really surprise her anymore, but that notion had just died an ugly death.

In the back of her mind there was still a numb feeling of stunned disbelief, that what she'd seen down in Bert's basement apartment hadn't been what she thought. She was too pragmatic to entertain that hope for long though. Squeezing her eyes shut against the image that was probably now indelibly etched into her mind, she took a huge gulp of tea from her cup as if it could wash away the memory. It didn't.

There was a hesitant-sounding knock at the front door. Despite herself, Sylia jumped, almost dumping her cup on the floor. Quickly composing herself, she took a deep breath, praying she could maintain her usual poise, and called for whoever it was to enter.

After a moment that seemed to stretch forever, the door swung open, and Priss walked through. The tall, attractive singer was wearing jeans and a faded blue sweatshirt that hung loosely on her. With an effort, Sylia managed to keep from looking over to the chair where Priss's blouse sat folded up; she'd been so shocked she'd forgotten to drop the garment as she'd left the apartment. Priss calmly walked over to the couch across from her and sat down.

A somewhat sheepish-looking Bert followed after the brown-haired woman, closing the door before coming over to the couch and sitting next to her. The minute his gaze met Sylia's, he turned bright red and looked away, pulling briefly at the neck of his shirt as if it had just started strangling him. Priss was concealing her current state of mind behind a cool, almost expressionless mask, and for a moment Sylia envied her apparent calm. At the same time, she recognized Priss's usual defense for when a discussion was going to possibly intrude on personal matters she didn't really want to discuss. An awkward silence fell as everyone present fumbled mentally for some way to start a conversation.

"I guess I owe you an apology for, ah, intruding while you were ... busy," Sylia began delicately. Her cheeks coloured slightly as she fought to maintain her composure. She realized that her efforts weren't meeting with much success, judging by the faint hint of sardonic amusement on Priss's face. Bert merely sat silently, looking uncomfortable.

"Did you see whatever it was that you were looking for?" the brown-haired singer asked archly, unable to keep a faintly wicked-looking smirk from appearing. "You certainly stared long enough while you were there."

"Priss!!" Bert's strangled exclamation drew a sideways glance from her, while Sylia turned bright crimson.

"I think I saw all I needed to," Sylia replied as coolly as she could under the circumstances. "Which leads to the question of just what do you two think you are doing?"

"What, you want detailed descriptions?"

"Priss! For God's sake!" Bert's face was a study in consternation and embarrassment, and he looked like he was ready to try hiding under the couch.

"Well what do you want me to say?!" she demanded, sparing a glance for the extremely flustered Sylia as she turned towards him. "I don't think I should have to sit here and justify myself to someone else just because I'm having a relationship with someone! I am an adult, and I've been making my own decisions and accepting the consequences for years now, thank you very much!"

"I wasn't questioning your maturity, Priss," Sylia interjected coolly. She'd managed to pull herself together, and was determined not to let the younger woman rattle her any longer. "I'm more interested in whether or not the two of you considered the consequences that your involvement could have." She sighed, closing her eyes as she rubbed at her temples. "How long has this been going on?"

"A little over a week," Bert replied quietly. "I suppose the night of Priss's last concert was when it really started."

"The night of the concert?" Sylia repeated. He nodded.

"We'd .... talked a bit before that, off and on," he told her. "It wasn't really until the day of the concert that I admitted I was," he cleared his throat and seemed to brace himself, "in love with her. After the concert, well, uh, it...just sort of....happened," Bert mumbled, flushing brick red.

"You mean you didn't consider the repercussions at all?!" Sylia asked, appalled.

"Lay off him, Sylia," Priss replied defensively. "We both thought it over. Hell, I couldn't find him for hours before the concert, and, knowing him, he was holed up somewhere agonizing over what he should do. Right?" she turned towards him, raising an eyebrow questioningly and prodding him with a finger. "I'm right, aren't I?" she persisted.

"Yes," he admitted, sighing. "I spend a long time questioning myself," he told Sylia. "And whether it was genuine feelings or just physical attraction. I...."

"But have you considered how this is going to affect the entire team?" Sylia interrupted.

"You've lost me." Bert's face was slightly baffled looking.

"I'm referring to your usual custom of being, shall we say, overprotective?" Sylia suggested.

"That's not going to happen," Bert assured her. "I can control myself."

"Besides the fact that I can take care of myself," Priss amplified. "Anyone who tries to 'protect me' is going to get their ass kicked across the battlefield."

"Oh, really?" Bert raised an eyebrow as a challenging grin spread across his face. "It might be fun to watch you try it...."

"Try nothing, buster," she glared at him. "I don't need a guardian, and I've been at this longer than you have. If I wanted to, I could kick your armoured ass up between your ears, so just forget any 'protect the distressed damsel' kinds of notions."

"Oh yeah?! You and what army?!" he glared back, slightly offended. "I happen to care a lot about you, and if I think you need help, then I'm going to help, damnit!!"

"IF the two of you don't mind!" Sylia cut in sharply, resisting the urge to scream. "This is exactly what I was talking about!! This bickering and arguing at the drop of a hat! Can't you two please cut it out?! I'm sick of putting up with that kind of... of..." Sylia searched for the proper word in frustration.

"Bullshit?" Priss suggested.

"Exactly! Bullshit!" Sylia snapped peevishly. "We can't afford it on a mission, do you understand me?! When we're in the middle of a firefight is not the time to start getting bent out of shape because you think someone's being overprotective!"

"It didn't happen the last time, Sylia," Bert reassured her, "and we were in some fairly serious trouble at the time, so I don't think it'll be a problem."

"I suppose that's something, anyway," Sylia sighed deeply. "While we're on the subject of overprotectiveness, have you considered what this is going to do to Nene?" A thick silence fell across the room for a few moments.

"I've thought about it," he admitted, a pained look twisting his face. "I..."

"He hasn't done anything for weeks without first worrying about what it might do to Nene," Priss quietly spoke up.

"I decided it was time to move on," Bert added, spreading his hands helplessly. "I still love Nene in a lot of ways, but sitting drowning in regrets and hoping she'd come back wasn't getting me anywhere except deeper into depression. I've moved on, and she's going to have to realize that she has to as well." He fell silent, and sat looking wistfully into space, a quietly sorrowful look cloaking his features. The silence deepened as everyone became momentarily preoccupied with their own thoughts.

"Bert and I discovered we cared for each other a bit more than we'd realized, and we decided to go with that and see where it went, Sylia," Priss quietly picked up the explanation after a hesitant glance at him. "But we've been very careful not to hurt Nene; we haven't been going out in public together, and we've made sure we carried on in our usual manner when we have been seen in public."

"Bickering and arguing," he wryly interjected. A faint, grudging smile pulled at Sylia's mouth, while Priss grinned sheepishly.

"So no one else knows about this yet?" their leader queried.

"Except Sylvie," Priss replied, a faint hint of colour appearing in her cheeks for the first time as she glanced sidelong at Bert. His face was also a bit warm-looking. "She, uh, cornered us about it and was able to guess what we'd been up to."

"How long were you planning to keep up the charade?" Sylia asked them bluntly. "I think you owe it to Nene to tell her to her face what the situation is now, rather than let her find out through hearsay."

"I know," Bert sighed. "And as soon as I get the chance to break it to her gently, I'm going to." He lapsed into silence again, looking glum. He knew what Nene's reaction was likely going to be, and there was just no way he could avoid hurting her with what he had to tell her.

"I'd appreciate that," Sylia said quietly.

"Was that everything, Sylia?" Priss asked, glancing at a now-depressed Bert. Sylia nodded; she wasn't overly happy with what she'd uncovered, but there really wasn't anything she could do about it. Priss nodded in reply. Getting up, she started for the front door.

"I'll let you know when I've .... told Nene what's going on," Bert told Sylia as he also stood. He followed the attractive singer to the doorway, hesitating for just an instant, almost as if he wanted to say something else. Whatever it was, it remained unsaid as he stepped into the hallway, letting the door swing shut behind him.

"Just a moment," Sylia called out suddenly. Footsteps that had been fading in the direction of her front door reversed course as first Bert, then Priss, stepped back into the room, curious looks on their faces. Sylia suddenly found herself blushing again. "You forgot something," she said as she pointed to the folded blouse lying on the nearby chair.

Priss, a big grin on her face, crossed the room to retrieve her wayward blouse as Bert turned an even deeper shade of red than before. Mission accomplished, Priss rejoined her lover, and, with a wink for Sylia, followed him as he turned and left the room again. As the door closed behind them, the utterly speechless Sylia heard them start arguing again.

"So you think you can kick my ass, do you? Well I...." Thankfully, the door closed completely at that point, sparing her any further sound from the pair.

Sylia sighed shakily, her mind still whirling in a welter of embarrassment as she unconsciously ran her hands through her hair. It was bad enough she'd been so flustered by what she'd seen earlier that she'd forgotten to just drop Priss's blouse before leaving the apartment, but why did the young singer have to rub it in by winking?! Sylia's face crimsoned again as her subconscious gleefully provided several somewhat naughty reasons for the wink, and she again fought to regain her composure.

It took several minutes, and a couple more cups of tea before she could finally stop blushing as some stray thought provoked memories of the awkward ... situation she'd walked in on. For a brief moment, she was even able to see the slightest trace of humour in what had happened. Unfortunately, it dissolved as her mind morbidly returned to what the consequences of the predicament she'd discovered were going to be.

Sylia stood and walked over to the bay window of her apartment, gazing out into the night. With a weary, depressed sigh, she leaned against the thick pane of glass, resting her forehead on the cool, slick surface as morose expression settled over her face. She hoped Nene was going to be strong enough to deal with what she was about to encounter.

"There's just never an easy way out of these things anymore, is there?" she murmured to herself.

 

THE NEXT DAY ....

"Ow!! SHIT!!" Bert swore, leaping back from the open engine cowling of the motoroid he was working on. A few more choice expletives escaped him as he hopped around a bit, gripping his right wrist in severe pain. After a moment or so, feeling returned to his hand, and he was able to cautiously inspect his fingers for damage, sighing in relief when he found none. Glowering at the innocent-looking mech, he flexed his hand and fingers just to make doubly sure that mashing them between the mech's armour plating and the wrench he'd been using hadn't caused any invisible damage.

"Goddamn machine hates me," he muttered blackly to himself as he came back over to it. Maybe he was being paranoid, but since starting on this particular motoroid, he'd accumulated more bangs and scrapes than usual; part of his mind was morbidly sure that some evil presence had invaded the machine and was trying to get him for something. Glancing around the vehicle garage for a moment, he sighed and retrieved his wrench from where it had dropped.

It took another couple of minutes to finish putting the cowling back into place, but it went without mishap. Tossing the tool into the nearby toolbox, he wiped his hands on a rag, and tossed that into the box as well. With one last inimical glance at the blue-enameled motoroid, he headed for the elevator from the lower basement level housing the vehicle garage; he'd clean up his tools later.

The ride to the upper basement level went quickly enough, and soon he was in the shop, casting about aimlessly for something to do. After ten minutes of shuffling through some plans and blueprints, he shoved them aside disgustedly; he just couldn't concentrate long enough to get up any interest in anything at the moment.

He paced around the shop's worktables for a few more minutes, hands clasped behind his back. He knew why he was agitated and couldn't stay focused: he was still trying to find some way to gently tell Nene about the relationship between Priss and himself. There was no way to avoid it, he realized despairingly, even though the truth might smash whatever emotional recovery she'd made. One way or the other, she had to know the truth.

Sighing and bracing himself, Bert walked over to the phone, and started to reach out for the receiver. He nearly jumped out of his skin when the phone shrieked as his hand touched it. Getting his heart back into his chest, Bert picked up the phone as it started to ring again.

"Hello?"

"Um, hi there," a nervous-sounding Nene replied. "I figured I'd find you there."

"Nene! Um, hi! I, uh, how're you doing?" he stammered, as a curious mix of emotion washed through him. It was partly elation at hearing her voice again, but the rest was a fresh wave of pained sorrow at what he was going to have to tell her.

"I'm okay, I guess," she replied, sounding as uncomfortable as he knew he himself was. "Are you going to be busy tonight?" she asked hesitantly. "I'm at work right now, but there's some things I think we should talk about...." Her voice trailed off in uncertainty for a moment.

"I can meet you somewhere after work," he suggested quietly. "The coffee shop down the street?"

"That'd be fine," she agreed quickly. "I'm off-shift at 6:00, so I'll meet you there for 6:30, okay?"

"I'll be there," he promised. Nene thanked him in a subdued-sounding voice, and quickly hung up. He stared at the phone receiver in his hand for a moment or so longer, then slowly replaced it in its hook. Glancing at the clock, he left the shop, his face reflecting some of the inner gloom he was toiling under.

****

Sylia glanced up from the paperwork spread in front of her as the phone rang. Shoving a small stack of store receipts out of the way, she excavated the phone from under its concealing pile of paper. Pressing a switch to ensure that the line was secure, she picked up the receiver.

"Good afternoon, Sylia," Fargo's voice greeted her. "Are you busy tonight?"

"Not particularly," she replied evenly. "Did you have something in particular in mind?"

"I've gotten a fairly lucrative contract offer from a client," the fixer replied. "I thought maybe we could meet to discuss it." Sylia started to reply affirmatively, when Fargo added, "How does dinner at eight sound?"

Brown eyes narrowed as she glanced irritably at the phone unit, as if it was to blame for Fargo's proposal; the man was still trying the occasional not-so-subtle romantic hint that he was interested in getting to know her better. She just wasn't interested in him, not in that way, and couldn't seem to drill that fact into his head. Idly, she wondered if showing up in her hardsuit and belting him would solve the problem. I'm starting to think like Priss, she noted to herself with a sudden smirk; she could just hear Priss suggesting that she do exactly that.

"I'll meet you at the usual time, in our usual place," she replied coolly. "I have got other concerns to take care of, as you know."

"All right," Fargo sighed. "It was worth a try, anyway."

"Good-bye." Sylia hung up the phone, sighing in exasperation and shaking her head in bemusement. Clearing her mind of the unwanted thoughts distracting her, she returned to the task at hand, and started poring over the documentation in front of her.

