Jeanne Hedge jhedge@enteract.com

All characters (except the ones I made up myself) are copyright Artmic, Youmex, and everyone else who holds rights for "Bubblegum Crisis."

-- Jeanne Hedge

Related works can be found at: http://www.jhedge.com

 

I love the way she moves.
I love the way she looks.
I love the way she gives her total concentration to whatever she does.
I love the way she smells.
I love the sound of her voice, a siren's song that pulled me from the abyss.
I love her.
She is wonderful.


True Love

Jeanne Hedge

 

Tokyo, Japan January, 2034

 

"Did you have any trouble getting away from the Raven?"

"No, we're off tonight. But, like I was telling you, we're stuck there for another week. And that club is _really_ strange."

"Oh? How so?" The two young women who stepped onto the elevator in the basement of the Lady 633 building began their ride companionably enough. But by the time they arrived at their destination, one was irritated, while her dark haired friend was attempting to hide her snickers behind a concealing hand. As the doors opened, the conclusion of the one's litany of grievances rang out loudly, easily heard inside their mutual destination, the penthouse apartment.

"...AND Janette's impossible to understand. Have you ever tried to decipher Japanese spoken with a French accent?"

"Are you on about _that_ again?" a short, redheaded young woman snickered as she opened the apartment's door. "We could hear you yelling from the basement! Give it up already, Priss."

"Yeah, I'll never be able to hear again," Linna said, as she stepped through the door and bent to remove her shoes. "Look, if it's so bad there why don't you just quit?"

"Yeah, what do you think this is? Some plot by the owner of Hot Legs to make you miserable so you'll go back so he can fire you again?" Nene mocked.

A fourth young woman joined them, smiling. "I told you the other day, Priss, there's nothing unusual about that club. I checked. I really do think you're making something out of nothing..."

"Aw, Sylia, not you too?!" Priss groaned.

"Why are you so paranoid all of a sudden?"

"Oh, shut up Linna. And I am _not_ paranoid!" Priss grumbled back. Her friends continued to tease her as they moved to the living room. Sylia sat down in her lounger, an amused expression on her face as she watched her friends carry on.

In late 2030, Sylia Stingray, then 20 years old, founded the Knight Sabers. She had recruited and trained three carefully selected teenagers, Linna Yamazaki, Priss Asagiri, and Nene Romanova, to be her weapons in her personal vendetta against the Genom Corporation. Now, after almost three years of extensive activity, the group's anti- Genom focus had mellowed somewhat. While their primary goal remained that of countering the mega-conglomerate's excesses, they had evolved into an elite mercenary force, available to almost anyone for the right price.

They had also grown to be a closely knit group, in some ways closer than family. One of the charter rules of the Knight Sabers, that the members do not know each other on the outside, had quickly fallen by the wayside when Nene, Linna, and Priss began hanging around with each other. That it had happened wasn't surprising considering the nature of the jobs they took, and that half the group _had_ no living family.

Of course, whenever she brought up the fact that there were excellent security reasons behind that particular rule, one of the others invariably asked her which rule was more important: not knowing each other on the outside or keeping in contact with the other members regularly. To which Priss inevitably added with a grin that if she was going to be executed for violating the rules, she'd like to know which rule it was she was dying for.

"I _said_, 'don't you agree, Sylia?'!"

Sylia jerked from her reverie. A quick look around showed she was the center of attention. "I'm sorry, Linna, you caught me daydreaming."

"Some daydream. You were really out there," Priss grinned at her leader.

"He must be really cute! Do we know him?"

"Nene, really," Sylia frowned, embarrassed to have been caught in such a state. "What were you saying Linna?"

"Just wondering when we were going to get started with this. I've got an appointment for later this evening."

"Appointment, huh?" Priss teased. "Blonde, brunette, or redhead?"

"Hush, you, or I'll make you go back to the Raven."

"Ladies, please," Sylia interjected, before things could escalate further. "Linna has a point. The sooner we get started, the sooner we can be about our business."

The trio took their seats on the couch and chairs scattered about Sylia's living room. "Before we get started," she began, "I've an announcement to make. I need each of you to schedule a time to come in for your physical measurements to be taken." Nene groaned, and Linna and Priss snickered in response.

"What's the problem, Nene? Don't you want your new suit to fit properly?"

It took a moment for Sylia's words to sink in. "But Sylia, they were just upgraded!" came the stunned response.

"Yes, Priss, I know. But you can only do so much with upgrades. Recent data leads me to believe that it's time to bring a new generation of suits on-line." Sylia looked at the still surprised faces around her, and forged ahead. "It will be a few months yet before they are ready, so don't worry, we'll be getting plenty of use out of this latest upgrade."

She smiled slightly. "If there are any special modifications you would like from your current suit, see me later." Priss began to grin in return, picturing more, more powerful weaponry, while visions of enhanced electronics danced in Nene's head. Linna, on the other hand, vowed to have a chat about making the 'monomolecular' ribbons attached to her helmet retractable.

"Now that that's out of the way, I'd like to discuss the real reason I asked you here. 2033 was a difficult year for us, in many ways. We had many obstacles to overcome, and personally speaking, I think, on the whole, we did admirably." Sylia had to stop. I am so _very_ proud of each of you, she thought as she turned her gaze upon her friends, each in turn. Friends she knew she could never do without again.

And they looked back at her: proud, confident, strong, with total devotion to each other, and total trust in her, shining in their eyes.

The moment came to an end all too quickly, and, having regained her composure, Sylia was able to continue in her usual businesslike tone. "But, there were also some things we didn't perform quite so well at. And since we'd rather repeat the things that we do well, and improve on the things that we don't do so well, I think it's time for a performance review."

As good-natured grumbles filled the room, Sylia dimmed the lights and activated a monitor set into the wall. A series of computer generated images featuring a blue hardsuit in action against various boomer opponents, filled the center of the screen. Suit telemetry covered the bottom and right side of the monitor, while suit-wearer telemetry ran up the left. "OK, now then. Priss. How many times have we told you _not_ to...."

 

"Ms. Asagiri? Edward Haskell, Nezumi Records." The tall, blonde man in the gray suit extended his right hand. Priss stared at him for a few moments, then went back to her burger.

"Nezumi, huh? Interesting name for a label," Priss said around a mouthful of food as she stared out the window next to the booth. "Have a seat. How'd you find me?"

"Followed you from the Raven. You're a big hit over there." Haskell slid onto the bench seat opposite her.

"Maybe. But tomorrow's the end of the run. We're opening someplace else next week." She took another bite of her burger and feigned disinterest in the conversation. Actually, she was paying careful attention to him, what he had to say, and, most importantly, how he said it.

"I know. Going back to the Legs."

Priss turned back to stare at him. "That hasn't been made public yet. You been checking up on us, Haskell?" she asked with an edge in her voice.

"Of course. How else am I supposed to decide if you guys are worth signing?" he replied smoothly.

"The usual way is to listen to the music, bud," she laughed. She took a sip of her beer, then continued. "So, you want to sign us, huh?"

"Maybe. What can _you_ do to make it worth my while?"

Priss stared at him, then scooted out of the booth and stepped across to his side of the table. "Haskell," she began tonelessly as she looked down at him with disgust, "I think you just lived up to your label's name."

"Come on, Priss. You're a big girl; you know how the game is played. Why don't we--"

He never got to finish, as Priss reached back across the table, grabbed her beer, and dumped it over his head. "That's not how _I_ play the game, asshole."

As she stomped across the room, headed for the door, she heard Haskell, still sitting at the table, laughing. "See you at Hot Legs, Priss!"

Priss stepped into the taproom, a secondary bar at Hot Legs used mainly by those more interested in drinking than music. She stood at the entrance until her eyes could adjust to the darkness. Most of the night's crowd had left by the time she had finished her shower and changed clothes, so she had little trouble scanning the room. She quickly spotted the two people who _always_ made it to her opening nights. Over the past couple years Nene and Linna had become sort of good luck charms for the Replicants. If they made it to an opening, things went well for the run. If they didn't, for some reason things usually became a disaster.

Priss stepped over to the bar to collect a drink, then made her way across the room, nodding to or exchanging a word with people she knew, ignoring those she didn't. Nene and Linna, seated at a corner table, stood to greet her as she approached. Nene, as usual, was overly enthusiastic in her appraisal of the performance, Linna only somewhat less so. Priss smiled to herself as the three sat back down at the table. If she ever needed an unbiased critique of her musical performance, she knew where _not_ to go.

Still trying to unwind from the show, Priss closed her eyes and leaned back into the chair, sighing blissfully. She let Linna and Nene's discussion of the relative merits of cheesecake versus fruit as a between-meal snack wash over her. After a few minutes, she had relaxed enough to nod off, only to be startled back to wakefulness by a kick in the leg.

"Hey, are you listening to me?"

"Uhh, whaa?" Priss responded intelligently. "What is it?"

"Geez, Priss, if you're so tired why don't you go home?" Linna asked.

"Wish I could. Got a meeting with an A&R guy later."

"Oh, that's terrific!" Nene enthused. "Which label?"

"Nezumi Records."

Dead silence. "You're going to sign with 'Rat' Records?" Linna said slowly, as if she couldn't believe her ears.

"We're not signing with anyone yet, I'm just meeting with their guy." Priss stifled a yawn.

"Is that him over there?" Nene asked, nodding in the direction of a booth by the door. "He's been staring at you ever since you came in here." Priss and Linna both turned to look.

"Him?" Priss studied the leather-clad man Nene had pointed out from across the room. "Nah, the Rat guy is tall, blonde, and acts like one."

Their sudden scrutiny seemed to disconcert the booth's sole occupant. He stood, and, after looking about a little wildly, grabbed a paper bag off the seat and left the bar, exiting back into the main room of the club. Priss and Linna turned back in their chairs. "Just another flake, I guess," Linna said with a snicker.

"Whatever," Priss replied, running her fingers through her hair. "Hey, either of you got your brush? Mine's turned up missing."

"Someone stole your hairbrush?" Nene asked in disbelief as she dug into the depths of her bag for her own brush, lending it to Priss.

"Yeah. I think there's a thief following me around or something. I'm missing lots of little things lately, but it's not like they're worth a lot. Mainly picks, strings, a t-shirt or two, stuff like that. And now my god damned hairbrush!" And I just bought it too, she grumped to herself.

"Did you talk to the manager?" Linna asked.

"No, he won't do anything about it. I tell you though, when I catch this guy...."

"What's the world coming to?" Nene commented.

Outside the club, a man in red leathers walked swiftly to a line of motorcycles. Working his own machine out of the bevy of bikes, he made his way to the streetlight illuminating the parking area. After putting the kickstand down, he leaned back against the seat.

Opening the paper bag he'd been carrying, he examined its contents, then carefully removed a towel from inside. He held the towel to his face for several minutes, inhaling the residual scent of its user. Sated, he folded the still damp towel, replaced it in the bag, and stowed the bag in the bike's storage compartment.

That task concluded, he reached into the pocket of his jacket and removed a hairbrush. Reaching forward, he adjusted the bike's mirror until he could see his own reflection, and began to brush his hair.

Priss had a headache. After four meetings with Haskell, four _loong_ meetings with Haskell, they'd finally gotten to the point where he brought out a contract. But she had her doubts about the whole thing.

It wasn't that the sections related to the contractual obligations of the band for performance and the label for support were bad. In reality they were perfectly acceptable; she'd hoped to have been offered better, but could live with this. The problem, as usual, was with the legal-ese. And the money.

Translation rights, reciprocal agreements, mechanical reproduction rights, performance rights, synchronization rights, sheet music.... _merchandising_ for God's sake. And Nezumi wanted a piece of everything.

No, more than just a piece. They wanted it all.

She was getting heat from the guys to get the deal done. Hot Legs was fine if you were starting out or had no other place to go. But it was beyond time for the Reps to have moved on. If they didn't sign with somebody soon, they ran the risk of becoming old news. Has- beens. Or worse, never-weres.

Two band meetings, and a lot of arguing later, and she was back at the bargaining table. After three hours, she and Haskell had come to an agreement about most things, but were stuck on something so ridiculous she'd couldn't believe he was trying to get away with it. In exchange for giving the band a percentage of the net for foreign translation of their songs, Nezumi wanted 100% of the gross profit for merchandising.

