June 14, 2045

The priest stood out in front of his temple, at the crowd that had gathered, and sighed. In another life, he had been a police officer, seeking to keep the peace in this land, but had eventually needed the peace a priest's life offered. He never forgot his roots, though - no one who'd ever worn a badge could - and always offered his services whenever a fellow officer was killed.

The death of an officer always came with full honors. The death of an officer of this rank - deputy chief - was almost unheard of. He had been out with his wife and child when a group of thugs had sought their cash; something had gone wrong, and one police officer and two gangbangers paid with their lives. He wasn't sure what to make of the rumors he'd heard about what happened; all he knew for certain was that three people were dead, including arguably the most popular officer in AD Police, and it was his job to wish their souls on.

The crowd that had filed in to say goodbye was an eclectic one, the sort expected of a man of McNichol's life. Like any group of soldiers, the police officers of MegaTokyo presented themselves in full regalia, the gold chrysanthemums sparkling in a sea of blue. The black suits and dresses of the civilians seemed almost plain by comparison, clouds among the brilliant stars of AD Police.

He took a moment to watch the interaction between people as the chairs slowly filled up. Shaking heads, weak smiles, dark sunglasses, a few tears wiped away. Hugs, a few kisses, held hands - especially between those married officers and their spouses. A man many considered the rock of AD Police was gone, and the survivors clung to those who remained.

And, in the front row, the widow, with those closest to her. Their child, a young boy only three years old, sat, not comprehending, wondering at all of the chaos and confusion around him. The boy's mother sat next to him, proud, erect, her bearing more like the police behind her than that of a grieving widow. Detective Wong sat next to her, his hand on her shoulder, his gaze full of worry. Further along the row were a handful of people; he recognized former chief Toodoo's niece among them, but couldn't recognize the others save for their concern for the family and their own grief.

The priest smiled grimly and nodded to himself in satisfaction. The boy would be taken care of by the AD Police. That was their way. Inspector Wong would be there once Priscilla was ready to grieve. Indeed, they would be good for each other; the life Daley Wong had been dealt was a lonely one, and Mrs. McNichol...

He stopped for a moment as he gazed into her scarlet eyes. He knew eyes like that from plenty of nights on the force. To both his surprise and his fear, there was almost no sadness in that gaze. Rather, there was an intensity to her eyes - a kind of focused rage that usually came just before someone did something stupid. He would have to have a word with Daley after the ceremony, to make sure she didn't try something.

Sighing, he began to dredge up the few times he had talked with Leon McNichol, and the anecdotes his family and colleagues had given him. To remember the goodness of a life passed was, after all, the beginning of healing. It had to be.

***

Nightelf presents...

A Life Revisited

Bubblegum Crisis copyright Artmic and Youmex; American version distributed by AnimEigo. All rights reserved. If you haven't seen classic BGC, please don't let the series fade into oblivion; just watch it.

***

Three days later...

The house was an extravagant one for Japan, the sort built to instill some European concept of academic tradition, with red brick walls and wooden columns carved and painted to simulate the marble variety. Despite a recent refit to provide modern amenities, such as the motion sensors, cameras, and outdoor lighting to deter theft, the place still had a sort of old world charm.

Precisely what would be expected so close to a university.

The current owner was a young assistant professor at nearby Nekomi Tech. There was some speculation at first as to how a brand-new professor could afford such a distinguished house; once they heard the last name, though, as well as the department he worked for, all questions ceased.

In the annals of mechanical engineering, after all, few names carried more respect than Stingray.

Dr. Michael Stingray looked out of his window as he sipped his morning coffee, wondering for not the first time about the sanity of this whole affair. Nene-chan had pretty much insisted on this weekend, and explained in detail why a weekend like this was needed; he still had his doubts, though. Dealing with Priss had been like juggling nitroglycerine at the best of times - and this wasn't the best of times.

But... one thing life had taught him was that some debts, when called, have to be paid. They owed debts to the McNichols on several fronts, ranging from Nene's former rank in AD Police to the assistance that Leon had given his sister before... before the end.

And, of course, there was Priss' past work as a Knight Saber. Heaven help them both if they forget that.

But this weekend still made him uneasy. Sylia's suicide run in '35 hadn't just destroyed Genom Tower - it had also destroyed the Knight Sabers as a group. While Genom survived, it never truly recovered; the power plays and rogue boomers that were a part of Genom's past quieted down to whispers. At the same time, no one involved with the Knight Sabers knew quite how to feel about the end, as the death toll had been so shockingly large. The surviving Knight Sabers, shocked by the end, literally scattered to the four winds. Priss and Leon went hand-in-hand into the sunset; Linna parlayed what had been a minor stockbroker job into a very lucrative career. Sylia's network of spies and contacts faded into the woodwork, just as planned. Everyone tried to find a life away from what they'd known, a life far away from vigilantism and power armor.

Only Nene had stayed. Thank God. Sylia's death had been hard for him to deal with. She'd helped him through it, even as she worked through her own grief. Somehow, they'd found something together within that. They both took what they had from the Knight Saber days, went back to school, and made a life together.

A wry smile escaped his lips. The perfect cure for a pervert was a woman with incredible mischief and imagination. They had to be a little more careful about such things now, as children made any private time an adventure, but it was still all good.

Mackie noticed a gray sedan pull up into the driveway. He put the mug down on the table; the first guests were beginning to arrive.

Time had been both cruel and kind to Linna. The first thing that struck him about Linna was how much like Sylia she dressed: an elegant, understated black pantsuit that screamed of money. Her hairstyle was unchanged in terms of length or basic style; the headband that had been her trademark was long gone, though, allowing her hair to hang down around her face. The first signs of age were starting to make their way to her face, tiny wrinkles around her eyes and lips just to remind her just how much time on earth she had left. The eyes, though, told more of a story than anyone wanted. This Linna was tired, weary in a way the twenty-year-old never was.

Mackie moved toward the door, then heard the sound of footsteps behind him. Trust his wife to monitor the security feeds while working... he stepped aside, let Nene run for the door, and waited patiently while the greetings progressed.

The moment Nene flew through the door, Mackie noticed the change in Linna's demeanor. He wasn't sure if it was an act or if she genuinely had that great a shift in mood on seeing Nene, but Linna seemed happier at Nene's greeting, at the very least. Of course, speaking from experience, he had no complaints about Nene's greetings. When it came to family and friends, Nene tended not to hold back.

A moment later, Linna and Nene walked through the door. Mackie looked at Linna's gaze, and not for the first time hated being right; there was something behind Linna's smile that told him something was wrong inside. He gave Linna a gentle hug. "Hey, Linna."

"Watch the hands, Mackie," Linna replied, her tone indicating the joke. "How're you doing?"

He shrugged. "Oh, I'm doing okay. It's summer, so things are pretty quiet around here, but that's not necessarily a bad thing." He gestured back to the table. "Care for some coffee?"

"Sure," Linna replied.

"Cream, two sugars, right?" Mackie asked as he started for the kitchen.

Linna grinned. "Good to see you remember."

"Too many late nights, Linna," Mackie replied. He walked toward the coffee pot and pulled a mug from a nearby cupboard. "You want any, hon?"

"Sure," Nene replied.

Mackie picked up a second mug and put them on the counter. He let himself get lost in the ritual of making the coffee - pulling out the filter, pouring the grounds - and let his thoughts wander.

The list of people coming this weekend was odd, to say the least. Linna had come; Daley was bringing Priss and Andrew. Lisa was coming in later today, and Reika was flying in that afternoon.

The chilling thought about all of this was just how much was left unresolved from those days. It hurt to see Linna - to see the Knight Sabers - again. It reminded him of days he'd thought he left behind - days when he was very much a young apprentice, learning mechanical design and combat strategy under his sister. That was his adolescence, his boyhood. The man had thought he left this behind long ago.

Sighing, he poured coffee into the mugs, then added the cream and sugar. Figured that, even after all this time, he was still making coffee for the ladies. Smiling grimly at his own private joke, he picked up the mugs and carried them into the dining room.

He smiled as he watched the two talk about old times. He was beginning to understand why Nene insisted on this weekend. This was something she needed, too. The crusader in her that had led Sylia to her had been dormant for too long. Sometimes a person needed reminding of who they were inside, and for Nene that meant talking about her past. He placed the mugs in front of them and walked outside, leaving them to their girl talk.

It was a beautiful day outside, the sort of day that begged him to walk across campus and enjoy the sunshine. There was nothing quite like a morning walk after long hours in front of a computer or manufacturing a new design. Everything felt new in the morning light; everything felt different.

The AD Police cruiser that was approaching, however, let him know that such rebirth wasn't necessarily a good thing. He sighed and walked to the curb as the cruiser approached.

Daley was the first to get out of the car; he stretched as he exited the vehicle, then turned back to the entrance. Andrew, Priss and Leon's son, quickly jumped out behind him, anxious to no longer be in such a confined space. Andrew ran up the walkway to the door; Mackie smiled at his exuberance. Sometimes the acorn truly doesn't fall far from the tree.

"Andrew McNichol, get back here!" Priss shot out of the opposite passenger door, ready to chase after her son if need be; for once, her son listened, at least to an extent. He stopped, and slowly took a step back toward the cruiser. Priss quickly ran up to him and grabbed his hand.

"Just like his dad," Daley chuckled. "Always going where angels fear to tread." He turned around to Mackie. "Can you help me with the luggage?"

Mackie nodded. "Sure." He started pulling suitcases out of the trunk when he heard a voice behind him.

"Daley, could you take Andrew inside? I can get this."

Daley blinked, then set the bags aside. Mackie continued pulling out the remainder of the luggage, then slammed the trunk shut.

Priss waved to the cruiser's driver. "Thanks, Jamie." They exchanged a few pleasantries before the driver restarted the engine and headed down the road. Mackie let her have the moment; he started to carry the luggage into the house.

A hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Mackie?"

Mackie turned around. "Yes?"

Priss' scarlet eyes burned into his. "I appreciate you letting me stay here for a little while, but there are only two things that I really need from you and Nene."

Mackie gulped. "And those are?"

"The identities of the bastards responsible for this," Priss hissed, "and the firepower to make them regret it for the rest of their short, painful lives."

***

Nene was feeling good.

A professor's house needed to be comfortable for a group of people talking. Thus, the living room had more than enough capacity for the people there - even if it meant she was in Mackie's lap, lounging around in his favorite chair.

Everyone had arrived; the only thing she'd really planned for the weekend was now beginning to commence. Priss sat on the loveseat, her face that shifting mix of emotions that comes from someone not knowing what they're supposed to feel. Daley sat next to her, his role shifting between comforter and protector. On the opposite side of the room, Linna, Reika Chang, and Lisa Vanette sat on a sofa. And... at the moment, Reika was telling her tale.

"... So here I am, wondering just what everyone's going to think about Vision getting arrested - while piloting a battle mover, no less!" Reika's smile faded slightly. "Kou stepped in front of me and held his hands out. Leon looked at him for a moment, looked at me, then smiled as Daley over there handcuffed McLaren. He thanked me for helping out with the arrest, and escorted us back to the mainland."

Nene chuckled as she grabbed onto Mackie's hand. "What Leon DIDN'T tell you was that he blackmailed me into finding out whatever I could on Irene's death, including breaking into some sealed police files - which is how he knew what was going on. I'd been doing surveillance work for Sylia on the McLaren case, and was dressed as a waitress for parts of it. Leon saw me, took a few pictures, and..."

