I forget why this part took so long to write; perhaps it was because I transferred to CU to do the last two years of my degree and got buried in schoolwork. Yeah, that's probably it. I suppose that takes precendence over a story you're writing for fun, but that doesn't mean I didn't want to still write! Written between May 2003 and December 2004.

-----

The coming of a new year…I suppose it's something that I'm supposed to be happy about. After all, everybody gets to start anew, forget about the shit that happened in the year that's about to bite the dust, right? Hmph…unlike most people, I did not have that luxury. So as I sat there leaning back on the roof of Irodia's house, arms folded behind my head, listening to the countdown blaring from the TV inside the house, I looked up at the stars and reminisced about the past year.

2055…surely it would go down as the worst year of my life. After all, the Boomer summit had happened, Genom found out my identity as a Knight Saber, and I had to relearn how to walk and run and other things that people easily take for granted. Boh ambushed me and stabbed me four times, and Michiko was killed, and I was sent off to Sacramento to get away from the eye of Genom, even if they might eventually find out where I was. And then I got nearly raped by that bastard Rob while I'd mistakenly gotten myself drunk.

Counting my blessings? Hardly.

Though…I had done this same thing during last New Year's Eve. I'd gone up to the roof of Mom's and my apartment building, and wondered whether 2054 had been the best year of my life or the worst. I'd gotten third place at the World Championships, sure, but I'd also nearly been killed by that female Boomer, and then I found out that my mom and my 'aunts' were the Knight Sabers! And what surprised me even more, Sylia had invited me to join them! Yep, it was a strange feeling, wondering whether that year had been good or bad, and yet when I look back on it now, I almost laugh, remembering how naively I had looked forward to the year 2055, wondering what it might have in store for me. If I'd known then what I knew now, you couldn't have dragged me into that year with a gun to my head.

And now it was about to become the year 2056.

Damn.

Considering what had happened in '55, I certainly was not looking forward to what this new year might hold. The only thing I was looking forward to was the Olympic trials and, if I got past those, the Olympics themselves. But first, I knew I would have to get through Genom first in order to get to my precious Olympic games. My head hurt at the thought. Yeah, sure, '56, sounded like a buttload of fun. Would've been fun, maybe, if I was a masochist, which I was not. I knew I wouldn't be able to stay here forever; I'd have to face Genom eventually.

But I suppose '55 wasn't all bad. I DID learn how to walk again, and I was able to face down Quincy himself in his own home. And plus, I had met Xania and her buddies. But then again, when I thought about what had to happen in order for those good things to happen, I shuddered and shook my head. I didn't know if it was worth it. I would've given it all back in return for Micchan and a normal life, and for those lousy Boomers never to have resurfaced in the first place.

But I knew that wouldn't happen. It was too late for that now. Maybe I should have enjoyed that normal life while I had the chance…

I slapped myself upside the head at the thought. That was that damn hindsight speaking again. How was I to know that any of that was going to happen? I had no way of knowing; in the life I had known up until that point, I went to school, hung out with Michiko, and toured with Mom around the world whenever she released a new album. And now, all of that was gone. Now all I had left was a fake life in Sacramento, and Genom after my ass, willing to take down my friends in order to get to me. I felt like I was a black hole, just dragging everything down with me. I still felt like if something happened to Mom or the others, it'd be my fault.

"Three, two, one…Happy New Year!"

Cheering emanated through the open window below once the countdown ended, and I could hear that Aud Lyn Syne song or whatever it was called start to play. I just closed my eyes and mumbled to myself.

"Happy New Year…yeah, right."

-----

I sighed and let my thoughts wander as I got into the elevator, heading up to visit Nene at her apartment. She'd returned from the U.S. a couple days ago, but I hadn't had a chance to talk to her, and she hadn't come running to me right away about what was going on with Yume, which I thought was weird. And so, I decided to come to her instead. I would have called her, but there was a nagging feeling in the back of my head that Genom might've had my phone tapped, just waiting for me to blurt out where Yume was. I figured it best to play it safe rather than potentially have her screwed over by her own mother.

Once the elevator stopped on the seventh floor, I got out and headed down the hallway to apartment 717. I knocked on the door, and after about three minutes, Nene finally came to the door and answered.

"Oh! Priss!" Nene exclaimed, running a hand through her hair, which she obviously hadn't washed since she'd gotten back. I noticed circles under her eyes, like she hadn't slept all that well, and her clothes were wrinkled as well, like she'd used them as pajamas by mistake. "I'm sorry about not coming to see you. Sylia wanted me to try to dig a little deeper into Genom's databases to find out anything that we can use against Madigan." She peeked her head out and looked around to make sure no one else was in the hallway, then ushered me inside.

"What kind of information?" I inquired, sitting down on the couch and kicking back.

"Do you remember hearing about that defense minister back in '33? Callahan? He suddenly disappeared into thin air one day, about the same time that you went to Genom Tower to fight Largo. Sylia think it's possible that Madigan had something to do with his disappearing act."

"Probably thought he was a security risk. He WAS the defense minister, after all."

"That's the most likely possibility, but problem is, I need to find information to prove what happened to him, and so far, I haven't seen any reports about his disappearance."

"You'd think she'd keep a hit list of all the people she's offed over the years," I quipped.

"She doesn't seem like an egotistical person, so I doubt she'd keep an actual list. Besides, that'd be too easy." She sighed and sat down next to me. "I was hoping that she would've written it down somewhere that she's 'taken care of him' or something along those lines, but I haven't found anything."

"I bet if there were any documents about his fate, Madigan probably made sure to get rid of them. But I'm sure you can find something, Little Miss Cyberpunk," I teased. Nene looked sour.

"I wish you and Linna would stop calling me that. It got old a long time ago."

"Nicknames stick. Get used to it."

"Right…"

"I guess that's why you look like shit, then? 'Cause you've been trying to find that info?"

"Yeah." She let out a yawn.

"So what's been happening with Yume? How's she been?" I asked.

Nene suddenly got silent and fidgeted slightly, running her hand through her hair again. She looked down and said, "It's like you thought, Priss. Just like you thought. She's building a shell around herself. Whenever I tried to get close to her, emotionally anyway, she'd just snap at me and tell me to go home, that I didn't belong there. She didn't want to talk about anything. She looked like she was content to wallow in her misery by herself rather than get it out of her system."