Translation rights were chump-change, unless they hit it huge. Getting a few points of the net meant they'd never see a penny; the label was always the one that determined if there was a net profit on anything.

Merchandising was going to lead to a tidy sum.

She wasn't going to stand for it.

The guys said take it.

Priss demanded to meet with Haskell's boss.


"Aw, no, not tonight!" Priss groaned as her pager alarm went off. She was due on stage in ten minutes. After the show she was supposed to meet with Haskell again, and maybe, finally, sign the contract. And now it looked like all her plans for the night were shot.

How the hell do I get out of this? she thought as she silenced the alarm. There was no way she could ignore the call-out. If Sylia found out, she was dead. Maybe literally. She was going to have to blow off another performance, which wasn't good, and Haskell, which was worse.

She stuck her head out of the dressing room, and waved over the bouncer stationed at the back door. "What's up Priss? Aren't you supposed to be going on stage in a minute?"

"I need a favor, Kenji. I'm not feeling well; it must have been something I ate." Well, the tako-yaki at dinner _was_ a little off... "I don't think I can go on tonight."

"Oh, Priss, that's terrible. I know how you _so_ look forward to playing here," Kenji said sarcastically. "You want me to go get Paul?"

"No. Just tell him I got sick and went home. Have him reschedule the meeting with that guy, Haskell, for tomorrow. I should be feeling better by then." The pager went off again, and again Priss, now red- faced, acknowledged it. Kenji stared at her for a second, then grinned hugely.

"Uh-huh." He turned and began to walk toward the backstage area.

"Tell him to tell Haskell I still want to talk to his boss!" Priss called after him, and he acknowledged her with a wave as he made his way in search of the Reps bass player to tell him he'd be singing lead tonight.


The demons are trying to tear us apart.
They tempt my love with the pleasures of the flesh.
They will be warned.
Just this once.


"This is Haskell. I need to speak with the Director. ... Yes, I know what time it is. ... Look Anya, I know she's there, now put me through." Haskell sighed with exasperation as his boss's executive assistant put him on hold while she went to 'see if the Director is in.' Dammit, who is Anya trying to kid? The Director is always in this time of night.

"Yes, Haskell," came the throaty voice across the audio-only line. "What do you have for me?"

"Good evening, ma'am. I've just concluded a meeting with members of "Priss and the Replicants." They are the group that--"

"Yes, Haskell. The group with the grabby lead singer who has an overly high opinion of both herself and her negotiating skills. Continue."

"Yes, ma'am. The group's representative was unable to attend tonight's meeting due to a sudden illness. I met with other members, who informed me that the group is more than willing to sign our contract as it currently stands."

"I see." There was a pause, and Haskell could picture the Director sitting back in her chair, eyes closed. She tended to do that whenever she was analyzing information. "Have you checked into those rumors about the singer?"

"Yes, ma'am. The stories are true: on several occasions she has left the venue shortly before or during the performance, claiming to be ill. At other times she has left with no explanation whatsoever. Additionally, several times in the past she has been unable to perform due to injury. There are no overt signs of the illnesses being drug or alcohol related, or due to some sort of physical or psychological problem. The injuries are apparently related to accidents on her motorcycle."

"And you still think it prudent for the company to invest in this band?"

"Absolutely, ma'am!" Haskell responded enthusiastically, finally breaking from his "corporate report" demeanor. "The musicians are not much more than a talented garage band, and, of course, the standard changes will be necessary. But the singer is worth the investment by herself. Looks, singing, performance... she even writes her own music. When we match her with better players, she'll be a gold mine."

Another long pause. "I don't think so, Mr. Haskell."

"Ma'am?" Haskell was stunned.

"Mr. Haskell, we have too many prima donnas under contract as it is. Prima donnas who are good looking, who can sing, who can write songs, who can perform, and _who_ _can_ _show_ _up_ _for_ _their_ _performances_. No, Mr. Haskell. We don't need any more headaches."

"But ma'am!" Haskell protested. "Surely we can--"

"Mr. Haskell, _that_ _is_ _enough!_" the Director snapped. Haskell immediately shut up. "Thank you. Now then, on second thought, I'm willing to reconsider my position. Is the singer still asking for me to enter the negotiations?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"When is your next meeting scheduled?"

"Tomorrow night, after their last set at Hot Legs."

"That hole? I thought they were playing at the Raven." The Director shuddered as she thought of all the time she had put in at Hot Legs when she was younger. "Very well, Mr. Haskell. I'm assuming all negotiations with this group, personally. I want all of your files and reports on them updated, completed, and on my desk in three hours."

"Are you sure, ma'am? You shouldn't waste your valuable time. I can--"

"Don't worry, Mr. Haskell. When I sign them tomorrow night, and I _will_ sign them tomorrow night, you'll get your commission. Three hours." She cut the circuit.

Anya stood from where she had been monitoring the conversation, and walked into the small kitchenette off of the office. When she emerged again, she was carrying two cups of tea. She set one on the Director's desk, and, keeping the other cup for herself, returned to her own desk at the side of the office. "Ma'am, are you sure about this? They sound like nothing but trouble to me."

The Director sipped her tea. "When you have been in this business as long as I have, Anya, you'll learn that you can find a use for everyone. Even the problem children."

"If I may ask, what use will you put these 'problem children' to?"

"Our performers already under contract are getting pushy again. We need an example of what will happen to them if they inconvenience us." The Director smiled coldly. "Miss Priss is going to be my example."

Sylia was awakened by the wail of the building's security alarm. Her first, reflexive, action was to seal the blast doors to, and the security doors within, the Knight Sabers complex. Her second action was to get out of bed and bring the building's live-time security monitors on-line. A quick scan of the area showed that she wasn't under active attack. A more detailed internal scan proved the building hadn't been penetrated, to any great extent anyway, and that whatever had triggered the alarm was gone.

Immediate concerns satisfied, she called Mackie at Raven's Garage, where he'd planned to work through the night to complete the preliminary design models for the new suits. Once she'd filled him in, she entered the command codes to download the last few hours of surveillance recordings from the security system. Only then did she take a few moments to get dressed. That done, she went downstairs to await the arrival of the police.

"Hey Priss, you in there?" Kenji knocked on the dressing room door again, a little louder this time. "Priss!"

After a couple minutes of pounding, a muffled "All right, just a minute," came floating out of the locked dressing room. Kenji put his ear to the door. Thumps. Voices. Male and female. Yep, they were at it again. He jerked away just as Priss threw the door open. "This had better be good," she growled as she reached over her shoulder to pull her hair from inside her t-shirt.

Kenji looked into the small room. A full length mirror on the wall opposite the door showed the reflection of a tall, red-haired man, just out of Kenji's direct eyesight, trying to pull his pants on over his boots. Priss looked over her shoulder to see what Kenji was staring at and sighed. She gave him a shove, and moved into the corridor, closing the door behind her. "What?"

"Sorry to interrupt," he smirked. Arms crossed over her chest, she glowered at him. "OK, OK, I'm really sorry, but I've got some messages to give you."

"What?" she repeated.

"Boy, you're nasty when you get interrupted, you know that?" He winked at her.

"Jesus, Kenji, I wish you wouldn't do that. It's impossible to stay mad at you," Priss smiled, the absurdity of the situation finally getting to her. "All right, let's have them."

"I'm just too irresistible," he grinned as he handed her an envelope. "Some joker came to the back door a bit ago. Said you wanted to see him. He wasn't on the list, so I didn't let him in. Would've gone looking for you, but you'd just retired with loverboy there."

"Leave it alone," Priss warned. "Who was it?"

"I don't remember the name," Kenji shrugged. "Some guy in red leathers. Seen him around, out in the crowd, but not in the back before. Seemed like the fanboy type. Anyway, when I wouldn't let him in, he asked me to give you that envelope. He had a message too; I wrote it on the back so I wouldn't forget."

Priss glanced down at the scribbled handwriting: 'Meet me out back -- 11 AM.' "What time is it?"

Kenji glanced at his watch. "Little before 11."

"OK, anything else?"

"Yeah, a phone call a few minutes ago. Lady said your lingerie is ready, but you have to come get it now if you want the special price." Kenji almost leered now. "Picking up something special? Do I get to see it?"

Priss's heart almost stopped, and her whole body tensed. That was one of Sylia's priority one code phrases. It wasn't quite on the level of a crash emergency or a Knight Sabers call-out, but she had to get over to Sylia's immediately.

"Here, throw this away, will you?" she said distractedly as she thrust the now crumpled envelope back into Kenji's hand. Without another word, she turned and went back into the dressing room, ignoring the man waiting inside, who had, by now, managed to get his clothes back on. She stopped just long enough to pull socks and boots on over her bare feet, then grabbed her jacket, helmet, and gloves, and headed out the door.

"Women," the two men said simultaneously as they watched her run towards the front of the club.


Again, the demons try to interfere with our love.
One of their minions is close at hand.
Because of him, she did not join with me.
He will intrude no more.


"Priss, I want you to leave town."

"Are you NUTS?! I can't leave now! I'm signing a record contract tonight! Send Nene or Linna on your errand, I don't have the time for it."

"This has nothing to do with the Knight Sabers," Sylia began, a bit hotly, "and if you'd take a minute to think about it, instead of yelling at me you'd know that too. To refresh your memory of current events, someone trashed every storefront in the building last night. Just hours, I might add, after you paid a supposedly secret visit. And he left a calling card, if finding 'Leave Priss Alone!' spray painted on your back wall can be considered a calling card."

Priss stared at her, her stubborn expression showing no sign of slackening. Sylia decided to try a different tack. "Look. Someone obviously followed you here last night. He's connected you to 633, which puts him too close for my taste to connecting you to me. He's obviously taken a strong interest in you. I want you out of here, if for nothing else than to cool off his interest before he makes a connection between you and the Knight Sabers."

Priss's face lost a little of its mulishness as Sylia's words began to sink in. "What did the police say?"

"TPD wanted to know if I knew anyone named 'Priss'. I told them I had two or three customers named Priscilla, but they didn't press for details." Priss suddenly stood and began to pace around the room. "Please, Priss, get out of town. At least until the police ID this guy and bring him in. If he's capable of vandalizing a building over you, who knows what else he could do?"

Priss completed a few more circuits of the room in silence. "I can't go anywhere for a couple days, at least," she finally said, placatingly. "Tonight I do the record deal, tomorrow we finish this run at the Legs, and I can't bail on that, not after signing with a label." Not with some of the screwy things Haskell has been trying to get away with. "It'll have to be the day after."

"Right. I'll call Linna--"

"No." Priss finally stopped pacing long enough to grab her things off the chair she'd dumped them in, and headed for the door. "You haven't said anything to Linna or Nene about this yet, have you?" Sylia indicated that she had not. "Then don't involve them now. I'm a big girl, I can take care of myself, and keep this guy off our backs too." Assuming you aren't just being paranoid, Sylia.

"Be careful then," Sylia called as Priss started to leave. "Let me know your travel plans. Maybe I can help."

"Hey, careful is my middle name!" Priss smiled back at her friend, then left, closing the door behind her.

"I wish it were," came the sighed reply.

"Thank you, Asagiri-san," the woman said as she capped her pen. The freshly signed contracts went into a manila folder, the folder into her slim-line briefcase, and the briefcase to a young woman standing behind and beside her chair. "A drink to toast our new relationship? I am sure this agreement will be profitable to both of us."

Priss nodded, and the pair drank in silence. "To _all_ of us. You, me, the band, your company."

"As you say. I regret that the terms of our agreement are not more to your... liking. However, if "Priss and the Replicants" perform well, I am certain that changes will be considered."

Priss shook her head in disbelief. These corporate types are all the same: a big pain in the ass, she thought to herself. And I was stupid enough to think bringing in the boss would help. "All right," she reluctantly agreed. "But I'm still not happy about it."

"You've made _that_ abundantly clear to Mr. Haskell. Which is why, despite regular procedure, he asked me to assume the negotiations directly." She smiled slightly; a shark's smile, with absolutely no warmth in it. "If this is so unpalatable to you, perhaps I should inform him that we are unable to reach an accommodation, and direct him to look elsewhere. There are, after all, other groups in this city."