"Wouldn't surprise me. A good cop not only knows the law and upholds it; he knows when and how to bend the laws, or ignore them." Reika nodded slowly, and wiped her eyes. "That was... that was the beginning of healing." She smiled wryly. "The hilarious thing about all of it was that I had this tour to complete - one I never planned on completing in the first place!"

"Did you ever get over it?" Priss asked.

Reika took a deep breath, and rubbed the tiger ring on her right hand. "No. I'm not going to lie to you, Priss. It hurts. It eases to a point where you can get on with your life, but it'll always be there." She swallowed. "Even if you get your revenge."

Priss' lips pouted. "It's not just revenge, Reika," she whispered. "It's survival, too. Once you are a target, chances are, it's going to end up with you or them dead. It's not fun - God, it's not fun - but that's the way it is."

Mackie frowned. "So you think there was someone else behind this?"

Priss' eyes narrowed. "Live on the streets long enough, and you know the difference between a robbery and a murder. They went to knives and bullets way too fast." She sighed. "This is a drill I've lived through before. I've had to bury two men because of this shit; I'm not going to orphan Andrew - or worse, bury him."

Reika nodded slowly. "Why do you think I retired from singing? I couldn't be protected while being Vision; I do studio work on occasion, but I can't tour anymore." She smiled grimly. "Besides, I've got other things to worry about."

"Other things?" Lisa asked.

"Other things," Reika responded cryptically.

"Just think of Reika as your fairy godmother," Linna interjected.

"Fairy... Oh." Lisa's eyes widened. "I'd heard rumors. So you are..."

"I look out for my family and friends. Just as anyone would." She shook her head. "I never wanted this. I don't think anyone does. But, at the end of the day, you have to look out for those you love." She looked down at her hands. "That's what I do."

"So I should help her out?" Mackie asked. "I... I don't want to bury any more friends."

"You just did!" Priss snarled. "What the hell do you think that funeral was? Leon McNichol Appreciation Day?!?"

Nene gulped. This was going in places she didn't want it to go. "Priss?"

"What?" Priss glared. "Are you going to talk me out of it too?"

"No," Nene replied. "But... you have to understand something. Mackie... he helped Sylia design her briefcase."

Silence hung over the room. The end had been too deep for words - scarring in a way that destroyed lives, damaged friendships. Nothing they'd done had been the same since.

"Damn," Priss finally cut through the silence.

Reika stood up and walked over to Mackie's chair. "Mackie, you don't have to do anything you don't feel is right. But... just look. Just investigate for yourself, and then make your own decisions. Okay?"

"I intended to," Mackie replied evenly. "I owe Priss and Leon that much." He shook his head. "I just don't know if I can do anything else beyond that."

Nene sighed. "I'm sorry about all this. I hadn't meant for this to go so badly..."

"Um... it's okay, Nene," Lisa sighed. "It was a good idea. Besides, there's a story that I want to tell..."

Nene raised an eyebrow. "You have a story to tell?"

"Of course I do!" Lisa grinned. "See, this was right after I took a photograph of a certain Knight Saber with a shattered visor. I was trying to find out as much about this Knight Saber as I could, to the point that I was spying on her at work. Anyway, Leon spots me, and comes over to ask what I'm doing..."

***

"Can I help?"

Nene looked back at Lisa. She couldn't help but smile; sure, Lisa had grown up and built her own life, but she still had many of the same mannerisms the girl had long ago. Lisa stood there, her hands clasped behind her as she rocked back and forth on her heels, much as she had when they'd first met. Even the outfit looked much as it had back then; sure, the skirt was a more appropriate cut, but the blazer and blouse could have come from her school uniform. Nene smiled at how some things never changed, then plucked a spare apron from the wall. "Can you wash and slice the vegetables? I'll start getting the meat and stock ready."

Lisa tied the apron around her waist, picked up a ceramic knife lying next to the vegetables, and frowned. Nene grinned; she was wondering if Lisa would notice. "What brand of cutlery is this? The blade looks nice, the handle feels perfect... but I don't see any logo."

Nene's smile widened. "That would be a Stingray brand knife. Easily the sharpest knives in Japan - so sharp that we can't sell them to the general public." She tilted her head to one side. "What, you think that a family that made its own combat armor and weaponry wouldn't know how to make a good knife?"

Lisa grinned, then started slicing some daikon. Her eyes widened slightly; Nene grinned at the reaction. "If you think that's sharp, you should see our carving knife. The blade was based on Linna's old ribbon cutters - a blade so thin that it could effortlessly cut through bone."

"I have got to get me some of these," Lisa breathed, not stopping her slicing for a moment.

Nene nodded in reply. "I'll tell Mackie to get a set made up. It'll take a few weeks to get a proper set made, but you'll never cook the same again once you've tried them."

"Tell me about it," Lisa replied. "My mom gave me her old knives once I moved out. They'd probably seen a few too many dinners, because they were pretty dull by the time I got them, and they haven't gotten any better."

Nene nodded slowly, understanding. The two worked in companionable silence for a minute, the thwack of knife against cutting board the only sound.

"So... when did you learn to cook?"

Nene grinned as she slid the bones into the water. "I never bothered to learn to cook when I was younger - takeout was good enough for me. It wasn't until Katsuhito was born that I really started to learn." She sighed wistfully. "When you have a baby, there are all of these things that you want for him. You want to give him a safe home, you want to give him a place to learn, you want to help him explore and grow. I thought about all the meals that Mom used to cook for Dad and me, and I wanted that in my home." Nene shrugged. "Fortunately, Mom had moved in for a few weeks to help with the baby, and she gave me a crash course."

Lisa groaned. "Oh, don't remind me. My mom's still going on about how I need to find a husband and settle down."

"Moms are like that," Nene replied. "My mom and I... how to put it." She took a deep breath, trying to gather her thoughts. "Mom never got on me about looking for a husband and settling down. We'd grown apart while I was a teenager; by the time our relationship really healed to that point, I'd found my husband, and I was beginning to settle down. I could tell she wanted to give baby hints, but she never felt like she had enough respect from me to do so." She chuckled. "The hilarious part of all of it is... now that I'm the mommy, I'm starting to find myself becoming just like her. I sometimes have to stop myself from being overprotective of Katsuhito and Sylia."

"I'll keep that in mind," Lisa sighed. "I'm just not ready to become Mom yet."

"The problem is that most moms forget one very important thing."

Lisa raised an eyebrow as she finished slicing the daikon. "And that is?"

"When you're ready to settle down... you will." Nene grinned. "And not a moment before."

***

Mackie smiled as he tasted a morsel of beef.

One thing was for certain: his wife knew how to cook. Moreover, she knew what to cook: with this crowd, comfort food was needed, something to remind them of home, of safety, of family. Sukiyaki had all the necessary ingredients: the communal pot, the inviting broth, the savory meat and vegetables... it was the perfect choice.

"You've outdone yourself, Nene-chan," Daley announced as he ladled some more sukiyaki into his bowl. "I just wish you could've cooked so well back when you were at AD Police."

Nene snorted. "You think I had time to cook back then?"

Daley chuckled. "True enough. Things were rather hectic back then." The laughter died too soon on his lips; he soon began a staring contest with his merlot. "To absent friends."

"To absent friends," the toast was answered, soon followed by the clink of glasses.

Reika sipped her wine. "These never get any easier, do they?"

"No, they don't," Daley admitted. He took another sip of his wine. "To put it bluntly, I'm tired of funerals."

"We all are," Priss said darkly. "How many people have we had to bury too soon?"

Daley sighed. "I once went back to see how many funerals I'd attended, back when Genom was doing their power plays and boomer rampages were common." He swallowed. "Seventy-one - in four years. That was about one every three weeks."

Linna ladled some vegetables from the sukiyaki pot. "And that doesn't count things like Second Kanto, or the Genom explosion, where there were just too many people to bury." She groaned. "God, we're a messed-up bunch, aren't we?"

Nene straightened up. "I don't know about you, but I'm perfectly well-adjusted." At the snorts that echoed from the rest of the table, she actually looked indignant. "Well, I am!"

Mackie grinned. Nene's comment had done precisely what it intended - lightened up a difficult situation. He reached over and patted his wife on the hand. "No you're not, dear - but we love you in spite of that." He tilted his head to the side. "And some of us because of it."

After the laughter died, Mackie decided to continue. "We really don't have anything planned for tonight. Considering most of you have been traveling, we thought it best to take it easy tonight." He looked over at Reika. "Reika, you said you had something planned for tomorrow night?"

Reika smiled. "Yeah, I made some reservations for all of us tomorrow night." She winked. "Trust me; you're going to enjoy it."

Mackie nodded. "A lot of this weekend is going to be play-it-by-ear. If any of you have an idea for something to do, great. The main point is to rest and talk about old times." He looked at his glass of wine. "We've earned that much, at least."

***

Linna closed her laptop and sighed. Her tech portfolio was doing well - exactly what was expected from her. For the past decade, she had picked growth tech stocks with an uncanny savvy, protecting money in downward markets and making money in upswings. "She had a gift", they'd say... she wasn't sure if she'd call it by those words, but she had something.

Actually, she had words for it. Most of them weren't fit for speech or print, but one always stood out - failure.

She was just a little too slow in getting out of the way, and so many people paid the price. Armor-piercing bullets, the sort designed to go up against tanks, are no fun when they rip through flesh; she'd been lucky to keep the leg at all. Her life as a Knight Saber vanished in an instant. The Knight Sabers were down one... and it was her fault.

As was everything that happened after. She'd taken a job as an investment broker with Sylia's help; lame aerobics instructors weren't exactly in demand, and she had to go on with her life. She watched, helpless, as Genom ratcheted the pressure without the Knight Sabers to keep them in check, as their abuses of MegaTokyo continued unabated. The Knight Sabers tried to do what they could... but, with only three, they were overwhelmed.

And then there was no reason to worry about Genom - or the Knight Sabers - anymore.

Oddly enough, what principles she had served her well in the aftermath. Everyone else had bet on Genom, and the stock tanked after the explosion; only her portfolio and her little list of clients weathered the storm relatively unscathed. It got her noticed; it got her prestige and money and promotions. Because of that one night and some other astute decisions, she'd become a very wealthy woman... but at a cost she'd never wanted to pay.

Billions of yen... for her best friend. For her soul.

Linna wanted that trade back. Sylia would never have used the nuke if she hadn't been injured; thousands wouldn't have died if she'd still stood guard. She'd tried soothing the ache from that failure in relationships and marriage, but in the end even that had been a false salve, and caused more pain than it created.

She was a successful businesswoman, she wore a suit to work every day, and she hated it. She had more money in her account now than she'd ever had from her work as a Knight Saber. But it all felt wrong. She picked up the laptop and began to put it in her briefcase when she felt a hand touch her shoulder.

"Hey, Linna," Nene slid next to her. "How goes your conquering of the financial world?"

Linna shrugged. "Same ol' same old."

Nene glanced down. "How's the leg?"

Linna shrugged. "Good enough that I can do aerobics. I guess I should be grateful for that." She pulled up the leg of her pantsuit, exposing the web of scars around the knee. "Needless to say, I don't wear skirts into the office much."