Learning that tidbit about Yume made sense; after all, misery was like quicksand. The more you fought to get out if it, the quicker you sink into it. Why fight? You'd keep your head above the sand longer if you didn't fight. I sighed and said, "I think the problem is that she's had so much thrown at her, practically all at once, and she doesn't know how to deal with it."

"Either that, or she's just trying to deal with it all herself."

"She's an Asagiri, she's gonna have SOME sort of independent streak in her," I said dryly, cupping my chin in my hand. "I was her age once."

"So was I."

"Yeah, but you're not anything like her or me. I think that she thinks that if she asks for help, it's gonna make her look weak."

Nene thought for a moment. "It wasn't till Christmas Eve that she started to open up a little bit, but even before that, she was questioning why she should talk about it at all, because she doesn't know anyone that well over there. She doesn't know Irodia and her family like she knows us. She can trust us, and I think that she's not ready to tell her life story in detail to anyone else just yet. Maybe…maybe she just needs some time." She let out a sigh.

"Anything else?"

"Well…I managed to loosen her up a little by having a snowball fight with her," she said, laughing. "I hadn't heard her laugh in ages. I figured making her do that would help take some of the pressure off."

"Nene, no matter what she might've said to you…I think that she appreciated having you there, seeing a familiar face for once," I said gently. She nodded in agreement.

"Yeah, I'm sure she did, and I promised her that we'd be able to bring her home soon, but she told me not to make a promise I knew I couldn't keep. But…I do intend to keep it. That's why I've been working day and night to try to find something on Madigan. The Genom servers are much tougher to hack into than they used to be, though. I guess Madigan really upgraded the software there. I can get around it, it's just going to take a little more time."

"Lack of sleep probably doesn't help. Just take a shower and take a nap. That might be the thing you need," I pointed out.

"I've never known you as one to give advice, Priss," Nene chuckled. "Usually you're on the receiving end of it."

"I can dish out almost as good as I can take," I quipped. "I was gonna go out for a beer tonight. If you're up to it, you could come along too, provided that you don't give everyone another free peep show."

"I DON'T strip!" she protested. "It must be some sort of sick joke you and Linna made up to torture me!"

I snickered. "Lighten up, I'm teasing. So?"

"So…I don't think I will. Maybe I'll just take a long snooze like you said." She yawned loudly. "I guess I could use it. That and a long, hot bubble bath."

"Don't fall asleep in the tub," I warned jokingly as I stood up and headed to the door. "I'm gonna head out now. If you find anything on Madigan, just holler."

"I will, as soon as I'm clean and rested and thinking clearly," she said, yawning again. "But sometimes I feel like a dog chasing its own tail."

"Something's gotta come up," I grumbled under my breath as I opened the door. "She can't be everywhere at once. There must be something that she forgot to cover up."

"I'll find it…sooner or later," she said tiredly. "But I guess complaining about it isn't gonna make it appear."

"Right. See ya later."

"Bye, Priss."

After heading back down the elevator to the main floor, I went out to the parking lot and boarded my motorcycle, putting on my helmet before starting the bike up. I felt a large shadow cover me all of a sudden, and when I looked up, the sun had disappeared behind the monolith that was Genom Tower. I frowned at the sight of it; I was going to make sure that its looming presence over Tokyo wouldn't last much longer.

Your days are numbered, I thought as I drove in the opposite direction of the Tower, towards my apartment building. You better get yourself ready for that gunfight when it comes, 'cause it's not gonna be quick and clean. I'll make sure it's messy, just for you.

-----

Winter in California wasn't really that snowy at all, compared to Minnesota, at least. Sometimes a few flurries would fly, but they hardly stayed on the ground for long before they melted away. No, instead of snowdrifts, there was rain, and lots of it. And not the warm kind, either. It was freezing rain, the kind that let you know it was definitely winter and it wasn't just a summer drizzle, as nice as that sounded.

I could feel my leg protest as I made my way around the block for my morning jog, but I didn't let it slow me down. It had slowed me down for four months, I refused to let it bug me any more…although it was very hard to ignore whenever it rained or snowed. Whenever it was too wet, my leg would ache and act like it wanted to take the day off; hell, it had ached almost non-stop during the week or so I was in Minnesota with Irodia and Tyler's family. I hadn't said anything to them or Nene though; I didn't want them to worry. Besides, I'd dealt with much worse pain.

And so began my first day back to school to begin spring semester, by taking a jog in the freezing rain, going back to the house to take a hot shower, then going back out into the freezing rain to pick Xania up. For once, I actually had to wear my leg sleeve underneath my jeans, since I knew my leg wouldn't be able to tolerate the weather very much before I'd end up literally dragging it along the floor. So once I got onto my motorcycle and drove towards Xania's house, I made sure to go slow, not just because of the weather, but to spare my leg.

"Rosho, you don't look like you feel good, girl," Xania said as she climbed on behind me. "Lookin' a little wobbly on the bike."

"My leg hurts, that's all," I said as I resumed the drive. "Just being careful."

"Did you twist it or somethin'?"

"You know I got shot. Ever since then, it hurts whenever it's really humid outside."

"You musta been miserable up in Minnesota then," she mused.

"I was alright, as long as I wasn't up and about all the time. A heating pad usually helps a bit."

"Whatever works, I guess."

"So what were you up to during winter break?" I asked as I turned the corner towards the school.

"Went up to dull ol' Montana again to visit Mom's family for Christmas. Boring as all hell, just like the Thanksgiving break was. They don't even get cable in that house! No satellite dish, and no video games! And fifty miles from the nearest mall. Fifty!"

"Well, at least that way they can guarantee that going Christmas shopping there will be an all-day excursion," I wisecracked. "Got complaints about that?"

"Actually, yeah, I do. The old lady that Mom calls her mom kept draggin' me to all these goddamn candle shops! I thought I was gonna suffocate in there! She wouldn't even let me go to the DVD store! She kept saying something about TV rotting away your brain."