Priss kept a carefully calm facade, but inside she shook with rage. Damn bitch. She can't treat us like that. She can't treat _me_ like that! I ought to tell her just where.... No. The guys will kill me if I blow another deal. They want this one. Priss forcibly calmed herself. "No need to go elsewhere, Oomori-san," she said, each word sounding as if it were forced out. "I just wanted to clarify our position one more time."

The shark disappeared, replaced by the businesswoman again. "Noted, and I believe our meeting is concluded. Good evening."

Priss watched as the record company's A&R Director stood, gathering her things to leave the darkened room that was Hot Legs after hours. "Hey." The woman looked up. "Something has been bothering me. Have we met somewhere before?"

"I think not," she sniffed, and left the room as quickly as she could, her assistant close behind.

"Bitch," Priss muttered under her breath. "OK, guys, all clear!"

The rest of the band emerged from the backstage area. "Well?" Paul demanded. He was the most outspoken of the Reps about making the deal.

"All signed. One year, with another year at their option. One album the first year, one in the option year, touring, performance support, the usual stuff." She thought briefly of some of the clauses that weren't quite so usual. Ahh, who cares about non-performance. We _always_ meet our performance dates. Well, almost always.... "The money's not the greatest, and you know I'm not happy with some of the terms, but it's the best I could do." Given that somehow that bitch knew you guys were pushing me into this deal.

Priss eyed the bassist narrowly. Was it you, Paul? Were you the one?

"Then that'll have to do," the drummer interrupted her thoughts.

"It'll be OK for a start, that's for _damn_ sure," Paul agreed. "But who gives a shit about that now, let's PARTY!"

"Damn right!"

Priss joined in the general euphoria of the moment, but passed when the drugs and booze came out. She hadn't engaged in what Sylia euphemistically called "recreational pharmaceuticals" since before joining the Knight Sabers, and, truth be told, didn't miss it. The high she got from performing and Boomer-bashing more than made up for them.

Besides, tonight was not a time to be even slightly blurred. She thought she'd seen what looked like the same motorcycle at least five times today. Thinking back, it seemed like she'd seen that same bike several times over the last few weeks. Of course, she couldn't be sure. She'd never noticed the rider. Or if she had, she'd never connected the one with the other.

Maybe what she'd initially thought of as paranoia on Sylia's part was rubbing off, but, real or imagined, the thought of being followed was beginning to spook her. Ah, I'm overtired, that's it. It's just these damn negotiations getting to me. I wouldn't put it past Leon to follow me around, she thought wryly, but there's no reason for anyone else to do it. But still, Sylia wasn't often wrong....

Or maybe it's just old age. Decrepit at 20. Early onset senility, that's the ticket.

Shaking off the dark thoughts, she turned back to her friends, determined to have a good time. Tonight was, after all, a night to party.


The demons are calling to her, and she's been blinded by their falsehoods.
They've promised her fame and fortune and happiness.
But she can only be happy with me.
She thinks she's leaving me.
She can never leave me. We are one, soul mates.
She must be saved from herself.
I must save her.
I love her.


Word of the signing spread quickly among the regulars at Hot Legs, and from there to the more casual fans of the band. Tonight, the club closely resembled a zoo, as it seemed like the entire city wanted in to see "Priss and the Replicants." After all, once they made it big most of the crowd wouldn't be able to get in to their venues, let alone afford the price of a ticket.

Newcomers already inside the club were removed, forcibly at times, as room was made for the regulars. Although upset that he would soon be losing his premiere attraction, the manager reacted like any intelligent businessman -- he tripled the cover charge, watered down the drinks even more, and was making a killing.

As a result, there was a sudden rush of new roadies appearing at the club's back door, all vouched for by one or another of the band's members. Which was how Nene Romanova and Linna Yamazaki found themselves on the main floor, helping Charles, the guy at the mixing board. Helping, that is, by staying out of his way and not touching _anything_.

When the house and stage lights went down, a stylish half-hour late, the crowd turned its collective attention from their mundane activities to the stage. Priss had dictated a change in the playlist; instead of their signature opener, "Konya wa Hurricane", the Reps were kicking off with another old favorite, "Rock Me." As the pulsing bass and percussion lines of the opening began, the crowd roared in recognition. The roar built as the wailing guitar solo joined the wall of sound thundering out of the darkness. An infinitesimal pause in the music, and the lights flared on as Priss began the verse. The roar of approval changed to something more primal, like that of some prehistoric beast, shaking the building to its foundations.

Priss strutted around the stage, putting everything into the performance, selling the song to the crowd of willing buyers. Nezumi might have spies in the house, and she was determined to prove that they were worth a better deal. There were times when Priss was totally drained after a performance; this looked to be one of those nights. And then...

During the reprise of the intro, Priss suddenly staggered backward a couple of steps, a surprised look on her face. As she fell to her knees, one of the can lights at the side of the stage exploded. Some of the crowd cheered this bit of rock-n-roll pyrotechnics, something new for the Reps, but Nene seemed to know instinctively that something was very wrong. The band vamped a bit when their leader didn't come in on cue, confused looks on their faces.

Nene grabbed Linna's arm and they moved out from behind the board onto the floor, shoving their way through the crowd of drunken or stoned (or, in some cases, both) fans, all intent on, it seemed, getting in their way. As they finally broke into a relatively clear area, Linna looked up in time to see Priss fall forward onto her face. The band ground to a halt, and the drummer climbed out from behind his set, moving to Priss's side.

"Get him! He's got a gun!!" The cry shattered the sudden silence engendered by Priss's collapse. The crowd started to panic: a few moving to the source of the cry, more moving toward the stage, most running for the exits as fast as they could.

"Go on!" Linna yelled into Nene's ear over the screaming crowd. "I'll see what's happening over there!" Giving Nene a push in the direction of the stage, she began shoving her way across the room to where several men were pounding on someone. Although it had only been 3 or 4 seconds since Priss fell, Nene felt as if hours had elapsed.

Thanking her stars that she was, for once, complying with regulations, Nene pulled her shield case out of the pocket of her jeans. She clipped her ADP ID card to her collar, and looped the case through her belt, all while worming her way through the rapidly thinning mob. The initial surge away from the stage seemed to have passed, and, after flashing her badge at one of the overwhelmed bouncers trying to move the remaining crowd out the exits, she climbed onto the stage itself. She walked quickly over to the small clutch of band members and stagehands huddled around Priss. Wiggling her way through the group, she was finally able to see her friend.

Priss was lying on her stomach, face turned to the right, feet tangled with some cables, wig askew. One of her band-mates (the drummer, Nene identified distractedly) was kneeling at her side, talking to her softly. She's only tripped and knocked her fool self out, Nene sighed in relief.

The drummer looked up then, the lost expression on his face shattering her illusion. "Please, do you know what to do? She won't answer me. She's just staring into space." Nene blanched, then knelt at Priss's other side and gently removed the microphone still clenched in her hand. She checked Priss's pulse, first at the wrist, then reaching across and checking at the arteries in her neck.

Reaching up blindly, Nene grabbed the nearest fist full of clothing she could reach. "AD Police. Call an ambulance." The person didn't move, and Nene looked up at him, anger suffusing her face. It was the bass player, and he looked back at her blankly. She shoved him away, wishing that there was someone she could count on here. Even Leon would do.

"Hey! I need some help over here!" she yelled at the nearest bouncer. Focused on a rapidly escalating fight near one of the side exits, he didn't hear her. "Hey! YOU!! FIIIIIIRRREE!!!" That got his attention. "AD Police. Call an ambulance. Call the police. NOW!" He nodded, and started moving toward the bar. Now that help was hopefully on the way, she returned her full attention to the injured singer.

Nene pulled the tangled blonde wig the rest of the way off Priss's head, then, with help from the drummer, she turned her friend onto her back. Priss's chest was covered with blood and gore from what looked like a gunshot wound, and there was blood trickling from her nose and mouth. Nene started to panic a bit herself when she realized there were air bubbles in the blood welling from the chest wound. OhmygodohmygodohmyGOD please don't let me fuck this up! her mind gibbered as she closed her eyes and took two or three deep breaths to steady herself. The crowd on the stage vanished when they realized what was happening. Someone had been shot and the police were on the way. Not a good place to be.

Nene grabbed the drummer before he could disappear, and sent him in search of a first aid kit, threatening to come and find him some dark night if he didn't come back. Then she took off her own jacket and folded it up into a kind of pad, and placed it over the wound, applying pressure.

She suddenly realized that Priss was watching her. From the look in her eyes, she obviously didn't understand what was going on, but there was some bit of consciousness there. Nene brushed the hair out of Priss's eyes with blood streaked fingers. "Hang in there, Priss. Everything's going to be fine. You just relax and keep still and let me take care of things," Nene muttered, trying to comfort her. Oh SHIT, why didn't I pay more attention in field medical training? What do I do now?!

"Oh my God...." Nene glanced back to see Linna standing behind her, a stricken look on her face. As she looked up at her other friend, another part of her mind registered the sudden quiet in the club. The drummer returned, dropped a battered metal box with a red cross on the lid on the floor at Priss's feet, and ran back stage again.

Linna broke out of her shock and grabbed the first aid kit. Moving opposite Nene, she opened it and began digging through the contents for something that could be remotely considered a bandage. Priss's eyelids began to sag shut; she was fading out. Nene reached out, slapping her face lightly, leaving bloody finger marks on her cheek. "Come on, Priss, stay awake. Stay with us here. Don't you do this to me, Priss. Come on...."

"No, nothing yet. When did she leave? ... Well she hasn't shown up here. ... That's right, Midori General. ... Of course I'll let you know, Mackie. As soon as I know something myself. ... Right."

Linna looked toward the bank of elevators as she heard the familiar _bing_ announcing an arriving car. A dark haired woman wearing a red business suit with a navy blouse and pearls stepped out and looked around. She spotted Linna at the phone bank and moved in her direction. Geez, Linna thought, she looks like she's spent all this time just getting _dressed!_ "Oops, here she is now," she said, returning to her telephone conversation. "I'll call you back later." She hung up the phone and turned to face the approaching woman. "It's about time you got here, Sylia. We called hours ago."

"I'm sure it's been difficult, Linna. Where's Nene?"

"Probably pacing a trench in the visitor's lounge. Where have you been?"

"Come on. It can wait until we're all together."

The pair walked in silence down the corridor, past the nurse's station, to the tiny visitor's waiting lounge. Nene looked up as they approached and rose to greet them. "No news," she said solemnly. "Where have you been Sylia?" she echoed Linna, a touch of rebuke in her voice. "We could have used some support here."

"Since Priss was already in surgery when you called, I felt I could put the time to better use. I've been doing some research, and making some arrangements."

"Research?" Nene loved Sylia dearly, and would follow her, as the clichi went, to hell and back. But there were times when she wondered if the icy mask Sylia showed the world really was her true self. Priss had almost died in her arms tonight. The doctors still weren't sure if she would survive the night. And Sylia couldn't find the time to come to the hospital and lend her support because she was doing _research?!_ "I hope to hell it was worth it," Nene continued to grumble under her breath as she slouched back down into her seat, staring at the floor.

Sylia ignored her, taking the seat next to her. Linna remained standing, leaning against the opposite wall, near the entrance to the cubbyhole. She rubbed her eyes, red with fatigue, and resumed her watch on the doors to the surgical suite. "In a number of ways," Sylia finally responded to Nene's gibe. "To begin with," she said, very matter of factly, "Priss was being stalked."

Linna slid down the wall to thump onto the floor. "A stalker?" she quavered, her voice betrayed her disbelief. The look of total shock on her face was mirrored by the one on Nene's.

Sylia opened her purse, removing a slim gold case. "Kusanagi Rei. Does the name ring any bells with you?" Both Nene and Linna shook their heads. "I thought you might have met him; I understand that he's a regular at Hot Legs. Anyway, he shot her. He's already admitted to following Priss around for several weeks now; apparently she never noticed. He says they love each other."