****

Nene wiped nervously at her mouth with a napkin, placing it next to her crumb-littered plate. She took a quick sip from her cup of coffee as she glanced nervously around the small cafe, unable to calm down. It was fairly quiet and empty, since most of the regular patrons were at home around this time of the evening. She and Bert had used it as a quiet meeting place several times before.... She bit her lip and quickly wrenched her mind from the thoughts of happier times, as all they did at the moment was bring her close a tearful breakdown. She'd managed to pull herself together a lot lately, but she was still recovering.

The young red-headed ADP officer loosened her tie a bit; having come straight from the station when her shift had ended, she was still in uniform. She felt tired and drained from the long day, but at the same time she was so edgy from what she had to do, she couldn't relax.

She glanced anxiously at the clock again, noting that she had about ten more minutes before Bert was supposed to show up. She tried mentally rehearsing what she wanted to say to him, but each time she kept having to stop as a fresh bout of combined anxiety and depression threatened to break free. She took a quick gulp of her coffee, and ordered a refill, skipping the chocolate donut this time.

Sitting back in her seat, the despondent young woman stared at her mug, idly spinning it around in its place on the table top. She hadn't yet heard Sylia's final decision on her fate as a Knight Saber yet, but a portion of the punishment for her actions was that she had to apologize to Bert for what she'd done to him in crashing his systems. That was the least he deserved, but Sylia had left it up to her to arrange the meeting and carry it out.

Nene had to admit to herself that a great deal of her trepidation was fear. Fear of what his reaction would be to finding out she'd been responsible for nearly killing him, fear he'd storm out of the caf without giving her a chance to explain. Fear of a lot of things.

Including the fear that their relationship was beyond salvage now.

Nene took a huge gulp of her coffee to ease the soreness in her throat that sprang up at that thought, wishing she could banish it from her mind. It was a futile wish though; with everything that happened, it didn't look like there was much left to rebuild. And if he was dating Priss now... She wiped irritably at her eyes.

The door to the donut shop banged open. As Nene looked up towards the noise, a familiar tall figure wearing a long, dark coat stepped into the small caf, sweeping off his hat and running a hand through his perpetually messy red hair. Greenish-brown eyes met hers across the room, and he started walking towards her.

"Uh... hi," she greeted him hesitantly, giving him a tremulous smile as she looked up at him. He smiled back easily enough, but she could see a pained defensiveness in his eyes.

"Hi," Bert replied quietly, glancing at the approaching waitress. "Can I order you anything?"

"I'm fine, thanks." He nodded, and ordered a coffee for himself. Sitting down across from her, he sipped at his drink for a moment.

"It's nice to see you again," he told her hesitantly. "You look great."

"Thanks. It's nice seeing you again too," she replied, wishing she could ignore the pain that now seemed to be filling her. He hadn't said anything to indicate his state of mind, but somehow she could sense that a door that had once been open to her was now closed. An uncomfortable silence fell across the table.

As she sat watching him stare into his coffee cup, she noted that despite the uncomfortable situation, he looked more relaxed; much of the mental strain he'd been under before appeared to have eased. If it wasn't for the fact that his expression seemed to be more suited to a funeral, she'd have said he looked like his old self, at least on the outside.

"I've...I've got something I have to tell you," she spoke up, cracking the brittle silence. "I ... I really don't know how to say it..." She faltered as his gaze lifted to hers, her voice trailing off. There was understanding and compassion in his glance, but he remained silent, waiting.

"Do you remember our last training mission, when your suit crashed?" she asked. He nodded wordlessly, his face tightening a bit. She took a deep breath and braced herself.

"Well, I...it...." She had to stop and take another breath or two. Her hands were trembling a bit, and she quickly took a drink from her cold coffee in an attempt to ease the dryness of her mouth, and the soreness in her throat. Bert waited quietly, his gaze on her face as he stirred his coffee. Nene gathered herself and plunged onward.

"I'm the reason your suit crashed," she blurted, flushing in shame as she remembered transmitting the proper codes to his suit, spurred on by feelings of angry hurt. Bert froze in disbelief, staring at her.

"Pardon me?" he asked softly. "What did you say?"

"I ... jammed your suit computer and made the control programs crash, and that's why you smashed into those roof beams," the slender red-headed woman confessed, as tears gathered in her bright green eyes and began to fall. She grabbed a napkin and wiped at her face as she quietly cried. "I'm .... I'm so sorry, I didn't want you to get hurt that way, but I...." She made a despondent, helpless gesture, bowing her head as her shoulders shook. Bert stared at the crying woman for a few blank moments, stunned.

"Why?" he asked, clearing his throat in order to get his voice back. "Why did you do it?" He tried to fight down the glow of anger that was beginning to flare into life at the back of his mind. She'd been the one responsible for that nearly fatal suit failure?! How..?! Why..?!

"I was angry with you," she sobbed, trying to stem the flow of tears from her eyes. Sniffling, she blew her nose on the sodden napkin she was holding, and dug some extras from the dispenser sitting off to the side. Blowing her nose again, she tried to get herself back under control.

"Angry with me?!" he echoed. "What...." He had to pause and take a huge gulp from his own mug. "What were you so angry about that you had to try and kill me over it?!" He immediately regretted the harsh abruptness of his words, but it was too late to recall them.

"I told you I saw you with Priss a couple of days before ... before it happened," she replied meekly, sniffling a bit. "I....I just couldn't forget about it. You've always been really close to her, and you always seemed to go to her first. I...thought you were dating Priss behind my back, and I wanted to get back at you."

A long silence followed her remark, as Bert sat silently wrestling with the feelings this new information had roused in him. On the one hand there was a towering anger over finding out what Nene had done to him from a misperception born out of jealousy. At the same time, part of him could see that she was truly sorry for having done it. He wavered for a moment, caught in uncertainty as conflicting impulses warred within him. Nene sat looking pale, but she'd managed to collect herself and stop crying.

"Nene," he finally rasped, breaking a minutes-long silence, "you know I wouldn't do that to anyone, least of all to you. I told you I wasn't dating Priss, and that was the honest truth."

"I...I know that, now," she said in a small voice. "B-b-but it was easier to blame you for everything that went wrong than try to think of a way to solve things. I'm ... sorry." She grabbed another napkin and blew her nose again.

"It's always easier to blame someone else," he replied wearily, rubbing his forehead and closing his eyes. "I should've been more up front with you when we started going out; maybe then we wouldn't have messed things up this way." He smiled sadly as he opened his eyes to look at her. "There's no real way to separate the blame anymore for what's happened to us, but I'm sorry too. For a lot of things." He lapsed into brooding silence, staring moodily at the table top.

"You said you weren't dating Priss earlier," Nene noted in a small voice. "Are you dating her now?" He was unable to control the slow flush that started creeping up his neck to his face. Yes, he'd wanted to tell her about Priss and himself, but not this way! He'd wanted some time to ease into telling her; instead, she'd just blown his fragile plans into oblivion with one quavering question. He desperately tried to find a gentle way to answer her, some way to ease the impact the truth was going to have on her.

"You are seeing her, aren't you?" Nene's voice turned choked, and tears started to stream down her cheeks again. A sharp pain bit into his heart at the look on her face.

"Nene, I wasn't at the time, I swear," he told her, his tone pleading with her for belief. "But I.... since we stopped seeing each other, I thought it was over between us, especially after the...accident."

"How long have you been seeing her?"

"About a week," he replied, shifting around in his seat. "It started just after her last concert."

"Do you love her?" The faint, plaintive question tore at him, threatening to undermine what little emotional control he still possessed.

"I think so," he answered quietly, feeling a new stab of pain at the way her face fell at his answer.

"What....what about me? Do you still love me?"

"Of course I do," he replied, again squirming uncomfortably in his seat. "Nene, I still love you, in a lot of ways, but, I ... it's not...."

"But not the way you love Priss," she said in a small voice. He nodded unhappily.

A very thick silence fell for a few minutes, broken only by the sound of the young red-haired woman across from him sniffling and sobbing occasionally. Bert sat there, wishing desperately that there was something he could do to ease her distress, but there wasn't. The days when he could gather her up in a hug and comfort her were dead and buried now. He sat there, mentally damning himself over and over again while she gradually pulled her composure back together.

"You certainly didn't take long to find someone else," she noted, wiping her eyes on her uniform sleeve. She was unable to keep some of the hurt out of her voice, and he flinched from the unvoiced accusation.

"Nene, I admit I've made a lot of mistakes," he replied, sighing miserably, "we both have, but I swear on my honour that I was not seeing anybody else when I was with you." He looked into her eyes, trying to let her see the sincerity in his own gaze. "We split up over a month ago," he told her, "and I finally decided that I had just had to get on with my life. You have to try and do the same," he finished softly. "There's just no way around it."

"That's easy for you to say," she retorted bitterly, angrily wiping again at her face with her sleeve.

"Nene, please," he said painfully. "It's not easy to say, much less do. I'm not making light of this; I know how much it hurts, believe me, but...it just has to be that way. We can't go back to the way thing were; we've both changed too much for that." He scrubbed at his own eyes, which had treacherously started watering on him. "We can't go back, so we have to move forward instead."

"So where does that leave us?" she asked after a few moments.

"I'd like to think we can still be friends," he replied quietly, a wistful look on his face.

"I'll have to...to think about it for a while," she said. Her lower lip trembled a bit. "And I think I need to be alone for a while."

"All right, I understand," he told her. Standing slowly, he put on his hat, and looked down at her. She wasn't looking at him, but was staring blankly at the table, picking absently at a napkin.

"Nene..." he started to say, "I'm...." His voice trailed off for a moment as she looked up. In her eyes he could see the internal anguish she was fighting against, and it gave the knife of guilty feelings another twist in his guts. "I'm sorry," he told her helplessly, feeling he had to say something. Turning away from her, he walked over to the counter and paid the bill. With one last glance at her, he left the shop, shoulders slumping, and his hands buried in his coat pockets.

Once he was out of sight, Nene finally allowed herself to slump in her seat. Pillowing her head on her arms, she cried for a long time.

****

"It's a simple, straightforward data acquisition," Fargo explained in a low voice as he slid a datadisk across the table to Sylia. She regarded it thoughtfully, picking it up and slipping it into a pocket of her purse. Her clear gaze met Fargo's inquisitive one.

"If this is such a cut-and-dried operation, why is the client willing to pay forty-five million?" she asked quietly. "That seems to indicate something much more serious than a mere gathering of information."

"The information is currently in the databanks of a GENOM production facility," Fargo informed her. "You're quite right that it's not simple; there are rumours that the place is being used to produce combat boomers, and there have been some curious industrial accidents at that place in the last few weeks. So many in fact, that the government just got a court-ordered inspection of the place. The client, however, is legitimate. I've checked them out, and they aren't a GENOM front company."

"What is the information they want retrieved?" Sylia queried. Forty-five million yen represented a sizable chunk of capital, capital that the Knight Sabers could certainly use. She hadn't told anyone else in the team, but the finances had begun to get a bit tight. Just the same, she couldn't rid herself of a faint suspicion that it was just too coincidental for a job to show up now, when they needed it.

"Data on some robotics systems with some industrial applications," Fargo shrugged. "At least, that's what they told me. They claim the research was theirs to begin with, but that somebody stole it from them before they could use it and sold it to GENOM. The disk has the files identified."

"All right then," Sylia sighed. It sounded plausible; GENOM certainly used strong-arm tactics from time to time to get what it wanted. Just the same, something was nagging uneasily at the back of her mind. She squelched the worry, and looked over at the rumpled blond fixer.

"Deposit half the fee as usual in the account," she directed him, "and tell them they'll have their data in less than a week."

"Already done," he smirked crookedly. "Have to maintain my reputation for efficiency, after all." Leaning back in his chair, he drained off the last of the drink sitting in front of him. A faint smile pulled at Sylia's lips as she stood, tucking her purse under her arm.

"Your reputation is secure," she assured him. "I'll contact you when we've fulfilled our end of the contract." Fargo nodded, and watched as the elegantly dressed, blue-black haired woman left the dimly-lit barroom.

Sighing regretfully, he turned back to the bar and ordered another beer.

 

THE NEXT DAY ....

Bert lay staring at the ceiling, sprawled on the couch on his back, with one leg draped over the arm of the sofa, and one arm dragging on the floor. A despondent expression cloaked his features, and the dim lighting of the room added to the overall air of depression. He didn't even stir when someone knocked on the door.

The knock sounded again, louder and more insistent. It percolated through the gloomy preoccupation filling his mind, reluctantly drawing him back to reality. "Door's open!" he called wearily, almost falling off the couch as he shifted around and tried to sit up. Finally, he made it to a sitting position. The door opened a few inches, and Priss's head poked around the edge.

"Hey, are you all right?" she inquired, her voice sounding anxious.

"Oh, just peachy," he responded sourly, leaning back into the couch and letting his head drop back against the cushions. "Something come up?"

"We had a dinner date after you were done at the range today, remember?" she asked quietly, coming in and closing the door. She kicked off her boots and padded across the carpeting to the couch. Shifting his feet out of the way, she sat down beside him, facing him concernedly, with one leg tucked under the other. "What happened?"

"Aw hell, I'm sorry," Bert slapped a hand over his face, swearing at himself. "I clean forgot about it. Shit!" He muttered a few more uncomplimentary words, directed at himself and his faulty memory.

"Hey, stop that!" Priss admonished. Leaning forward, she reached out and gently placed a hand on his arm. "Why don't you just tell me what's the matter instead of swearing at yourself?" she suggested softly. He sighed miserably, lifting his head so that he could look at her. She looked back at him, a quiet plea in her red-brown eyes.

"I'm sorry," he sighed again in apology. "I just.... it wasn't a very good day today."

"Why not?"

"I didn't sleep that well last night," he told her dully. "Mostly because I couldn't stop thinking about Nene; I gave her the bad news last night."

"Oh." Priss's expression became sympathetic, and she shifted a bit closer to him, keeping her reassuring touch on his arm. "How'd she take it?"

"About how you'd expect," he replied, pained memory flashing in his eyes. "She was really hurt by it all, but she managed to hold most of it in, while I was there anyway." He rubbed at his face tiredly. "I tried to be as ...as kind as I could ... but I couldn't... help her the way I wanted to, and it...hurt to watch her have to go through that."