I pulled into the school parking lot, and once I had parked, I turned off the bike, climbed off, and pulled off my helmet, immediately getting drenched by the rain as a result. "So I'm guessing no chances to hit on any guys?"

"You'd be right," she groaned, flicking her tail in a futile attempt to dry it off. "Let's get inside, it's cold."

We both got inside as quick as we could, me limping behind, and once we were inside, we headed to the bathroom, where Xania used the hand dryer machine to dry her hair. She wrung out her hair in the sink, then stuck her head underneath the dryer and rumpled it up into her usual hairstyle. While I wrung out my own hair in the sink, she took off her shades and wiped them dry with whatever part of her shirt was still dry, then threw them back on. "Ahh, that's more like it," she breathed, grinning as she looked at herself in the mirror and rumpled her hair some more.

"I think you look like a drowned rat either way," I joked, ducking a playful punch from her.

"Fuck you!" she laughed. "You don't look any better than I do."

"Ah, touché."

Xania lunged at me to try to get me in a headlock, but I saw it coming and jumped back in time to avoid her. She chased me out of the bathroom, both of us trying not to slip on the wet floor in the process, but before I got very far, I heard a voice call out to me.

"Ah. There's my girl."

I stopped in my tracks and directed my gaze to the other end of the cafeteria, where the voice had come from, and narrowed my eyes disapprovingly when I saw Rob. He noticed the look I was giving him, but didn't seem to care, for he stood up and headed my way anyway.

"Ah hell," Xania groaned. "What does he want now?"

"I don't know," I said in a bland voice, folding my arms over my chest.

"Rocío, been a while, girl. Where'd you head off to during winter break, huh?" Rob asked, grinning as he stood there in front of me. How dare he pretend that he hadn't done anything to me!

"None of your business. I don't think you'd care unless I'd spent it in your room." He just grinned again.

"C'mon, are you still hung up over that? You were all for it, you know. I had to STOP you from pulling off your underwear and ambushing me. You didn't fight me off, you didn't say no, you just laid there!"

"She was drunk," Xania hissed, her tail stiffening up. "You knew that, but you molested her anyway, you piss-ant excuse for a man. Just get outta here."

"No. I'm not leaving. And I don't care if your ex-lover shoves his gun in my face again either," Rob spat. "I'm not the bad guy here. Wasn't my fault. I didn't drag her upstairs, she GLADLY went with me."

I just stood there and listened to him, my body stiff, tempted to pull out my pocketknife and cut him up like the piece of meat he was, but I resisted the urge. Listening to him talk like that, it was like he was describing another person, but I knew he wasn't. It was me he was talking about, me that he was practically bragging to everyone about, bragging that he'd nearly raped me.

"I bet you're just so proud of yourself too," I said coldly. "You almost took advantage of a drunk teenager. Yeah, that REALLY makes you a man. I think a real man would have some blood flowing above the belt as well as below, but then again, I think I have yet to meet a real man."

"Men have needs, and so do women. What's your point?" That grin, I just wanted to wipe it off of Rob's face so badly.

"My point is this." I grabbed him by the hair and yanked him closer to me so that my face was in his face. "Just because a girl doesn't say no doesn't mean that her answer is yes. Just because you were the one hosting the party doesn't mean that you can have any girl you want, drunk or not. And when a girl does flip out and beat the shit out of you…don't try to cover your ass and say she was just rough in bed. That just makes you look like even more of a wuss." I rammed my knee into his stomach, and as he lurched forward, holding his stomach in pain, I smirked and added, "See? Now I got some blood flowing to somewhere besides your dick. Doesn't that feel better?"

I turned to go fetch my backpack, but felt Rob's hand clamp down on my shoulder, stopping me. "You ain't getting away that easily," he wheezed, finally recovering his breath. "You're gonna…be sorry you ever did that."

"Did what? Flip out on you in bed, or mess with your hairdo?" Xania quipped, biting her cheek.

"Shut up, monkey girl. This ain't about you."

"Oh, you're just jealous." She flicked her tail, smirking.

"Why would I be jealous? At least I'm not part-Boomer like you!"

I could feel something in me snap at the sound of those words. I spun around and punched Rob across the face, sending him crashing to the floor; if there was ever a comment that would set me off, that would be it. "Don't you EVER say that about Xania. Especially around me," I growled.

He pushed himself up till he was on his hands and knees, then lunged at me. I raised up my leg and rammed my knee into his forehead, which sent him crashing to the floor again. Before he could recover, I walked over to him and slammed my foot down onto his chest, knocking the wind out of him. I ground the heel of my shoe into his chest, making sure he could feel me on top of him. He winced and squirmed, then grabbed my leg and tried to throw me off, but I merely hopped backwards on one leg, then jump-kicked him with the other when he got up.

"Had enough yet?" I demanded. "Don't EVER ask me for 'favors' again, and don't EVER call any of my friends Boomers!"

"Rocío," I heard Juliana say from behind me, "what're you doing?"

"Teaching this SOB a lesson. Just stay back."

"I don't think so," Sara said meekly. "That's the assistant principal heading this way." She pointed over Rob's shoulder to the teacher's lounge, where a tall man had just exited from and was now heading towards us.

"What on earth is going on here?" he demanded, looking at Rob and me. "This is not the appropriate time or place to be doing this."

"Couldn't wait," I replied dryly.

"No kidding," Rob agreed, grumbling as he wiped the blood from his nose.

"I think you two need to come with me." He looked at Xania and said, "Were you involved in this?"

"No," Xania said. "I'm just a spectator."

The assistant principal motioned for me and Rob to follow him. "Come on, you two. We're going to have a chat."

As I followed him, almost gleefully, I turned to Xania and said, "If I don't show up for the first class, assume I got suspended."

"Ok," she replied, smirking.

-----

My prediction of getting suspended turned out to be true, which didn't surprise me in the least; I couldn't even recall how many times I'd been suspended for fighting throughout my school career. This suspension was for the rest of the week, and once Xania found out, she promised that she would try to get the assignments I'd be missing for me, although the only reason I asked such a thing to begin with was because Irodia had made me do so. She had been called to the school for our little 'discussion,' since she was my temporary guardian, and certainly did not look thrilled about the fight I'd gotten into.