Sylia paused in her narrative long enough to light the cigarette she had removed from the case, totally ignoring the "NO SMOKING" sign on the wall. She inhaled once, deeply, then began to resume her story. "Don't put those away," Linna cut in, holding out her hand. As Sylia looked at her curiously, she clarified, "Your cigarettes. Let me have one."

"But Linna," Nene started, "you don't smoke."

"I do now." Sylia and Nene continued to stare at her. "Look, I've got to have something to do," she told them, barely controlled hysteria evident in her voice. She'd been holding together fine until now, but the thought of a stalker targeting one of her friends had shaken her worse than almost anything she'd ever faced. It was every woman's nightmare come to life. "I'm going nuts just sitting in here. And I don't dare leave in case...." She trailed off, leaving unsaid what they all feared.

Sylia gave Linna a small smile of reassurance and tossed her the case, keeping the lighter herself. As she'd half-expected, Linna didn't ask for the lighter, didn't even seem to realize Sylia hadn't given it to her. After holding it for a few moments, Linna began to play with the case, unconsciously turning it every which-way, opening and closing the lid. She settled back into her new vantage point on the floor, watching the doors to surgery. After a few more seconds Sylia continued her story.

"According to the police reports, the investigators say he's exhibiting some of the classic characteristics of a celebrity stalker mentality. For some reason he got fixated on Priss." Sylia sat watching Linna; she seemed to have calmed a little. "To the extent of killing someone who, he says, got in his way."

Linna seemed to falter a little in her toying with the cigarette case, but otherwise gave no outward sign that she was listening.

"They found a body in the dumpster in the back alley. The fellow's name was Honda Kenji, and he was a bouncer at the club."

"Oh my God...." Nene breathed. Then, in a whisper, "But, why Priss? Why shoot her if he likes her so much?"

"He told TPD that Priss had been blinded by the promises of demons, and that's a direct quote. He said that she could only be happy with him, and that someone had to save her from herself. So, since he loves her so much, he was the only one who could save her."

Nene looked at her uncomprehendingly. Linna was still off in her own world: she continued to stare down the corridor. Sylia reached over and patted Nene's hand. "Don't try to make sense of it. He's obviously a very sick person. If there's any good to come of this, it's that he's off the streets and won't be bothering anyone else for a long, long time."

After a few more minutes of uncomfortable silence, Nene looked around, and asked in a low voice, "So this has nothing to do with... her other activities? I mean, did he find out...."

"No," Sylia replied shortly. At least, I don't think he had time to make the connection, she thought to herself. God, I can't believe this is happening again, her mind rambled, and she shook herself mentally. I've _got_ to keep a positive attitude. Suddenly she smiled slightly, changing the subject. "I hear you're in for a surprise at work, Nene."

Nene looked up. "What are you talking about?"

"The Emergency Medical Technicians at the scene told the investigating officers that Priss would probably have bled to death before they arrived if it hadn't been for your quick thinking. TPD passed that on to the ADP, and you're going to get an award because of it."

Nene blushed furiously, staring at the floor to hide her embarrassment. Then her head jerked up again, and she glared suspiciously at Sylia. "Now wait a minute. How do you know all this?"

"You're not the only one who knows how to access outside databases, Nene," Sylia said slyly. For the first time in hours, Linna smiled slightly. But it disappeared as quickly as it began when the double doors at the end of the corridor opened. A man wearing a white lab coat over blue-grey surgical scrubs shuffled wearily through.

She jumped to her feet. At the other's look of inquiry, she hissed, "The doctor's coming."

The physician entered the visitor's lounge, where he was greeted by three sober-faced young women. He vaguely remembered speaking to the dark haired one in jeans briefly in the Emergency Room. "Asagiri?" he asked, as a matter of routine.

"Yes," replied the other dark haired woman. "How is Priss?"

"I'm Doctor Cengia Walsh, Ms. Asagiri's primary care physician. Ms. Asagiri is still in surgery. She's doing as well as can be expected at the moment. Would any of you be," he glanced at a note attached to the file folder he carried, "Dr. Ryoko Asagiri?"

"I'm Ryoko Asagiri," Sylia answered calmly. "Is there something wrong?"

Walsh opened the folder and began to flip through the paper inside, apparently looking for something. "You are Ms. Asagiri's next-of- kin?"

"Yes, she's my cousin, and I have her power of attorney. Has something happened?" she repeated, a bit impatiently this time.

Stopping his digging, he looked up. "The test results aren't back yet, but it appears that your cousin has suffered some sort of allergic reaction to the anesthesia we used. It was the damnedest thing. I've never seen anyone have a reaction like that before. She's lucky we were able to get it under control in time." He removed a few clipped together pages from the file, and handed them to Sylia. "This is her record from the MedNet database. Is there anything else not in here that we should know about?"

"Everything should be there. She always has her updates sent in," Sylia muttered as she began scanning the file. Walsh stood next to her, rattling on about anaphylaxis and treatments and types of anesthesia.

"She's going to be all right, isn't she?" Linna asked, running her hands through her hair.

Walsh turned his attention from reading over Sylia's shoulder to Linna. "The damage was fairly extensive, but she's doing as well as we can expect right now."

"When can we see her?" Nene burst out, almost before the doctor could finish.

"She's still in surgery now," he repeated. "Maybe tomorrow, or the day after."

Sylia handed the file back to Dr. Walsh. "That's complete, to the best of my knowledge. When will she be ready to transfer?"

"Transfer? To another hospital? Not for quite some time, Dr. Asagiri." The look he gave her plainly said, 'I shouldn't have to explain this to you.' After a moment though, he relented. There were, after all, times when doctors had to be treated like The Rest of the World. With a relative involved, it was clearly the time to treat Dr. Asagiri that way. He looked Sylia directly in the eye. "Due to the nature of her injuries, and now this reaction, your cousin is going to be a very ill young lady for quite a while. She'll be in intensive care for the foreseeable future."

Sylia took a deep breath, closing his eyes for a moment, her face briefly betraying her worry for Priss. "All right Doctor. No offense intended to you or this hospital, but I'd like to transfer her to a private facility as soon as she's able. Would you be the appropriate person to contact about the arrangements?"

A sour look crossed Walsh's face as he stared at Sylia. The temperature in the room seemed to drop more than a few degrees. "Yes. Please excuse me, I have to return to surgery." As he turned and walked away, they could hear him muttering, "Better worry about her surviving to _be_ transferred first."


Sylia knocked on the door to the office of Dr. Takezaki Ataru. Another of her father's old friends (and why had so many of them remained available to her, she never ceased to wonder), Dr. Takezaki ran a private hospital specializing in the treatment and rehabilitation of trauma cases. Although he had no inkling of her activities with the Knight Sabers, and she had no intention of sharing that particular secret with him, she supported his facility with generous donations. They helped at a time like this.

No one answered her knock. With the ease of someone who knows she'll be welcome, Sylia entered the office anyway, closing the door behind her. Making herself comfortable in one of the chairs facing the cherrywood desk, she removed a palm-top computer from her bag and began entering notes. She wasn't left waiting for long.

"Well Sylia, punctual as ever," Takezaki smiled as he entered his office. He motioned for her to remain seated as he took the leather- bound chair next to her.

Some things never change, she thought. It didn't matter where they met, or if she was early, late, or right on time. He always greeted her that way. "Of course, Takezaki-sensei. I wouldn't want to disappoint you," she briefly returned his smile, then turned serious. "You wanted to see me? How is Priss?"

"You should ask your friend that, Sylia." At her puzzled look, he elaborated. "Someone has been hacking into this hospital's patient records. The other day I overheard that little red-headed friend of yours and Priss's -- the one that's the police officer...."

"Nene."

"Nene, yes. The other day I overheard Nene tell Priss that we were going to take her off the ventilator that day." He frowned at Sylia. "Now, unless she's been sneaking into the nurse's station to read the patient charts or bribing my staff, the only way for her to have known that is to have read the on-line transcription of Priss's chart records. I would have thought a police officer, of all people, would know better than that."

Sylia looked a bit abashed for a moment. "Takezaki-sensei, I don't know what to say. Surely you don't really think Nene broke into your computer system, do you?" He continued to stare at her.

"Just tell her for me to make certain it never happens again."

"Of course. Perhaps she can have her department look into this for you."

Takezaki smiled a bit at this, as if to say, 'I don't believe a word of it, but I'll give you one chance to straighten her out.' "Good. Now then, about Priss...."

"How is she?" Sylia repeated.

Takezaki sat silently, collecting his thoughts. He remembered back to the night two weeks earlier when a very distraught Sylia had called to ask about admitting a friend who had been shot. The next day, reviewing her friend's case file with her attending physician, he had been impressed again with the amount of damage that one bullet could cause.

The only external indications of injury were the entry wound in her chest and the obvious signs of a broken left shoulder. However, she had also suffered extensive internal injuries from shrapnel, not to mention complications from her reaction to the anesthesia. Priss had been lucky that the explosive load in the ammunition was small: a larger charge could have easily blown her arm off.

"What can I say? She's doing very well, considering everything she's been through. Dr. Walsh and his team at Midori did a remarkable job keeping her alive long enough to put back together." Takezaki seemed to be gazing at something over Sylia's left shoulder as he mentally ticked through Priss's case file. "All the fragments are out of her heart and lung, and there's been no sign of further arterial bleeding. All we can do now is monitor the healing progress in those areas. In another few days we'd like to go back in and rebuild her shoulder."

"But...."

Takezaki broke from his reverie. "What?"

"I think I heard an unspoken 'but' there." Sylia looked at him steadily. "What's going on, Doctor?"

He sighed. "It's the anaphylactic reaction. Her lungs are healing, but her trachea, larynx, and vocal cords aren't. The standard treatments aren't working very well for some reason. Since you authorized it, we're going to try some new treatment regimens. But her shoulder is going to have to wait until we get this mess cleared up. She's had five operations in the last two weeks; unless it's life and death I'm not subjecting her to any further surgeries right now. They put too much of a strain on her respiratory system."

Another long pause, then, softly, "But in any case, I'm afraid her voice may have been irreparably damaged."

Sylia closed her eyes and drew a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Priss is strong, she can handle anything... but this....

The doctor watched the emotions flicker across his friend's face. When she appeared to have calmed herself, he added quietly, "I'm so sorry, Sylia. I understand that she's a singer. Obviously, we'll do everything we can, but I just wanted to let you know how things stand. A lot of her recovery is going to depend on her attitude. She's going to need her friends to help her through this." He stopped for a moment, removing his glasses. "Which is the main reason I asked you to come by today." Sylia looked up at that, shaken from her private thoughts. "Priss had some visitors this afternoon. Some of her bandmates. Apparently there's been some bad news...."

"Priss?" By the glow of the indicators on the monitoring equipment, Sylia could just make out a human shape on the slightly elevated hospital bed across the room. She appeared to be sleeping. Sylia quietly closed the door behind her and ghosted through the darkness.

"Sylia?" The voice, little more than a whisper, was harsh, raspy, and deep. If Sylia didn't already know the identity of the owner, she would have been hard pressed to guess its gender.

"Yes, it's me. How are you feeling?" She moved a chair from its place along the wall, setting it down beside the bed.

"How the hell do you think I'm feeling?!" The strain that exclamation of rage put on her abused body led to a coughing fit. Sylia was about to ring for help when it finally subsided, and Priss lay back, panting for air. She never seemed to be able to get enough air these days.

"Would you like something to drink?" At her nod, Sylia poured a glass of water from the pitcher on the bedside table, then held it for her while she drank.

"Thanks."

They sat a while in the darkness, each to her own thoughts, accompanied only by the whirrs and beeps of the machines monitoring and supporting Priss. At length, Sylia softly asked, "What happened? Takezaki-sensei said you had visitors, and that you've been upset since they left." Nothing. "Priss, please. Talk to me."

For the longest time Sylia thought she wasn't going to answer. Although she'd loosened up over time, Priss was still more comfortable keeping her own counsel. Finally, she spoke, haltingly, having to pause occasionally to get her breath.

"The guys... came to see me today. That bitch... from the record company... says they have to start... performing... next week or... they lose the contract.... Contract clause.... They were very... nice about it. Said... they felt terrible. They've been... assigned... another singer." Now the glow from the machines revealed unshed tears glistening in Priss's eyes. "All those years... all that work... and I'm out... like that.... They're going on... without me... and I'm... I'm...."