"And you felt guilty all night for having to do that to her," she summarized compassionately. He nodded mutely.

"If I got more than a couple hours' worth of sleep, it'd be a miracle," he confirmed. "And having to go to work and be polite all day today didn't help things any. By the end of the day, I didn't have the energy for anything, and I was an emotional wreck besides. I couldn't even talk to Sylia; I left her a message on her answering machine to let her know that I'd told Nene about us." He smiled sadly, reaching out and gently caressing her cheek. "Sorry I ruined your evening."

"We can always eat later," she dismissed the matter with an irritable gesture. "I just wanted to know if you were okay."

"Well, I don't really feel up to much right now," he sighed. "All I'd planned on was just sitting here quietly and thinking for a while."

"Sounds good to me," she replied carelessly. She crawled onto the couch, squeezing in between him and the back of it. Snuggling closer, she put an arm around him. "We can sit quietly together; I don't think you'd better be alone at the moment."

"Thanks," he gave her a small, grateful smile, and wrapped an arm around her. Silence dropped over the apartment again. After a while, warmed by the comforting feel of her body close to his, he dozed off, his head dropping back onto the couch as his breathing slowed.

Priss smiled to herself, then settled herself more comfortably and relaxed. Ten minutes later, she dozed off as well, her head on his shoulder.

****

Sylia turned from her kitchen counter as hesitant knocking came from the front door to the apartment. Wiping her hands on a towel and tossing it onto the counter, she walked across the kitchen, coming out into the small front foyer of the apartment, and opened the door.

"Hi, Sylia," a subdued-looking Nene greeted her. "Mind if I come in?"

"Not at all!" Sylia replied with a warm smile. She thoughtfully appraised the younger woman as she stepped into the room and took off her shoes; she'd seen Nene happier, but she knew the reasons for that. The young ADP officer at least looked like she was getting enough rest again, and the clothes she was wearing, a pink blouse with a blue skirt, looked fresh, so it was fairly safe to assume she was holding together.

"Sorry if I'm too early for the meeting," Nene hesitantly apologized, glancing worriedly at her as she closed the apartment door. "I...I had something I wanted to talk about, if you're not busy."

"Not at all," Sylia smiled reassuringly. "I just made some tea, so we can have a drink while we talk. Go on in and sit down." Nene nodded and went into the living room.

When Sylia emerged from the kitchen carrying a tray with the teapot and some cups, Nene was already sitting on the couch, a forlorn expression on her face. Setting the tray down on the coffee table, she filled two cups and added some milk and sugar, and slid one of the cups over to in front of the silent red-head. After a moment's consideration, Sylia sat next to her, rather than in her customary easy chair.

"So, what did you want to talk to me about?" she gently prompted.

"I... I did what you said," Nene replied, almost inaudibly. "I apologized to Bert last night for crashing his suit on him."

"How did he take it?" Sylia queried.

"I....I'm not sure," Nene admitted. "I could tell he was upset, but he really didn't say a lot about it." She hesitated a moment before adding, "Even after ...after I told him why I was angry with him at the time." She lapsed back into a depressed silence, picking up her teacup and taking a drink of the steaming beverage.

"Nene? If he didn't say anything, then why are you sitting there looking like you've lost everything?" Sylia inquired gently when Nene's gaze lifted to meet hers. Her hunch was confirmed when the younger woman's emerald-green eyes suddenly filled with tears.

"He is seeing Priss now!!" she cried. "He ... he told me last night...after...after I," she gulped, trying to keep her voice steady, "after I asked him about it. He said he's been seeing her for a week." The memory was too much for her, and she broke down crying again.

"Oh, Nene, I'm so sorry." Sylia hesitated briefly, then gently hugged the younger woman, trying to console her somehow. She'd been dreading Nene's reaction to finding about Bert and Priss, and her fears had proved to be true. The red-haired girl threw her arms around Sylia, clinging tightly to her as she cried into her shoulder. They sat like that for a few minutes as the young red-head cried herself out. Nene finally sat up again, her eyes red-rimmed now.

Nene finally sat up again. "I...I'm sorry," she sniffled, trying to wipe her tear-streaked face clean with her sleeve.

"No problem," Sylia smiled gently at her, handing her some kleenex from the nearby box. Her expression turned gravely concerned a moment later. "Will you be all right?"

"I....I think so," Nene replied in a small voice. Her voice turned choked again. "It hurts so much, I've been trying not to think about it."

"Nene, it's not the end of the world," Sylia said softly. "I know it hurts, and it's not easy to hear, but these things do happen. You've just got to accept it, especially because you can't change it. Denying it won't help, I'm sorry to say."

"What should I do?" Nene's question had a plaintive note to it. Sylia shook her head.

"I can't tell you what to do," she told the tearful red-haired young woman. "That has to be your decision." A brief silence fell.

"So what was the meeting about?" Nene finally asked, wanting to change the subject to something less painful.

Sylia looked at her thoughtfully. She had decided, and Nene had agreed, that, in order to preserve a semblance of normalcy, one of the conditions of Nene's suspension from the Knight Sabers was that she had to at least attend meetings. A sudden absence would start the rest of the team asking questions, and if the reason for her suspension came out into the open.... For that exact same reason, they'd agreed to keep Nene's actions on their last boomer outing a secret between them.

"We have a job for tonight," she finally replied. "Which is why I asked if you were going to be all right; we really need your particular talents on this one. If you think you can live with what's happened, and not let it influence you on the mission, I'd like to take you along."

"I ... I can live with it," Nene whispered after a very long, tense silence.

"Then you're off suspension, and on probation," Sylia warned her. "I'm going to be keeping an eye on you."

"I can handle it," Nene repeated, her voice growing stronger as her resolve firmed. "I won't let it get in the way of my work."

"Good enough," Sylia nodded slowly, looking her in the eye. "I'll take you at your word then." She glanced at the clock. "We've got a bit of time before the meeting actually starts, so why don't you go get yourself tidied up a bit?" Sylia suggested. The young ADP officer nodded and stood up.

"Thanks, Sylia," she hesitantly. The Knight Sabers' leader smiled reassuringly as she stood herself.

"I'm always here if you need someone to talk to," she assured the younger woman. "Now scoot; go and get cleaned up. We can talk about something else when you get back." She watched as Nene slowly walked across the room, vanishing into the corridor leading to the washroom.

Once she was out of sight, Sylia sighed wearily, rubbing a hand over her eyes. It wasn't much, but maybe it was a start towards the young red-head's emotional healing. Right now she'd take whatever she could get.

****

Wind whistled shrilly past the sleek, dark shape knifing through the inky blackness of the night sky over MegaTokyo. Engines droning, the KnightWing scooted from cloudbank to cloudbank as it steadily moved east, towards a run-down industrial sector of the sprawling supercity. The occasional stray beam of light from below glanced off the plane's radar-reflective hull, briefly illuminating sections of the speeding jet. Inside the sophisticated jetplane, the Knight Sabers quietly awaited whatever the night's mission might have in store for them.

Or not so quietly, in some instances.

"Damn it, how the hell was I supposed to remember there was a meeting?!" Priss grumbled irritably. She shifted in her seat, folding her arms across her chest as she propped her feet up on a convenient protruding wall conduit.

"Don't look at me for an answer," Bert replied, sighing. He shifted his armoured body slightly as he leaned against the wall, tucking his helmet more securely under an arm. His suit construction didn't allow him to fit into the KnightWing's seats anymore, and his usual position while enroute to a mission was now standing, with a handhold clamped on whatever happened to be handy. Normally, it wasn't a problem, although once they'd encountered some air turbulence that had caused him to very nearly wreck the rear compartment when he'd started bouncing around in his hardsuit. "I forgot about it as well."

"Didn't you check your answering machine?" Linna asked. She was also in her hardsuit, but her helmet was already in place with the visor flipped up. "Sylia did try phoning everybody last night."

"I don't have one of the damn things, Linna," Priss retorted irritably. "What the hell would I use an answering machine for?"

"Keeping track of reminders that we have a meeting?"

"Oh, very funny," Priss said sourly. "Any more bright suggestions?"

"Well, you could write these things down instead," Linna suggested with a smile. "There's these marvelous new inventions called paper and pens, you know." She was taking a great deal of delight in verbally needling the two of them on their memory lapses, and it didn't look like it was going to stop anytime soon.

"Enough with the wisecracks already," Priss glared at her friend. Linna looked back innocently, her blue eyes sparkling with mischievous humour, but she did become quiet.

Priss glanced hesitantly at the rear of the plane as a slightly edgy silence fell over the cabin. Nene was sitting quietly at her console, monitoring communications and going over the mission data again one last time. The right arm of her red-pink hardsuit was plugged into the console to allow her quicker access and ease of control over the computer. The visor on her helmet was up, and although she couldn't see Nene's expression, the entire posture of her body at the moment suggested lonely isolation.

Quiet sympathy and compassion welled up within the young rock singer. She knew it wasn't easy for Nene to be in the same room as Bert and herself. After Sylia's rather irritated phone call to try and locate them had woken them up from dozing on the couch, they'd gone up to Sylia's apartment separately.

She'd seen the instant flare of pain in Nene's eyes when she'd looked at them, but the young ADP officer had managed to hold herself together. The slender red-head sat stoically through the meeting, avoiding meeting their gazes. Priss could almost see the raw hurt she was fighting, but was refusing to display, and she'd felt incredibly uncomfortable the whole time. She'd wanted to say something, but was wise enough to know that the last thing Nene wanted was sympathy from somebody she was regarding as a rival right now.

An almost inaudible, sad sigh from beside her drew her gaze over and up, to where a pair of greenish-brown eyes were also gazing at the rear of the plane. Bert's eyes dropped to hers as she looked up at him, and she could read much of the same thoughts she'd been having in his eyes. She gave him a reassuring smile, and he made a half-hearted attempt to return it.

"Five minutes until we land," Sylia's voice drifted from the cockpit. Their white-hardsuited leader was in the co-pilot's seat next to Sylvie. The red-grey hardsuited woman's piloting had been flawless as she deftly maneuvered them through the sky over the city, avoiding accidental radar contacts and possible visual sightings. The fact that it was a cloudy night had helped a lot in that regard, so it was unlikely that the KnightWing's approach had been noticed by anyone.

The seat framework creaked ominously as Sylia levered herself out of it, carefully squeezing around the co-pilot's chair towards the door to the aft plane section. She took one last quick glance at the instrumentation, and at the topographical map displayed in a central control panel screen.

"I'll leave the landing to you," she told Sylvie. "There should be some convenient overhangs in the canyon there that we can hide the KnightWing in."

"Roger that," Sylvie replied cheerfully, her helmet tilting to look up at her white hardsuited commander. "I'll let you know when we're down and secure." Sylia nodded, reaching up and sliding her helmet visor closed. Turning, she stepped into the silence of the rear cabin.

"Everybody get ready," she ordered. "We'll be there shortly." Everyone nodded acknowledgment, but didn't say anything. Sylia could sense the air of discomfort in the confined space of the cabin, and sighed to herself, hoping that everything would work out somehow.

Priss let her feet drop from where they'd been propped up, her bootheels ringing hollowly against the deck plating. Fishing around under her seat, she located her helmet and slapped it on, leaving the visor up for the time being. Beside her, SkyKnight awkwardly jammed on his helmet with one hand, keeping a grip on a nearby seat with the other. It took a bit of doing to work it into its proper location using just one hand, but he managed it after a few moments. The red eyeslot flared brightly for a moment, then dimmed to a dull glow. Linna calmly reached up and slid her visor down; it locked into place with a loud click. She then busied herself casually inspecting the knuckle bomber on the right arm of her suit.

Sylia nodded to herself in mild satisfaction as she made her way to the back of the cabin, where Nene's suit was still plugged into the ship's computer.

"Everything all right?" she asked quietly as she came up beside the Knight Sabers' computer whiz. The question was layered with different meanings, but Nene understood what she meant. Her helmet tilted to look up at Sylia, and she could see in her eyes the pain the young hacker was holding inside and trying to conceal. It was costing her a lot to maintain the facade of normalcy, but she was doing it. The white-hardsuited woman reached out and squeezed the red-pink suit's shoulder in a reassuring manner. She wouldn't be able to feel it through the armour, but it was the thought that counted.

"I'm okay," Nene replied quietly. She bit her lip as her gaze inadvertently slid to the silver and blue hardsuits at the other end of the plane, and for a moment her composure wavered. She wrenched her eyes away, and stared at the computer console instead. "I'll be okay."

"All right," Sylia sighed softly. "How about the mission information?"

"I've re-checked it all again, and it seems to check out," Nene said slowly, reaching out and tabbing some keys. "There's something bugging me about these files though."

"What is it?"

"If they're so top secret, why isn't there any encryption on them?" Nene asked, looking up at Sylia again. "There's supposed to be some security on the computer systems, according to this, but anybody can read the files once the computer's been hacked. That just doesn't sound right."

"That is a bit odd for sensitive data files," Sylia admitted with a frown. It didn't make her feel any better when the vague feeling of unease she'd had about the mission returned at Nene's observation. "But we were hired to retrieve the data, not analyze filekeeping procedures. Keep your eyes open, though; we don't need any nasty surprises."

"Okay, no problem," Nene replied confidently; there wasn't much that she couldn't do with a computer. Sylia nodded and turned to sit down in a nearby seat until the plane landed.

Nene disconnected her suit's interface cables from the control console, watching them retract into her weapon arm. As they retracted, she glanced again in the direction of Priss and SkyKnight, and again her emotional control wavered. She squeezed her eyes shut, her composure threatening to shatter completely as another spike of heartrending pain stabbed into her. After a moment, she regained control of herself. Nene glanced forward again, then her expression hardened into resolve.

Standing up from her seat, the hardsuited young woman took a deep breath, trying to steel herself for what she felt she had to do. Her stomach felt tight and queasy, but she resisted the urge to close her helmet and hide behind the emotionless shield of her visor as started the long walk towards the front of the cabin.

As she approached, Priss looked over at her. Nene could see carefully veiled sympathy in the singer's red-brown eyes, and for a moment, anger and resentment boiled into life, churning around with the pain of loss she was fighting. The last thing she wanted from her was sympathy! She had a lot of nerve, sitting there looking sorry....! She managed to fight back the feelings before they could break to the surface, forcing herself to concentrate on what she wanted to say.