Nene chuckled; the laughter seemed to die in the room. After a moment, Nene put her hand on Linna's shoulder.

"Are you doing okay?"

Linna blinked at the question. "I.... I'm really not sure. It's been years since we all got together, and it feels so... odd. Like I don't know how I'm supposed to feel, or how I'm supposed to act."

Linna watched the storms roll across Nene's eyes, before she finally settled on a quiet "I know." For the first time, Linna felt another emotion at her actions back then - guilt. Not for not fighting - she couldn't help that - but for not staying afterwards. She'd hurt so much that she didn't see how Nene - or, worse, Mackie - was hurting.

After a moment, the clouds across Nene's eyes faded; a gentle smile crossed her face. "You know... there's room for you here as well, if you want to stay awhile."

Linna looked at her, stunned. "Me.... stay here? Like some slumber party?"

"Nah. That's this weekend," Nene retorted, winking. "It's just... you seem out of sorts, like you could do with some time away."

Linna stopped for a long moment, and stared at the wall ahead of her. "I don't know. It... There's a lot that happened in those last days. God, you don't know how hard I wished that my knee would heal again. And then Sylia..." She shook her head. "I never thought Sylia's death would hurt so much... so far down the road. Aren't these things supposed to ease up over time?"

Nene sighed. "Not really, no. You get to the point where you can get through the day... but they never go away."

"Gee, thanks," Linna grumbled, then sighed. "Sometimes I wish I was still an innocent aerobics instructor. That I was never a Knight Saber. That I'd never gone into finance." She closed her eyes. "Life didn't hurt so much then."

Nene patted Linna on the shoulder. "Just... think about the offer, okay?"

Linna shook her head. There wasn't much point to it that she could see - not so far down the line. "Yeah. Maybe. We'll see."

***

Priss was finding out just how much everything hurt.

This was a task she'd done a thousand times before. Andrew was playing with Katsuhito, Nene's oldest, and his robot collection; Katsuhito's younger sister, Sylia, was still too young to do much more than crawl. Andrew was all boy, and showed it in his rough, exuberant play; Katsuhito was a bit older, and tended to be more careful. Occasionally, Katsuhito would direct Andrew's play away from Sylia, to make sure she wasn't hurt.

Many times she'd taken Andrew out to a nearby playland, and watched him interact with the other kids. Occasionally, she wondered just what sort of older brother Andrew would be.

Now... that would never happen - at least, not as she envisioned it. Leon was gone. Maybe, one day, she would learn to love a man enough to allow for another child, but she couldn't even imagine a day like that. Something else those bastards had taken from her - not just the man she loved, but maybe another child or two, not yet born, and never would be.

Honestly? If it weren't for Andrew, she'd probably lie in bed for a few months, then go on some suicide charge. The vows of matrimony were far more powerful than she realized; in that moment, two people became one. Somehow, a wild rock star and a maverick cop became a loving couple, each sacrificing their old life for something more precious. They'd built a family, built a home... a home shattered in one night of murder. When the bullet had shredded Leon's throat, it had destroyed her heart at the same time. Two had become one... then zero. And, without Andrew, there would be no reason for that to change.

But Andrew was there. She could see so much of Leon in him, everything from his hyperactive, hard-charging attitude to the expressive dark eyes. Her beloved lived on in him, and in her heart. She would do anything to protect that.

And that meant becoming the person she'd once put aside. She'd thought, perhaps naively, that the world could get by without avenging angels. She'd paid for that naivete with her husband's life. Now... she would have to bring that angel back.

Two had become one had become zero... but would become two again. There was no creature more ferocious, more terrifying, than a mother whose child is threatened. It was time for the monsters who killed Leon to realize that.

But, for now, she would watch her son, smile as he sent a strangely familiar robot flying into his imaginary sky, and plot to become the hero her son was dreaming of.

***

Daley Wong stared up at the ceiling as he lay on the couch. He couldn't sleep; he suspected he wasn't the only one having difficulty sleeping, but so far he hadn't seen anyone else up and about.

He'd made peace with his homosexuality a long time ago. He didn't have much of a choice; he couldn't help being attracted to men any more than his former partner could help being attracted to long-legged, fiery retrothrash singers. He'd gone through the evolution most men go through, from uncertainty and fear to celebration and promiscuity to comfort and stability, but he still hadn't found someone to share his life with to finish the journey. In a way, he probably had Leon to thank for that; not that the men he'd met weren't good guys to be with, but they seemed to be... lacking, in a way Leon wasn't. Daley was beginning to accept that he would live and die alone.

And then the priest just HAD to make that suggestion - that he stay with Priss and help raise Andrew, to be a father for the boy. Part of him felt like damning the priest to the darkest pit of hell for even suggesting it; there are some offers that are too painful for any gay man to contemplate. It was arguably the most painful adjustment for any gay man to make - to know that the family they'd grown up with, the family that had nurtured them, would not be recreated in their own adulthood because neither he nor any potential partner could have a child. The wound was an old one for him by now, but any gay man would tell you it still bled from time to time.

And it bled now, more than he believed possible. Did he even have the right to help raise Andrew? That should be Leon's right! What right did he have to interfere in the family Priss and Leon made - even if Andrew might need a father figure?

He sighed. He would be his brother's keeper. That was the AD Police way; they looked after their own.

Nevertheless, this felt wrong to him, like something he didn't deserve. It wasn't that he wasn't a man; anyone who'd faced down boomers had no worries when it came to proving their manhood. It was that he didn't know if he could be enough of a man to help raise Leon's child. Leon just seemed to be more man than any other man he knew; the strength, peace, wisdom, and fire balanced in such a way that he could love without reservation, be a friend without reservation, be a father without reservation. And no matter how much of a man he was, he would never live up to Leon's ideal.

So here he was, with something he'd dreamed of - to be a father, to raise a child - but at a cost he'd never wanted, and all while he lacked the qualifications for the job. Sighing, he rolled over on his side, and tried to make himself more comfortable. He had a feeling sleep would be a long time coming.

***

The following morning...

Priss was nervous.

Some of the crew had taken up running to stay in shape, which had led to a morning jog around campus, complete with Nene-supplied tour of the area. She had to admit the place looked pretty; the campus, along with many of the houses surrounding it, tried to represent itself in a manner similar to Western universities. This meant brick houses, Roman-inspired columns, and large expanses of green park-like areas. It tried to present itself as an elysium from the world around it - and appeared to be doing an impressive job.

Despite all of this, she couldn't help but keep looking over her shoulder.

Priscilla Asagiri McNichol was a child - an orphan - of MegaTokyo. Gray and black were the shades of the world she knew; to her, green was a blur she saw out of the corner of her eye as she rocketed down the highway. Open spaces were a threat to her, as they simply allowed for more people to know she was there. Best to be anonymous in her world, to slip through the shadows, to be a ghost of the machine.

This whole campus layout - large patches of green and trees surrounded by old, official-looking buildings - seemed wrong to her on so many levels. Official-looking buildings housed people too tied up in bureaucracy to care; patches of green were luxuries denied orphans like herself. Maybe she could hope for them for her child, but not her. Heaven had already turned its back on her.

"Priss?" Linna asked behind her.

Priss slowed down a bit to move into line with her. "Yeah?"

Linna raised an eyebrow. "You're acting like someone's about to jump you."

She growled. "Maybe they are."

Linna sighed. "Priss... I know you have every reason to. But at some point you have to stop jumping at shadows."

Priss stopped. Linna did NOT just say that. She growled, and pushed Linna against the side of a building. "Don't you think I know that?"

"Apparently not, if this is your reaction!" Linna retorted.

Priss turned away and shook her head. "You don't know. You just don't know."

"Try me!" Linna shouted. "Yeah, maybe I don't know what it's like to watch my husband get killed, but I sure as hell know what it's like to watch him leave!" Her voice softened. "Try me, Priss. Please."

Priss grit her teeth. "Every time. Every goddamn time I try to relax, to feel comfortable, someone comes to take it away. I finally started building a life with Mike - yeah, it was in a gang, but it was MY life. And what happens? Some Genom puke murders him for the sake of the bottom line." She shuddered. "I probably would have followed him if it weren't for Sylia. Damn her... she made me start to hope for a better life. That I could be more than some street rat." She screwed her eyes shut tight; dammit, she would NOT cry over this! "Leon... it took me two years to even get comfortable enough to go on a date with him. Took five years for me to marry him. And for once... I thought, with the best policeman in the city next to me, I could be safe. I could relax." The tears started coming down in earnest. "And... and then..."

Linna wrapped her arms around her as she buried her face in her hands. No matter how hard she fought it, the tears just wouldn't stop! Dammit, she couldn't break down like this! She had to be strong... she had to be...

A second set of arms wrapped around the pair; Nene's soft voice broke through the tears. "Priss... I know why you came. If someone murdered Mackie or the kids, I'd probably do the same thing." She took a deep breath. "But you also need to learn to live. We'll figure out who did this; we'll get them. But it won't matter if you don't live beyond it."

"I... I... How can I, Nene?" Priss hissed through the tears. "They always get the man I love, Nene... always..."

"We'll figure it out," Nene replied. "We'll get the guys who did this, and we'll figure it out. Okay?"

She couldn't vocalize a response. It hurt too much. She made a noise that sounded vaguely like a squeak. She felt herself being turned around by the shoulders, and slowly led down the sidewalk, both Nene and Linna's arms around her shoulders.

***

Lisa was not a morning person.

It was a byproduct of the business she was in. Journalists - even photojournalists - tended to work odd hours. Some days she'd have to get up well before dawn; other days would see her scoping out a location well into the night. News didn't sleep, so her sleep patterns tended to be all over the place. This didn't mean, of course, that her body liked it that way, so it made its protests known. She shuffled into the kitchen, desperate for caffeine.

"- the child in your arms... there's no - Oh! Good morning, Lisa! Do you want some coffee?"

Lisa glanced at the pair. Daley and Mackie were casually sitting at the table, enjoying their morning breakfast, both with what seemed an... odd look on their faces. She knew a story when she saw one, and sat down. "Good morning. What are you talking about?"

There were times when she loved being a journalist. Daley squirmed in his seat, while Mackie hid his expression as he poured the coffee. "Oh... guy talk, Lisa," Daley responded. "Nothing that would interest you."

Lisa chuckled, then smiled at the coffee in front of her. "Be grateful I'm not on duty. If you'd given Takahashi that look when she was asking about the AD Police invasion in '33, you'd have given up every secret known to man." She took a sip of her drink; it was strong and bold, just the way she preferred it. "Good coffee, by the way."

Daley sighed. "I usually have a better poker face when I face reporters," he responded. "It's a kitchen; I'm not expecting to face a grilling right now." He grinned. "Besides, one of the infiltration boomers wrecked havoc on our records during that invasion, including the video feeds. Any shots the cameras may have gotten - such as Nene-chan changing from her AD Police uniform into a custom-fitted hardsuit - were lost."

Mackie grinned mischievously. "I remember that. I had to bring the hardsuit to her; Nene threw a shirt over my optics while she changed. Too bad she forgot the hardsuit's scanners did a really good job of picking up infrared."

Lisa raised an eyebrow. "Does she know that?"

Mackie raised his mug in a toast. "Why yes... yes she does. I let it slip while we were dating. She made angry at me for awhile, then we had some great make-up sex." He smiled. "Make-up sex is among the best you can ever have - because you appreciate what you have in front of you all the more."

