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Ah. Ah. Ah. Ah. stayin' alive. 
  hemlock_martini
 
08:29am 27/07/2010
  PLEASE DO NOT DELETE THIS JOURNAL.  Thank you.  
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hemlock_martini 
  teadee
 
05:15pm 01/05/2004
  It was the dawn of the seventh day.

Andy and Keomi watched the sun rise over Megatokyo. Sitting on the edge of the Isawa-Shoten Tower's heliport, hundreds of feet above the city; they watched as the sunlight bounced off the shiny chrome surfaces of the skyscrapers, dimming the neon glow of nighttime and melting the long shadows. They were so far above the street that not even the first notes of morning traffic's symphony reached them. The rushing of the warm wind of early summer, tousling Keomi's flowing pink locks, was the only sound.

Keomi looked at Andy, his eyes far away behind his sunglasses as he took in the skyline. She ran her fingers through her hair and thought for a moment. Maybe...just maybe...it can be like it was before. Maybe...if we're lucky, and we work on it, we can be happy, like we were before everything happened.

Andy noticed Keomi's pointed gaze, and turned to look at her. He took off his sunglasses, tucking them into his shirt-collar, and smiled; his eyes dancing with reflected happiness. In all the time they had spent together, Keomi had never noticed how unusual Andy's eyes really were--the way his irises weren't perfectly round, but were more like a pair of interlocking spirals; bluer than anything she'd ever seen--the way his pupils looked less like black dots and more like pools of infinite darkness, rimmed with intense white. Andy touched her hand gently.

Or maybe, she thought, it can be even better. She flung her arms around Andy, hugging him tight and resting her head on his shoulder. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her in tight, kissing her lightly on the top of her head. "I love you, Ke-Ke."

"I love you too, Andy. No matter what...I'll always love you."

"Aww, ain't it cute?" a gruff voice guffawed behind them, followed by an "Ow!" as Maji elbowed Joe in the ribs.

Joe, Maji, Nichiren and Michi stood with Andy and Keomi on the heliport, watching the rising sun. Though they were happy, everyone seemed oddly solemn, standing silently together on the windy platform, staring out into the city that they had saved. From their vantage point, Megatokyo seemed like a child's diorama, a dream-city made of plastic spires and candy-colored metals; softly glittering in the sunlight. And yet, it was unthinkably vast and complex--even now, aircraft buzzed overhead like prehistoric insects, the streets swarmed with traffic, the shopping complexes and office towers hummed with human activity; every single life an electron in some impossibly huge atomic organism--people spinning away in their orbits, careening this way and that, existing in their own patterns and travelling at the speed of life. What had been damaged would be repaired. What had been lost would be rebuilt. Those who had died would be mourned; and the mourners too would soon find themselves once more in a pattern of living that they had never left. The future was on schedule, and far brighter than it would have been. Megatokyo--and the world--would find ways to carry on...thanks to the actions of a handful of strangers, thrown together seemingly at random. Nobody but they would ever really know what had happened or how. But for all their hard work and sacrifice, their greatest reward was to know that they had triumphed over evil for the good of the rest of the world.

Sunrise had never felt so sweet.

They watched together as one, quietly basking in the view. Finally, Michi--who sat apart from the others, feet dangling over the edge of the heliport--spoke up.

"You know..." she said, looking at the rest of the team, "these have been the longest seven days of my life."

"Seven...days?" said Keomi, blinking. "Is that all it's been?"

They all looked at each other as the realization sank in. Everything that had happened--their first encounter with the Devilbunnies, arriving at the first safehouse, the Messerschmidt attack, finding Maji, Keomi's abduction, the rooftop battle, Unagi's death, the raid on and escape from Miramoto Tower, the debriefing and recovery; it had all happened in the space of a single week. One by one, except for Michi, all they began to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. "A week?" gasped Andy in between giggle fits, clutching his aching stomach. "Jeez! I thought it was more like two years!"

Today was the seventh day. Today was the day to say goodbye.

A few hours later, Director Isawa called the team together for a final meeting--whichever Jumpers wanted to return to their home dimensions were to be sent there via the powers of the young demon rescued from Miramoto Tower, who said his name was "Tetsuo." Isawa-Shoten's doctors were pleased with his rapid recovery, though he claimed not to remember anything before being captured by Yosuke Miramoto. He retained his powers, however, and could easily transmute living matter transdimensionally; but could not say how it was possible for him to do this. This was a disappointing development for Isawa-Shoten's Research And Development labs, and somewhat dashed the corporation's hopes of developing emergent technologies for transdimensional travel. However, the board's consensus was that perhaps such a thing was too risky to pursue--after all, with Miramoto's collapse, an economic crisis was looming large over Japan; and Isawa-Shoten might soon have to change its focus from R&D to city-wide security and crisis management. Director Isawa agreed with the board's assessments.