"I told you, you can't always settle things with your fists," she sighed after we left the assistant principal's office.

"I tried talking with him, but he wouldn't listen," I said sarcastically.

"If you can't reason with someone, just walk away. Ever tried that?"

"May as well hang a sign on me that says 'I'm a big fat wuss' if I do that. Some things, you can't walk away from. I'm not gonna just walk away after hearing him pretty much refer to Xania as a Boomer. She's not."

"He was just trying to get under your skin. Couldn't you see that? You need to learn to ignore things that people say when they're trying to get you riled up. When you do get mad, it's just giving them what they want."

"Irodia…" I sighed. "You were teased a lot in school, weren't you…"

"I was. So you see, I do speak from experience."

"Well, you don't speak from my kind of experience. I've had things that get under my skin that hurt or piss me off a lot more than just words."

That shut her up. She knew perfectly what I was referring to.

Since my suspension was effective immediately, Irodia had me go home with her, but she was willing to let me come back when school was over and give Xania a ride home, although Sara could've done the same thing. "Why not just have Sara give her a ride? That's what she'd been doing before you came here," she pointed out.

"She prefers riding with me," I said.

"But it's raining cats and dogs. Sara's car has a roof she can put up. Your motorcycle doesn't."

"Well, she wasn't complaining this morning about it."

"All right, but don't go pulling a disappearing act. I want you back at the house immediately after you take Xania home. Just because you're suspended from school for the week doesn't mean you can go out and do whatever you want."

"Yes, Mother," I replied bitterly.

-----

After Irodia and I headed back to her house, she immediately set about putting me to work, scrubbing the bathroom floors, doing the laundry, all sorts of domestic chores that she knew I hated. And what did she do while I was cleaning? She sat there on the couch and watched her talk shows! She said getting suspended for beating up Rob was one thing, but that I should also be punished for being suspended as well.

"Why did you beat up that boy, anyway?" she inquired as I scrubbed the inside of the bathroom toilet.

"He was being a typical boy, meaning he was thinking with other parts besides his brain," I said dryly, trying to get rid of stains on the toilet that I would've just as soon not even asked what they were. "Besides Greg, I don't think I've seen a single guy my age who can think with his brain. Does every guy have sex on his mind 24-7 or what?"

Irodia sat down on her knees next to me. "Well…when I first met Tyler, he was a bit oversexed too," she admitted.

"Really?"

"Yes. After we'd been going out for a while, he was in a bit of a hurry to take our relationship to the next level. But me being the religious type, I wanted to wait until we were married, and after shooting him down about thirty times, he finally agreed to it as well. He's never regretted it."

"Some guys don't seem to get that message though. I guess Tyler and Greg are exceptions to the rule," I sighed. "Seems like the only guys I attract are the sleazy ones."

"That's because you're an attractive girl who's not shy about showing off her body. And I can tell you that even if you start dressing like a slob to hide your figure, they'll just be even more curious to see what kind of body is underneath them."

"Dressing like a slob was never an option to me. I'm gonna dress however I want to. If boys can't control themselves when they see me, that's their problem, not mine."

"As long as nobody mistakes you for a prostitute, I think you'll be fine," Irodia joked. I managed to laugh with her.

She stood up and stretched. "Well, I'll leave you to your work now. Don't forget to scrub the walls of the shower stall and wash the mirror."

"I know, I know."

"And make sure to throw the hand towels and washcloths in the laundry and change the trash, too!"

"Anything else, madam?" I asked in a fake accent.

"Yes, actually. Don't forget to wash the sink, wash the bathtub, and make sure to go through Mikhaila's hair products to make sure nothing's expired or anything. She tends to forget little things like that."

"Ok, ok…"

I was in that bathroom for about an hour and a half, and most of that time was spent going through Mikhaila's bottles of hair spray and make-up and such to see if any of it was still good anymore. I filled up almost half of a trash bag with those things alone, and the cupboard underneath the sink looked bare compared to how it looked when I'd first started out.

When it was almost time to pick up Xania from school, Irodia let me take a shower using her bathroom – she didn't want me to mess up the main bathroom after I'd just cleaned it, and plus I felt filthy after being on my hands and knees for all that time – and after I put on some fresh clothes, I got on my motorcycle and headed back to the school.

"Whatever happened to Rob? Did he get suspended too?" I asked Xania as she approached me when I pulled into the parking lot.

"No. You were the one throwing all the punches," she quipped.

"Damn, go figure."

"Did you tell Irodia about what he did to ya at that party?"

"Why would I? She doesn't need to know, and I don't wanna bring it up, so we're both better off this way."

"Hey, Rocío!" Sara called to me from her convertible, getting the roof set up as it started to rain again. "Wanna come to the mall with us?"

"I doubt they have anything new since you last went there, oh, yesterday," I joked. "And sorry, I can't. I have a tai chi lesson today." Irodia had told me to come back to the house right after dropping Xania off, but I'd forgotten that I had a lesson today.

"C'mon, just one quick look-see," Juliana said, practically begging. "It won't take long at all. What time do you have your lesson at?"

"Four o'clock."

"Well, it's three now. We have a little time. Won't hurt."

"Where's Mikhaila? She'd want to come along too."

"She's in the library studying," Sara replied, climbing into her car. "First day back, and already she got assigned a major paper."

"No rest for the weary, I guess," Xania mumbled.

"Weary? Today's our first day back," Juliana joked.

"Why don't you two ride in my car with Juliana and me?" Sara asked. "You'll be able to keep dry in here."

"No thanks, we'll be fine," I said.

"You sure?"

"Yeah, we'll manage. We'll be right behind ya."

"Ok!"

Juliana climbed into the car with Sara, and after a moment, the car started up, and it disappeared out of the parking lot. Xania and I climbed on my motorcycle and followed behind, the rain suddenly starting to come down harder than before.

"Damn, it's monsoon season!" Xania exclaimed when it rained even harder, wind blowing the rain sideways, making small trees nearby threaten to snap in two.

Unless you've actually met Monsoon, this doesn't compare, I joked in my head, biting my lip to keep from saying it aloud. "It should let up soon…I hope."