"Oh Priss." Sylia leaned forward, gathering her into a gentle hug as Priss sobbed heartbrokenly into her shoulder.

The weeks passed.

In a luncheon ceremony, Nene received the ADP's Meritorious Service Medal for 'conspicuous presence of mind in an emergency' and 'performance beyond the bounds of her expertise and training'. In a surprise announcement, Linna was given a Civilian Assistance Award by the TPD. She professed to being very satisfied with the %100,000 and the certificate that the award brought to her.

Mackie was selected to participate in an exchange program with a technical school in Germany. He'd left in early March, at the beginning of the new school year in Japan. Dr. Raven was sure he'd be able to continue to support Knight Saber operations without Mackie's help. Sylia wasn't as sure that he'd be able to keep up, and began to look for a reliable, yet discreet, technical assistant for him.

Sylia decided that, since Mackie would be away for the better part of a year, it would be a good time to do major renovations on both the Lady 633 building and her penthouse. Renovations to the Knight Saber's complex were also in the offing, including the addition of an aircraft hangar large enough to support the jet she had recently purchased.

Priss continued to heal. Dr. Takezaki's surgeons rebuilt her left shoulder when she was strong enough to withstand further surgery, and cosmetic surgery and other treatments erased almost all the scarring left behind. Her voice was also healing, but Dr. Takezaki's prediction had come to pass. It was still very raspy and fluctuating in tone, but it had become clear that there was permanent damage. Her voice therapist had promised she would be able to sing again, but privately Priss had her doubts.

Psychologically, Priss was having trouble coming to terms with what had happened to her. Being 'fired' from the band had been a tremendous emotional blow, and there was a great deal of concern that it would affect her physical recovery. She spent the majority of her time lying in the dark, unresponsive to all who approached her. She wasn't sleeping much, or for very long, because of horrible, recurring nightmares mixing recent events with demons from her past.

Only twice in the first few weeks of her recovery had that wall cracked. The first was during Sylia's visit, shortly after she was forced out by Nezumi. The second was when Paul, the bassist with her former band, came to visit her in the hospital. It seemed that Nezumi was engaging in that age-old industry practice of signing a band, then replacing the musicians and promoting the singer. Mr. Andrue, the man assigned by the label to handle "The Replicants," had just informed Paul that his services were no longer required. Paul, looking for a comforting shoulder to cry on, came to see Priss. Priss took great delight in having him thrown out on his ear.

Shortly after her shoulder surgery, Priss was released from the hospital and sent to recuperate at Linna's. After finally finishing her degree at night school, Linna had recently begun working at a stock brokerage. She had been charged with delivering Priss to Dr. Takezaki's rehabilitation center every morning for her therapy sessions, and with picking her up again at the end of the day.

The subject of Kusanagi Rei was taboo. When she had recovered enough to talk, Priss had impassively answered the questions of the police investigators, stating that she had never met the man, didn't know who he was, and couldn't identify him. But once they were finished, she refused to discuss it with anyone. Her psychotherapist was concerned, but seemed to feel that this denial was just a stage that needed to be worked through. Sylia was more alarmed. She knew just how much feeling Priss could bottle up inside. When it finally got out, Priss would either explode or fall apart.


The Reps were kicking ass tonight. One of those nights when the band fed off the crowd's energy as the crowd fed off the band's.

Priss, out front once again, takes it all in. An intense feeling that could only culminate in an almost orgasmic climax. She lived for these moments.

Akuma to Tenshi no Enjiru. Tight. Precise. The way it should be. And at her feet, the world. She holds them in her hands, has them in her control, ready to do her slightest bidding.

But now there is a distortion in a small part of that world, as the bobbing and dancing crowd in her domain parts to allow entry to a dark-haired man wearing sunglasses despite the darkness, and a dark jacket despite the heat.

Leon, with that ever-present 'all's right with me so all's right with the world' smirk on his face, and she grins back. She glances off into the crowd for a moment, and when she looks back it's not Leon smirking at her, but Largo, back from the dead.

Shocked, she turns to warn the band, only it's not the Reps behind her after all. The trio looks at her curiously, and stops playing. "Guys, we've got to get out of here," she warns them.

"Hey, don't drag me into this," Linna cautions, as she steps from behind the drum set.

"Yeah, Priss," Nene says, as she packs up the twin-necked guitar she's been playing. "This is between you and him."

"You're on your own with this one," Sylia says, as she disconnects her bass from the amp and follows the others off the stage.

Her feet are frozen; she can't follow. Panicked, she looks around wildly, trying to find someone, anyone to help her.

Largo begins to laugh, and gestures to the heavens, summoning the wrath of a God.


"NoooOOOO!!!!!" The shattered scream had Linna off the couch and running for her bedroom before she was even fully awake. An all too common occurrence of late.

She hurtled through the open door, and rushed to the bedside. Priss was fighting against the sheets tangled about her as she tried to sit up, and Linna was afraid she'd hurt herself. Again. The week before she hadn't been as quick on her feet when the nightmares struck, and, as a result, Priss had thrashed herself out of bed and reinjured her shoulder.

"Priss, Priss," Linna called out as she grabbed her comrade by the arms. "Come on, wake up, it's just a bad dream."

Eventually she stopped struggling, and Linna shifted from simple restraint to a hug of support as great, wracking sobs shook Priss's unaccustomedly fragile body. "Shh, shh, hush now... It's ok... it's all right..." Linna soothed. A few minutes later she felt Priss stiffen in her arms, and she let go with a sigh. "Are you OK now?"

Priss peered back through the darkness. "I'm fine."

"Priss, come on. You've got to talk to someone. What was it this time?"

"Nothing. Leave me alone."

Linna sighed in exasperation. From the stony expression on her face, Priss was obviously back in mule-mode, another all too common occurrence lately. "Fine. As long as you're all right?" Priss nodded, and Linna didn't believe her for a minute. "OK, then I'll be just outside if you need anything," she said as she stood and made her way to the door. "Goodnight."

"'Night," came the subdued reply.

Left alone again in the shadows, in the large bed in the strange bedroom, Priss ignored the dampness on her cheeks and stared at the ceiling, willing sleep not to come.

Sylia had just finished reading the morning paper when her phone rang. The scanner indicated an audio/video signal sourced from ADP Headquarters. What could Nene be calling about at this hour? she thought as she slid into the seat in front of the monitor. She pressed the 'Accept' key, and was immediately faced with a very distraught redhead.

"Sylia, I don't know how to tell you, but..." Nene puffed, practically hyperventilating in her distress.

"Calm down, Nene. Take a couple breaths and take it slowly." Nene did as instructed, but it didn't seem to help.

"You... I... You... You're not going to believe this," Nene stammered. "Kusanagi's gotten away from TPD."

"WHAT?!!" Sylia sat bolt upright in her chair, stunned. "What _happened?_"

Nene swallowed hard, still trying to regain her composure. "About an hour ago. They were transporting him to Court, and got involved in a traffic accident. And when the guards weren't looking, he just walked off and an all-points bulletin just went out about it and as soon as I heard IcalledyouwhatarewegoingtotellPriss?" Nene was talking so fast by now that it was difficult to understand her. Fortunately, Sylia got the gist of the message.

Checking the time, Sylia muttered to herself, "She's already at the rehab center for the day." Looking up into the screen she added, more audibly, "Don't worry Nene, I'll take care of it." She smiled at the younger woman encouragingly. "Keep your eyes and ears open. Get all the information about this that you can, and meet me here tonight." Nene swallowed again, nodded, and closed the connection.

Sylia sat for a few moments, her mind churning over the possible consequences of Nene's news. Her first thoughts were for protecting Priss. From Kusanagi, obviously; who knew what he might have in mind. But also for protecting her from herself. There was no way of telling how she'd react to the news.

Reaching forward, she keyed in a comm-code she'd recently become very familiar with. "Dr. Takezaki's office, Hiroe speaking. How may I help you?"

"This is Sylia Stingray. I need to speak with Takezaki-sensei, immediately. It's an emergency."


"Pull over. I always meet her right here."

Linna and Sylia sat in Sylia's red Mercedes, parked on the street outside the rehab center. From the outside it appeared that the two women, facing each other, were chatting to pass the time while waiting for someone. While it was true that they _were_ waiting for someone, it was also the only thing true about their appearance.

Sylia, in the driver's seat, was looking out the windows on the passenger side of the car, watching the parking area for any sign of trouble. Linna, riding shotgun, was scanning the front of the building out the driver's side windows. Neither had had much to say since Sylia had picked Linna up from work an hour before.

After about ten minutes, the sliding doors at the front of the center whooshed open, and Priss stepped out, accompanied by a security guard. Linna opened the car door and waved Priss over, then got into the back seat.

It broke Sylia's heart to see Priss like this. She had lost a great deal of weight, to the point of gauntness, and it did not suit her. Her usual confident stride had disappeared, replaced by a stooped shuffle, as if she bore the weight of the world on her back. A car door slammed in the parking area, and Priss jumped, looking about wildly. Her eyes greatly resembled those of a trapped wild animal. And this is the person who keeps telling everyone that everything is all right, Sylia thought sadly.

While Priss slowly climbed into the passenger seat, the guard stood between her and the outside world, shielding her with his body while he scanned the area. Sylia and Linna exchanged a significant glance. Once Priss was safely inside, the guard turned and leaned into the car. "The Doctor said some people had reported troublemakers in the area, and asked me to see Ms. Asagiri out today. You ladies be careful, now." He stepped away from the car and closed the door. With a nod to him, Sylia pulled smoothly away from the curb.

Linna unlocked the door to her apartment, and stepped inside. Priss started to follow, only to be checked by Sylia's hand on her arm and a shake of her head. Linna removed her sneakers, and stealthily moved into the apartment, leaving Sylia and Priss standing silently outside the door. Five minutes later she returned. "OK, it's clear," was all she said, then she retreated to her kitchen.

The other women stepped into the entryway, and Sylia closed and locked the door behind them. "What's going on?" Priss asked as she toed her shoes off. Something was obviously wrong, and she didn't like being kept in the dark.

Sylia straightened from removing her shoes. "Let's go to the living room; it's been a long day and I'd like to sit down."

"If it's all the same to you, Sylia, I'd rather go lie down instead. I'm exhausted. I didn't get much sleep last night."

"Just for a few minutes, then you can lie down. Besides, don't you have to take some medicine about now?"

Priss sighed, and shuffled off into the apartment proper, followed by Sylia. Blender noises could be heard from the kitchen as they entered the living room. Priss slumped onto the couch, while Sylia took a chair opposite her. Linna soon joined them, carrying a tray with a large glass and two coffee cups on it. She set the tray down on a side table, then handed one of the cups to Sylia.

"Here you go, Priss," Linna said brightly, as she sat on the couch next to her. She handed her the glass and kept the other coffee cup for herself. "Chock full of those healthy vitamins and nutrients. Drink up!"

Priss stared at the glass as if it had a dead animal floating in it. To help her regain some of her lost weight, she was supposed to drink a special high calorie, high vitamin, high nutrient beverage four times a day. It may have been good for her, but it tasted awful. Assuming the air of a martyr, she made a face, then attempted to drink it all down at once.

Sylia stifled a small smile. There were times when small flashes of the "old Priss" came through. Sylia hoped that they were a sign that, eventually, Priss would recover from this ordeal.

After a few minutes of relative silence, punctuated only by drinking sounds, Priss could take it no more. "All right," she rasped, "what is it?"

Linna and Sylia exchanged a glance, and Linna made an 'over to you' gesture. Sylia set her half-finished coffee down, and looked at Priss. "Kusanagi Rei has escaped police custody," she said bluntly. The blood rushed from Priss's already pale face, and she swayed slightly on the couch. Linna quickly reached out and put a steadying arm around her. "Nene says every police officer in the city is on the lookout for him. Don't worry, they'll find him."

"Oh, God," Priss croaked, tears coming to her eyes.

"Priss," Linna began softly, "Sylia's talked to the TPD. In a little while they're coming here to pick both of us up. They're going to take you someplace where he can't find you, and I'm coming along to keep you company."