Lisa couldn't help it; the instincts were too strong. "And does she know that?"

"Oh, hell yes!" Mackie responded.

Lisa shook her head. "Pervert."

"Guilty as charged," Mackie responded. "And my wife wouldn't have it any other way."

Lisa sighed... then smiled. "Good job of distracting me, by the way. Seriously. What were you two talking about?"

Mackie frowned, then looked to Daley. "Why is it that women aren't as distracted by the 'guy talk' excuse as men are of the 'girl talk' excuse?"

Daley smiled, and gestured in an effete manner. "Because women are far bigger perverts than they let on to men - and they almost never lie about their escapades."

"You're trying to distract me again," Lisa pointed out.

"Oh... so we are," Daley responded.

Lisa groaned. "Come on, guys. What were you talking about that you hushed up back there?"

Mackie threw a questioning glance at Daley, who shrugged in reply. "I was asking Mackie what it was like to be a father."

Lisa blinked. "Why would you be curious about..." Her eyes widened. "Oh."

Daley nodded. "Something policemen figured out a long time ago: a child without strong role models is far more likely to end up on the wrong side of the law. We'd seen too many of our orphans get in trouble because no one was there to really show them what it meant to be a human being. None of us wanted our children to suffer because we weren't there." He shrugged. "So... we became our brother's keeper. Whenever one of us was killed, the rest of us would go out of our way to watch over any children left behind, becoming a foster father of sorts." His hands moved to the mug in front of him. "Since Leon was my partner... I get to watch out for Andrew."

Lisa frowned. "What does Priss think of this?"

"Priss... I don't know," Daley responded. "She knows about the tradition, but right now, I think Priss is just trying to figure out how to get through the day."

"Yeah..." Lisa sipped on her coffee. "So... how do you feel about it?"

Daley sat back and crossed his arms, a sure sign of discomfort. "I... I'm not much better. This should be Leon's job, not mine."

"It's never the job we want," Mackie replied softly. "My sister should be in this house... should be teaching kids how to build a better world. Instead, we inherit..." His voice trailed off; he looked away for a moment. "I'll be right back." He was out of the kitchen and running to the basement before they could even blink.

Lisa blinked, then looked at Daley. "What was that about?"

Daley shrugged. "Perhaps someone realized an inheritance he'd forgotten about?"

***

"Sorry about that," Priss said weakly as she nursed her coffee.

Priss had to admit one thing... Nene knew her places to eat. Or drink, as the case may be. After her outburst had cut the workout short, Nene had led the group to a nearby coffeeshop, one that made its money on the college students. The place was no Starbucks, which suited Priss just fine; the place had an eclectic set of sofas and plush chairs and even recliners, as well as a good set of tables on which to set the drinks.

Reika raised an eyebrow as she raised her mug. "You just lost your husband and most everything you dreamed of. I think you can be forgiven for being emotional."

Priss seemed to shrink within herself. "I still shouldn't have pushed Linna, though."

Linna chuckled. "I should be apologizing. I... I'm sorry, but I was trying to get a response out of you." She looked back down at her own cup of coffee. "You needed a good cry, Priss."

Priss blinked at the words, then examined herself. She was feeling... lighter, she thought. "Was it worse when the divorce happened?"

Linna shook her head. "I don't know if the two could be compared. Better, worse... they're both hell." She sighed. "The worst thing about the divorce was that it seemed to go on forever. Court dates, testimonies, arguments as to who gets what, lawyers, lawyers, more lawyers... as sick as it sounds, I'm almost glad we'd decided to wait on children, because I couldn't imagine dragging a child into that mess."

Priss' hands shook around the coffee cup; after a moment, they stilled. "I... Linna?"

Linna blinked. "Hmmm?"

"Your answer would be very different if you'd had a child going into that divorce."

"How so?" Reika asked.

Priss smiled weakly. "There are moments... when you die. When everything that you were goes away, and becomes something else." She swallowed; she could feel the tears forming again. "I... I died when Leon married me. In a lot of ways, the Knight Saber I was died that day. It stopped being about just me, and was about us. I died again - we died again - when Andrew was born. After that... it's about protecting your child and helping him grow up. Everything else comes second." She licked her lips nervously. "I... I died... when Leon did. Part of me doesn't want to come back from that. But... but I have to." She wiped her eyes. "For both of them."

"Would a baby have stopped Tom from cheating?" Linna asked, almost in a snarl.

Priss sighed. "Probably not, because men are men." She shook her head. "If he really wanted to cheat, having a child probably wouldn't have stopped him. But... and I think I know you well enough to answer this... you would have protected that child as much as you could during the divorce." She shrugged. "It would have cast the proceedings in a very different light, at least."

"That doesn't make me feel any better," Linna replied.

"You're asking me to make you feel better about a situation that sucks all around," Priss answered. "About all I can do is either give you a good cry or a good punching bag."

Nene blinked. "You know... Mackie still has Sylia's old training holos, if you want something to fight against. It's designed to work with the holoprojector in the basement; we could move the furniture out of the way..."

Reika frowned. "Training holos?"

Priss chuckled. "Sylia would train us to fight using these holographic monsters. The point of it was for us to survive a fight against a larger - and in many cases, more agile - opponent. The goal was to dodge and wait until we saw an opening in the monster - which would be lit up, but be there for only a second or so - and hit it." She took a sip of her coffee. "Sorry, Nene, but I think something more... solid... would be more appropriate."

Linna raised an eyebrow. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

Priss nodded. "It's been too long. Besides, I think working at that investment firm has made you soft."

"Oh, really?" Linna glanced over at Priss' thighs. "You know, I could say something about a certain someone still having a few pounds of baby weight on her..."

Priss grinned. "Shall we?"

Linna sipped her own cup daintily. "Oh, I think we shall."

Reika looked askance at Nene. "Are they going to have a fight?"

"Shhh, let them be," Nene advised. "I'm just glad they haven't ganged up on me yet."

***

Mackie sighed as he looked through the files on the McNichol case. When Leon made deputy chief, he made a deal with Nene: make and maintain the AD Police computer network as the most secure in existence. In exchange, Nene would be paid as a consultant for any work - and she and Mackie would have their own backdoor into the ADP network and, by extension, all police networks.

He wasn't sure if he liked what he was reading. The kids who'd done the deed were thugs, expendable members of a street gang; they would be the only ones stupid enough to go after Leon. The gang leader was found dead two days later; it was staged to look like a suicide, but the police were taking no chances, and had pieced together the murder evidence. Surprisingly, the few surviving members of the gang were ready and willing to talk. They'd seen the writing on the wall, and knew that while they wouldn't be welcome there, they'd be dead if they stayed on the street. The various police networks were still trying to track down the people chain, but had narrowed it down to two organized crime groups and a trio of tech firms. All were under investigation for involvement in illegal boomer modifications.

In other words, regardless of who had done it, Priss was right. Which left him in an uncomfortable situation.

He didn't want to design weaponry again. The briefcase nuke had seemed like another simple project; Sylia had given him similar projects all the time, including other nuclear and even chemical devices, so the briefcase had seemed like no big deal. Sylia thought in worst-case-scenarios; if she needed a briefcase nuke to get out of a bad situation, who was he to deny her? He never dreamed she'd actually use it...

The death toll that night had been staggering. Genom Tower had shaken itself to death, first blown outward, then inward by the blast. Ironically, this effect cushioned the rest of the area from the blast, though it had not saved it from the radiation. Hundreds of thousands died in the coming days, as radiation ravaged the bodies of those too close. Even now, the number of birth defects in MegaTokyo was twenty times the world average.

His work hadn't just destroyed a tower, or crippled a company. It had killed a generation.

What if they found out which organization had killed Leon? What would that mean? He knew well enough the layers of insulation used by organized crime, and that their upper ranks were untouchable to law. The tech firms were only slightly more exposed. Miriam was a glaring exception to the rule; most of Genom's current and former executives knew how to cover their tracks just enough. For all the power AD Police held, it was bound by law, and therefore limited in its actions. The only way any of these people were going to come to justice was by a force that worked outside the law.

Sighing, he moved away from the computer. Daley and Nene would need to hear this. Beyond that... he wasn't sure. Well, maybe he was... but that didn't mean he had to like it.

Quietly, he turned away from the screen as he heard a chime; his wife wanted his attention. "Yes, Nene? What is it?"

Nene blushed from the other end of the comm. "Um... do you know where we put the Knight Sabers' old workout suits?"

Mackie blinked.

***

"Mommy looks good!"

Priss blushed and adjusted the fit of her leotard as she walked into the room. Andrew was as much of a flatterer as his father; he was going to break a few hearts once he grew up. She smiled, and kissed him on the forehead. "Thank you, sweetie!" She had to admit; the softsuit looked good on her. Of course, she'd always had the legs for it, which helped.

Beside her, Linna was twisting to the side, clearly admiring how well she wore her own suit. The years had apparently been kind to Linna as well; it looked as though she hadn't gained a pound since her Knight Saber days. "Wonder what Tom would think if he saw me now?"

"Bah, forget about him," Reika responded. "He isn't worth it."

"Isn't that the truth," Linna said.

Katsuhito looked up at his mother. "Mommy, why aren't you wearing one of those?"

Nene blushed. "Because Mommy's gained twenty pounds since she wore one of those."

Mackie pulled Nene in close. "Don't worry, Katsu. Daddy's going to convince Mommy later to wear that."

"Oh no, you're not!" Nene retorted, then wilted slightly. "Well... maybe."

Priss and Linna walked out to the center of the training room, quickly followed by Nene. "While it's been awhile since we've done this, I trust the two of you remember the rules?" Nene asked.

Priss nodded. "Best of three, no intent to injure?"

Linna grinned. "Just as it's always been. You ready, housewife?"

Priss chuckled. "Are you, Miss Stockbroker?"

Nene held her hand out between them. "Ready... fight!"

Linna started off with a pair of quick punches; Priss smiled as she blocked the punches, ducking under the second to launch her own attack at Linna's ribs. Linna quickly twisted to block the attack, then moved the twist into a spin kick. Priss rolled forward out of the way, then came up crouched several feet away.

Priss chuckled. "Damn, that was familiar."

"Of course it was," Linna replied. "Except last time, you tried to move backwards instead of forwards, and ended up with my heel in your ear." She grinned. "Congratulations. You've learned."

Priss made a move to shrug. "Yeah, well..." She was moving before she finished speaking, with a crouched leap for Linna's legs; Linna leapt back a few feet from the attack. Priss half-expected a kick to her ribs in response, but blinked as Linna took another step back. Priss took the momentary break to roll away from Linna and stand.

Priss grimaced. "Damn. Was hoping that one would work, too." She tilted her head to the side. "Why didn't you counter?"

Linna frowned. "Because I'm not twenty years old anymore." Linna growled as she attacked Priss; punch, feint, punch, punch, kick... Priss was pressed back as Linna reminded her just how fast she was.

Just how fast she was...

Priss side-stepped Linna's punch, launched a kick at the point she'd just vacated - then smiled as she felt soft tissue.

"Oof!" Linna blinked in surprise at the kick to her stomach, then backed off. "Nice shot."

"Hit!" Nene shouted, then moved between the two. "Point, Priss." She looked over at Linna. "You okay?"