"Um, hi, Nene," Priss greeted her uncertainly as she came up to where she was seated. Her expression was fairly neutral, but the young red-head could see she was uncomfortable. "What's up?"

"I....just had something I wanted to say," Nene replied, her voice sounding small and remote to her own ears. Her throat felt sore, and the churning emotional mix inside of her was making it incredibly difficult to speak, especially to the sources of some of her emotional pains.

As her gaze shifted to SkyKnight, he raised his visor so she could see his face; he had the same uncomfortable expression that Priss did, coupled with sympathy, and what looked like traces of remorse. Her composure quavered again.

"I just...wanted to wish the two of you good luck," she said faintly, gulping back against the sudden rush of tears that threatened to burst forth. "I hope it works out for you." She turned quickly before anyone could say anything, and walked back to her seat, closing her visor so that no one could see her face. She valiantly kept from crying as she sat down; she'd cried enough earlier, and it was time to stop giving in to the empty ache that still throbbed within her, and move on.

"What was that all about?" Linna asked quizzically, her helmet tilting to regard Priss and Bert. They exchanged an unreadable glance, and Bert shrugged slightly before closing his visor.

"We've... been dating each other for about a week," Priss told her quietly, unable to keep a faintly guilty look from sliding towards Nene's red-pink suit.

"You've been what?!" Linna's jaw fell open inside her helmet at the words, and she reached up and slammed her helmet visor open in shock. Priss flushed slightly, and quickly closed her helmet, leaning back in her seat without replying. "B-but..." Linna's mind struggled to frame a question, but her thoughts were refusing to come together coherently; stunned disbelief was the prominent feeling in her mind at the moment. At the same time, the realization of the effect this development was likely having on Nene prompted her to remain silent. At least until she had a chance to corner either Priss or Bert and get some answers from them in private....

A jarring thump shook the KnightWing as Sylvie eased the plane down on the rough canyon floor. An instant later, the muted roar of its powerful engines died, and the plane became silent except for the hum of still-active secondary systems and circuitry.

The red-grey hardsuited woman unstrapped herself from the pilot's seat, and disconnected her suit interfaces from the control board. Since she was the Knight Sabers' official pilot now, her hardsuit had been equipped with a few options for controlling the KnightWing through her suit systems. Depending on her preferences, Sylvie could fly the plane either manually, with her hardsuit controls, or with a combination of the two. She pulled herself out of her seat, and stepped back into the cabin where the rest of the Sabers were waiting tensely.

"All right, let's go," Sylia directed, turning towards the exit ramp controls. "We've got a job to do."

****

The thick metal door grudgingly slid aside as Nene disconnected her suit from the electronic lock's interface panel, and she nodded once to Sylia. The white hardsuit gestured with a hand signal; blue and green hardsuits blurred through the doorway, splitting up to flank either side of the entrance.

"All clear," Linna's voice crackled over the comms after a few tense seconds of waiting. "Nobody's in this section of the plant."

"Roger. We're coming in," Sylia replied quietly. She waved SkyKnight and Sylvie in ahead of her, then glanced at Nene. "Any problems?" she queried.

"None," Nene shook her head. "Their security is almost insanely simple, at this end anyway. I don't like it; it's too easy."

"Welcome to the club," her white-suited leader returned wryly. "Come on." Forcing her mind onto the task at hand, Sylia stepped through the doorway, glancing around.

The doorway they'd selected opened onto a second-story catwalk that ran the perimeter of the building section they'd selected as their entry point. Offering plenty of cover, it also allowed a fairly direct route to their objective, the facility's central computer lab. The rest of the building section they were in was filled with shadow-draped conduits and pipes; it was impossible to see further than about twenty feet out towards the center of the building.

The other Sabers had spread out, and were partially concealed in shadowed alcoves formed by the walls and pipes. If anything happened, they were positioned so that they could effectively cover each other and withdraw if need be.

As Sylia appraised the situation, Nene eased through the door behind her, and allowed it to close behind them. Once inside the building, she unfurled the scanner antennae built into her suit's backpack, and started scanning."

"No boomers," she reported after a moment, her voice seeming to echo hollowly in the cavernous room. "No anything, actually. I don't even think they've got security 'bots."

"Let's check out this lab and get it over with," Sylia ordered, the uneasy feeling prickling at the back of her mind intensifying further. "Everyone be careful."

****

The plant wasn't entirely deserted. In a not-so-distant control room, a laboratory technician watched the video image of six brightly coloured hardsuits moving through the factory. Fairly young looking, he had black hair, hazel eyes, and a very bored expression.

Taking a cautious sip from a Styrofoam cup of coffee, then a bigger gulp when it proved cool enough to drink, he flipped the cover off of a large red button mounted on a control panel. The button pressed down with a loud, satisfying click, and he tossed off the rest of his drink, crumpling the cup and pitching into a nearby garbage bucket.

He leaned against the console, humming idly to himself as he rooted around in one of the capacious pockets of his white lab coat. After a few moments, he succeeded in coming up with an apple, and proceeded to polish it up on the edge of his coat. He straightened up again with a sigh. Crunching a bite from his apple, he poised his other hand over another switch, chewing noisily.

The heavy tread of someone else's footsteps in the room made him turn towards the noise, and his eyes widened.

"Hey!! Who are you?!" he asked in surprise. "Nobody else is supposed to ...." A series of loud, harsh reports cracked in the closeness of the lab, cutting him off with unquestionable finality; the tech jerked spasmodically as several projectiles were driven through his body in a bloody spray. What remained of him dropped to the floor in a gory mess, landing with a sodden thump.

The assassin's arm lowered, a smoking weapon withdrawing into the sleeve of a long dark coat. Unconcernedly, the dark figure tracked through the crimson pool on the floor, squishing on fragments of the shattered corpse as he reached the control console. Cold eyes glanced incuriously at the screen for a moment, then the killer reached out, and tabbed the switch that the tech had been going to push.

Seconds later, the room was empty again.

****

"Those were shots," Sylia said sharply. "Everyone, full readiness; we're not as alone as we thought." Turning, she started sprinting for the lab. The rest of the Knight Sabers followed her, adrenaline surging through them all.

Hitting the door with an armoured shoulder, Sylia burst the door off its mountings, rolling out of the way and coming smoothly up into a ready crouch, her right-hand beam cannon charged and ready to fire. Priss dove through next, followed in rapid succession by the rest of the team, all except SkyKnight; he slowly backed into the room, making sure nothing unexpected came at then from behind.

The room was deserted except for quietly humming computers.

"I can't detect anyone else in this room, Sylia," Nene reported crisply. "Whatever it was must have left."

"This is weird," Linna declared, carefully stepping around the end of a console bank. "Where is every..whAAA!" She yelled in surprise as her feet suddenly flew out from under her, skidding on something on the floor tiles. Unable to react quick enough, the normally dexterous hardsuited dancer crashed to the floor with a resounding bang.

"Linna! Are you okay?!" Nene started to move towards her, but Linna's green hardsuit came scrabbling towards her on hands and knees.

"No!! Don't look there!!" she said, her voice sounding choked. "Get away!!"

"What is that awful smell?" Sylvie suddenly spoke up at the same time. She'd noticed it upon first entering the plant; the odour in question permeated everything, and was impossible to escape. "It's putrid!"

"Oh my God, I think I'm gonna be sick," Linna declared with a moan, doubling over and clutching at her stomach. SkyKnight started moving carefully towards where she'd slipped, a vague premonition coming over him as he noticed that red smears marked the floor where Linna had crawled away. Nene tried to offer Linna some assistance, but the green-hardsuited woman wasn't moving, just shuddering.

"There is an odd smell, now that you mention it," Priss said distastefully, looking around.

"Not...quite," SkyKnight's strangled voice came in reply to Nene's earlier question. He whirled away from the sight of the mangled and bloody wreckage laying on the floor, out of sight of the doorway, and squeezed his eyes shut, clenching his jaw to keep his gorge from rising, as he shuddered himself.

"SkyKnight?" Sylia's voice inquired. He jerked his head in the direction of the pathetic remains.

"There's a.... body ... laying in the aisle there," he gritted, swallowing nausea again. "Looks fairly fresh, but whoever it was ... he's..." Words failed him for a moment. "Let's just say I'm of the same mind as Linna right now."

"Oh yuck," Priss's voice sounded like his; perverse curiosity had seized her, and she'd taken a look. "The poor bastard's been shot to pieces; it's a real mess." She turned away from the sight as well.

"I see." Given the reactions of everyone else, Sylia decided to spare herself a glimpse of the unidentified unfortunate, and glanced down at Nene. "That was the main control panel; can you use another computer to access what we're after?"

"Sure, no problem," the hardsuited hacker replied. She'd finally helped Linna to a leaning position against one of the consoles. "I can get in through one of the terminals at the other end of the room."

"Do it then. We're not staying here one second longer than we have to." Nene nodded, and walked to a terminal at the far end of the room. Pulling up a chair, she plunked herself into it, and plugged her suit into the computer interface.

"There's some pretty good ICE on their system, Sylia," she reported a moment later. "This may take a while."

"Try and hurry if you can," the Knight Sabers' leader replied, clenching her teeth as her stomach lurched uneasily; the vile stench Sylvie had noticed had finally made it to her nose through her hardsuit's air filters. She walked down to Nene's end of the room, but the extra distance didn't really help much; the odour was everywhere. Sylvie had unwisely looked as well, and was being heartily sick in a corner of the room. Priss was standing nearby, trying to offer some solace.

"Sylia?" Bert's modulated voice carried to her; she turned, as he clumped towards her, coming from the far end of the room, near where the dismembered body had been found. He was gingerly grasping something in a gauntleted hand. "You'd better take a look at this."

"What is it?" she asked, looking at the long, thin object.

"A railgun spike, I think," he answered, turning it over in his hands. It was about ten inches long, with a smooth surface tapered to a needle sharp point. "It was embedded in the wall behind where the poor bastard must've been standing. It hit a beam; the rest went right on through the plaster."

"The rest?"

"It looks like about fifteen shots altogether," he noted grimly. "Somebody wanted to make damn sure he wouldn't survive." He paused, and his voice turned sickly-sounding again. "Whoever the killer was, he walked through the ... mess ... to get to the control panel for some reason, then walked out the far door; there's bloody footprints leading out that way."

"Did you try following the tracks?" Sylia's helmet visor snapped up to look at him. SkyKnight's helmet shook negatively.

"You said our mission objective was here," he replied simply. "So I stayed. I ... I don't really feel like going anywhere right now."

"That bad?" Sylia laid a gauntleted hand on his arm. He nodded sharply, once.

"You'll pardon me if I don't feel like eating for the next day or so," he said tightly. She nodded, then reached out and took the railgun spike from his grasp, examining the sticky, red-smeared projectile. Her posture stiffened suddenly.

"Priss, get over here," Sylia ordered tersely, staring intently at the spike. The blue-hardsuited woman joined them a minute later. Behind her, Sylvie was slowly getting to her feet, fastening her helmet back down.

"What's up, Sylia?" Priss asked, glancing from her to SkyKnight towering nearby.

"Give me one of your railgun spikes for a moment," the white hardsuit directed. Shrugging, Priss popped open the panel on her suit arm that allowed access to the slim magazine holding the ammo for her railguns. Extracting one of the slender spikes, she handed it to her leader, who in turn placed it next to the bloody spike in her gauntlet palm.

The two projectiles, except for the bloodstains, looked identical.

"Damn it," Sylia muttered, handing the clean spike back to Priss.

"What's up?" the singer queried, sliding the spike home and closing her suit's arm back up.

"Your railgun fires fairly distinctive railgun projectiles," Sylia told her, and held up the one that had been used to murder the unfortunate technician. "This one appears to be a perfect duplicate."

"You're saying we've just been framed for murder," SkyKnight said flatly. Sylia nodded.

"The only way to know for sure that they aren't manufactured the same way is under an electron microscope," she told them. "But we're well enough known that most people will automatically assume it's us. Not many people bother with rail weapons, and the military favors heavier ammunition when they do."

"Well shit," Priss spat disgustedly. "That's just great; now what?! You know the ADP is gonna take this and use it to try and go after us harder than before."

"That can't be helped," Sylia sighed.

"Want us to take a quick look through the rest of the plant?" SkyKnight queried. "The murderer might still be here."

"Hmmm," their white-hardsuited leader considered their situation for a moment. "Nene? How much longer?"

"About fifteen minutes or so," came the distracted reply, as the red-haired hacker tapped away at the control panel and manipulated her suit controls. "Whoever programmed their computer is pretty good..."

"All right then, take a quick look around, but be careful," Sylia instructed him. "Take Sylvie with you." Her last sentence stopped him; both he and Priss had been turning to exit the room.

"Sylvie?" he echoed. "Mind if I ask why?"

"Two reasons," Sylia answered candidly. "The first is that she's still the new recruit, and you're more experienced; hopefully, she'll pick up some useful things from you. The second reason is that I don't need an argument breaking out between you and Priss out there."

"We wouldn't..." the silver and blue hardsuits started to chorus in unison, but Sylia chopped a gauntleted hand down, cutting them off.

"The matter is closed," she advised them. "You have your orders."

"Yes, boss," SkyKnight muttered irritably. With a 'what can I do?' shrug to Priss, he turned and lumbered from the room, beckoning Sylvie to accompany him. She followed him out into the darkness beyond the computer room door, and the two hardsuits were quickly swallowed up by the shadowed maze of machinery out there.

"Want me and Linna to check the other way?" Priss asked. She was getting restless and irritable; she'd been hoping there'd at least be some action. Sitting and watching someone try to hack into databases was boring as hell.

"No, I want you two here, just in case," Sylia replied.

"In case of what?" Linna spoke up. The Sabers' leader folded her arms across her chest and leaned against the wall, her visor tilting to watch Nene as she worked away at the computer.

"In case we get some visitors I'm half-expecting," she replied. "Linna? Would you mind watching the way we came? I don't want to get cut off. Priss, you can keep watch from the other door."