Priss paled further, if that was possible, and her mental, physical, and emotional stress and exhaustion came crashing down on her all at once. "You think he's coming here, don't you? He's coming here to get me, isn't he?"

"No, Priss, no no. It's just a precaution. Nothing's going to happen to you. I'll be there to make sure nothing happens, and TPD will have people there too." Priss wasn't listening.

"He killed Kenji," she said in a rising whisper, tears streaming down her face, "and now he's coming to kill me. He's coming to kill me! Oh, God, what am I going to doooo?!" Her shattered wail echoed around the room, and she collapsed forward out of Linna's arms, hands over her face. Head to her knees, she began rocking back and forth on the couch, sobbing. A horrified Linna looked across at an equally appalled Sylia.

Sylia quickly crossed the room and knelt in front of the pair on the couch. Taking Priss's hands in her own, she made soothing, nonsensical noises, trying to calm her. Linna put her arm back around Priss, trying to provide some comfort of her own.

It took almost half an hour for Priss's emotional storm to abate, a half-hour that was wrenching to all of them. Sylia had moved to the couch, sitting opposite Linna, both providing physical and emotional support to their friend.

"Do you trust me, Priss?" Sylia asked softly, as if speaking to a frightened child. Priss looked up, her eyes red from weeping, and nodded hesitantly. "Good. I'm glad." Sylia smiled. "I'm going to make you a promise." Sylia looked solemn now, gazing steadily into Priss's eyes, as if they were the only ones in the room. "I promise you that nothing is going to happen to you. I won't _let_ anything happen to you. Do you believe me?" The hesitant nod came again.

"Good. Now, in a little bit TPD is going to come by and take you to a safe place; somewhere where nobody can find you unless you want them to."

"Are you coming too?" came the tremulous, whispered reply.

"Linna's going to go with you. But if you want me to come see you, or you just want to talk to me, you know all you have to do is call. Is that OK?"

Again the hesitant nod. "What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to make sure no one's going to harm you. And no one will. Not while I'm around."


The dream begins the same. On stage. The rush of performing. The godlike power over the faceless minions. And then a dark-haired woman, incongruously dressed in a deep purple business suit, approaches from the crowd.

Priss's mind fills with confusion. Sylia? What are you doing here?

Sylia pauses in front of the stage, and smiles up at her. A mother's smile, full of love and compassion.

And then a shift, and it is her mother's smile. Her mother, as Priss best remembered her: tired after a long day at the office, but never without time for her little musume, her little Priss-chan.

She feels the tears of joy start to form. "Mama..." she whispers, her heart filling with indescribable joy at seeing her again. Alive and whole and smiling all the love Priss thought she'd lost forever.

She basks in the infinite tenderness in her mother's brown eyes; a frozen woman suddenly in the warmth of the sun. And as she stares into those warm eyes, her mother raises the revolver, its dark maw rising to a point just below them.


Linna was on the phone, arranging for an extended leave of absence from her job, when the screaming began. Quite literally hanging up on her boss, she sprinted for the back bedroom of the 'safe house', accompanied by the two TPD officers on duty.

Slamming the door open, the officers dove into the room, weapons drawn, searching for an assailant. Linna, following hard on their heels, made straight for the bed, where Priss sat bolt upright, staring blindly, shirt soaked with sweat, face wet with tears.

While Linna tried to comfort her charge, the officers gave the room a quick search, making sure all was as it should be. "God, I hope _that_ doesn't happen too often," one said to the other as they turned to leave.

"Hi Sylia, it's Nene," came the voice-only message on the answering machine for Sylia's secure line. "I got stuck with a double shift again, so I'm on dinner break. I guess I won't be able to make it over tonight. You must still be over at Linna's. Geez, I hope Priss took it OK. I mean, she doesn't need any more worries right now. Well, anyway, just to let you know, they haven't found him yet. I don't think they even know where to start looking. I've got those searches that we talked about running, but I don't know if they'll really do any good."

Nene's message droned on, and Sylia listened with only half an ear. This is _all_ my fault, she thought gloomily. It almost happened again. It still might. I should have made her listen to me, made her see reason. I should have gotten her out of town, even if I had to drag her out by her hair!

The message clicked off, and Sylia sat quietly in her dark apartment. She lit a cigarette, then ignored its presence as several courses of action whirled through her mind. While she stared blindly into the darkness, one plan in particular kept coming to the fore. It had the advantage of being simple, and stood an excellent chance of success. Reaching back to the secure line, she entered a code, then waited several rings for the connection to be made.

"It's me," she said rather cryptically to the answering machine on the other end. "I need to hire your services."

A week later, Nene came bursting into Silky Doll, just at closing time. She waited impatiently while Sylia saw to her remaining customers and closed the shop. "How many times have I told you not to come in here like that?" Sylia chided her.

"They had him. They had him and they lost him," Nene said angrily.

Sylia was frozen with shock for a moment. "How....?" she finally managed.

"TPD got a tip Kusanagi was hanging out at the American Bar and Grill. A couple guys went in undercover to check it out, and he was there. They left to go get back-up, and when they came back, he was gone. No one knows where he went." Nene wiped her sleeve across her tearing eyes. "He's still on the street, and now we don't know anything more than when we started!"

"Go on upstairs. I--"

"But Sylia--"

"I've got to meet someone. Go on upstairs and get into TPD's evidentiary database. I want to see everything they have on Kusanagi. Then call Linna. Ask her to be here in four hours."

Sylia turned and left through the back entrance, leaving Nene standing alone in the middle of the store. "But _Sylia..._"

Sylia slid onto a barstool at C'est la Vie, a ratty bar located in the basement of a bedraggled downtown building. The bartender placed a drink in front of her, and stepped away to tend his other patrons. Sylia ignored the drink and lit a cigarette. "What happened?"

"And a good evening to you too, Sylia," the shaggy blonde man on the stool next to her replied.

"Cut the crap, Fargo, I want to know what happened. You assured me there wouldn't be any problems."

Fargo took a sip of his drink, the glass already half empty. "What can I say? They blew it." Sylia stared at him, then looked back down at the bar and puffed silently on her cigarette. "I did what you asked. We found him and tipped-off TPD. They sent in a couple clowns to check the place out. He was on to them the second they hit the door." Fargo shook his head in disbelief at the ineptitude of the Tokyo Police Department. "Instead of one calling for back-up while the other kept an eye on him, they both left to get back-up, the idiots. As soon as they left, he was out the back so fast, _my_ guy lost him."

"Can you find him again? I need to know where he's spending his nights."

"Shouldn't be too much trouble. Why the interest?"

"I'll pay double if you can tell me by tomorrow night." She stubbed out the remains of her cigarette, burned to the filter, and stood to leave. Fargo caught her by the arm.

"You never answered my question."

Sylia shook her arm free. "Let's just say I'm keeping a promise to a friend."

 

"Did you have any trouble getting away?" Nene's question gave Linna a shivery sense of deja vu. It was strangely reminiscent of one she had asked Priss weeks earlier, before all this trouble began.

"No," she finally answered. "Priss went to bed early, and, frankly, I was glad to have an excuse to get away from there, even if it is just for the evening. Where's Sylia?"

Nene shrugged. "Computer Room, I guess. How's Priss doing? I haven't seen her since she went into hiding."

"It's not hiding, Nene, it's protective custody; you ought to know that," Linna said sharply. "Or, rather, that's what TPD keeps telling us." They began to move down the hallway, deeper into Sylia's apartment.

"Priss is... OK, I guess," Linna continued. "She's still spending a lot of time resting, which is probably for the best. And she's definitely looking better. But she's still having nightmares. I think it's been weeks since she's gotten more than one or two hours of continuous sleep."

Nene sighed and shook her head at the state of affairs. She was about to reply when Sylia intercepted them at the entrance to her living room. They were frankly shocked at her rumpled and distraught appearance. "I'm sorry, but this is going to be a very short meeting," she said, waving them toward the couch. "You're welcome to stay afterward, but I've got something I need to finish work on tonight." The younger women sat as directed, and looked on questioningly.

"Do you remember a few weeks ago, when someone vandalized the building?" They nodded. "Well, he did more than just break a few windows out. There was a message about Priss spray painted on the back wall. Someone followed her here that night, and got upset when she didn't come out immediately. I don't think we need to wonder who it was anymore." Sylia began to pace up and down the length of the room.

"It was obvious to me that someone had taken more than a casual interest in her. I tried to get her to go out of town until the police picked the guy up. They had the video from the security monitors, after all. I thought it would be only a matter of a few days, but she refused to go, and I didn't force the issue. And because I didn't, some nutcase managed to ruin her life, all in the name of 'love'." This last came out bitterly, and left Nene and Linna looking at each other.

"Sylia," Nene began hesitantly, "don't you think you're being a little hard on yourself? This wasn't your fault. You couldn't know--"

"That's the problem, Nene. I _did_ know. Some lunatic almost killed one of my family, just like before, and I let him do it." She didn't see the surprised looks on her audience's faces. "I knew that whoever it was, he wasn't going to stop until he got to her, I couldn't do anything to stop him, and I couldn't get her out of the way.

"I tried to correct things by going through official channels. When Kusanagi got away from TPD, I hired someone to find him. They did, and they tipped off TPD about where to find him. But TPD blew it and Kusanagi got away again." Sylia's voice gained a touch of steel. "Well, they had their chance. Now it's my turn."

"Excuse me?" Linna asked. Sylia couldn't be thinking what she thought she was thinking. Could she?

"Tomorrow night I'm going to take care of Kusanagi Rei. I want to make sure he never destroys anyone else's life, ever again."

Nene was more than slightly alarmed. "Sylia, aren't you being a bit extreme? What you're talking about sounds like--"

"It's _exactly_ what it sounds like," Sylia interrupted. Finally stopping her pacing, she dropped into her lounge chair, running her fingers through her hair in agitation. She took a deep breath, and seemed to be mentally gathering herself.

"Before I have to go, there's something I would like you both to consider. I made certain promises to myself about each of you when you joined the Knight Sabers. It doesn't matter to me that what happened to Priss was unrelated to our activities; this is just something I have to do." She paused for a moment, and Linna thought that she had never seen Sylia so intense about anything before.

"I'd like your help in this. But keep in mind that what I'm planning for tomorrow is going to be very different from our usual work. We won't be going out because of something Genom did. We won't be going out against rogue boomers. We won't be going out against Largo. Someone has harmed one of ours, and we are going to avenge her. This is, purely and simply, personal vigilantism." Sylia turned her full attention to Nene. "Consider this carefully. I don't want you doing anything that will put you against your oath as a police officer." She looked thoughtful, considering Sylia's words.

Sylia stood once again and faced her guests. "I'm sorry, as I said earlier, I have a project to complete tonight. I know this is a difficult decision for you, but its one you have to make for yourselves. I hope you can see your way clear to joining me without any reservations." She looked her two fellow Knight Sabers squarely in the eyes. "Remember, this is strictly voluntary. You don't _have_ to do this, and I won't think any less of you if you don't come with me. But if you do decide to come along, be in the suit room at midnight tomorrow."


"May I join you?"

Startled, Priss's head snapped up and jerked around in incipient panic, immediately smothered, to stare at the figure standing in the doorway. The bright light streaming into the dark, empty room made it difficult to see who it was, but after three years of working together the voice was unmistakable. "Come on in, Sylia." Priss rolled onto her back and sat up on the bench as Sylia Stingray slipped quietly into the sauna. "Haven't heard from you much lately. Must've been pretty busy or something."

"Some things _have_ come up recently..." Sylia replied, adjusting the towel she wore as she sat on the bench next to Priss. "But I'm not here to talk about that. Takezaki-sensei tells me you are doing well."

"Yeah. I got a little behind on my sessions since my keepers wouldn't let me out until today. But Linna told them that Doc Takezaki said I had to come by once a week, so they escorted me over. Real cloak and dagger stuff. His people gave me some things I can do back at the apartment."

"Oh? Well, that's good. And how are things there? Are you getting along all right?"