Linna rubbed her stomach. "Yeah, I'm fine. I know better than to attack like that." She moved into a ready stance. "Ready?"

Priss moved into her own stance. "Ready."

Nene nodded, then moved her hand away. "Fight!"

Priss blinked at Linna went on the attack again, but smiled as she noted the tempo of Linna's attack. This time her moves were more measured, more patient; Linna wasn't going to make the same mistake twice. Priss smiled; this was the Linna she remembered - always moving, always in control, wearing down an opponent until she made a mistake.

Priss frowned as she blocked one of Linna's kicks. The fight seemed to be taking more out of Linna than Priss expected; she could see Linna gritting her teeth with each kick, and her moves seemed off from her usual rhythm. If she didn't know better -

Linna made another kick; Priss expected that moment of hesitation in Linna's moves, and chose to act. She grabbed the kick instead of blocking it, then moved to attack -

In an instant, she found herself falling; Linna had twisted her leg and fallen to the ground, then kicked Priss' legs out from under her. Before she could get up, a fist collided with her back, smashing her face into the mat.

"Hit!" Nene shouted. "Point, Linna." Priss expected to hear the usual question as to her condition. It wasn't a hard hit, and stung more than anything else -

"Are you okay, Linna?"

Priss blinked. Linna was gripping her knee, and wincing in obvious pain. "Yeah, I'm fine," she hissed. "Just give me a sec." She forced herself to her feet, and hobbled into a ready stance.

"Bullshit," Priss replied. "You can barely walk."

"Don't give me that!" Linna screamed through her tears. "I can do this!"

Priss took a look at Linna; she was hobbling around on one good leg, and using the other one only for balance. "Linna... don't. Please."

Nene moved between them; Priss could see the tears in her eyes. "Are you ready, Linna?"

Linna nodded fiercely.

"Are you ready, Priss?" Nene asked.

"Not like this," Priss replied.

"Fight me, dammit!" Linna screamed.

"Can you fight like this?" Priss asked.

"Yes! Now fight me!" Linna's screaming left her almost hoarse.

Priss gulped. "Okay..."

Nene nodded carefully. "Okay. Last round. One... two... three... fight!"

As before, Linna pressed the attack first; however, this time she concentrated almost totally on punches, only using her legs to limp forward. Priss blocked each of the punches, but her heart wasn't in it; maybe she wasn't expecting it, but Linna had some agonies of her own to deal with. Maybe that's why Linna was -

Linna mustered up enough courage to try a kick; Priss blinked in surprise, and blocked it. Priss saw Linna's tears, the pain in her eyes, and knew what she had to do.

Priss blocked another punch from Linna, then started her counterattack. Linna's defense was usually good, but no one was good defensively with a bum leg. She pressed forward, increasing the tempo of her attacks, forcing Linna to try to hobble backward. After a few jerky steps, Linna lost her footing and fell to the ground.

Priss shook her head. "It's over, Linna."

"It's not over! It's not!" Linna started crying and banging her knee in frustration. "It's not..."

Priss knelt down in front of Linna, then wrapped her arms around her. "I'm sorry, Linna. I'm so sorry..."

"Why won't it work anymore?" Linna whined as she melted into the embrace. "Why?"

Priss grimaced. "We got old, Linna. That's why."

***

Linna looked at the bandaged knee in front of her and sighed. Broken again. The damage wasn't anywhere near what it was last time - she'd simply strained the ligaments in her knee, rather than have them ripped bodily from her - but it still hurt. Still left her crippled.

"What a mess," she sighed. She knew better than that; she knew enough about her body to know that fighting like she had was stupid. After the doctors looked at her knee, they ordered her not to put any strain on it for at least a week, maybe two. And all because she had to prove herself... prove that she could still move like she did as a Knight Saber.

Prove that, somewhere deep inside, she could still be that Knight Saber.

Priss patted her on her shin. "Yeah... yeah, we are." Her eyes twinkled mischievously. "But... would you have it any other way?"

Linna blinked. "Are you feeling all right, Priss?"

Priss shook her head and smiled grimly. "Probably not. But... I think I'm at least becoming comfortable with not being all right."

"Huh?" Linna responded.

Priss swallowed nervously. "As much as we may wish we'd never gone through the pain of being a Knight Saber... tell me - and tell the truth - that you weren't better for it."

Linna's eyes scrunched together. "I..." Being a Knight Saber had caused her probably more pain than anything she could ever imagine. It made a body she once thought invincible painfully mortal. It turned a dreaming dancer into an old, bitter stockbroker. But for those four years, it gave her something she hadn't had before or since.

A family. A real family she could count on, one she'd give her life for, and who'd give their lives for her.

"Nene?"

Nene raised an eyebrow. "Yes, Linna?"

"I..." Linna looked down at her hands. "I think I'll take you up on that offer - at least for a little while." She gave a wan smile. "Provided I have a place to work for certain hours of the day and a Bloomberg terminal, I can pretty much work anywhere."

Nene nodded. "I can get the Bloomberg setup from the university; we can have it ready by Tuesday. Is that all right?"

Linna nodded. "Thanks." She gestured to the crutches next to the bed. "Could you help me up?"

"Yeah," Priss said, pulling Linna up. She looked over at Nene. "So... what are the plans for tonight?"

Nene blinked. "Reika said she had something arranged for tonight. She wouldn't elaborate, though... just said all of us, including the kids, were invited."

Priss frowned. "Huh... wonder what she has planned?"

***

"Karaoke! Yay!"

Priss blinked as her son began celebrating. She wasn't sure what Reika had planned, to be honest; she thought maybe a bar, maybe dinner at some fancy restaurant... the fact that the children were asked to come along limited options somewhat, but she never considered... this. A glowing, cheerful neon blight on humanity, with monitors showing each group's humiliation as they performed, and dozens of sickeningly-cheerful teenyboppers and drunk businessfolk lined up for their own dose of silliness.

This sort of place had never appealed to her - and, thank goodness, Linna and Nene had never dragged her to such a place. While she was aware that both Linna and Nene had good singing voices, that didn't apply to everyone - and her musical ear despised throat-produced, half-hearted, or off-key singing. Already she was cringing at the vocal performances reaching her from the speakers outside, as some inebriated OL decided that being on key was merely optional.

Karaoke. Was Reika nuts?

"Um... I'm not sure this is a good idea, Reika," Nene supplied. Priss grinned, and thanked Nene for her insight.

Reika chuckled. "We're not here for the karaoke," she said, then smiled mischievously. "At least, not the karaoke you're thinking of." The bouncer opened the velvet rope for her, and she moved to the ticket booth. "I believe you have a reservation for me?"

The man behind the booth suddenly sat ramrod straight. "Yes, Reika-sama! The stage is already prepared, and the other guests have already arrived."

Reika grinned. "You have your instructions, then?"

The man nodded. "Of course, Reika-sama! We won't broadcast what goes on in the room without your permission."

Reika beamed. "Good job. Thank you."

The man rose from his seat and bowed deeply. "Enjoy your night, Reika-sama!"

Priss kept hold of her son's hand as she made her way into the building. One corridor led down to row after row of doors - presumably to different karaoke booths. Another seemingly led nowhere. She followed Reika down the road to nowhere, and blinked at what she found at the end.

Karaoke booths were her bane. A stage, an auditorium... that she could live with. She smiled as she noted the instruments, in particular the ones ready on stage - the Fender Strat with the lace sensors and the pau ferro fingerboard, the Gibson Thunderbird with the soapbar pickup, the Yamaha drum kit with the two bass drums and the Zildjian cymbals... it was a lot like the instruments the Replicants used.

Her eyes widened as she realized.... they were almost exactly the instruments the Replicants used. Her grip on her son's hand fell in shock; Andrew chose that moment to run toward the buffet table.

"Priss!"

She turned to one end of the room, and blinked. An older, balding man walked over to her, a hooklike nose prominent on his features. "Sean? Oh my God, is that you?"

The former Replicants guitarist smiled, and gave her a hug. "Damn, it's good to see you! It's been too long!" He grinned, and gestured back to the table behind him. "Darryl and Joey are here, too." His face fell. "I heard about Leon. Are you doing okay?"

Priss shrugged. "I... I wish I knew. Right now, I'm just trying to get used to the idea. Sometimes I'll be fine... sometimes I'll get angry and break things... sometimes I'll just break down crying."

Sean's lips twisted into a grin. "And this is different... how?"

The words made Priss want to both laugh and cry at the same time; she settled for punching his shoulder. "Asshole."

"And you wouldn't want it any other way," he grinned in response. "Let's face it... it made us as good as we were back then."

Priss nodded. "True enough." She looked around. "So what brought you here?"

Sean gestured over to the buffet, where a number of people were filling their plates. "See the blond kid over there? That's Harry; that's me and Annie's kid. Annie saw me perform around the end of our time in the Replicants... but Harry's never watched me rock. The only music he's ever heard Daddy perform are some old recordings, a few lullabies, and some random chords here and there. I want him to know Daddy rocks." He grinned. "Besides, getting another Strat so Harry can play alongside his old man one day, well... that's not a bad bribe."

Priss felt another person approach her from behind. "So... have you figured out what's going on yet?" Reika asked.

"A jam session with my old band?" Priss asked.

Reika tilted her head to one side. "Sort of. The owner of this place is a friend of the family. We fronted the money for the place - legally, I might add - and helped the owner with some business advice." She shrugged. "Occasionally I used this place as a practice facility for show performances, back when I was active." She grinned mischievously. "Here's the deal. The room is yours for the next two days. If you want to perform, your old band is here; if you just want to watch, well... I've done jam sessions before, and I will again." She took a deep breath. "If you want to pipe the session out to the crowd outside, go ahead; if you want to invite them in, we can do that, too." She grinned. "Take it from someone who knows: music can be the best therapy."

Priss gave a cursory glance to her son; Daley was helping put food on Andrew's plate. Satisfied that she wasn't about to fail as a parent, Priss walked over to a piano sitting near the stage, opened up the keys, and sat down in front of it. Her fingers shook as she touched the keys.

E flat. D. C. C again. D. Down to the G. B flat. She'd written the song after Sylvie's death, more as a means of exorcising the pain than anything else. She and the Replicants agreed it wasn't really their style, and decided not to perform it at their usual shows; a shame, as some stories begged to be told, and this tale ached. So... she played, starting with that simple single-note melody, every ache thudding onto the keyboard with all the subtlety of...

Well, all the subtlety of a retrothrash musician.

Her fingers started moving of their own accord; she heard people moving behind her, but she wasn't paying attention. Her life was in that nothing-space between her fingers and the keys beneath them. Single notes turned into chords; just as she'd written, the single voice branched off, and grew into a chorus. Her face twisted; every urge within her ordered her to start crying, but the performer within her ordered her to hold it together, to not let the song suffer for her weakness. Behind her, she heard the gentle strums of a guitar being massaged, but she didn't pay it any mind. If they wanted to join in, thanks, but this was her song. And she'd damn well better finish it.

As the song wrapped up and she heard Sean's guitar behind her, she was suddenly very glad they'd come. It would have hurt to leave the song unfinished. It was the story of a life cut brutally short - like too many lives she'd been blessed and cursed to know. But she was glad she'd known Sylvie - just as she was glad to have known Leon, or Sylia, or Mike.

She was glad to have known all of them - and she had their stories to tell.

Priss took a deep breath, and wiped her eyes. "Reika?