"What if we get stranded 'cause the street floods? I bet Irodia'll be all over ya for not being home when she told you to be," she joked. "Flood or not, I bet she'll be pissed either way."

"I'm sure she'd understand," I groaned when we pulled to a stop at a red light, right behind Sara's convertible. "Can't control the weather, after all."

"Well, my mom seems to think we can."

I cursed under my breath and wiped away the raindrops that had gathered on my helmet visor with the sleeve of my jacket. It was really raining hard; I couldn't recall anything quite this bad in Tokyo. In a matter of seconds, I had to wipe them away again, and finally I just gave up and lifted it up, then immediately put it back down again. The drops had started to fall in my eyes, which wasn't any better. My hands, clad in fingerless gloves, were numb from the cold, and on top of that, my leg was protesting loudly about being out in this weather.

"Maybe we should've gotten a ride with Sara, after all," Xania mumbled as the light turned green and we headed down the street again.

"We're almost there. Hopefully it'll lighten up while we're in the mall."

It was a matter of minutes before Xania and I both regretted what we had just said. We stopped at another red light, starting to shiver from the freezing rain, and I just kept thinking about how nice it would be to sit by a lit fire, curled up in a blanket…generally just thinking warm thoughts. I told Xania to do the same thing, and sure enough, she wasn't shivering as much either.

"W-wait a sec…" Xania started to say when Sara started driving her car again. "The light's still red! What's she doin'?"

I was about to open my mouth to reply, but as Sara drove her car through – apparently thinking the light had turned green, when instead it was still red – a semi approached on our left. I could feel myself stop breathing when I saw that huge truck slam into the tiny convertible trying to cross in front of it, the sound of crushing metal ringing in our ears just as much as the pounding thunder. When the semi finished passing by, it almost immediately screeched to a halt, and Xania and I turned to look at where Sara's convertible was.

What was once Sara's convertible now looked more like a balled-up piece of aluminum foil, crumpled up near a lamppost.

"S…SARA!" I screamed, jumping off my motorcycle. I threw my helmet to the ground and ran towards the wreckage. By now, all traffic had stopped, so I didn't have to worry about being added to the casualty toll, but at the moment, that was the least of my worries. I reached the wrecked car, trying to peek in what looked like one of the windows for any sign of life…but it was so dark.

"Sara! Juliana! Answer me!" I begged. After hearing nothing, I sighed and hugged myself, shivering. Then I looked and recognized a rear-view mirror, and by it was what looked like a car door. I took a breath, then balled my hand up into a fist and punched through whatever glass was left there, peeking inside.

"Sara!" I exclaimed when I saw the brunette girl. "Hey! Open your eyes!"

Sara winced at the sound of my voice, then opened her eyes slowly and turned her head to look at me. It was then I noticed a large gash on her forehead, blood streaking the entire right side of her face. "R…Rocío…?" she asked.

"Yeah, it's me. Don't move, ok?"

"Rosho….is she alright?" I heard Xania ask nervously behind me.

I turned and snapped my head in her direction. "Get to the other side and help Juliana! Do it!"

She nodded slowly and walked over to the other side of the car, and I had to restrain myself to keep from shoving her in that direction. Why wasn't she running to help her? Why was she just walking?

"I can't move…" Sara moaned. "My legs, I can't move 'em…"

"Yo. Juls!" Xania yelled, slapping Juliana lightly on the cheek. "Wake up!"

I jerked on the car door, hoping that it would just come off so I could get better access to Sara, but it seemed like it was stuck. I yelled for another motorist to come help me, and after a few mighty tugs, we got the door off. After setting it aside, I looked back at Sara, and almost fell to my knees in shock when I saw her legs.

No wonder she couldn't move them. The front of the car had totally crushed them. All I could see was a mass of crushed metal and a whole lot of crimson-colored fluid soaking them and Sara's clothes as well.

"Shit…ok…" I finally said to myself, pulling off my jacket. I wrung it out as best I could and covered Sara up in it. "Here. You need to stay warm."

"What's wrong?" Sara asked me, looking scared. "What did you see? What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong," I said quickly. "You're just gonna need some help getting out of this car, that's all."

"Juls, c'mon!" Xania snapped. "Wake up!"

"Don't yeeell," Juliana finally moaned, putting a hand to her head. "Hurts my head…"

"Thank God you're alive. Don't scare me like that!"

I growled to myself and turned to look at the crowd of stunned bypassers. "Stop standing around!" I snapped. "DO something!"

"Like what?" one asked.

I stormed over to the guy who said that and grabbed him by his coat. "What do you think! Call a fucking ambulance!" I dropped him, wiped my soaked bangs from my eyes, and ran back over to Sara. "Hey, stay with me, ok? There's an ambulance coming."

"I never…heard you talk like that before," Sara said weakly, forcing a small smile.

"What would you expect? Everyone's standing around like they've never seen a car accident before," I said softly, bundling the jacket tighter around her.

"I wasn't looking…" she moaned, starting to close her eyes. "It's raining too hard…"

"Keep 'em open, Sara. Stay awake, ok?" I slapped her lightly on the cheek. "Stay awake!"

Sara didn't respond.

"Sara? Sara!" I shook her again, but all I got was a moan. "Shit! Sara, c'mon!" I looked down at her legs and saw they were bleeding worse than ever. I looked around nervously, looking for something I could use to stem the flow, then asked one of the people standing by for his coat. Once he took it off, I pressed it against Sara's legs, hoping to stem the blood flow.

"Damn, this is just too much," I cursed; the coat was already almost completely soaked through. "Xania! Gimme your jacket! I need to stop this bleeding!"

Xania tossed it over the car on top of my head, and I took away the blood-soaked coat and replaced it with the jacket, putting the coat on top of it. "C'mon, please…please stop. Sara is NOT going to die today," I swore under my breath.

Finally, in the background I could hear the wail of an ambulance's siren. I pressed the jacket against Sara's leg wounds even more firmly, gritting my teeth with the effort. I wasn't going to let one of my friends bleed to death if I could help it! I looked at Sara's face; she was still unconscious, and her face was starting to turn white. I shook my head and kept pressing.

"Ok, get back, we can handle it," a paramedic said, pushing me aside as he and another paramedic started attending to Sara.