"Well, you know how it gets," she began, wondering why the sudden interest. Although Sylia hadn't exactly _promised_ to keep in daily contact, she hadn't been exactly communicative either. To be fair, though, Priss thought, the TPD guys _were_ screening the incoming calls. Sylia could have been calling hourly and she probably wouldn't know it unless someone remembered to tell her, or unless Sylia specifically asked to talk with her.

While Priss described the monotonous day-to-day life of someone in protective custody, Sylia half-listened with feigned interest. She was much more interested in other things. Priss _was_ looking better, Linna was right about that. In the week since she'd last seen her, she'd regained some of her lost weight, and the pallor of a long illness was fading. Her voice seemed to have finally settled down into something a little deeper than it had been, with a rougher, gravelly edge. All in all, she looked like someone well on the road to recovery. Until you looked into her eyes.

Something in those red-brown eyes gave Sylia pause. Priss had more demons to deal with than most people, and she usually kept them under control. But, even considering what had happened to her, there was something off... something fey lurking in the back of those eyes... and Sylia suddenly realized just how close Priss was to going over the edge.

Sylia's own eyes hardened momentarily. That's one more thing for you to atone for, you son of a bitch.

Priss didn't miss the sudden change in Sylia's demeanor, and the equally sudden shift back. "OK, you didn't really come here to listen to me talk about watching TV, did you?"

"I'm not allowed to ask how you are?"

"You don't need to see me to find out how I'm doing," Priss shot back. "What's happened now?"

Sylia gazed calmly back, assessing just what she could and should tell her friend.

Midnight came and went.

The Lady 633 building was eerily quiet, as if the world was holding its breath. Inside the Knight Sabers complex, Linna Yamazaki slipped silently through the corridors. On reaching her destination, she touched a control on the wall, and the door to the Knight Saber's suit room slid open.

Sylia, wearing a sweatsuit over her softsuit, was already there, seated in front of the control panel for the main diagnostic analyzer, apparently running her suit through some sort of test sequence. Nene was performing a careful inspection her hardsuit's externals. As the door opened, they both turned and nodded their welcome.

Linna gazed back soberly, her full attention directed at Sylia. "I'm not going. What you're doing is stupid."

"All right," Sylia replied, looking a little disappointed as she went back to her work. Nene paused in her inspection, and turned to watch the other two quietly.

Linna crossed the room and grabbed Sylia by the arm, jerking her up out of her seat. "Let the police handle it," she began dangerously. "I'm not kidding about this, Sylia. He's scum, and he deserves whatever he gets, but what you're planning is flat out _wrong_. And if you make one move to hurt him, to _really_ hurt him, I'm going to stop you."

The two locked eyes in a battle of wills, only broken when Sylia motioned toward Linna's suit. "Then you'd better get ready, hadn't you?"

With an exasperated sigh, Linna let go of Sylia's arm and stalked toward the change room, only to be halted by a hand on her shoulder. "What are you--"

"Have you _really_ thought about this, Linna, or are you just being a 'good citizen'?" Nene asked, a little scornfully.

"What's _that_ supposed to mean? She's talking about cold blooded _murder!_"

"Yes, I know," came the quiet reply.

"And?"

"I'm here, aren't I, Linna?"

"But, how can you stand for..." Linna trailed off in confusion.

"Come on, let's sit down. There's some things you need to know." Nene grabbed Linna's arm and dragged her to a work bench, then sat cross-legged on top of it. After a moment of hesitation, Linna sat on the edge, legs dangling over the side.

"First off, Sylia had me pull down the evidentiary database TPD has on Kusanagi yesterday. I shouldn't have done it, but I made a copy for myself and took it home to read. Sylia's right," she said with an almost-snarl. "Something has to be done about Kusanagi, the sooner, the better. And, as much as I hate to say this, I don't trust anyone but us to get it done."

She shifted in her seat, turning to face Linna more directly. "He was keeping a diary, and it's really sick stuff. And the first thing you need to know is that Priss wasn't the only woman he's done this to... he's stalked like this. And it looks like she wasn't the only one he's tried to kill either.

"The parts about Priss are pretty much like the rest of it. He raves about how much he loves her, then he starts on about how much she loves him too. Then he starts talking about people trying to come between them, and what he was doing about it." Linna looked a little surprised, so she elaborated, "That's right, not what he was _going_ to do about it, but what he was actively _doing_."

She glanced over at Sylia. "There's an entry the night 633 got trashed, about warning off demons. And then a little later there's an entry about making sure the demons don't interfere any more."

"Kenji..." Linna breathed, putting it all together for herself.

"Yes," Sylia agreed, turning from the analyzer, "it seems to correspond to that time frame."

"And then," Nene continued, as if she hadn't been interrupted, "comes the _really_ scary stuff. Things about demons blinding Priss, and Priss leaving him, and him having to save her from herself because he loves her."

"So he shot her," Linna said flatly, and Nene nodded her agreement.

Linna stood and began to pace about the suit room, a troubled look on her face. "OK. You're right, something's got to be done about him. But what you're talking about... I don't know. He's sick; he needs help, not an execution."

Nene hopped off the bench top and walked over to Linna. "He's followed the same pattern, written the same things, about _all_ the women, not just Priss. There were six of them, before her. And Linna... he killed or maimed all of them."

While Linna pondered what Nene had said, Sylia shut down the analyzer and joined her friends. "Priss isn't going to be able to sleep again until something's done about him," Sylia said quietly.

Linna whirled on her, shocked. "That's dirty Sylia. I thought better of you than that." The two stared at each other for another long minute, and Nene waited for the silent struggle to come to a conclusion. As she expected, Linna broke first. "You knew about this last night, didn't you?"

Sylia nodded.

"And why didn't you say anything?"

Sylia paused, the answer weighing heavily on her. "Does knowing that he's done this several times make a difference? This is for Priss, not those others, and I don't want you involved if you have any doubts."

Caught between the Nene's facts and her own conscience, Linna replied defensively, "You don't, do you? It seems to me like you've been trying to manipulate me into agreeing to this." Sylia looked back, regret written on her face.

"All right," Linna finally decided. "I'll go, but only because I don't want you doing anything stupid. I'm still not going to let you kill him," and the sweatsuited woman nodded her acknowledgment.

Looking aside, Linna gave a small smile to her red-headed colleague. "You can be pretty persuasive when you want, can't you?" Nene grinned back, and returned to her suit to finish her interrupted survey.

Linna turned her attention back to Sylia and whispered, "I don't know how much longer I can take spending my nights listening to Priss's nightmares, and my days of watching her go through hell. And Nene's given me some things to think about." She sighed. "Besides, there's the chance you might be right," she conceded.

Sylia smiled grimly, and took her friend's hands in her own. "Shall we get started then?"

Nene Romanova wasn't happy. Running yet another sensor sweep of the area, her sixth in the past half-hour, she heartily wished that Sylia's informant had been able to come up with better information on Kusanagi's location. But for tonight, he was only able to place him as somewhere within this warehouse area. That gave them 36 square blocks to cover, which was too large for them to be able to search effectively and still be able to cover each other. All they could do was run scans and wait for him to show himself.

"Still clear, Sylia," she radioed. "If there's anybody here, I can't find them."

"Copy that," Sylia replied. She wasn't any happier with the situation than Nene was. "How are you doing, Linna?"

"Trying to find someplace comfortable to sit," came the grumbled response. The three Knight Sabers were positioned on a roughly northeast-to-southwest line running through the center of the six block by six block area. Nene, at the mid-point, was tasked with scanning the entire area every five minutes. If she picked something up, Sylia, at the northeast end, or Linna, at the southwest, would check it out.

"Yes, well, do the best you can, and stay out of sight."

"Right. Sylia?"

"Yes, Linna?"

"What made you change your mind? About tonight?" It was obvious to Linna that something dramatic had happened to her friend since their meeting the previous night.

"I'm sorry," Sylia said, answering an unspoken question first.

"Pardon me?"

"I'm sorry I led both of you on like that in the suit room. Yes, I'd changed my mind about killing him before we met, and I didn't tell either one of you. You were right when you said I'd been trying to manipulate you. Both of you. I'd do this by myself if I had to, but... I wanted you with me."

Linna considered Sylia's words in silence. Although she, Nene, and Priss had long ago realized that Sylia manipulated both people and situations to her benefit, it was the first time she'd ever heard her actually admit to doing it. That she _had_ admitted to it was out of character for her, Linna thought. And, considering further, Sylia had been acting considerably out of character ever since Priss had been shot. It bothered her that Sylia didn't seem to be herself anymore, and Linna wished she'd taken the time to talk with Priss or Nene about it before coming here tonight. But Priss had her own problems to deal with, and there hadn't been the time to really talk to Nene.

"That's all right," Linna finally acknowledged, somehow knowing that some sign of acceptance from her would ease the psychic burden Sylia had seemed to be dealing with in recent days. "But why the change?"

Why indeed, Sylia thought to herself, and then her thoughts drifted back to earlier in the day, back to the warm, damp darkness of a sauna room. Back to her visit with Priss.

She had initially evaded Priss's questions about what was happening, why she had suddenly decided to visit after virtually ignoring her for a week. Especially when her mind was obviously not on the visit. But as Sylia continued to evade Priss's increasingly pointed questions, Priss became more and more agitated, her voice getting louder and louder. Although time had granted healing to her injuries, some things were by no means completely healed, and her abused vocal cords reacted predictably. Priss began to cough, and couldn't stop.

An hour later found Priss and Sylia alone in a treatment room. Priss was resting on a bed, while Sylia sat by her side, telling her everything, as if seeking some form of redemption. The diary. The attempt at recapture. Her plans for that night. Why she was going to kill Kusanagi.

Priss began to weep, and Sylia took her in her arms to comfort her. Unlike weeks earlier, though, Priss pulled away. "I'm not crying for me," she had sniffled. "Or not just for me, anyway. I'm crying for everyone else he's hurt too. Including you.

"What happened to me happened," Priss continued, swiping at her tear-filled eyes with a towel. "I don't have to like it, and I know my head's still messed up over it, but it happened, and I'll deal with it. But please, don't blame yourself. There was no way for you to have known for certain what he'd do. Remember, you warned me, you told me to get out of here. That's the best you could have done. It isn't your fault that I didn't move fast enough."

Sylia had been surprised at Priss's attempt to offer her comfort, and stared at the floor, tears in her own eyes, a little ashamed of her own recent actions. But Priss wasn't finished yet.

"Losing your father must have been rough. I know, I've lost people I considered family too." For a few seconds Priss seemed a long way away from the here and now, her eyes were filled with old pains as she gazed at something invisible in the distance. "You said you want to get Kusanagi because he hurt me, you couldn't stop him from doing it, and you couldn't stand the idea of losing another family member that way." Sylia looked at Priss in surprise; it was the first time she'd ever heard her mention her assailant by name.

"I'm glad you feel that way about me... about all of us, actually... But Sylia, there's no reason for you to beat yourself up over what happened. Mason knew what he was doing when he killed your father; Kusanagi is your run-of-the-mill stalker. In this city alone, there are thousands just like him. Much as we'd like, we can't be responsible for cleaning up every piece of garbage in this town. How many times have you told us that? Sylia, Kusanagi's small potatoes compared to what Mason could do. Mason was worth taking out. Kusanagi'll make a mistake sometime, and then he'll get his. You going after him... well, I appreciate the thought, but it's just not worth it."

Sylia was staring openly at Priss by this time, and she laughed softly. "I know, me telling you not to do this sounds weird, especially considering some of the stunts I've pulled in the past. What was it you said that time you guys went with me when I was so hot to get Mason after Sho's mother was killed? 'We're doing this to preserve the Knight Sabers Organization'? If you have to, think of _not_ killing Kusanagi in the same way. I'd hate to have to execute you for breaking rules 2 and 3."

And then Priss had smiled and held out her arms, and embraced the openly weeping Sylia in a gentle hug.

Priss was the only person likely to really understand what she was going through, and as Sylia had told Priss what she was feeling, and why, it felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Yes, there was still a niggling doubt that Priss was wrong, that it _was_ necessary to wipe Kusanagi from the face of the earth, but reason prevailed. Priss was right when she'd said that they couldn't be responsible for everything that happened. Even when it concerned one of their own.