Reika turned to her. "Yeah?"

Her hands were still shaking, but she could feel it. She could feel it. She snarled as she turned back to Reika, her eyes dark. "Tell the manager of the place that if he wants to broadcast this outside, he can. We'll decide after tonight if we want a show."

Reika smiled. "I'll get my makeup."

***

For the first time in over ten years, Priss was afraid of the microphone.

She'd been purposely avoiding the song for most of the night. She'd vamped it up with Mad Machine, let out her inner demon with Hurricane, pulled out the blues for Beautiful Rival, and even played backup singer along with Nene and Linna while Reika went through her greatest hits... all to avoid one song. She'd walked back to the piano for this one; playing the piano accompaniment would give her hands something to do.

She watched as her band prepared their instruments to join in; she shook her head. "Guys... I have to do this one alone." They nodded, understanding, and put their instruments down.

The first chords came softly, almost reverently from her fingertips; she would have banged them out with some bombast once upon a time, but her fingers wouldn't let her. She'd learned long ago when to use fire, and when to use water. The song had come to her in the salad days of the Knight Sabers, after Mason had met his end; it was for all those his greed had destroyed. Her voice rasped as she found herself singing.

"The city lifts its veil...and for a moment, shows its true face.

A blue curtain... silently falls over it."

She swallowed, and drew another deep breath. For one of the very few times in her life, she was glad her voice had aged; this was not a song for a young woman. It hadn't been her best song back in the day; it felt like it aged to her voice now.

"On my pillow which has forgotten sleep,

a single teardrop blossoms,

and I think of you,

on this night when I'm all alone."

The last words had cracked as they'd come out; some words were too painful to even think about, let alone say. She didn't want to think about the empty, cold feeling in her bed the night he'd died, or the silence as she drank her morning coffee the next day, or how she'd be feeling that for a long time to come. But some words she would always say... to him.

"Je t'aime." 'I love you'.

And she would.

The lyrics came with a little more force after that; it was in that chorus that she remembered the whole point of the song. It wasn't just love, or loss, or memory.

It was defiance. Defiance in the face of a city that had taken everything she'd ever loved.

She added - or subtracted - a little improvisation to the lyrics; the original song had been designed with backup singers in mind, and the words needed to make more sense to her. She needed to say, "I will not forget you" in one string of syllables, because she needed to make that promise; she needed to say "into your gentle arms" in one line, as that's where she wanted to be. It wasn't difficult; a few held notes in the right place, and the song worked fine.

This was the way she'd have to go from here on, she knew. Nothing from before was a perfect fit; she wasn't twenty years old anymore. She had to perform as Priscilla McNichol as much as Priss Asagiri, with a few dashes of Saber Blue thrown in to keep her honest.

And the song was showing her just how to do it.

"Someday..." she breathed into the microphone, and a smile was on her face despite her tears. She let her playing curtail into a soft finish, then sighed.

It was odd, in a way. She remembered how she'd performed it back then; it felt almost disrespectful, now that she thought about it. But... she liked the new version. She... yeah, she could keep that.

***

The children were sleeping on mats over to one side; her eyes occasionally darted over there, as the mother in her wouldn't let him totally out of her sight. Her body felt heavy, a sure sign that she'd let herself get out of practice, as performing was always an intensely physical act. The other musicians sat around her, all talking about their lives - about eight-to-five jobs and being mommies and daddies and about making a life after being a musician - as they slowly wound down from the performance. Her own singing over, she enjoyed the onigiri filling her stomach and the tea soothing her throat, and smiled.

This - all of this - felt right. It wasn't just the performing that made her musical work beautiful; it was times like this, sitting around and chewing the fat with other performers after the show, taking it easy and winding down. Times had changed - she wasn't silly enough to imagine she could go back to performing full time - but this was a part of herself, one she needed, and one that still proved best in catharsis.

And she had a lot to be cathartic about. The performance had left her drained, but it drained much of the hurt as well. It was a story as old as time; aches and angers and tears had made their way into song since time immemorial. And afterwards... the aches and angers and tears were still there, but somehow didn't matter so much.

That was the payoff of her old life. To hurt, yet not hurt; to scream, and yet find comfort in the silence. She took one more bite of her sushi, then waited for a lull in the conversation.

"Reika... thanks."

Reika nodded knowingly. "After Irene was killed, I... I can't even describe how much I hurt. To say I wanted to kill was an understatement; if I could have, I would have destroyed the world to get revenge. Most of the music I wrote during that time was about as dark as I could get."

She tilted her head to one side. "Linna getting my act together was only the first step. If I'd only had that, I probably would have snapped. But, thank goodness, I also had the tour to go through." She chuckled. "The stage is the one area where, if you do it right, you can throw a temper tantrum like a five-year-old and have ten thousand people applaud you for it. I did. I mourned my sister, screamed for her, cried for her... every night for packed audiences. By the time the tour was done... I understood. I'd cried enough; I'd screamed enough. I could think about what I needed to do going forward. It wasn't safe for me to be Vision full-time anymore... so I started going away from that part of my life, and got involved in the family business."

Priss nodded slowly. "Yeah..."

"You have time," Reika continued. "You have time to think about what you want to do going forward. Nothing will be the same - trust me, you can't go back to the way things were - but, if you take that time to think clearly about where you want to go, you'll be a lot better for it."

"Well, princess, there is one thing that you don't have much time on..." Sean interjected. "Are we going to do this for real tomorrow night? In front of a crowd?"

Priss snorted; she hadn't been called that in years. "Yeah, Sean... I think I could do this."

A dull cheer echoed through the group. Priss smiled, and moved to stand. "That said... I'm going to need sleep if I want to do this. I think it's time to head back."

The group began to shuffle their separate ways; Priss walked toward her child. With a practice born only of parenthood, she gently lifted Andrew up in her arms without disturbing his sleep. He unconsciously wrapped his arms around her, and she smiled.

***

Mackie followed Priss into the bedroom the children were using, Katsuhito in his arms. He waited as Priss laid Andrew onto his futon, then moved over to lay Katsuhito on his bed. He licked his lips nervously, then turned to Priss.

"Priss... we need to talk."

Priss nodded slowly. "You know who killed him, don't you?"

Mackie nodded. "I glanced over the evidence this morning; Daley and I discussed it in more detail this afternoon while you and Nene were getting Linna checked out, and he filled in most of the gaps. Suffice it to say we have a good idea as to the people responsible."

Priss took a deep breath. Her eyes didn't meet Mackie's; they stayed fixed on her son. "So what are you going to do about it?"

Mackie sighed. "Wrong question, Priss. What are we going to do about it. And... as for the answer to that... I don't know. I'm not sure this problem can be solved with a hardsuit."

"I... I suspected that," Priss replied. "It's just a really nice option to have. There are few problems that can't be helped by -"

"I know," Mackie interrupted. "Too well. And Sylia's solution DID work. But I'd give anything to have it back."

"So explosives are out," Priss sighed. She moved to leave the room; Mackie reached for her shoulder to stop her.

"I didn't say that," Mackie responded. He shook his head. "We need to look at all of our options... then make a decision as to what would be best."

Priss chuckled. "You realize that you sound just like your sister, right?"

Mackie grinned, then nodded slowly. "Would you rather I made some perverted comment? Would that make you feel better?"

"It might..." Priss teased, then smiled. "I guess we'll talk about everything tomorrow."

Mackie nodded. "After breakfast all right?"

"Yeah," Priss replied. "That'll work."

***

Lisa fidgeted in her seat as she looked at the people around her. Her mentor had told her once that she had to be a human being first and foremost and a reporter second, that to forget that human beings were behind the photographs and reports was to go down a path no respectable journalist wanted to go. That way lay paparazzi, he said; that way lay tabloids. A journalist could always get a prize-winning story if she sold her soul... but that it was never worth it.

That advice was ringing in her head as Mackie stood up. Here she was in a darkened computer room with all the surviving Knight Sabers, the head of an international crime family, an AD Police detective, and the designer of The Bomb, about to plot what would be considered criminal activity. And if she breathed a word of it, well... that way lay paparazzi; that way lay tabloids.

"I guess this story starts somewhere in 2026, about a year after Kanto," Mackie announced. "An unknown Genom scientist, after a couple of years of designing boomers and trying to modify them to be as strong and as durable as possible, noted how they were trying to keep the human characteristics of the boomer, even while trying to make it stronger and faster. So... he proposed a different model, one that wasn't designed to be stronger or faster, but to mimic humanity as closely as possible."

"The 33-S," Priss muttered darkly.

"Exactly," Mackie responded. "Genom's marketing department, being the perverts that they were -"

A cough interrupted his speech. "You were saying something Mackie?" Linna responded innocently.

"Yeah, yeah," Mackie sighed. "Anyway, Genom knew they had a hit on their hands, and manufactured hundreds of S-series models, including the 33-S. Imagine a blow-up doll that looked and felt so real that you couldn't tell the difference between the boomer and a real human being. You could feel her heartbeat, the warmth of her blood, the twitch of muscles... everything."

"Wish they'd thought about how realistic they were making them..." Priss groused.

"Which is why most governments did the thinking for them," Mackie replied. "When the Japanese government saw how lifelike the S-series was, they panicked. They put in regulations that limited how lifelike a boomer could be. Officially, Genom stated that all S-series models had been scrapped, except for a few models which had been deactivated. The truth was a lot murkier. Most S-series boomers were deactivated and put into storage; some were sent up to Genaros to... pleasure the scientists there." He sighed. "And a few were sold - at exorbitant rates - to people who were willing to pay the cash. Nothing was official; if a person was caught selling an S-series boomer, Genom would claim that some nefarious individual had stolen the model from their warehouses."

"Unfortunately, that didn't stop demand - and the S-series boomer had already become a legend by this point," Daley interjected. "Hobbyists now had a goal - take a standard boomer, usually a C-series, and modify it so that it would effectively function as a sex toy.

"For over fifteen years, that's basically where things stayed," Daley continued. "A few hobbyists performing craftwork on single boomers - adapting boomer biomimetic tissue to simulate sexual organs, coding reactions to sensory input, making enhancements ranging from bust size to the microspeakers used to generate voice."

He shook his head. "Then... things started to change. I started hearing talk about 'hydraulics' - the code word for a male sex boomer - a lot more often in the bars and parties I was going to. Leon and I decided to start an investigation into it, to see if the increase was happening all over. Near as we could tell, someone had gotten a lot more organized with the boomer mods, and was making a cottage industry out of it. The money led to a trio of Genom spinoffs - which of course made no sense for one simple reason."

"Someone had to be calling the shots," Priss supplied.

Daley nodded. "The truth, oddly enough, was more complicated. Turns out the Sointsevskaya Brava had set up a 'factory' somewhere in Russia. The models would then be shipped to Japan to be sold. From the Japanese side, a person would pay a certain amount of money to find a particular model ID. This person would then go to their purchasing department, ask for a specific model ID, and receive it at normal cost. The spinoffs would have a code as to which models were 'modified', and would not sell them unless they were specifically asked for."

Daley took a sip of his coffee, and sighed. "The first pair of investigators we had on the assignment disappeared three months ago. After that... Leon felt that he couldn't risk his own men any more. We decided to take the case ourselves." He took a deep breath to steady himself. "He... he thought that they'd never hit someone that prominent."

