"Call me 'Princess' one more time and I'll dump that pilsner over your head," Anna threatened Rudo, who had been antagonizing her ever since Shir had turned the golden-haired guardian into long-lost royalty.

After entertaining club-goers for the last half hour in the Dragon Room, Anna found refuge at the bar sitting in between Rolf and Rudo. Both men were very plain-clothed for a night out, which suited Anna, as she was fine with the rest of the club assuming they were her bodyguards. Rolf was wearing a white, button-down shirt and black trousers, and Rudo… well, he looked a little more threatening in his black t-shirt, gray cargo pants and black tanker boots. It was probably as casual without being scruffy as Rudo ever got.

Rudo leaned in Anna's direction and nudged her playfully. "Your wish is my command, Your Highness," he teased through his chuckling. Anna glared back at him.

"C'mon, Rudo," Rolf spoke up, "leave poor Anna alone already. It was bad enough Shir did this to her, so…"

Rudo interrupted, "Yeah, about Shir's antics: Do you really think Anna would put up with this just for the hell of it?" he asked Rolf skeptically. He turned towards Anna, and as he brought his pint glass to his lips he asked her, "There's something in this for you, isn't there?"

Anna looked down at her drink and didn't reply. She knew she didn't have to, that everyone was suspicious about the reasons why she would let Shir dress her up and create such a wild story about her past. Anna had been soundly played by Shir, and now she was regretting the whole deal. New slashers? What was she thinking, anyway? With what she was being paid by Central Command it wouldn't have taken that long to acquire new equipment, anyway.

She wasn't even sure why she had agreed to even more meseta after Shir dragged her onto that platform. Anna tried to figure out why she was allowing this, thinking it might have something to do with growing up poor and quite possibly the need to try socializing again after certain incidents in her recent past, but she had just finished her third glass (or maybe it was her fourth) of something the bartender called an "Amber Eye," which seemed equal parts rum and more rum. Anna felt her thought processes already giving in to the effects of alcohol.

Suddenly she felt the urge to laugh. This was all ridiculous. Really ridiculous, but there was nothing left to do but ride out the charade. No one but the people she worked with knew who she really was; why not be a skanky celebrity for a night? Anna repeated that thought in her mind: The lost princess of Algol, dressed to within an inch of decency, sitting at a bar and quickly becoming inebriated. Well, at least it was interesting. For the first time that evening Anna smiled at herself, and the more she thought about what she had done, that urge to laugh finally became reality and she found herself rolling in her own hearty laughter.

The two men eyeballed her like she had lost her mind. Rolf was especially worried about Anna. It was partly because he was used to protecting something, namely Nei, from the general ills of society. Anna was filling that role comfortably for Rolf tonight, since Nei had gone to stay with Hugh and his biology-loving parents, all of whom were completely fascinated by Nei. However, there was a much bigger reason why Rolf felt protective of Anna this evening, and every time he thought about it he quickly tried to conjure up some other random thought instead.

"Uh, Anna?" Rolf asked gingerly as Anna continued laughing. "Are you okay?" She finally stopped long enough to attempt to explain herself.

"Oh, quit worrying about me, Rolf," she leaned into him playfully and rested her chin on his shoulder. Rolf felt a little hot and uncomfortable with Anna touching him. He caught a whiff of her hair and skin as well, and that wasn't making things any easier, either. He pushed her away gently, smiling awkwardly at her.

"I-I'm not worried," his voice stuttered and cracked. He fussed with his clothes in an attempt to regain his composure. "Why would I be worried? You're a guardian; you know how to take care of yourself." He picked up his drink and kept it near his lips, only sipping it occasionally, just to keep himself occupied.

"Pfft," Anna let out in dismissal. "You've been following me around all evening. So has Rudo, but I think that's because he just wants to see what happens to me tonight."

"Can't argue with that, Princess," confirmed Rudo as he waved for the bartender to bring him another pint.

"See?" Anna said to Rolf as she wagged a finger at Rudo. "But you, Rolf... you think I need your protection, huh?"

"I..."

"Don't argue. I'm not complaining, I mean, look at me!" Anna pulled at her outfit, laughing again. "I don't know what got into me! Why would I ever agree to wear something like this? It glows! It barely covers my ass! It zips up the front! What for?"

"Easy access?" Rudo chimed in as he took another swig of his beer.