"She needs outta there," I said. "She's bleeding to death."

"We'll handle it!" he said. "Just stand back so we can do our job!"

I sighed and stood back, and a moment later Xania joined me. We both stood there and watched as the paramedics managed to pull Juliana out, and as they whisked her into an ambulance, I could see other paramedics working to free Sara. I closed my eyes and prayed that she would make it. I'd never forgive myself if she didn't…

"You son of a bitch! Didn't you see that car?" Xania snapped as she ran towards the guy who had been driving the semi; he was standing by his truck, just amazed at the scene. "You might've killed 'em!"

"I did, but I couldn't stop in time!" he protested. "The driver should've seen it was a red light!"

"Well, she didn't! But you coulda stopped! Why didn't you fucking STOP?" Xania lunged at him, but several people from the group of passer-bys quickly broke them up.

"Xania, that's not gonna do anything now," I said, my voice barely audible as the paramedics finally freed Sara from the wreckage and quickly got her to an ambulance. "Let's just hope that Juliana and Sara pull through."

"The son of a bitch," she seethed, pacing back and forth, biting her lip. "The son of a bitch, he saw 'em and didn't stop. He shoulda stopped, Rosho, he shoulda. But he didn't. He DIDN'T STOP! And now they might be DEAD!" Xania suddenly stopped and held her stomach, groaning, then bent over and threw up right there in the grass near the crosswalk. She dropped to her knees and ran a hand through her drenched hair.

I sat down next to her and hugged her. "Xania…it'll be ok."

"It BETTER be ok!" she snapped. "Or I'm gonna have that SOB's head on a stick! I'll kill him with my bare hands if I have to!"

I stood up, dragging her to her feet. "Or we can follow those ambulances to the hospital and check up on our friends. I don't know about you, but I WANT to know if they're gonna be ok or not."

"Rosho, we…we shoulda yelled at 'er. Told 'er that it wasn't green yet."

"She probably wouldn't have heard anyway. She probably had her windows rolled up to keep the rain out," I pointed out. "C'mon, let's…let's go."

"No," she said, shaking her head, her whole body trembling both from cold and from anger. "We…we should tell Mikhaila, and probably Sara and Juls' moms too, and Irodia… A-and you should change outta those clothes too."

"What about 'em?"

"You have blood all over 'em."

I looked down at my shirt and jeans. Sure enough, I had large blotches of red on them, smeared by the pouring rain. "Yeah, I guess I should…"

"Excuse me," a police officer said, interrupting us, "but could I get a witness statement from you two?"

"Why?" Xania inquired.

"You witnessed the accident. And several witnesses said you two administered first aid until the paramedics came. So I need a statement from both of you."

"Let's make it quick," I said, grumbling. "I wanna know how they're doing."

We both gave our accounts of the accident, and once that was done, the officer let us leave, but as I pulled on my helmet and got on my bike, I could see news reporters heading our way. I revved up the bike and sped past them, heading down the street towards Irodia's house.

"Aw, didn't ya wanna talk with the reporters?" Xania asked dryly. "You coulda been on TV."

"The last thing I wanna do is be on TV, Xania. Trust me."

-----

"This ain't happening. This ain't happening."

"Mikhaila, come on, let's go. I'm sure they want to see you."

"I can't!"

Irodia, Xania, and me were back at the school, and we had just told Mikhaila about the accident Juliana and Sara had. Irodia was trying to coax her to come to the hospital with us, but Mikhaila didn't want to believe the accident had really happened.

"Are…are they ok?" Mikhaila demanded, turning from scared to angry. "Rocío, are they ok?" She grabbed me by the shoulders and started shaking me. "Tell me!"

"I don't know!" I snapped. "Last I saw them, they were in an ambulance. Sara looked worse off than Juliana though."

"How do we even know which hospital they're at?"

"I called Sara's mom," Xania mumbled. "She said she'd heard they were being taken to Cyprus Medical Center."

"Mikhaila, if you don't want to go, you don't have to," Irodia said gently. "Do you want to?"

"Yes…and no. I do wanna know what happened, but…not if they're dead!" Mikhaila cried.

"We're not going to know anything until we get there, ok?"

She nodded, wiping tears from her eyes. "Ok…ok…"

After Mikhaila got her books into her backpack, we all headed out to the parking lot and piled into Irodia's car, then headed off to the hospital. Xania leaned back in her seat and looked out the window, frowning.

"Go figure, NOW it stops raining," she pointed out dryly.

"Yeah, no kidding," I agreed in much the same glum tone.

"How bad was it?" Mikhaila asked, peering back at us from her seat up front.

"You don't want to know."

"Of course I do! Just spit it out!"

"Fine." I sighed. "Sara ran a red light, thinking it had turned green, and ended up going right into the middle of traffic. A semi came and slammed into the car on Sara's side. Sara's legs got crushed, and Juliana…I don't know about her."

"She didn't look too bad. Looked like mostly cuts and bruises to me," Xania said. "Good thing that thing had air bags."

"Sara passed out from blood loss, and I tried to stop the bleeding, but…" I stopped and took a breath. "But…the paramedics took over, and I don't know what's going on now."

"She better be ok. Juliana better be ok too," Mikhaila swore. "They're my friends, they can't die!"

Irodia just stayed silent, not knowing quite what to say now.

It wasn't too much longer before we arrived at Cyprus Medical Center. Irodia parked in the parking lot – as soon as she could find a freed-up space, anyway – and we all piled out and rushed into the emergency room, where we were quickly ushered to the waiting room. Xania found a seat in the corner, while Mikhaila went to go look for a vending machine and Irodia sat down with a magazine that looked at least a year old. I sat down on the floor and leaned against the wall, praying that Sara and Juliana would be ok.

I wonder if this is what it was like after the summit attack, Mom and the others sitting here wondering if I would be ok, I thought. Must've been scary, not knowing how I was doing. I sighed and closed my eyes. I'd never done this before, sit here and worry over someone else; usually, I was the one being worried over. How strange to be on the opposite end of it. I didn't know which end I would have rather been on.

"Rocío," Irodia said, shaking my shoulder. "Sara's mom is here."

"Huh?" I snapped my head up at her. "Really?"