Silence hung thick in the room once Daley was finished. Finally, Priss broke the silence, her voice promising pain.

"So... who's responsible for my husband's death?"

Mackie sighed. "AD Police has traced the movements of several people in the weeks preceding and the days after Leon's death. As near as they can tell, the person who ordered the hit is this man."

He clicked a button; a Russian mug shot popped up on the screen. Lisa frowned; the man might have appeared quite charming, with piercing blue eyes, black hair cropped in a crew cut, long nose, and a prominent chin. Even in the mug shot, he gave the slightest of smiles. Too bad there was only one reason Mackie would have put his face up there. "Aleksander Timofeyev. On the surface, a businessman specializing in importing Russian goods into Japan. In reality, he's a lieutenant in the Sointsevskaya Brava's operations here in Japan - and, by all accounts, the one in charge of this boomer trade. The people trail ends with him; the contacts, the phone location traces... it all goes to him."

Mackie sighed; his face fell. "What I don't know is what to do about him."

"Would a hardsuit run work?" Linna asked.

Mackie frowned. "It would certainly make an impression... but I don't know if it would get the job done. We would only get one chance; if we fail, he'd run to Russia, and it'd be a lot harder to get him. Same thing with explosives. Destroying locations, again, would make an impression... but if we miss, he's likely to run." He shook his head. "No... what is needed is a surgical strike - a quiet assassination - and that was never the Knight Sabers' stock in trade."

"Indeed," Reika supplied. "Battlemovers and hardsuits are only useful weapons if you're facing other battlemovers, and there's no other way to circumvent their security. Occasionally they're useful if you want to make a statement, but it's the wrong kind of overkill for most assassinations." She shook her head. "This is bigger than you, Mackie. Large statements tend to be messy; what we need is something with a high probability of success. If we need some technical support, we may ask for it - and in this case, we may - however, this is one case where the Russians went too far. The Yamaguchis and Sumiyoshis are tense; the last thing they want is a police crackdown on organized crime. My own people aren't too happy, either, for obvious reasons; we pay our debts, and keeping me out of jail is a pretty big one."

"So what do you suggest?" Priss spat.

Reika smiled, a scary grin that chilled Lisa to the core. "What I suggest... is that we get dressed and ready to practice. We have a concert in eight hours, after all. Beyond that... take some time. Think about where you want to go, what you want to do with the rest of your life." She paused, and took a sip of her tea. "Make no mistake, this idiot's going to die. Killing any police officer in Japan is risky; killing someone as high up as Leon was suicide. Timofeyev's going to be only one part of a much larger package - and I suspect it's going to be a hard pill for the Russians to swallow."

Lisa watched as the group slowly made their way out of the room. Carefully, she eased herself from her chair, trying hard not to appear shaken by what she'd seen. Her mentor had warned her there'd be days like this, that what made the papers often paled next to real life, that the photographs taken were nothing compared to the flow of life.

She shuddered. She'd watched The Godfather; she never thought she'd be living it.

***

Her fingers mechanically traced a dark line around the contour of her lips. She set down the liner pencil, then reached for her lipstick. Her right hand began to tremor as the waxy substance reached her lips; she used her left hand to steady herself as she finished her makeup. She nearly slammed the lipstick tube down on the dresser; she gritted her teeth, then made her way to her suitcase.

Her head turned up at the knock at the door. "Priss, can we come in?"

She sighed. "Sure."

Linna hobbled into the room on her crutches. Nene closed the door behind them as Linna made her way to a chair. "Priss..." Nene began.

"I know what you're going to ask," Priss nearly spat. "And, to be honest... I don't know." She visibly deflated, as she realized. "I don't know anything anymore. God, I hate being helpless." She rummaged through her luggage for a moment, then slammed it shut; she wasn't thinking straight enough to make any fashion decisions. "I want to wring the fucker's neck, but I can't do anything like that without risking Andrew." Impotently, she banged her fists against the suitcase. "This is my fight. I can't trust it to others. But..."

"Priss, do you remember when we were Knight Sabers, all those years ago?" Linna asked quietly.

Priss nodded. "Sure. Kinda hard to forget."

Linna chuckled. "And what was my job? What did I do best?"

A ghost of a smile tugged on Priss' lips. "You were the 'close combat specialist'. Basically, you got to dance with the boomers."

"And you. What did you do?" Linna continued.

"I was more of a heavy weapons specialist. If something needed to get hit - really hard - I did it." Priss frowned. "What're you getting at?"

"How well could you have done my job? Or Nene's?"

Priss grimaced. "I never had your speed. And Nene... I don't even want to go into that."

"Exactly," Linna replied. "Priss... sometimes you have to let others do what they do best. Let's face it; this is yakuza territory. And that's what Reika does." She grinned impishly. "Would you want me performing tonight? Linna and the Replicants?"

Priss snorted. "Hah! You can carry a tune, but you can't do much with it!"

Linna nodded. "Of course. You're the performer here; that's what you do. Going after people in high places... that's what Reika does."

Priss sighed, then flopped onto the bed. "So I should just let Reika kill this guy for me?"

"Why not?" Nene interrupted. "It gets the job done, doesn't it?"

"Yeah..." Priss admitted, then frowned. "Still wanna wring his fucking neck, though."

"You say this like it's news," Linna replied. "Look at it this way. Say what you will about the mob, but they are nothing if not... creative."

Priss smiled.

***

"Priss, can we talk?" Daley asked.

Priss sighed as she stared out the car's window. Everyone wanted her to talk, it seemed. This, though, she'd expected. "This is about Andrew, isn't it?"

Daley nodded. She could see the sadness in his eyes from the rear-view mirror. "What do you need from me?"

"God, what a question," Priss replied. "Daley... I'm probably going to be staying with the Stingrays for awhile. That said... while I love Mackie dearly, I know there are some lessons, some things that he's not going to be good at teaching. I mean, think about it. Mackie is about as far from Leon personality-wise as you can get." She idly touched the glass of the window. "I need a man who is more... well, more of a man than Mackie is."

She could sense the confusion in Daley's body language. "Um, Priss... you do remember who you're talking to, right? Earring in the left ear, impeccable fashion sense, used to hit on your husband, tends to go to places like 'Lumiere' and 'Advocates'..."

Priss chuckled. "Daley, you're more of a man than ninety-nine percent of the men I've ever met. You're an AD Police veteran; that takes more guts than just about any job I've ever seen." She grinned. "But that's not quite what I mean. Daley... who knew just how to steer Leon in the right direction? How to calm him down if he needed tempering? How to indulge his adventure just enough to keep him... well, him... while minimizing the damage caused?" She shook her head. "Even I had difficulty with that at times. And Andrew... as he gets older, he's going to be just as wild. And I don't think any other man's going to be cut out for that." She shrugged. "I'm not saying we start a relationship. I'm thinking... maybe a weekend here and there. Be there for him. Let him be... well, a three-year-old version of Leon. Somehow I don't think that - if I find someone - they'll be able to understand that like you will."

Daley nodded. "I... I think I can do that." He chuckled softly. "You know, Andrew does remind me of him sometimes. Always going where angels fear to tread."

"And where mothers fear to tread, too," Priss supplied, then frowned. "Which is why I need you."

Daley nodded his head slowly. "Yeah... after staring down a boomer or two, I shouldn't be all that afraid of a three-year-old, right?"

Priss chuckled.

"Right?" Daley asked.

***

Priss smiled at the murmuring in her ears. Some sounds never escape a performer's memory, and the constant murmur was one of them. It was of a crowd assembled but not yet enflamed, of a powderkeg ready to explode.

And she was the match to set it off.

She'd taken her outfit from a lesson she'd learned from rock's history: personal garb can become stage garb under certain conditions - especially if it's leather. She couldn't bring herself to wear the bustier and mini; she knew the effect her wearing them had on Leon, had relegated them to lovemaking duties, and wasn't anywhere near comfortable in wearing them for anyone else. On the other hand, she'd already owned some black leather pants and a jacket for riding; one lacy bra later, and she had an outfit.

"You ready?" Sean asked, axe in hand.

She looked at the microphone in her hand, at the people around her. Sean, Darryl, and Joey, ready to rock with her. Vision, green hair and all, waiting in the wings with some of her bandmates, set to go on in an hour or so. Her son and anyone else she would call family on the other side of the curtain, ready to see Mommy rock.

And Mommy could scream. She moved herself onto the small 'x' on the floor of the stage.

"Yeah, I'm ready." A gesture to the side dimmed the lights; a moment later, the curtain started to rise.

She recognized that sound, too. The crescendo as the crowd realized the show was about to start - the hiss as the fuse started to burn. She could hear Sean count the beat softly, then burn his fingers along the guitar.

She grinned. This was life; this was a drug too long denied her. She let the music build up within her, then let out the storm.

"I keep running...

down the lonely highway...

searching for my interrupted dream."

The lyrics came naturally to her, an old friend come back for a visit. She knew about interrupted dreams; her life had been one interrupted dream after another. At least this one dream, this one night, was hers.

"We're all lonely hearts in the big city...

children lost in love.

Day by day in the big city,

tears aggravate thoughts that just won't sleep."

She felt the anger build as she continued with the song. She understood the lyrics; she understood them every time she went to bed alone at night, every time she looked at the empty seat at the table. At the same time... she understood it was only right part of the time. She let the anger build, rising to the crescendo...

"Tonight, a hurricane!"

Oh, yes. There would be a hurricane tonight. And she'd be the one delivering. While there was breath in her body, while there was fire in her soul, she wouldn't quit - not now, not ever. This was her weapon, just as it had been ten years ago.

This was her hurricane. She let the fury fly, losing herself as she powered her way through the song. Let them feel her power; let them feel her hurricane.

The end of the song came before she knew it; she hissed out the end, her hand raised to the air, and blinked. That was the art at its most potent; when the song was right, she'd stop being Priss, she'd stop being, and lose herself in the song. Coming back was always disorienting, but a rush in its own way. She smiled, bowed to the crowd, and raised the microphone to her lips.

"Hi, everyone! You ready to rock?"

The crowd cheered in response. She looked over at Sean and Darryl, and smiled. Time to dive back into the maelstrom.

***

All-night cafes: the friend of academics and musicians for nearly a century.

Nene smiled as she looked at the people around her. Katsuhito was sleeping in her arms; nearby, Sylia-chan snoozed in her carrier. Linna was conversing with Vision and her entourage, talking about friends old and new. Priss had Andrew in her arms, enjoying the moment; most of her bandmates had gone back to their jobs and their lives. Mackie, Lisa, and Daley, those closest to her, were doing much as she did: keeping quiet for the most part, enjoying their late-night meal, and listening.

Lisa sighed. "I'm kind of bummed. I have to go back to work tomorrow."

Mackie grinned. "One of the benefits of being a professor. You never get summers off - after all, when would you do research? - but at least you get to set your own hours."

"I miss nights like this," Priss admitted softly. "Spend a night on stage, maybe spend an hour or two doing work for Sylia, take an hour or two to relax..." She sighed contentedly. "You did good, Nene. You did good." She smiled. "Thanks."

Nene chuckled. "After all the times you bailed me out when we worked for Sylia, I figured I owed you one."

Linna looked over at them. "So. What's on the agenda for tomorrow?"

"Well..." Mackie supplied, "Tomorrow I go to the campus IT services to see how much a Bloomberg terminal would cost. Other than that..." He raised an eyebrow, and looked over to Priss. "What is on the agenda for tomorrow?"