Shortly before the meeting was scheduled to take place, Maji found herself again standing on the edge of the heliport, alone this time; looking not at the Megatokyo skyline but up at the sky--its bright, hazy blueness almost painful to look at.

In her time, the skies had been as polluted as the sea, and had hung heavy with murky brown clouds; clogging the skies like blood-clots floating in a stagnant river. In this time, the blue sky held so much possibility, so much promise...and yet...without someone to share it with; the promise felt...somehow empty. Why did she feel this way? What were these new emotions running through her head? The first few rushes of affection and love she had felt for Joe...those were giddy, pleasurable; the same sort of unbelievable buzz she got from testing the Flightsuit for the first time. What she felt now was so similar, yet so much more complex--it wrenched her insides, twisting them tight; making her feel sick and sad and happy and wistful and angry all at once. What was this? Was this really love? Or was it something different...something worse? Not knowing what else to do, she chewed her lip and kept watching the skies.

She heard the door slide open behind her. "Heya," said a familiar voice. "It's almost time."

"So," she said without turning around. "You've made a decision?" Her voice was flat and modular, as always.

"Yeah." Joe sounded grim. He joined her at the railing. "I...Maji, I gotta go back. My country needs me, and I can't do nothin' for them if I stay here. I don't wanna leave you, but..." He sighed and shook his head. "I'm real sorry. This is killin' me, ya know? I just...can't..."

"There's no need to apologise," said Maji. "it's only logical. We are both warriors. It's in our nature to want to fight for the right cause...and from what you've told me about your time, I believe you. You're a good soldier, Joe. I don't blame you at all for wanting to go back."

They were quiet for a minute. "Yeah, well..." Joe spoke up, rubbing the back of his neck. "That's nice and all, but..." He swallowed hard. "I've been thinking about...what if I could give it all up. For one special girl." He touched Maji's hand, running a finger along the back of her knuckles. "If it were the right girl, you know...I think I could...because I love her; and if I go back to my tour a' duty without telling her...if I end up wounded, or dead, or somethin'...she'd never know how I felt." Joe looked over his shoulder at Maji. "Of course, you know, telling her would hurt...but never telling her would hurt more, and I'm sure if I didn't tell her I'd wind up dead from a broken heart." He held Maji's hand now, squeezing it as if she were the only thing keeping him from drowning.

"Joe...I..." Maji's throat went bone-dry. She tried to think this out logically, tried to push past her emotions. "I...it's too important...I wouldn't allow you to stay..." She turned and took a step towards him--suddenly, overwhelmed, she collapsed like a rag doll into his arms, crying for the first time in her life. "But I can't let you go! Joe, I can't...I don't understand...I can't ever let you go!" She broke down, shuddering and sobbing against Joe's chest as his brawny arms held her tightly. "Why?...why am I like this?...Why can't I...why won't I let you do what I know is right?"

Joe ran his fingers through her long, raven-black hair. "It's called love, babe. Sometimes...it hurts." He shook his head gently and quietly choked back a single tear. "I wish t' god it didn't have to."

"Ow," said Maji, wincing and lifting her head. "This hurts." She indicated her cybernetic eye-plate. "I...I guess I can't cry out of it. Ahh...it really hurts..." She laid her head against Joe's chest. "Now that I have something to feel besides fear...I have all these new emotions that I would have never had names for before...I don't like all of them, Joe. I wish some of them would just go away...they hurt too damned much."

"I know what you mean, Maji." Joe took a deep breath and let it out. "Maybe I'm...maybe I'm being too hasty about this. Y'know...maybe it would be best if I just st--"

"Don't." For the second time in their relationship, Maji placed her fingers against Joe's lips to silence him. "Please. I know how important it is that you go back..." She ran her fingertips gently over his face, memorizing its shape and contour through touch. "What...I feel, and what you feel, means so little when you compare it to the world and everything else in it. I may not be able to hold my emotions back...I may not understand them...but I know in my broken heart that it wasn't meant to be this way." Maji closed her eye. "You have to go. I don't ever want to let you go...but I can't let you stay. I love you, Joe."

"I love you, Maji," said Joe, crushing her close. "I...I never thought it would've been possible to tell anyone else that, before. But I do. And leaving you is gonna be the hardest thing I've ever done."