Rudo's off-color comment caused Rolf to spit out the drink he had just taken. A nearby employee frowned at Rolf as she let out a disgusted sigh, reached under the bar and emerged with a towel. She gave Rolf a dirty look as she mopped up the bar around him. Rolf, embarrassed, muttered "sorry" a few times to the displeased waitress.

All Anna could do was continue laughing. She even surprised herself by joining in one of Rudo's jokes for a change. She barely got along with the man, but either she was too drunk or she had finally come to the realization that she hadn't given him a fair chance. That would be typical, Anna thought, of her being overly judgmental and mistrusting. Shir, you sly devil, Anna thought to herself. You knew I'd let my guard down tonight.

A voice from behind the three comrades cleared its throat. They all turned in the direction of the interruption.

"Um, hi," a meekly voiced woman in her early 20s addressed the group, specifically Anna. "Oh, I'm sorry. I mean, greetings, Your Highness," the young woman corrected herself, addressing Anna more formally and bowing. Anna rolled here eyes; she thought she heard Rudo chuckle.

"Just Anna is fine," Anna sighed. "What is it?"

The young woman tilted her head bashfully and shrugged her shoulders. "I-I was wondering... well, um..." she leaned in closer to Anna and whispered, "Is he off-duty soon?" She was pointing a finger at Rudo, who raised a suspicious eyebrow. He shrugged his shoulders as an indication he hadn't been in on the whisper. Anna smirked and sat up straight and proud.

"Why yes, in fact, I have just relieved him of his duties for the night," she spoke authoritatively, all the while grinning at Rudo.

Rudo squirmed. "What are you talk..."

"May I offer his assistance to you and your friends?" Anna asked as she gestured to the tightly-clustered group of six or seven college-age women standing a short distance from the bar, all of whom let out little gasps and giggles as Rudo immediately spun around to find out what Anna was talking about.

He turned back to Anna, incredulity glued to his face. "Why you little..."

"Insolence!" Anna interrupted in a bellow, pointing a finger at the shocked hunter. "I shall not tolerate it, lest you care to find yourself on the streets again!"

Rudo looked back at the group of females again; his glance was met with more shy giggles. "Oh, for crying out loud," he griped as he rubbed his brow. "What in Motavia do they want, anyway?"

Rolf leaned over Anna towards Rudo and laughed, "You!"

"But..." Rudo began protesting. He stopped short and threw his hands up in defeat. "Oh, what the hell. I suppose I should feel lucky that a half-dozen good-looking femme-types want to hang out with me," he uttered as he hopped down from the bar.

"Yes!" Anna and Rolf replied in unison.

The women all looked extremely pleased, hopping with excitement and letting out high-pitched squeals as Rudo headed towards them; he cringed slightly at their over-exuberance. Eventually he was surrounded by the group, so that Anna and Rolf could only see his head above the mass of bodies moving towards an oversized corner booth. Anna shook her head and sighed as she watched the group disappear behind the back of the seat.

"It's never that easy the other way around," she lamented.

"What do you mean?" Rolf asked quizzically.

Anna turned to Rolf, leaning an elbow into the bar and propping her head in her hand. "Those girls were interested in Rudo because he looks like a hunter. He's not dressed like the other men here and he's obviously older, too. My jobs have always been dating liabilities. Sure, I could come to the club dressed like this every weekend and probably get some interest based on looks alone, but the instant it goes past the physical to discuss life and careers, all of a sudden it's, 'Nice meeting you; see you around!' and a quick retreat to find some pixie with a job men can handle, like a teleport station attendant." Anna suddenly looked away from Rolf, embarrassed for complaining about something personal, and fidgeted with the plastic stirrer sticking out of her drink. After a few quiet seconds, she felt Rolf rub her shoulder.

"You can't really find a meaningful relationship in a place like this, anyway," he sympathized.

"I know, I know," she sighed in understanding. "Although, it'd be nice, just once, not to be judged by my occupation."

"Well," Rolf said as he got down from the bar stool and held out a hand to Anna, "what if someone judged you positively on your career choice? Would that, uh..." he cleared his throat. "Would that make a difference?"

Anna warmly smiled back at Rolf and took his hand. "Of course," she replied as her feet hit the ground. Rolf put an arm around Anna and led her to a more comfortable and secluded spot.


Next chapter: I have no idea, but the story isn't over yet. Hopefully I'll update it sooner than three months!