Back in the present, Sylia looked down at the blue right arm mounted on her white hardsuit and smiled to herself. She'd spent most of the last 24 hours dismounting the right arm from Priss's suit, including the railgun, and mounting it on her own suit's right arm. She had transferred her own right arm weaponry to her left. In her initial plans, using Priss's weapons against Kusanagi was going to be the 'coup de grace.' By the time she'd left Priss that afternoon, there hadn't been time to change things back. So she'd finished the modifications and adjustments, and hoped she wouldn't need to use it.

In an odd way, it was nice to have it here, though. It was almost like a part of Priss was with them.

"Why did I change my mind about tonight?" Sylia repeated Linna's question. "Let's just say that I don't feel the same way anymore. You see, I've been granted absolution."


"Sylia," Nene called out a couple hours later, "I'm getting something. One target, looks to be on foot, moving in this direction."

"Finally," Sylia muttered under her breath. "Where?"

"Coming almost directly for Linna's position. If she takes a look over the edge and off to the right she should be able to see whoever it is."

"Linna?"

"I'm on it." Linna eased out of her position between a ventilation intake and a sign depicting a boy, two girls, and a small black pig, advertising the 50th anniversary revival of some old anime series. After staring at the sign for so long, Linna wasn't the slightest bit interested in seeing it.

Once clear of her position, she crouched down and duck-walked to near the edge of the roof. She then lay flat, and eased herself forward, to a point where she could see easily over the side without being seen. "Nene, how far out?"

"On the street, about 200 meters out and closing."

Linna looked in the indicated direction, her helmet's night vision gear helping immensely in the dark. Once she knew where to look, she had no trouble picking her target out from the parked and abandoned vehicles clogging the side street. "OK, I've got him. One person, pushing a motorcycle. Must have had some sort of breakdown. I'm magnifying now, and.... It's him, Sylia. And he's got his bike loaded down with bundles of something. That's why he's not riding, he's so overloaded there's no room for him."

"Right. Keep an eye on him Linna. Nene and I are coming over."

"Check."

Kusanagi Rei pushed his heavily laden motorcycle along the street near the abandoned warehouse he'd recently taken residence in. He'd been busy that night; he'd been given many gifts by his new love, and he was feeling good. All he had to do was stay clear of those ludicrous buffoons in the Tokyo Police Department for a while and things would be fine.

Turning a corner, he stopped short. Standing in front of him was what had to be an apparition: a white clad form, clearly mechanical, with short wings on its back. It stood unmoving in the middle of the road, featureless face staring at him.

Hearing a sound behind him, he look around to see another of these creatures appear from the shadows, this one in red. Glancing back the way he had originally come, he saw a form in green drop from the sky. He looked off to his left, expecting to see yet another of these creatures, but that way remained clear.

The form in white spoke. "Kusanagi Rei, your time is over. For destroying the lives of Aoki Yohko, Priscilla Asagiri, Carmelita Chang, Irina Grichinko, Matsui Megumi, Elaine Reed, and Watanabe Naoko, you are to come with us."

His heart began to pound, and his hand darted into his jacket pocket, coming out with a gun. The creatures, or whatever they were, stiffened, but did not otherwise move. He fired at the white creature, missing all three shots.

Its response was to step closer, echoed by its companions.

His response was to abandon his motorcycle and run off down the opening they had left him. The creatures watched him go.

"All right, ladies, next position please."

Kusanagi pounded down the dark roadway. These things, these demons, were everywhere! Wherever he turned, they appeared. From behind cars. From out of the shadows. Dropping out of the sky. He'd shot at them, but they wouldn't go away. He had no idea if he'd even managed to hit one. He'd cursed at them, and they just looked back, staring with those blank faces. The one in white was the only one that spoke, and all it ever said was "your time is over". It was unnerving.

He had to get away from them, he thought, as he turned into yet another dark alley.

They had him where they wanted him. Buildings hemmed him in on three sides, and there was nowhere for him to go. Kusanagi didn't seem to realize it: he was attempting to scale the sheer face of the wall at the rear.

Sylia slowly walked forward, flanked closely by Linna and Nene. They came to a halt about ten feet from him and stood quietly, watching his struggles. Finally he stopped, and turned to face them, the wall to his back.

Funny, Linna thought, he doesn't look like a murderer. He looks a little like Leon, in a skinny sort of way.

"Haven't you interfered enough?" he shouted at them.

Sylia blinked. "Why?" was her strangled reply.

"You people keep interfering. I find someone to love, and you try to take them away from me!"

"That's no reason to kill them!"

"They were _mine!_ And you people took them away from me! I had to free them from you, so we could be together. Well, you're never going to interfere with us again!" He brought his gun up, firing his last round. It struck Linna in the head, and she dropped to her knees, falling like a stone. Her fellow Knight Sabers immediately raised their weapon arms, locking on their mutual target, and one fired.

While Kusanagi screamed in agony, a railgun bolt pinning him to the wall through his left shoulder, Linna struggled back to her feet. "Sylia, NO!" she cried out. "It's not worth it!"

Linna's words brought Sylia up short. She stood frozen, arm upraised and locked on target, but unable to fire again. Linna staggered to her friend's side, and forced the blue armored arm back down. "You don't want to do something you'll regret later, do you?"

Sylia was appalled with herself. All her promises to Priss, and she'd almost thrown them out the window because of an unthinking reflex action.

"Linna, are you all right?" Nene called out, her attention still focused on the writhing form on the wall.

"Yeah, I'm fine. He just knocked me off balance." God, I'm going to have a headache, she thought through the pain already pulsing through her head.

"Nene," Sylia said softly over her internal comms, "please get him down. See how bad it is. Linna, help her."

This has all been too much, Sylia mused as she watched her companions deal with the wounded man. I _must_ be tired; I should never have fired at him in the first place. I need a break. I wonder how Mackie's doing? Maybe I should take a vacation and pay him a visit.

Sylia crossed to where Kusanagi now sat, leaning against the wall, Nene crouched over him. She looked up at her leader's approach. "Doesn't look too bad," Nene commented over her external speakers. "It looks like it went through cleanly. I'm no expert, but it probably looks worse than it is."

"Fine," the white Knight Saber replied over her own speakers as she looked over at Linna's green clad form. There was a scrape mark dead-center on Linna's helmet visor, and she was leaning against the same wall as Kusanagi, looking a little shaky. Switching back to the internal communication system, Sylia said, "Nene, go get into your Motoroid power armor. We'll wait here."

Nene acknowledged her instructions, and jetted down the alleyway. Sylia turned to face Linna. "How are you doing?" she asked simply.

"My head hurts like a son-of-a-gun," she admitted. "I'd like to get out of this armor and go lie down somewhere."

Sylia was a little alarmed at her admission. Being a dancer, Linna was used to working through pain that would sideline lesser mortals. "You take it easy then, and I'll get you out of here as soon as Nene comes back. And no arguments."

Linna, who had her mouth open, ready to debate that order, just smiled a little and nodded. It was beginning to look like the Sylia she knew was trying to make a return.

Several minutes later, a muted roar from up the alley attracted their attention. Nene was returning, not only wearing her power armor, but accompanied by Sylia's and Linna's Motoroids on remote control. She brought them to a halt in front of their owners, then landed herself.

"Good thinking, Nene," Sylia said. "Linna's injured, and I need to have her checked out. Can you drop our 'friend' here off at TPD by yourself?"

Linna started to protest, but Nene's response overrode her. "Sure, no problem. I don't think he'll cause any trouble." She glared at Kusanagi, still huddled around himself, and his injured shoulder, on the ground. It looked as if all trace of fight had left him.

Sylia mounted her Motoroid, motioning for Linna to do the same. "Fine. We'll be off then. I'll see you back at base." They triggered the ignition sequences, and rode off, side by side.

Nene watched them go, then turned to face her prisoner, switching back to external comms. "Get up," she ordered, pointing the Motoroid's cannon at him. Kusanagi struggled to his feet. "Come over here."

"What are you going to do with me?" he asked.

"Take you to TPD. Come over here." He crossed to in front of the Motoroid, and stood facing her. "Turn around."

When he complied, she slung the cannon, then roughly shoved him around, and picked him up, her Motoroid's right arm under his knees, its left arm around his shoulders. They launched into the air, and she triggered the autopilot to take them to their destination, across the Canyons and into the city. Five more minutes and it's over, she thought to herself.

"You know," he said conversationally, his courage apparently returning, "this is ridiculous." She didn't respond. "They don't have any evidence to convict me, because I didn't do anything wrong."

"You think not? Then why did you run off?" Nene replied coolly.

"They didn't have any right to hold me. It's nothing anyone else wouldn't do. So why are _you_ doing this to me?"

"Shut up," she snapped, squeezing her Motoroid's left fingers a little tighter around his arms, and, not so incidentally, around his wounded left shoulder. He groaned a little, and took the hint. But his comments, indeed his entire attitude, had her thinking.

Nene remembered how angry her father had been, back when she was in Junior High, when the government had finally caved in to outside pressure and changed the penal code. Under the old rules, Kusanagi would be facing at least 50 years confined to a tiny cell, allowed out once a day, with no hope of parole. If he was lucky he would have been executed. Now, though, the emphasis was on rehabilitation instead of punishment. Due to prison overcrowding, unless it was proven that he was a murderer he was going to be on the street again in two years, tops. All he had to do was keep his nose clean...

She'd seen the evidence against him; except for Priss's case, there wasn't much that was admissible in court. The diary entries of an obvious madman didn't make for the best evidence....

He's going to get away with it, she suddenly realized. And when he's out, he'll just do it again. If it's not Priss he goes after, it'll just be someone else.

Not for the first time, Nene Romanova felt the impotent rage of a cop betrayed by the system. This time, though, it was personal, and something deep inside her snapped.

They were now 100 meters over the Canyons, the great rift left behind by the Second Kanto Earthquake of 2025. Nene switched the Motoroid back to manual control, allowing it to tip forward into a more horizontal flight mode. Her cargo started to slide forward on the slick metal plating of the Motoroid's arms at the change in flight attitude. She released the grip that the mech had on him, and watched silently as Kusanagi Rei, still reaching out for the non-existent grasp of the Motoroid's arms, pulped into the rough terrain at the bottom of the Canyons.

"That was for Priss, you son of a bitch."


For those who have never read them:

The Eleven Regulations of the Knight Sabers

1. Do not divulge any information concerning this organization.
2. Do not act upon a personal grudge.
3. Do act upon the mutual consent of all the members.
4. Do not secede from this organization.
5. Members are personally responsible for any damage done to the organization's equipment unless that damage was unavoidable.
6. Do not divulge any information concerning our clients.
7. Do not gather information on your own. The task of intelligence-gathering is to be distributed evenly among all the members.
8. Do keep in contact with the other members regularly.
9. The members do not know each other outside of this organization.
10. Do not get involved with a man.
11. The penalty for violating any of the ten regulations listed above is death. -- From the B-Club Visual Comic "Bubble Gum Crisis '89"
Translated by Dan Su, Anime Berkeley

"True Love" is my attempt at providing an explanation for some of the many unexplained mysteries of the Bubblegum Universe, particularly why Priss's voice changed, what happened to the Replicants, and how come Nene got so aggressive. I was also attempting to show the members of the Knight Sabers in a slightly different light than we usually see them in. Stalkers are, unfortunately, a real-life problem, and you can find mention of celebrity stalkers in the news almost every day. Unlike many women, the Knight Sabers are in a position to do something about it. Thanks to everyone who took the time to read and comment on this story while I was writing it. Special thanks are owed to Marco De la Cruz (for 'Creative Endings 101'), Hitomi Ichinohei (for instruction on the Japanese penal system), "Innpchan" (for the nightmares), Charles Lewis (for the club & trauma scenes, and for the generally well deserved beatings about the head and shoulders to get the revisions started), Andy Skuse (for the record industry, and for the continual prodding to get the revisions _finished_), and Bert Van Vliet (for the angsting and the editing - not a mutually exclusive process), without whose help and encouragement this story would not have been written.

If you care enough to comment, I'll be happy to read it. Send e-mail to me at: jhedge@water.waterw.com or jhedge@enteract.com


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