****

The muted rumble and throb of operating machinery pulsed through the shadowy network of piping, beams, and conduits, grumbling like some kind of slumbering giant. Occasionally steam, or some other similar gaseous emission hissed from a leaking valve, the sinister-sounding noises making the darkness seem more ominous and foreboding. In isolated corners, control panels winked and flickered feebly, the pale glow of the readouts barely penetrating the murky gloom of the facility. Movement in the blackness resolved into a gleaming silver-blue armour suit, accompanied by a somewhat smaller red-and-gray battlesuit.

"There's nobody here at all, anywhere," Sylvie noted, sounding puzzled as her helmet turned to regard their surroundings. "If this is a production facility, then where are all the workers? Don't they have a night shift?"

"I don't know," SkyKnight's electronic voice replied, his modulated sepulchral-sounding voice somehow fitting the eerie settings. "But something about this place is just screaming 'setup!' at me; the fact that that poor bastard back in the lab was killed seconds before we could get into there kind of suggests that somebody else knew we were coming."

"But nobody's tried anything aimed at us specifically," Sylvie pointed out.

"It doesn't have to be a direct attack," he replied shortly. "Slurs on somebody's reputation can be just as lethal as shooting them. It won't matter that we didn't kill him, the common perception will be that we did, and that could lose us some of the leeway we've had to operate under."

"Oh." Sylvie stalked along silently, trailing behind SkyKnight and watching their back trail as she considered his words. "So what do you think is going to happen next?"

"I don't know," he answered, sighing. "But I somehow have the feeling that the best is yet to come."

On the tail end of his words, something moved in the darkness ahead of them, something BIG. His suit sensors gave him a rough electromagnetic signature of the .... the THING that was out there, but his battlecomputer was unable to identify what kind of boomer it was, or if it even was a boomer. It wasn't one of the newer combat models, that was for sure; the profile of this one didn't even look all that humanoid.

"Shit. Sylvie," SkyKnight said tersely. "Get ready; we've got company."

"What?" she turned and peered around his shoulder. "What is that?!" She involuntarily took a step back, her gun arm coming up defensively.

"Trouble," he replied shortly. So far, it didn't look like their contact had noticed their presence. "SkyKnight to Saber Prime," he radioed. "We're not alone out here...."

****

"I see," Sylia replied. "What's your position?"

"We're under cover," Bert's voice crackled back. "There's enough niches in the piping here to hide in. I don't think I want to start a fight with whatever it is out there; it's goddamn huge. I'm not even sure my lasers will scratch it."

"Let's not jump to conclusions," Sylia suggested, glancing swiftly around the room. "All you've got is a sensor trace; that's hardly proof of its abilities."

"I'm not jumping anywhere!" came the emphatic reply. "I'm quite happy where I am, thanks."

"Keep in touch," she directed.

"Roger that," he replied, cutting off the channel a moment later.

"Nene?" Sylia looked down at the red-pink hardsuit. "How much longer."

"Not... long, just ... about ... there!" she exclaimed in satisfaction. "I'm in! Complete access to everything."

"Good. Find those files, download them, and then we're getting the hell out of here."

"Oh SHIT!!" Priss's voice volleyed from the door where she was stationed. "INCOMING!!!"

"Get that data!" Sylia snapped at Nene, whirling sharply. "We'll handle this!"

The walls and ceiling at the far end of the lab exploded inwards in a shower of dust and debris. Priss's railcannon thundered above the crashing and crunching of masonry, and Linna's pulse laser screamed from her position, slashing bright paths through the suddenly smoky air as four blue combat boomers ducked and dodged into the room.

One of the blue biomechanoids died immediately, caught in an unintentionally well-timed crossfire between Priss and Linna. The remaining three split up, each one selecting a different Saber to go after. Sylia began backpedaling as one sprang towards her, but it wasn't until the crackling energy bolt it spat went well wide of her that she realized it was focusing on Nene. There was a surprised yelp from the red-head's location, as the energy bolt blew a viewscreen next to her into a glittering storm of glass shards.

Instantly, Sylia jumped sideways, putting herself between the youngest Saber and the killer machine. As it hurtled forwards, the arm blade on her left arm sprang out. Spearing it towards the boomer's head, she whipped an underhanded blow to its torso with her right arm, palm open; the blade punctured the biomechanoid's skull with a satisfying-sounding crunch, and the particle laser cannon in her right gauntlet blasted a gaping hole through its chest. The charging boomer became dead weight instantly, and crashed into her, knocking her down and pinning her momentarily to the floor.

****

"Aw hell," SkyKnight snarled. "Sylvie!! Dodge left!! Hang back and snipe at the bastard; don't try to get in close with him." He lashed out with a crimson beam of laser energy, the glowing burst momentarily throwing the dimly-lit room into harsh relief. The shot splashed off the armoured carapace of the lumbering behemoth approaching without any apparent effect. Whatever the trigger had been, it had started charging them at exactly the same time they'd heard Priss bellow a warning over the comm channel.

"Gotcha!" Sylvie panted, scrambling away from the hole melted into the wall beam next to where she'd been hiding. "What about you?" A flurry of energy beams speared from her own lasers, but they too glanced off the thing's thick plating. The misshapen hulk roared defiantly, as searing blue beams from weapons embedded in its chest scythed through the air again. It had started attacking without warning, suddenly opening fire and lurching towards where the two hardsuits had been concealed.

"Give me a minute; I'm trying to see if this thing's got any weak points." SkyKnight continued his assault, pounding the armoured shape with his lasers, the red-white beams lancing surgically into every portion of the creature's body. He ducked a crackling reply shot. "Damn it! The bastard's armour is just too goddamn thick; I'll need a lot more raw power before I can get through that kind of defense."

"What is it?" Sylvie asked, trying for a snipe shot in what she believed was the creature's head; maybe she could blind it....

"Modified Doberman, I think," he replied. The boomer did have the appearance of a Doberman, with white and black armour, but it was at least fifteen feet tall, and it looked like it weighed at least a three or four tons. "But whoever modified it didn't do a great job; I think it's too heavy to fly now, and it's definitely having problems moving. Those are about the only breaks I think we're going to get with this monster."

The deformed boomer howled, and crashed forward ponderously, its footsteps shaking the floor as it bore down on the two lone Sabers.

"Wish me luck," SkyKnight sighed. Before Sylvie could ask what he meant, the silver-blue hardsuit blurred towards the juggernaut.

"What?! Bert!!!" Sylvie shouted, immediately opening fire on the boomer, frantically trying to injure it somehow. She even pegged all fifteen of her railgun spikes rapid-fire at the malformed biomechanoid in the bargain; except for one lucky shot that seemed to become wedged between its armour plates, the rest whined harmlessly off of its hide, ricocheting off into the darkness.

If SkyKnight heard or noticed the commotion she was making, he gave no indication. As he neared the lumbering hulk, he ducked under the ponderous swipe it took at him while a cylindrical handgrip snapped into his right hand. A split-second later, the blue-white energy blade of his lightsaber hummed hungrily as he slashed twice in quick succession, once at its arm, and once at its torso.

Snarling in rage, the biomechanoid whirled with a speed that belied its bulk, clipping him with a backhand from its maimed arm. The silver battlesuit was knocked sprawling and skidding along the floor, before a quick burst from his jets flipped him into the air to land on his feet again. The red eyeslot of his helmet flashed balefully, and Sylvie could hear some scorching epithets coming from the silver suit.

"SkyKnight!!" the hardsuited sexaroid called. "Are you okay?!" She gritted her teeth in frustration as the Doberman continued to ignore her long-range fire. She stifled the urge to dive in close to attack with her swordblades; they didn't have the penetration that his lightsabers did, and she'd just seen how effective they'd been.

"Marvelous," he called back disgustedly. "The thing's just too bloody big; I'd need a lightsaber blade more than six feet long to seriously hurt it." His lightsaber snuffed out, the hilt retracting into its housing on his arm. With another snarled curse, SkyKnight whipped his right arm forward, sending another shattering blaze of particle-laser energy stabbing into the head of the renegade machine.

The Doberman responded with an unearthly howl. It suddenly stiffened, rearing back, and throwing its arms wide. The massive armour plates on its torso sprang open, revealing a huge maw that began glowing incandescently white. SkyKnight desperately dove sideways as a searing beam of pure white light tore through the air towards him.

****

"I don't like this..." Nene muttered to herself, feverishly working at the computer. Behind her, the din of an armoured brawl pulsed and ebbed, dimly impinging on her awareness. Her focus on her assigned task was so total, she didn't even flinch when a greenish energy bolt passed her with mere centimeters to spare.

"I knew it!" she suddenly burst out, glaring at the data readout inside her helmet. The information displayed on her suit viewscreen contrasted sharply with the data being displayed on the computer monitor in front of her at the moment. She'd located the data files they were supposedly to retrieve, but some vague premonition of something wrong had led her to do a subtle probe of the file status; she still couldn't believe that someone wouldn't protect such sensitive files somehow.

Her hunch had proved correct: her suit was detecting some kind of a watchdog program in the system. The sentry program had all the earmarks of a virus, and a very sophisticated one at that. While not a part of the files themselves, it was set to activate and attack any computer systems it encountered if an attempt to access the files was made. If it entered her suit systems after activating, it was game over.

"Nene!!" Sylia's voice crackled over the comms. "What's the holdup?! Download the files!!"

"I can't!" she shot back. "They've been protected! I'm going to try and crack it now, but I don't know how long it'll take."

The entire room suddenly shook, and the south wall of the room suddenly vanished as a huge beam of white coruscating energy sheared through the masonry with an ear-splitting crack-sizzle, and punched a hole in the opposite wall, disappearing into the factory beyond. Nene sat frozen in shock for a moment, one gauntleted hand frozen over the keys she'd been about to punch.

"What the hell was THAT?!" Priss's voice yelped over the communications frequency. The shocked question jarred the young red-head back to her senses, and she returned to her task.

Reaching over to the left hip of her hardsuit, she detached a slim rectangular object. Pulling its attached data cables from their recessed niches in the casing, she plugged the box into the terminal's other set of I/O jacks, on the side of the machine. Stretching briefly, she hunched over the keyboard and began the delicate task of trying to bypass the watchdog program, and download the files into the portable storage unit.

She barely noticed the noise of the final concerted salvo from her three teammates that reduced the last C-55E combat boomer into a smoldering pile of slag.

"How's it going?" Sylia came over to her, her hardsuit covered in concrete dust, and marred with some scorching. Smoke trailed in little wisps from her laser cannons, and her breathing sounded laboured.

"Fine, I think," Nene replied vaguely, sweat trickling down her face inside her helmet. This was incredibly touchy work; whoever had programmed the watchdog was a master. "I just need some more time." Emerald-green eyes flicked intensely over the data display, watching for any indications that her tampering had triggered something.

"All right, we'll try and buy you some more time then," Sylia sighed. "There's just one boomer left, and Bert and Sylvie are trying to deal with it right now."

"Trying?" Priss queried, coming up behind them. Her hardsuit was relatively unscathed, with a few scratches showing through the dust and dirt coating her armour.

"It seems to be a Doberman," Sylia explained. "I've only heard the sketchiest report from them though; they're too busy staying alive to be more explicit."

"Well what're we waiting for then?!" Priss demanded. She spun and charged out into the factory before anyone could say anything.

"Priss, wait a sec...damn!!" Sylia swore, gritting her teeth. "Linna, stay here and watch Nene's back; there may be more boomers around."

"No problem," the green-suited woman assured her. "I'll keep watch."

"I hope this won't take long, but if you get finished before we're through with the boomer, get out and get that data back to the KnightWing," Sylia directed. "Once you're finished, we'll be right behind you." With that, the white hardsuit sprinted through the hole in the wall, heading for the fight everyone could now hear rampaging in the distance.

****

"You all right?!" SkyKnight panted, grabbing a red-armoured arm and hauling Sylvie out from under a pile of collapsed conduit and pipe. Snapping a quick burst of laser fire at their foe to keep it momentarily at bay, he bodily hauled his comrade away from the wreckage, retreating from the biomechanical hulk. The red-gray suit flailed around for a bit, dazed at first, but her coordination returned quickly, and she managed to get her feet under herself again.

"I'm fine now," she assured him. "Just stunned for a minute."

"You've got to pay attention to the battlefield at least as much as your opponent," he told her as he released the grip he had clamped on her arm. "Especially in a confined space; it can either be used to your advantage, or it can be a liability, depending." They continued to back away from the slowly advancing boomer. Oddly, it had stopped firing weapons, and was trying for the 'up close and personal' approach of physically crushing them.

"Case in point, right?" Sylvie suggested dryly, taking a quick glance at the crumbling building around them.

Flames danced luridly in the smoky shadows, and a thick pall of smoke was gradually lowering as parts of the facility burned. The boomer's massive beam weapon had cleaved through the entire building, judging from the looks of it, and started fires in half-a-dozen places. Beams were slowly buckling all over, creaking and groaning over the uneven stress load that shearing off some of the other support structures had caused. Off in the distance, severed pipes spewed burning plumes of gas into the air, and contributing to the fires. Throughout it all, sections of the building had started to collapse, dropping chunks of masonry and other debris to the floor, shaking the concrete beneath their feet with an ominous promise.

"Right. Duck!" the silver hardsuit replied, giving her a sideways shove as he leaped away in the opposite direction. A second or so later, the tail end of a large pipe whizzed through the space they'd been standing it. Sylvie staggered, but managed to keep her balance as she dodged and crouched. The boomer seized the opportunity of their momentary distraction, and charged forward.

"This is insane!" she shouted, boosting herself with her jets into a twisting mid-air loop that brought her down behind the boomer. She blasted away with her laser, vainly hammering at the creature's armour. "We can't maneuver, and we're in more danger from the building than from this thing!!"

"I know that!!" SkyKnight snapped, ducking and dodging the ponderous, pawing swipes that the boomer was trying to tag him with. "We've got to at least cripple the bastard somehow first before we can get away." The silver-clad hardsuit ducked under another slashing claw, and suddenly blasted straight up into the air, his jet turbines howling.

The huge boomer snarled menacingly, and lashed out with a hand to try and grab the airborne suit. As its taloned hand shot forwards, the silver Knight Saber whipped an arm down as an electric snap-hiss sizzled in the smoky air. A blue flash swept through the boomer's arm, and its hand dropped from its arm, cleanly severed at the wrist.