"Yes, Xania is talking with her now."

I stood up and walked over to Xania and the blond-haired woman she was talking to. "What's going on?" I asked.

"You're Rocío, I'm guessing," the woman said, looking at me as she wiped a tear from her eye. "I'm Lucy Owens, Sara's mom."

"How is she?"

"Sara is…alive, thanks to you." I could see her start to lose control of her emotions. "But…"

"But what?"

"One of the surgeons just spoke to me a couple minutes ago, and…and…they had to amputate."

"What?" Mikhaila yelled. "Amputate what?"

"Her legs?" I asked. Mrs. Owens nodded, putting a hand to her mouth.

"The damage was too bad… They said the legs were beyond salvaging."

"What about the rest of her?"

"They said the legs were the worst. Besides that, she has some bruised ribs, a laceration on her forehead, a concussion, and a broken arm."

"She's…she's got no legs," Mikhaila mumbled to herself. "No legs…no legs! She's gonna be a cripple now!"

I instantly slapped her across the face, making everyone present gasp. "Don't say that," I snapped as she put a hand to her cheek, stunned. "Don't EVER say that word. You don't know anything about being crippled! Don't get me started."

"Rocío, that's enough," Irodia said sternly, hugging Mikhaila. "We're all upset, but don't take it out on someone who wasn't even there."

I snorted and turned to face Sara's mom. "Where is Sara?"

"She's still in surgery…" she replied. "Rocío, you…you did everything you could for her, I'm sure."

"That's not it." I paced a couple times before stopping and facing her again. "I know what it's like. I know all too well what it's like…not to be able to walk. I've been through that hell. I don't want anyone I know to go through it too!"

"They did say…that she could get cybernetic prosthetics once she's more recovered," she added softly.

"But those aren't her real legs. I don't even know if THIS is my real leg anymore." I hit my left leg with my fist. "With all the metal they put in it, it may as WELL be cybernetic." I fidgeted; I could feel myself get antsy. "Are you sure that's what Sara would want? Would she rather have cybernetic legs, or no legs? Once she's awake, try asking her. Not everybody feels the same way about it."

Xania snickered. "I remember when I first got my tail put on. Sara and Juls, they thought it was just the coolest thing in the world. Sara immediately started wonderin' if she could get a cat tail, and Juliana was wondering if I would have any ill effects should it short-circuit." She started to laugh, holding her stomach, her tail twitching.

"And I thought you were nuts for doing it," Mikhaila mumbled, still nursing her cheek. "If something's not broke, don't fix it."

"I wasn't tryin' to fix anything when I got it on. I just thought it'd be cool to stand out," Xania said proudly. "And I stand out. You can't deny that."

"No argument there," I agreed. "But whether you stand out in a good way or bad way is another question."

"Aw, c'mon, guys get turned on by it. They wonder if I can do any cool tricks with it."

"We won't go there," Irodia interrupted, looking embarrassed. "Anyway, Lucy, have you seen Juliana's mother around?"

"Yes," Mrs. Owens said. "She's upstairs with Juliana."

"What did she say?"

"Well, Juliana wasn't too badly hurt, not nearly as bad as Sara. Mostly bruises, but aside from those, a concussion, and a broken collarbone, she'll be fine. They're going to keep her overnight for observation, just to make sure there's no problems."

"That's good," I said.

"Yes…it is…"

Mrs. Owens choked up, and she leaned on me and hugged me as she started to cry. All I could do was stand there, shocked, and just hug her back as she let it all out. "She's…she's still alive," I reminded her. "At least Sara is still alive. She's losing her legs, but she…she still has her life. That's what matters, right?"

I knew I was horrible at offering condolences, but I was hoping that Mrs. Owens might take some solace in what I said. Whether it worked or not, I didn't know, because she only cried harder. Shit, is she crying from relief or horror or what? I wondered.

"Where's the father figure?" Xania asked dryly. "Thought he'd be here too."

"He's…on a business trip," Mrs. Owens said, releasing me and wiping away some more tears. "I called him, and he said he'd be back as soon as he could."

"Lucy, is there anything you need?" Irodia asked. "Anything?"

"Prayers. Prayers are what Sara, her father, and I need right now."

"Should we stick around?" Mikhaila cut in.

"I don't see the need to. They said she'll be in surgery for a while longer, so I'm not sure we'll be able to see her till way later tonight at the earliest." Mrs. Owens managed to crack a smile. "Xania, Rocío, thank you again for saving her life."

"Rosho's the one who helped with Sara," Xania said. "I helped with Juls."

"Well, you both did wonderful." She looked at Irodia. "I'll be sure to call when she gets out of surgery."

"All right." Irodia hugged Mrs. Owens. "Take care of yourself, Lucy."

"I'll try. Thanks again."

The redheaded woman turned to us three and ushered us out. "Come on, let's go."

On the way to Xania's place, Mikhaila was obviously haunted by what could have been. She looked positively spooked. "I could've been in that car with 'em," she said, looking pale. "I could've been crushed too."

"For once, a major essay saved your life," Xania quipped.

"Xania," I warned, giving her the evil eye.

"Hey, I was just trying to lighten the mood!"

"I think Xania's right," Mikhaila mumbled. "It just might've. But I can't believe it… Two of my best friends are in the hospital, and one of 'em is losing her legs because of a freak accident…"

"Just shut up," I spat. "Stop saying that!"

"Rocío, calm down," Irodia cautioned. "Xania, we're at your house now."

"Ok," she said, opening the door and climbing out. "I'll see you at school tomorrow…" She stopped and corrected herself. "Oh wait, you got suspended. So, uh…"

"I'll come by," I said.

"Ok. See ya." She closed the door and headed inside, Irodia driving off once she saw that Xania was inside.

"We've all had a long day," Irodia said after a prolonged silence. "Mikhaila, we're glad that you're ok, and glad that you weren't in the car. Rocío, I'm proud of you for helping out after the accident, but please, don't take out your anger on Mikhaila."

"She keeps saying that word!" I protested. "And I've been there! That's not fair! She doesn't have a clue!"

"You're right, I don't," Mikhaila said. "I've broken my leg before though."