"Why are you asking me?"

"It's your life," Mackie replied. "What do you want to do with it?"

Priss blinked.

***

Epilogue

Aleksander Timofeyev was not a happy camper.

The night had started off pleasantly enough. He'd completed the boomer shipment on time and on schedule; the bribes had gone up ever since that ADP puke had been killed, but he considered that an acceptable cost of doing business. Better the bribes increase than some idiot with a badge sniff out their whole operation. After completing his business, he drove over to the nearby 'recreation area' that the family operated, selected Ayako for the night (damn, Japanese women were hot!) and started to enjoy her company.

Unfortunately, his exercises were short-lived. Within minutes, his exertions were interrupted by a knock at the door.

"Dammit, can't you tell I'm busy?"

The voice on the other end knocked out any hope of sex. "Put it back in your pants, Alex, and get dressed! We've got a fucking mob outside!"

After he reluctantly rolled off of Ayako, put his pants back on, and looked out at the scene, he blinked. Sure enough, it was an honest to goodness mob - literally hundreds of people with sledgehammers and baseball bats! He blinked as he heard the leader of the group speak, a bullhorn in his hand.

"These foreigners have polluted our lands, prostituted our children, and killed our protectors! In the name of the Japanese Homeland Defense Society, we cast you out!"

He groaned. Great... Japanese nationalists. Just what he always wanted. He looked over at his colleague, Mikhail, who was pulling out a gun; crowds tended to scatter when the guns were pulled out.

Mikhail leaned out the window, and waved his pistol around. "Go away! We don't want to hurt you, but we will if -"

Mikhail never finished his sentence; Aleksander's eyes widened as the back of Mikhail's head exploded into a fine mist. This was not good, if they had their own guns. No, this was not good at all. The sound of metal hitting concrete dully reached his ears; he barely remembered his friends dragging him from the brothel to their bolthole.

He needed no prodding once they were in the bolthole, though. 300 yards to a safehouse, where they could extract themselves from any police or nationalist mobs that could be coming after them. After that, once they'd regrouped, those nationalist fuckwits wouldn't know what hit them. He'd bring the wrath of God on them for this!

They'd made it about halfway before the unmistakeable sound of gunfire echoed through the tunnel. Someone was firing on them - from the opposite direction! A few more of his friends fell, before the voice came through the tunnel in clear Russian.

"Lay down your weapons! Most of you will survive if you surrender now!"

Aleksander looked at the rest of the group. There wasn't much point; their mysterious gunmen had already set up their own cover, and the only cover they themselves had were the bodies of their comrades. "Define most of us," he asked.

"Anyone smart enough to know that arranging the deaths of police officers in Japan is bad form."

At that moment, every eye turned toward him. He heard a click, and his eyes widened; Pavel, one of his own colleagues, had a gun in his back.

"We told you killing that cop was a bad idea!" he hissed. "Now you've rained death on us all."

The butt of a gun hit his skull, and blackness overcame him.

***

For the first time in too long, Tenchi was stealing glances at a woman.

Put simply, she was a rarity in the college town - almost a contradiction. Her clothes were an odd mix: the slacks and blouse were too dressy for college, but not dressy enough for an investment firm. And she was an investor or a finance student, make no mistake; while most people wouldn't recognize Bloomberg Portable running on her machine, he did. If she were a business student, he would have met her by now, or at least seen her in the building. Granted, she did look familiar, but it wasn't from the business school. Perhaps most importantly, she clearly wasn't in the eighteen-to-twenty-two age bracket that dominated Nekomi, so he didn't feel like he was robbing the cradle by looking at her. While she had a lithe, dancer's build, the maturity in her face clearly showed a woman who'd had a twenty-ninth birthday or three.

He sighed, took a deep breath, and remembered some wisdom his mother and his aunts had given: "When the time comes and you meet her, you will know." He wasn't sure if it was his mother's gifts coming out, but... she felt right to him. He walked over to her and looked casually at her laptop.

"How's your portfolio looking?"

She glared at him, frowning slightly, and he winced; that sounded like a horrible pick-up line. "Sorry; that came out wrong." He pointed to her screen. "I was genuinely wondering how your portfolio was performing."

She chuckled, and pushed a lock of dark hair out of her eyes. "Oh. It's a tech portfolio, focusing primarily on biotech; it's averaging 11.6 percent this year so far, though I'm thinking about dumping Bikotech."

He blinked. Bikotech was a top performer, with over 40% growth in its stock price in the past year. "Why is that?"

She smiled. "They let go of several members of their board of directors last week. When you hear that some high-ranking officials are going out so that the company can 'focus on its core competencies', that's marketing speak for 'they offended somebody and we wanted them gone'. Combine that with a couple of genuinely odd entries in their last quarterly report, and it all makes me think the company's headed for bad times in the next few years."

Tenchi nodded slowly. "Interesting. But wouldn't the value of that just come out in the stock price?"

She raised an eyebrow. "Isn't the point to find these problems before they affect the stock price?"

Tenchi chuckled. "Good point. I'm Tenchi Morisato, by the way. I'm a grad student in the finance department."

Her smile was truly beautiful - not quite as good as his mom's, but his mom had a few advantages over most mortals. "My name's Linna Yamazaki. I'm currently working for NPI as a portfolio manager, though I'm scheduled to take some classes here next term." She blinked for a moment. "Morisato... you wouldn't happen to be related to Keiichi Morisato in the Mechanical Engineering department?"

Tenchi raised his eyebrows in surprise, then nodded. "He's my dad. I'm surprised a portfolio manager would know about a mechanical engineering professor like my dad."

Her blue eyes twinkled in amusement. "I'm staying over at the Stingrays for the time being; I've been friends with Mackie and Nene since we were teenagers." She tilted her head to the side. "You look a lot like your father - but somehow you got your mother's eyes." She blushed slightly. "I never thought eyes could be so blue."

He snorted. "Just be glad you haven't met my aunts yet." He opened his mouth to begin talking about how Auntie Urd practically defined the word 'cougar'; fortunately, family luck kicked in, and another stray thought intervened. "Yamazaki... wait a minute... You're that Linna Yamazaki, aren't you? NPI's 'Tech Witch'?"

She looked down at her keyboard and blushed further; she looked cute when she blushed. "Sorry... I just did what seemed like the right thing at the time."

Without thinking, he quickly sat across from her; he had to know about this woman! "If you don't mind... how did you do it? I mean, from what I read, it seemed like every tech investor in the country was losing their shirt back then."

She took a deep breath. "Some of what I came up with was proprietary, so I can't tell you the details. Suffice it to say that you got a really good hint earlier tonight."

He tapped his chin in thought. "You look for signs of internal strife in a company, and use that in your model." He chuckled. "NPI mentions as much in their commercials... but for them to actually do it..." He tilted his head to one side. "What tipped you off about Genom?"

She took a deep breath; her eyes darkened. "Several events happened in the years before the Tower explosion that hinted that something bad was going to happen to Genom. If you look - actually look - at what went on at the upper levels of Genom, the place was a powderkeg waiting to blow. There were hints - starting with Brian J. Mason's death in 2032, the destruction of most of the Towers in 2033, and the Miriam incident in late 2033 - that all pointed to Genom suffering a crippling blow within a couple of years. I just never imagined..." She shuddered. "Also... I admit to some personal feelings. I'd had friends killed by rogue boomers, and nearly lost my leg to one in '34; I couldn't in good conscience invest money in them." She gave a lopsided grin. "Besides, everyone thought investing in Genom was easy money back then. It's never supposed to be easy."

Tenchi nodded slowly. "Sounds like grad school; the point of research is to come up with insights that no one else considered." He gave the best smile he could. "I was wondering... do you want to go on a date? Say... Friday night?"

She blinked at him, as though she were looking at him for the first time, then nodded. "Friday night, then." She pulled out a business card, then handed it to him with both hands. "My new number's written on the back. Give me a call tomorrow, okay?"

Tenchi accepted the card with both hands, then looked at the business card. "I will." He looked at her for a long moment, taking in her soft eyes, the hair cut into a flattering bob and held back by a headband, the shape of her hands as they rested on her keyboard.

He wasn't totally sure yet, but he still had that feeling. The more he was with her, the more he wondered if she was who his mom and aunts were talking about. And that was a good thing - a very good thing.

He just hoped she wasn't taken aback when she found out who his relatives were...

***

Priss took her hands off the keyboard. She looked over at the small group of suits watching her in the audience, and grinned.

The first, an older lady with short gray hair, sighed, adjusted her glasses, and looked down at her notes. "Well, it's clear your proficiency in vocal performance and in instrumental performance is sufficient for entry into our music program. Your previous education is spotty; however, your test scores are sufficient for entry. As we have also confirmed your funding source, there should be no problem with your entry next term."

The second, a much younger man in a comfortable suit, chuckled. "You should see her stage performance sometime. I grew up listening to her music."

The first groused. "Which explains your thesis on underground popular music. Doesn't necessarily mean the music's any good."

"Oh, she has the goods," the second responded. "Priss and the Replicants was one of the hottest underground bands in MegaTokyo before the Genom explosion." He then turned back to Priss. "You know, when I told my friends at the Tokyo Conservatory that Priss was applying here, they couldn't believe it. That a veteran rock performer of your caliber would be coming here... they thought I'd pulled off a major coup." His body language shifted. "Which brings me to my next question. Why here; why now? You've performed in front of thousands. Why get a degree?"

Priss smiled. "I... I'm not twenty years old anymore. I could probably live off of my late husband's pension, but I'd drive myself crazy if I did that." She shrugged. "The next step is to perform while I still can... and to teach others. To teach at any formal level, I need a degree."

"And here?" another suit asked.

Priss paused for a moment. She thought about Andrew, back at the Stingray house, likely playing with Katsuhito and giving Nene fits. She thought about Linna, her days working as a stockbroker from home, her nights spent at business school. She thought about Nene and Mackie, who'd let her into their home and helped her live again. She thought about Daley, and his weekend visits.

"Here?" She smiled; only two words came to mind. "I'm home."

***

Author's notes.

I can blame this one on the head of the grad program I'm a part of. We were talking about "The Big Chill" one day; the movie is actually a sad one for me, but he found it incredibly humorous. Given the nature of the film, both are acceptable, because death and life... well, both contain good amounts of laughter and pain. Anyway, after the discussion, I went back and watched it again... and came up with this idea. It took a year or two to actually make it to print; I'd work on pieces of it here and there, occasionally send bits out to friends... but it took awhile to actually finish.

The date of the funeral was actually chosen semi-randomly. I wanted early summer (June), as well as a few days between the funeral and the gathering. AFTER I'd chosen the date, I put in Double Vision for some fact-checking - and found that the final battle between Reika's battlemover and the Genom boomer (as well as the Vision concert) was the same date. Funny how things happen that way...

One critique where I'm probably going to disagree with some people is with the "Sylia blowing everything up" bit. My view... this is a woman who created a vigilante group, outfitted them with body armor, and sent them on missions against a corporate entity. The term 'obsessed' does not do such actions justice.

Thanks to Jeanne Hedge for some incredible old-school critique of the work.

I miss BGC fanfic. Ranma's been done to death; BGC... less so.

Enjoy, all.

Nightelf

12/31/09