A mechanical shriek screeched from the maimed biomechanoid, as it charged the silver suit, enraged. Surprised by the unexpected move, the silver battlesuit was knocked from the air by a clubbing blow, and crashed heavily into a pile of burning wreckage. The hulking boomer lifted a massive foot to stomp the downed Knight Saber.

"Get lost, you bastard!!" an angry voice yelled. A moment later, Priss's blue hardsuit hurtled out of the smoke and flames feetfirst, impacting solidly with the boomer's bestial head. The rogue biomechanoid lurched, and was shoved slightly off balance, forcing it to put its foot down for stability. The blue hardsuit however, bounced like a tennis ball, and crashed to the floor herself.

"Priss!!" Sylvie's red-grey suit dashed up to her as she staggered upright. "Are you okay?!" The blue hardsuit wobbled as she got to her feet.

"Yeah, fine," Priss winced inside her helmet. Felt like she'd almost busted her knees with that stunt; the damn boomer was built like a concrete wall. "Just remind me not to try that again."

"Watch it!!" SkyKnight surged to his feet and shoved them aside, just in time to be clipped by another swing of the boomer's arm. Again he banged unceremoniously to the flooring. Before the boomer could exploit the momentary advantage, twin spears of crackling energy slammed into the boomer from above, diverting its attention.

"You weren't kidding about its size, were you?" Sylia's voice noted over the comm channel, as her white hardsuit landed next to the slowly rising SkyKnight. She fired a few more times with one hand, giving him a quick hoist with the other.

"We've got to get out of here," he gasped. "This building won't hold together much longer, especially with the way that thing stomps around."

"I'm open to suggestions," the white hardsuit replied mildly, firing another salvo at their foe. At the same time, Sylvie and Priss opened fire from behind, confusing the boomer as it sought to find what was annoying it; its combat AI was apparently not all that intelligent. Howling in frustration, the boomer reared back, raising its arms above its head.

"Aw hell, not again!!" SkyKnight shouted. He snapped both his arms up, and let drive with all four of his particle-laser cannons. The quartet of sizzling energy beams staggered the boomer slightly, but that was it.

The boomer wasn't about to fire its internal beam weapon though; instead, it slammed both arms into the floor beneath its feet. Instantly, jagged cracks spiderwebbed outwards from the impact site. Concrete cracked with sharp detonations, and chunks vanished, falling to the level below.

"Up!!! Everybody get airborne!!" Sylia shouted, horrible fear shooting through her. Before they could follow her orders though, the floor gave way completely with a crashing rumble, and an awful weightless feeling assailed her for a brief moment. Flaming debris followed the Knight Sabers and the rampaging biomechanoid as they hurtled into the abyss below.

****

"Got it!" Nene sighed in shaky relief, leaning back in her chair. "It's all downloaded." It felt like it had taken forever, but she'd gotten the files and left the watchdog program behind. She hoped she didn't have to perform another hack as difficult as that last one had been anytime soon; she felt like she was swimming in sweat inside her suit, and she really needed a drink of something. Reaching out, she disconnected the portable storage unit, and clamped it back into its carrying location on her suit.

"Finally!" Linna coughed in the smoky haze that was thickening in the room. "Can we get out of here now?!" The red-pink suit nodded, and stood. Nene blinked in surprise as she nearly fell over; she didn't think she'd been that tired! When she noticed her green-hardsuited comrade fighting for balance, she understood instantly; the whole building was trembling violently.

"Come on!" Linna snapped. "Let's get out of here!! This place is coming down around our ears!" Ceiling tiles dropped to the floor as if confirming her observation.

"But what about Sylia?!" Nene objected as she was hauled along by an arm out the door.

"Weren't you listening?! She told us to get out when you were done, and that's what we're doing!" Nene balked, grabbing at a pipe, but Linna kept hustling the young red-head along. The reached the catwalk leading to the exit, and began moving rapidly along it, fighting for balance whenever it lurched. Out in the factory beyond, they could see flames wreathing much of the internal structure.

"We can't just leave them!!" Nene tried again.

"I don't like it either," her friend admitted tightly, ducking as a chunk of conduit swung down in an arc, narrowly missing her. "But orders are orders."

"Sylia!!" Nene tried the comm frequency. "We're done and we're leaving! Sylia?!"

"I already tried that," Linna told her quietly. "There's no answer. Interference, I think."

"Then we've got to go look for them!!" she protested. "They may need help!"

"Nene!!" Linna's voice was exasperated. "We've got to get...."

There was a loud, metallic-sounding snap, and Linna turned in time to see the catwalk start to collapse as a section of piping crashed down on it. Driven by the momentum of the falling debris, the grating under the feet of the two hardsuits lurched violently, throwing Nene into the railing, and tossing Linna to the surface of the catwalk.

"OOOF!!" The red-pink suit doubled over the railing, clutching frantically at it to prevent herself from being launched headfirst to the floor a long way below. A scream from behind her made her turn, and she saw Linna's green hardsuit writhing in pain, her right leg pinned beneath a chunk of steel girder that had crashed to the catwalk.

"Linna!!" the young red-head screamed. Grabbing whatever handholds she could, she scrabbled over to her friend. The catwalk tilted into an even more precarious angle, and the supports holding it to the wall began creaking threateningly.

"My leg," Linna's voice was a choked sob of pain. "Couldn't get out of the way in time. Oh my GOD!!" The last statement was a shuddering gasp as she clutched at her pinned leg in agony.

"Hang on, we'll get you out of here," Nene pleaded. Bracing herself with one hand on what she thought was a secure anchor point, she reached down with the other and tried moving the debris pinning the green hardsuit's leg. Actuators whined in protest at the load; her suit didn't have the physical enhancements that the suits designed with combat as their main function did.

"Nene," Linna gasped, pointing. "Over there...get that piece of pipe." A tremor ran through the catwalk supports, and the debris on her leg shifted a bit, making her clutch it again.

The red-pink suit turned, and saw the indicated piece of pipe. It was about four feet long, and a couple of inches in diameter. The jagged ends testified to the force that had torn it loose. Reaching over and snagging it, Nene slid one end under the beam pinioning the leg of the green hardsuit. Bracing herself, she pulled up on the improvised lever. For several long, agonizing seconds, nothing happened. Nene strained a bit more, feeling like her arms were about to dislocate at the elbows; the twisted chunk of metal finally shifted enough for Linna to pull her leg free.

"We're going to have to risk flying in here," Nene said worriedly, dropping the pipe as the catwalk groaned and heaved again. "There's no way we can walk it now." Inwardly, she was torn. She wanted to go look for Sylia and the rest of the team, but her injured friend was the immediate priority. She stepped over to Linna's suit, and carefully put one arm around her waist, while looping one of the green suit's arms around her neck.

"Fine," the hardsuited dancer replied, sweat dripping down her face inside her helmet at the torturous fire coming from her lower leg. It was an effort not to scream every time an involuntary movement jarred it. "Let's just get out of here."

Thrusters hissed urgently, and the two hardsuits carefully lifted into the air, scooting towards where the exit and safety were hopefully located. The catwalk crumbled finally as they lifted off, crashing to the burning floor below.

****

An armoured gauntlet crunched a handhold into a slab of masonry, hauling a battered-looking silver suit into view. The red slot in its helmet glowed as SkyKnight swept his gaze through the underground chamber they'd fallen into. Rubble lay everywhere, and flames glowed fitfully from some of the scattered wreckage. What seemed like a long way above, a large, orange-lit hole flickered in the ceiling.

"Sylia?!" SkyKnight's electronic voice boomed through the semidarkness. "Priss?! Sylvie?!?!" He began to panic a bit as he lurched to his feet. Where was everyone?!

"Over here!!" Priss's voice called back, bringing an instant surge of relief. The blue-hardsuited woman appeared out of the dark, as beaten and dented-looking as he knew he himself was. A red-gray hardsuit walked behind her, limping slightly. SkyKnight seized the blue hardsuit in a relieved hug before he could stop himself.

"H-h-hey!! Unclench damnit!!" Priss hissed as her suit creaked, shoving at him. "Not so goddamn hard!!"

"Sorry," he apologized, releasing her. "I was concerned."

"I noticed," came the dry retort. "Where's Sylia?"

"Over here," the familiar voice of their leader called. "Checking on our erstwhile adversary." A faint white blob appeared in the darkness, gesturing to them. Everyone trooped towards her, relieved. As they came up to her, SkyKnight suddenly noted that the vile smell they'd detected earlier was even stronger down here. It was vaguely familiar, for some odd reason, and part of his mind worked at trying to remember just what it was.

"Don't worry, it's dead," Sylia assured them as they crunched through the rubble to where she was standing staring at a bulky, crumpled shape nearby. "It couldn't fly, and some of the pieces of the floor supports were driven through it when it landed." Everyone looked at the mangled boomer, mentally sighing in relief.

"Well then," the white hardsuit turned briskly, looking up at the hole in the ceiling a long way up. "Let's get out of here before the fires get down here." No sooner had she spoken, then the darkness surrounding them became alive as four pairs of yellow eyes began glowing brightly. Ominous rumbling noises that had nothing to do with the building slowly collapsing rolled through the dark.

"I think we're in trouble," Priss sucked in her breath sharply.

****

Sweat ran down Nene's face as she staggered up the entry ramp of the KnightWing, half-dragging Linna. Once in the cabin, she eased the injured woman into a seat, then went rummaging around for the medical kit they kept on hand for emergency use. As she searched, Linna pulled off her helmet, shakily wiping sweat-soaked bangs out of her face, and then let her head drop back to the seat, relieved to be off her injured leg, and grateful for the cool air inside the plane. With the weight off of it, the pain in her leg subsided slightly to a sullen, angry throbbing.

"Here, take these," Nene's voice made her sit up slightly. A couple of tablets lay in the outstretched hand of her suit. "Sorry we don't have any water to go with them," she apologized as Linna took the tablets.

"I can manage." The hardsuited dancer dry-swallowed the tablets, pulling a sour face at the taste of them. While she waited for the painkillers to take effect, Nene stepped across to the communications board and sat down in front of it. Flipping some switches, she began a call to their base.

"KnightWing to Base, do you copy? Over."

"Base here," Anri's voice replied cheerily. "How's it going out there? Finished already? Oops, Over!" she added after the channel went briefly quiet.

"Not quite," Nene sighed. "I'll give you the highlights so far, and then you'd better get your medical kit ready..."

****

Sylvie threw herself backwards frantically, barely avoiding the hissing swipe of a long blade as the red boomer looming in front of her attacked again. Sweat trickled down her forehead, making her eyes sting as her lungs frantically clawed oxygen from the air. She was in deep trouble, and she knew it. The killer biomechanoid advanced towards her, both blades out and held low for either a slash or a stab at her.

Her eyes darted fleetingly from the status readouts of her suit display screen to the area around and behind the boomer, desperately trying to find some avenue of escape. Her lack of field combat experience had put her at a severe disadvantage immediately, reducing her to purely defensive moves as she tried to keep the advanced combat boomer at bay. It had been relentless in its pursuit of her, and it had been all she could do to just keep herself intact; so far, she hadn't been able to even attempt an attack. If she hadn't had the advantage of faster reflexes and the better suit interface that her unique nature provided, she'd probably be dead by now.

Her heart hammered in her chest, and the rushing of her blood sounded loud to her ears inside the helmet. Some remote part of her mind was reminding her that she'd asked for this; she'd wanted to be in the front lines of a mission, and now she was getting her wish. I wasn't ready for THIS kind of a confrontation!! she snarled back at her subconscious. If only she'd had some more time to prepare...

The boomer lunged forwards again, eyes flaring brightly. Sylvie had a brief instant to hope her friends were doing better than she was before her fight for survival again swept her up into a confused whirl of motion.

****

SkyKnight rolled aside, jerking his helmet out of the way of the descending armoured foot. As the A-12's foot crushed a sizable footprint into the cement floor, he lashed out with his own kick from where he had been knocked prone, catching the boomer behind the knee. Caught by surprise, the boomer's knee folded under the impact, making it stagger sideways. The silver hardsuit used the momentary respite to roll upright and set himself again.

The crimson biomechanoid sprang fluidly towards him again, chopping downwards with its right arm blade; SkyKnight deftly parried it with one of his own swordblades, spearing his other arm-weapon at the boomer's torso. It twisted aside with unnatural agility, then launched into a blistering fencing display as it attacked with both of its arm blades.

It was humanly impossible to match the boomer blade for blade, even with his hardsuit. He'd already learned that lesson once the hard way, so he boosted himself backwards with his jet thrusters. The killer machine instantly sprang after him, leading with the points of its murderous weaponry.

The battle turned briefly aerial, as SkyKnight wrenched himself sideways through the air, avoiding the attempt to spit him like some kind of armoured pheasant, and opened fire with his particle-lasers. The boomer ducked the spitting laser storm, and blasted back with its own energy salvo almost faster than thought.

The air around him turned brilliant green, and pain washed through him as the shot struck him squarely, smashing him back. He had a moment to hope that his comrades were faring better than he was before a loud clang notified him that he'd hit the floor again.

****

"Well wasn't that useful!" Priss muttered disgustedly as the crimson-armoured boomer in front of her shrugged off her beam shots without harm. With a mechanical snarl, the armoured killer slashed the air with a return shot, which she ducked easily.

Priss boosted herself towards the red combat machine with her suit thrusters, her eyes intently trying to find an opening as the boomer shifted to meet her attack approach, dropping into a hand-to-hand stance. As she landed, it lashed out with blinding speed, directing a kick at her helmet; she ducked, jamming her gun arm towards the boomer for a point-blank shot. In a smooth, fluid movement, the boomer used the momentum generated by its kick to spin out of the way, and it spun around again with another kick.

"OOOF!!" The blue hardsuited woman flew backwards as the armoured foot plowed into her stomach. Sucking in a tortured breath, Priss rolled upright, and forearm-blocked the boomer's descending arm as it leaped at her. A jarring shock rattled her to her teeth, but she kicked out at the crimson biomechanoid's leg while straining to keep its arm away from her. The boomer quickly jumped back, trying to avoid her impact blasters, and it lost its balance as some of the rubble underfoot shifted. For one fleeting moment, it was vulnerable as it tried to remain upright.