"That doesn't even come close. Trust me. What I went through, and what Sara is about to go through, is a LOT worse than just breaking your leg."

"But, Rocío, you were shot in the leg," Irodia pointed out. "Sara is actually losing hers."

"As far as I'm concerned, they're one and the same," I spat as the car pulled to a stop in the driveway. "For a while, it was like I'd lost mine, too."

Before either of the redheads in the car could reply, I climbed out of the car, slammed the door, and stormed into the house. How come nobody could understand what I was saying! Why couldn't they see it! Was it because they hadn't gone through it firsthand? Of course it was. It was like trying to explain to a blind person what colors look like; they wouldn't be able to truly comprehend it unless they suddenly were able to see and actually saw the colors for themselves.

Nobody knows what it's like to lose a limb, I thought as I locked myself in my room. But now, Sara will.

-----

When I laid down to go to sleep that night, sleep didn't come easy. My mind was too busy racing, thinking about that horrible accident that had happened literally right in front of me. I knew it wasn't Sara's fault; it had been raining hard, and she'd thought the light had turned green. It wasn't the semi driver's fault; he couldn't stop in time once Sara's convertible got in his path. Was it Mother Nature's fault? Probably not…this was what wintertime in Sacramento was like: lots of rain and some hail too.

But…could it have been my fault? Could it have been mine and Xania's for not yelling at her to stop, that we didn't have the right of way at the moment? Maybe, but then again, she might not have heard us even if we had done so.

I closed my eyes and sighed. I didn't know what to do now. Part of me wanted to be there by Sara's side, help her through this. Another part of me wanted to stay away as long as possible; it hit a little too close to home.

"Tortuous, isn't it."

"Huh?" I opened my eyes and looked around. Nobody was in the room, and yet…I could feel someone's presence, an eerily familiar one. "Boh…it's you… What do you want?"

"Face it, Yumeko. You're like a plague, cursing whatever and whomever you touch. You should just get away while you still can."

I looked around, managing to keep from jumping in surprise when the room disappeared and was replaced by a blackish-colored void. I'd been here before. "No, I think I'll just stay right here. Why don't YOU come out, huh? Come out here so I can kick your ass."

"Don't you see?" his voice inquired, echoing all around me. "This is part of the game. Why should I come out? Why don't you try to find me instead?"

"You were the one who did the chasing in Tokyo, not me. It's what you do best."

"Ah, but in the end, you were the one playing the cat, not I."

"Yeah, and I blew your brains out. So how is it you're still living in my head, huh? It's been like this ever since you fused with my hardsuit up on Genom Tower."

I could hear him chuckle. "I told you before. No one is really dead as long as they live on in your memories. The only reason I appear like this is because you still remember."

"Well, why wouldn't I? You killed Michiko and stabbed ME!"

"Exactly." Even though he wasn't in sight, I swore that he was smirking at this very moment.

"So what do you want now?" I inquired with a sigh. "There's nothing more you can do to me. You wore out whatever welcome you had long ago."

"Heh. It's simple enough. I'm here because of the incident your friend had this afternoon." He paused. "Do you feel guilty, Yumeko?"

"Guilty? Why would I tell you?"

"It's a simple question. I reason that you are feeling guilty, because you were unable to do a thing to prevent it from happening, just like you couldn't do a thing to prevent me from killing Michiko."

"Shut up," I growled. "I told you, never bring up Michiko."

"Your friend lost her legs, and Michiko lost her life. You were unable to prevent either from occurring. Does that haunt you?"

"I told you before, Boh, just shut up!"

"Your friend should have been more careful, as should have Michiko. But neither listened, and they both have paid the price."

I snapped my head in every direction, trying to figure out where the hell his voice was coming from. "That does it, Boh, where are you? Get out here!"

"No."

"What do you mean 'no'?"

"If you want to find me, then find me. Yelling won't do any good."

"Damn it, I'm not in the mood for games, Boh! Come out!"

"Could it be that you're looking to place blame for your friend's accident? Was it her fault?"

"It was rainy. She…she thought the light was green…"

"So it is nature's fault? Or should you blame your friend's poor judgment?"

"I'm not blaming either."

"Do you blame yourself?"

I stayed silent for a moment, then reluctantly said, "…No. Actually, I don't. It could have been a whole bunch of unfortunate things colliding at once for all I know."

"That's laughable." He paused for a moment, then asked, "Do you know what I find amusing? The fact that you're trying to place blame everywhere but on yourself. That, I find amusing."

Suddenly, I felt the floor disappear from beneath my feet. I gasped in surprise, then screamed as I started to fall down, down towards God-knows-what. And then, I felt a hand grab onto mine. I looked up and saw Boh looking down at me, grinning evilly.

"That look on your face," he noted, still grinning. "I find that amusing as well." And with that, he let go. And I was sent screaming as I resumed my free-fall…

…right back into my own bed.

I gasped and shot up in bed, covered in a cold sweat. I wiped the sweat from my face and looked around frantically. Once I realized I was alone, I sighed and flopped back onto the bed. A moment later, a crack of thunder sent me jumping again, and when I looked out the window, it was raining, again.

"Damn it," I cursed, slamming the window shut. I just couldn't stay still anymore for some reason; 'hearing' Boh tease me again had sent my nerves rattling. I stood up and paced the room a couple times, too wound up to go back to sleep, too hyper to even know what to do next.

I cursed under my breath and pulled off my nightshirt; it was soaked in my sweat. I pulled on a sweatshirt and jeans, then pulled on some socks and shoes and stormed outside into the pouring rain. I walked around the yard a couple times, then headed over to the side of the house, let out a scream of rage, and started pounding away on the brick wall. What the hell was I supposed to do? In a way, I did feel like it was my fault for Sara getting into that car accident. Why hadn't I tried to warn her?

"I'm a stupid bitch, I'm a stupid little BITCH!" I screamed at myself, continuing to pound, despite the fact my knuckles were being stained red from my own blood. Now Sara would have to go through the same hell I'd gone through! She'd have to go through months of physical and mental anguish, but in a way, hers was worse; I hadn't actually lost a leg. She had just lost both.

"Sara…I'm sorry… I should've done something…"

The world around me started to spin, and before I could try to regain my balance, everything went black.