"Gotcha!!" the hardsuited singer exulted savagely. Her gun arm snapped up, and a shattering blaze of laser energy speared from the gun muzzle, followed in quick succession by the flat crack of her railgun. The biomechanoid was struck squarely between the eyes by the shots, and it collapsed in a headless heap a moment later.

"Piece of cake," Priss panted, staggering over to the biomechanical carcass, giving it a couple more railgun spikes to the chest at close range, just to make sure it stayed down. After a moment to recover her lost breath, she charged towards the flashes of another battle, where she could faintly see a white hardsuit dueling it out with another boomer.

****

His breathing sounded harsh inside the confines of his helmet as he warily watched the boomer circle him. Bert made a mental note to try and figure out a way to have some kind of internal air-conditioning built into the suits; at least it might eliminate the problem of perpetually feeling like he was swimming in sweat during a fight. He returned his attention to the killer combat machine a few metres away.

A low rumble, almost like a growl emanated from his biomechanical adversary as it stalked him. A slow leak of oily fluid dripped onto the pavement from the ruined stump of its left arm, and faint wisps of smoke curled from the smoldering hole high on the right side of its chest. SkyKnight had managed, however briefly, to get the boomer at a disadvantage, and had gotten home with two particle-laser shots. If he hadn't been preoccupied with not getting killed himself by the boomer's swordblades, he could probably have aimed a bit better and ended the fight right there. At the moment, he'd take whatever he could get.

SkyKnight's armoured shoulder brushed the cylindrical wall of the storage tank near him as he backed away, and he stifled the surge of irritation that flared through him; of all the places to have to fight the boomer, why had he moved further into the tank farm that surrounded them?! Of course, he hadn't really had much time to scout the territory first, but it was still annoying, and potentially lethal, to be so hemmed in.

At the same time, the nauseating stench that had been pervading the air again assaulted his sinuses with renewed enthusiasm; whatever it was that was giving off such a foul odour had to be nearby. He hoped it wasn't going to get any stronger; it was already enough of a distraction.

The boomer's eyes glowed brightly as it blurred towards him in a renewed assault. The ringing clash of edged steel meeting another blade skirled through the darkness as the silver hardsuit met its charge, parrying the boomer's remaining swordblade with his left arm, as his right arm smashed the boomer's head back, re-directing its particle beam shot towards the distant ceiling above them. The silver Knight Saber had a fleeting instant to pray that it wouldn't bring down the roof on top of them.

SkyKnight leaped backwards as he parried a backstroke from the boomer, the gun on the left shoulder of his battlesuit sweeping into position with a loud clack. A sharp report accompanied the discharge of a railgun bolt, which buried itself halfway into the armour plating on the boomer's lower torso, just above its hip.

The explosive bolt blew a sizable hole into boomer, and the boomer's movements slowed suddenly; its hip joint had apparently been damaged, reducing it to a crippled-looking limp. With an enraged snarl, the crimson biomechanoid spat another crackling particle beam at its nemesis.

SkyKnight nimbly ducked behind a tank....and found himself staring at the warning placard for the container he was standing behind. There was an unmistakable 'Explosive!' warning on the sign, but that wasn't what had sent freezing chills of alarm through his guts. The name of the chemical inside the tanks was prominently displayed just below it: HYDRAZINE.

"Oh. My. GOD!!!" The silver-clad hardsuit spun violently, his gaze darting to the other tanks nearby, his frantic eyes noting now that all the tanks were similarly marked. At the same time, he berated himself for not recognizing the pervasive stench of the corrosive fluid sooner. There were few things that were as volatile, and as repulsive in terms of fragrance, as hydrazine, a major component of jet and rocket fuels.

His horrified gaze was wrenched sideways as his erstwhile opponent dragged itself around the tank to face him. There was a mechanical whir and snapping noise as twin mini-guns folded out of the crimson machine's shoulders. SkyKnight's taut nerves responded before he was even conscious of having decided to attack.

Whipping forwards, he smashed the boomer sprawling with a roundhouse swing before it could fire, and then dove over it headfirst. His jets kicked in as he passed over the boomer, catapulting him out and away from the floundering biomechanoid. A spray of high-velocity projectiles screamed through the air after him, but missed, instead tearing a gaping hole into the side of the nearest hydrazine tank.

SkyKnight didn't look back, but revved his jets higher, racing away from the shockwave and huge fireball that blossomed behind him.

****

Sylia hurled herself backwards, narrowly avoiding the raking energy blast that lanced through the air. She turned the backward-leap into a twisting handspring that brought her upright facing her foe again. Before she could get set for an attack, the crimson-armoured boomer attacked her again, rushing forward with blinding speed and slashing at her with its arm-blades.

Desperately, she parried with her own hardsuit blades, then fired the thrusters on the right hip of her suit, throwing herself sideways to avoid the particle bolt the boomer blasted at her. She deftly maneuvered herself through the air, landing a split-second later as she launched a blistering salvo from her own laser cannons.

The red-white energy bolts tore into the boomer, punching smoking holes into its torso, but apparently without seriously injuring it. With an enraged snarl, the boomer leaped at her, executing a spinning kick that would've done credit to any martial artist. The white hardsuit just barely dodged the devastating kick, twisting aside with a back-wrenching jolt.

How can this damn thing be this tough?!, the unbidden thought sped through her mind. She hadn't had this much trouble in a one-on-one fight in a long time, and she wasn't enjoying the experience. The boomer was tough, strong, and agile, and it was exhibiting relentless determination as it tried to kill her. Dimly, she realized that the boomer's AI must have realized that a large part of the Knight Saber's successes depended on teamwork, and that was why they'd been split up; one-on-one, the boomers were superior combat machines. She prayed devoutly that everyone else was all right.

A white-hot spike of pain speared into her skull as the boomer landed and caught her helmet with a sweeping backhand. The blow, delivered without even turning around, carried enough force to send her staggering sideways, momentarily stunned. The boomer seized the opportunity immediately, and the white-armoured leader of the Knight Sabers felt two more numbing impacts send her staggering back.

There was a loud clang as Sylia felt her back hit the wall. Still dazed and reeling, she was unable to do anything as the boomer's metal-clad fist smashed into the torso of her hardsuit, high on the left side of her chest. Metal crunched and squealed as her suit was sandwiched between the boomer's fist and the wall; something snapped agonizingly within her, spearing her with red shards of incredible pain. Sylia didn't even have time to scream as the shock swept a black shroud over her sight.

****

Sylvie staggered backwards, nearly blind from the sweat streaming into her eyes. Her breath was a pained rasp now, and she knew with certainty that she was as good as dead. Despite valiant effort on her part, she hadn't been able to turn the tide of the battle, and the boomer had almost contemptuously destroyed her endurance with a punishing rate of attacks. She was willing to swear that the damn thing was laughing at her as it advanced slowly, the long edged weapon extending from its right arm slowly lifting for another strike at her.

A tremendous detonation shook the entire building, and the compressive shockwave from whatever had exploded buffeted her. Shocked, she forgot completely about her opponent, and spun to gape at the expanding inferno roughly fifty metres away. As she stared at the raging flames, a familiar droning noise heralded a flickering shape that was flying at high speed towards her.

She promptly forgot all about what was happening at the other side of the building as her opponent grabbed her by the neck from behind. Crushing agony raced through her as she grabbed at the boomer's hand, but she couldn't get the leverage to break the iron grip. She was strong, and her hardsuit enhanced her strength even further, but she just couldn't get a purchase to loosen the boomer's hand with. Tears squeezed out of her eyes as the clenching hand tightened further. One lousy mistake...she could just picture the boomer preparing to skewer her from behind,

The sizzling whipcrack of an energy beam burning past her eased the death-grip on her neck abruptly, but not totally. She was helplessly dragged sideways by the remorseless boomer as it turned. Her eyes were still squeezed shut as she braced herself for the inevitable swordblade in the back. It never came.

"Sylvie, can you hear me?" SkyKnight's electronic voice drifted to her ears. Opening her eyes, she could see a familiar silhouette against a savagely burning wall of flames in her suit viewscreen. The silver hardsuit stepped sideways a few steps, and she was hauled around to face him. Abruptly, she realized that the boomer was using her as a human shield; Bert couldn't shoot at the boomer without hitting her.

"Sylvie!! If you can hear me, answer me!!"

"I can hear you," she replied, vaguely pleased that there weren't any tremors in her voice.

"Good," came the reply. "I'm going to try something now, so brace yourself. Try not to struggle too much."

"What?! What are you going to do?!" Sylvie couldn't quite believe what he'd just said. 'Try not to struggle'?! He wasn't the one with his neck being squeezed!!

"Trust me," came the not-so-soothing response. Sylvie watched, her stomach churning around uneasily as SkyKnight began drifting slowly closer to her and her captor. The boomer backed off, dragging her with it.

"Whatever you're doing, do it faster!" she choked as the boomer's hand clenched again.

"Okay, let's see how smart you really are, you bastard," she heard him mutter. The glow from SkyKnight's visor eyeslot began to pulse at regular intervals, and her suit sensors informed her that a targeting scan was passing over her.

The boomer obviously detected it as well; realizing that the silver Knight Saber was trying for a targeting lock on it, the crimson biomechanoid hauled the captive red-grey hardsuit closer to it, trying to shield as much of its body with hers as it could. The boomer was still taller than her, though, and she was beginning to have difficulty breathing; with her feet dangling a full two feet above the floor, she felt like she was being hanged.

"Okay, try to figure this one out then," she heard, just before her suit viewscreen lit up with all kinds of screaming warnings. He was locking his targeting systems onto her suit instead of the boomer!!

"What the hell are you doing?!" she protested frantically, trying vainly again to get away from the boomer. "Shoot the boomer, not me!!" SkyKnight seemed to be ignoring her, and his arms came up. A low hum began to emanate from his arm-cannons.

The boomer appeared bewildered, and its grip on her neck wavered a bit. Her sensors were still warning her that a weapons lock had been established on her when everything suddenly lit up in a flare of brilliant red energy. Stray electrons sizzled and spat in her ears as she felt the boomer holding her jerk sharply, and stagger. A moment later, she was free, as two more crackling detonations seared the air. Sylvie tripped on something and fell to her hands and knees.

"You all right?" A pair of helping gauntlets accompanied the question. Vision clearing, the hardsuited sexaroid looked up at SkyKnight as the silver-clad hardsuit helped her back to her feet.

"I think so," she answered, gratefully drawing an unobstructed breath. The sharp pains stabbing into her head from the base of her neck reminded her of what had almost happened, and she promptly found herself getting angry at him. "Just what did you think you were doing back there?!" she demanded hotly. "I almost got killed!!"

"I'm sorry," he said soothingly. "I didn't have time to explain, and the boomer might have understood if I had. I bluffed it."

"Bluffed it?!" she repeated blankly.

"It didn't expect me to fire at it since I had a target lock on you," he explained, shrugging. "I didn't have my weapons tied into the targeting systems though, so I could shoot at it the minute I had an opening."

"And just how could you be so sure you wouldn't miss and hit me?!"

"Practice," he replied matter-of-factly. "Why do you think I do so much archery?"

Sylvie just stared at him in disbelief.

****

"SYLIA!!!" Priss shouted, horrible fear surging through her as she watched the white hardsuit crumple to the floor, slumped against the wall. The boomer stepped towards the fallen hardsuit, obviously intending to finish her off. Priss launched towards the boomer on her flight jets, racing against time.

"Get away from her!!" the panicking blue hardsuit screamed, firing a steady stream of energy beams at the boomer. The red biomechanoid was struck by a pair of the shots before it realized it had another adversary to contend with. It sprang away from the downed hardsuit, snarling viciously.

Priss landed between the injured white hardsuit and the red combat machine, her mind racing. She needed a way to end the fight quickly, partly so she could help Sylia, and partly because she was tired herself, and knew she couldn't last through another fight like her own solo combat had been.

The rolling boom of a not-to-distant explosion sent a cloud of smoke and flames racing towards them. The boomer misinterpreted the explosion from behind it as an attack, and leaped sideways, half-turning to face what it thought was a new assailant. Instantly, the blue-armoured Saber threw herself at the boomer, attacking with everything she had.

The boomer tried dodging, but was too slow in reacting; desperation had given Priss a momentary advantage over it. It staggered away from her, smoke pouring from the hole ripped into the side of its neck by her almost point-blank volley of railgun spikes. She gritted her teeth determinedly, and sprang into the air with her jets as she aimed a kick at the boomer's skull. Her armoured boot impacted solidly with the biomechanoid's head, and her impact blasters blew it apart with a satisfying display of pyrotechnics.

Hardly pausing to catch her breath, the blue hardsuited woman dropped back to the floor, then speedily but carefully picked her way across the rubble to where Sylia was still slumped. Kneeling next to her, she gently turned her over, sucking in her breath in dismay at the sight of the crumpled armour plating on the white suit's left shoulder. It didn't look good.

"Sylia?" she tried calling. "Can you hear me?" There wasn't any response, so Priss reached over and was about to try opening Sylia's visor to check on her when the heavy crunch of armoured feet on concrete sounded behind her. Spinning violently, she lunged to her feet as she speared her gun arm towards where the footsteps had come from.

"Hey!!! Peace!! Time out!!" SkyKnight yelped, throwing his armoured arms across his helmet as he ducked frantically. Priss just barely kept from shooting him; the adrenaline hadn't quite worn off yet.

"You stupid asshole!!" she spat, lowering her arm and powering down her weapons. "Don't sneak up on me like that!!" Behind the cringing silver hardsuit, a red-grey hardsuit limped into view.

"I'm wasn't sneaking!" he protested, straightening up. "I..."

"Never mind," she cut him off flatly. "Are either of you hurt?"

"Not really. Some bruises and the like, but that's it."

"Good." In the distance behind her friends, Priss could see flames wreathing the chemical tanks, and decided that any further conversation was better carried out somewhere very far away from their current location.

"Sylia's hurt bad, and we're going to have to carry her," the blue hardsuit informed them. "This place could go up any second, so we've got to get the hell out of here. Sylvie, get her feet; I'll take her shoulders." The red-gray hardsuit started to stoop down.

"Hang on a second! We can't carry her like that; we might make something worse!" SkyKnight objected. He hastily glanced around, then saw what he was after. With a quick burst from his flight system, he zipped over to the wall near a storage tank, and wrenched loose the metal ladder from the wall. Swooping back to where Priss and Sylvie waited tensely, he quickly chopped the ladder down to a suitable length with his lightsaber.

"There: one makeshift stretcher," he proclaimed, carefully dropping it to the floor next to Sylia. It took a few more moments to gingerly ease their fallen leader onto the ladder, and secure her suit to it with some stray wiring. Priss and Sylvie picked up the improvised litter.

"Okay, now let's get the hell out of here!" Priss said, her helmet looking up towards the distant exit hole. Angrily burning pieces of wreckage hit the floor around them as they gently lofted into the air on hissing jet thrusters.

As they moved steadily upwards, the rain of flaming debris increased in intensity as loud rumbling began to drown out the crackling flames. A few of the falling pieces zipped by with uncomfortable closeness, and SkyKnight had to ride shotgun, using his lasers to snap-shoot at any debris which might hit them. After what seemed like an eternity, they made it to the upper level, and vanished into the thick clouds of black smoke, hurrying to find the exit.

****

"Nene!! You can't go back in there!!" Linna objected. She unwisely tried to stand, then collapsed gasping back into her chair as her leg screamed at her despite the painkillers she'd taken. "I know how you feel, but it's too dangerous!!" Her red-pink suited friend stayed out of her reach, and determinedly began moving towards the lowered exit ramp of the KnightWing, pausing long enough to drop the portable storage unit that had been the focus of their mission into another seat.

"I can't stand it anymore!!" she declared adamantly. "They should've been back by now!!"

"Hold that thought!!" Sylvie panted, rushing past the startled young woman. She threw herself into the pilot's seat in the cockpit, thumbing a series of switches and starting the warm-up sequence for the plane's engine. As a low thrum began to carry through the plane, a very battered and dusty blue hardsuit backed up the loading ramp into the plane cabin, carrying a silent and still white hardsuit gingerly on a makeshift stretcher. The other end of the stretcher was being held by SkyKnight, who looked equally the worse for wear.

"Nene, you'd better call home base and get Anri standing by," Bert advised as the loading ramp closed behind him. "I think Sylia's in a bad way."

"Already done," she replied crisply, her tone faintly smug. "Linna's going to need some medical attention too."

"What happened?!" Priss asked in surprise, glancing over. The green hardsuit sighed, then winced.

"I got caught by a falling chunk of the building," she replied in disgust. "No time to dodge it. What happened to Sylia?"

"A goddamn red boomer, that's what," SkyKnight told her tersely. Moving carefully, he and Priss moved to the rear of the cabin, and gently slid Sylia's body from the stretcher onto the emergency bunk that folded down from the wall. He glanced down at Sylia's suit as they strapped her down for the rapid trip home, and felt worry again stab through him at the sight of the crushed-in armour on her chest and shoulder. "Should we try getting her suit off?" he asked uneasily, indicating the damage. "I really don't like the looks of that."

"Better let the doc handle that," Linna advised from behind him, wincing to herself as she tried to get comfortable. "We don't want to make anything worse."

"Brace yourselves!" Sylvie's voice called. "We're leaving!!" Everyone grabbed for something solid to hang on to as the plane jerked sharply, the whine of its engines rising to a thunderous roar.

Climbing urgently into the cloudy skies, the sleek black plane banked and shot off into the distance, leaving behind the burning factory on the edge of the Canyons. A moment later, a massive fireball engulfed the what remained of the building, sending billowing fountains of smoke into the sky, and raining debris on the surrounding city.

****

Bert's head jerked up from where it had been pillowed on his arms on the table as the door to the lounge creaked open. Blinking aching eyes, he tried stifling a yawn as he looked towards the entrance. Although comfortably furnished, the lounge was used mostly as a waiting room if someone was in the infirmary. On the couch across the room from him, Sylvie lay sprawled out, trying to relax. One arm was thrown over her eyes to protect from the glare of the room lights, and her sock feet were propped up on the arm of the sofa. She was wearing her bike suit again; Bert idly wondered if she actually had any other regular clothes.

"Where's everyone else?" the crusty old doctor inquired as he walked into the room, dropping his kit in the chair by the door. He looked the same as he always had: tall, thin, and old, but now he also looked tired, and there was an exhausted slump to his shoulders.

"They're waiting somewhere else," Bert replied uncomfortably as he stood up from his chair. "It's kind of a long story." Originally, Nene and Priss had been waiting in the room with them. Unfortunately, with the immediate stress of the mission over, the hurt feelings Nene had been able to ignore earlier had begun to leak through her control. Priss had left, saying she'd check back later; he had a pretty good idea of where she was waiting.

He also knew why she'd left, since he was sharing the same awkward and uncertain feelings she was whenever Nene was present. He'd sat for a few minutes as guilt worked relentlessly on him, but then Nene had stood, quietly declared that she'd be waiting in Sylia's apartment for word, and left. That had been over two hours ago.

"Hmmm," the old medico looked at him thoughtfully, then shrugged. "I'll need your help moving my patients upstairs," he informed him. "Both of you; Anri and I can't manage by ourselves."

"How are they?" Sylvie asked, sitting up and swinging her feet to the floor.

"Fine," he sighed tiredly. "The young lady with the black hair and blue eyes..."

"Linna," Sylvie supplied, standing and stretching, wincing as her sore neck complained at an incautious movement.

"....has a wrenched knee and a fractured shinbone, plus some heavy bruising," the doctor continued as if uninterrupted.

"And...Sylia?" Bert spoke up hesitantly. The doctor's jaw tightened, and for the first time, Bert saw very deep concern flash in his eyes briefly. It was quickly masked.

"She has a broken collarbone and some torn muscle in the shoulder," he said quietly. "She's not in any danger, but she will be out of action for a while." He glanced at Sylvie. "I understand you've been helping her run her store?" The tall dark-haired woman nodded. "Good. Keep at it," the old man directed. "She's not to do anything, and I mean anything, for two weeks at least."

"As for you," the doc turned to the tall red-head, "I expect you to handle the other 'business', shall we say. The most I'll allow her to do is sit at a computer, if that, and I want you to make sure she doesn't go beyond those limits. Clear?"

"I'll do my best," he promised.

"Good," the doc grunted gruffly. "Now, if you two will give me a hand?"

 

THE NEXT DAY .....

Sylia sighed irritably, shifting around on the couch and trying to get comfortable. She immediately regretted it, as a searing spike of pain stabbed her chest, overcoming even the barrier of the painkillers she'd taken. She didn't dare up the dosage though; her uncle would kill her if he thought she was overdosing, and she really didn't need an addiction to the things.

She carefully lay back, wishing for the thousandth time that it hadn't been necessary to tape and splint her left arm into immobility as well. Trying to do anything with one hand was incredibly awkward and frustrating, turning normal rituals like getting dressed into lengthy, painful processes. As it was, she was wearing an old baggy tracksuit; it had proven to be the easiest to get into, and the most comfortable at the moment.

A pensive frown creased her brow as she stared at the ceiling, ruminating on the mission the night before. While on the surface it looked like the Knight Sabers had been successful, she couldn't escape the feeling that somehow something had been missed. She went over the mission again with care, trying to see what was eluding her. A loud knock on the door to her apartment shattered her concentration. Sighing in irritation, she slowly began sitting up.

"You don't have to get up Sylia," Nene's voice called cheerily. "I let myself in." She looked remarkably pert, bright-eyed and fresh. She was wearing her ADP uniform, and looked crisp and neat.

"I'd noticed," she replied dryly with a faint smile. "You're certainly chipper this morning."

"Shouldn't I be?" the youthful officer replied. Some of the cheer disappeared as she sat down across from her. "You said I had to move on, so I'm trying." For a moment, Sylia saw the intense emotional pain she was still fighting flash in her eyes. "I've .... wished them luck," she said after a moment, taking a deep breath and biting her lip as her composure cracked a bit. "I'm... trying not to let it bother me, but..."

"I understand," Sylia smiled gently, sparing her having to elaborate further. She sat back, giving Nene an appraising glance. "You're off to work soon, I presume?"

"Uh-huh," Nene regained some of her bounce. "I've got an afternoon shift, so I thought I'd check on you and Linna first. Need anything?"

"Other than instant healing?" Sylia suggested with a wry smile. "I'm fine, thanks. Sylvie made sure she left the kitchen stocked with ready-to-serve food made up, and Anri is due to check on us later today."

"Okay," she replied, starting to stand. "I'll go check on Linna, then." Sylia stopped her with a gesture.

"I did have one thing I wanted to say before you go," she told the young red-head. "You did extremely well on the mission last night. Good work; I'm proud of you." Nene flushed at the compliment, then grinned a bit shyly.

"Well, I did do a bit more than maybe just get the files we were supposed to," she confessed.

"Oh?" Sylia raised an eyebrow. "What did you do?"

"While the files the client wanted were downloading, I looked around and found some files on the specs for those new boomers; it looks like they tried to wipe them from the system, but they didn't do a very good job. I was able to re-build them without too much trouble." She grinned again, shrugging. "I figured we might as well take a copy of our own, sort of as a bonus." Sylia couldn't help laughing out loud at the smug look on her face.

"Yes, very good work," the Sabers' leader repeated, amused. "I'll look at the data later. You'd better go check on Linna, and make sure she isn't trying to get up." Sylia watched as the slender red-haired woman left the room, heading for the guest room where her injured friend was laid up. Shaking her head in bemusement, she sighed and shifted around on the couch again, the day somehow seeming a bit brighter.

****

A very satisfied smile crawled across Kate Madigan's normally cool features as she walked into Quincy's lofty office, almost caressing the file folder she had tucked under her arm. Her usual dark-coloured business suit was neatly pressed, and her long lavender-hued hair was perfectly in place; she was a bit vain about always appearing professional, and it helped add a bit to the intimidating effect her reputation had on underlings.

As she approached the massive oak desk the chairman seemed to live behind, his chair swiveled to face her, turning away from where he'd apparently been gazing out the huge bay window overlooking the city. Icy blue eyes watched her as she approached, and there was definitely a pleased expression on the craggy face of the CEO. A carafe and glass of ice water sat on the desk near him, moisture beading on their chilled surfaces.

"Madigan," he greeted her with unaccustomed cheer when she reached him. "And how are you on this marvelous morning?"

"Sir?!" She was taken a little aback at the unusual greeting. "Are you feeling well?!"

"Never better," he assured her. "I'm merely enjoying the morning and its boundless possibilities." He eyed her obvious confusion with evident relish for a moment, then sighed and became more like his accustomed self. "You had something to report?"

"The operation last night was a total success," she informed him. "Our liabilities have been liquidated." With obvious satisfaction, she placed the report folder in front of him.

"The plant was destroyed?" Quincy asked, taking a measured sip from his glass of water. He left the report sitting on his desk; he could examine it later.

"The insurance adjustors are assessing the damage now, and I expect the rewards from the claim will exceed several billion," she reported, pausing a moment to savour the taste of victory. "And there are no indications left that the facility was ever home to our combat boomer development. The fires and explosions left nothing intact, and appeared to be just another industrial misfortune. We may have to pay some fines for improper storage of dangerous materials, but they won't amount to much."

"We must sometimes deal with adversity," he mused philosophically. "What of the technician who was in charge of the facility at the time?"

"Unfortunately, we can't pin his death on the Knight Sabers as planned," Madigan replied, a trace of regret in her voice. "There wasn't much left to identify of anything."

"Pity," Quincy sighed. "After going to the trouble of duplicating their weapons, I'd looked forward to seeing more warrants for their arrest go out. What of their 'client'?"

"I wish them luck," Madigan replied. "The virus we sent them is remarkably efficient; if they have a business left by the end of today, I'll be surprised. We were fortunate that there was a disgruntled former employee willing to tell us what they were planning." Once the plot against GENOM by a smaller, non-affiliated corporation had been revealed, Quincy had seen an immediate opportunity to use the plan to his own advantage.

The first step had been to transfer the files the company had been interested in to a new location. Luckily, they had the perfect site: the production facility where the new A-12 combat boomers were being produced.

Despite throwing up every possible roadblock they could think of, the government had succeeded in getting a court-ordered inspection of the plant; somehow, somebody had received word that there was illegal weapons development going on in a supposedly innocuous, aging factory. An inspection was something that couldn't be allowed to happen; there was no possible way to hide all the evidence...unless the factory conveniently disappeared.

The hiring of the Knight Sabers had provided the perfect excuse. They were already notorious for destroying GENOM facilities, so it wouldn't be hard to pin the loss of this particular factory on them either. Making sure that a suitable welcoming committee had been arranged, and leaving some appropriately-placed explosives had also ensured that the building wouldn't survive. Arranging to have a murder pinned on the Knight Sabers would have been a nice added touch, but Quincy was willing to take minor little setbacks.

"It appears that our faith in the young woman acting as their computer expert was well-founded," Madigan continued, smiling coldly. "The computer systems never even twitched while she was working on them, and she downloaded the files intact, bypassing all the safeguards on the system."

"Excellent." Quincy savoured the taste of victory for a moment, then looked at his unofficial second-in-command. "Was the true nature of those data files discovered?"

"No sir," Madigan answered. "The pink Knight Saber didn't try accessing the files at all." Which was extremely fortunate, she noted in a silent aside to herself. The data files that the Knight Sabers had retrieved concealed a very virulent computer virus, one which destroyed all computer systems it encountered. If the Knight Sabers had uncovered that little fact before downloading the files, at least part of their plan would have been ruined.

"Was there anything else to report?" the craggy-faced old man queried, leaning back in his chair. Madigan sighed, looking momentarily irritated.

"Our other investigations have some promising leads, but so far no success," she told him. "With this matter settled, I assure you I will be devoting my full attention to them."

"Very well," Quincy nodded. "Proceed." Madigan bowed respectfully, then turned and left the capacious office. The door banged closed behind her as he turned his chair to stare out the colossal window overlooking the sprawling mega-city. After a moment, corrosive laughter began to roll through the room.

 

 

END
(Finally!!! ^_^)

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