They held each other for the longest time, embracing on the edge of a vast precipice. Finally, they broke off their embrace and looked deeply into each others' eyes. "I, ah...I got something for ya;" said Joe, reaching into his front jacket pocket. "When One broke down, I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to see you again to give it to you; but I was able to make it back and take it outta him before you picked me up." From his pocket, he fished out a tiny, flat glass vacuum tube, affixed to a silver chain. Inside the wafer-thin glass was an intricate latticework of gold circuitry that glittered in the sunlight. With her enhanced vision, Maji could tell that the detail of the painstakingly-etched gold surface extended almost to a microscopic level. With no small amount of surprise, she realized instantly what it was--a crude and primitive, yet beautiful arrangement of independantly-connected integrated circuits within a single piece of metal. A microchip! (Or, if one prefers, a "macrochip.") She boggled at its complexity.

Joe continued. "This is, uh...to tell you th' truth, I dunno what this is, but it makes a mech run. Don't get me wrong, I'm the best mechanic you're gonna find when it comes to puttin' em together and gettin' them working; but I don't design 'em. All I know is, they won't run without one a' these slotted behind th' control panel. From what I got told, it's the brain of the mech, or somethin'..." He shrugged. "It's technical. Anyways, I figured...it's, you know, kinda pretty...and I wanted to give you somethin' to remember me by." He hung the chip around Maji's neck. "It suits ya, kid. It really does." He smiled.

"Oh, Joe..." Maji hugged him. It's so beautiful...I'll keep it, always. And I'll never forget you...ever."

"Kid, I couldn't forget you even if I wanted to." He rested his cheek on the top of her head, holding Maji tight and locking this moment in his memory forever.

"I apologise for not standing to greet you all," said the somewhat frail-looking young man with horns, "but I'm afraid I lack the strength right now, and I'm told I should stay in this wheeled chair for the time being. Thanks to Isawa-sama's physicians, however, I'm feeling much better." The young man smiled amicably, posessed of the quiet tact and pleasant professionalism not often found in demons. He was dressed simply in a polo shirt and jeans, and despite the multiple IVs hooked into his arm, seemed somewhat chipper.

"I am pleased to hear this, Tetsuo-kun." Isawa stood to the side of the young demon's wheelchair and beamed down at him. "I would also like to thank you for offering your assistance in returning our guests to their original dimensions. I would imagine that Joe-kun and Trixie-kun are quite homesick by now."

"Not at all, Isawa-sama. It is the least I can do to thank them for rescuing me from...my predicament."

"So...Tetsuo," said Andy, standing with Keomi and most of the rest of the team across the conference room from Isawa and the demon, "you say you don't remember anything about your past, or how Miramoto captured you?"

"Regrettably, no. I only remember waking up trapped within Miramoto's lair, and his torturing me..." Tetsuo winced at the memory. "I can only assume he drew me there through his psychic abilities, or drew an invocation spell through some rare grimoire. However he did it, he must have been an incredibly powerful individual." He looked at Nichiren. "You all must be very highly-skilled warriors to have defeated him. I thank you."

Nichiren blushed a little and toed the ground. "Oh, it was nothing, really..." she said, smiling cutely, a little embarassed. The rest of the team glared at her.

A sound from the corridor drew their attention--the sound of someone with a pronounced limp, approaching slowly and painfully. Trixie--dressed in her t-shirt, leather jacket and jeans from before the raid--dragged herself into the conference room, Unagi's swords cradled under her arm. It was obvious that she was in a great deal of pain.

"Trixie!" Keomi moved quickly to support the fox-girl, grasping her right shoulder. Nichiren ducked around and caught her on the left. "Are you allright, Trixie-chan?" she asked. Concerned, the team gathered around her.

"I'm fine," Trixie mumbled, her voice leaden and irritated. "Leave me be."

"Hey, you don't look so good," said Andy. "Are you sure you want to do this today? Maybe you should rest for a little longer."

"Yeah, we can wait another day," said Joe. "'S no problem with me."

"No." Trixie bristled. "I'm going home. Today."

"Are you..." started Nichiren.

"You're sure about this?" asked Keomi. "Can you walk okay?"

"Yeah." She nodded, and Keomi and Nichiren let her go. "S'cuse me." The group parted as she walked slowly forward, towards Isawa and Tetsuo.

"What is she doing?" Maji whisper-hissed to Nichiren.

"I don't know!" she whispered back. "Do you think she really could...she would leave us without saying goodbye?"

Trixie approached Director Isawa and stopped, kneeling before him. For a moment, she was six years old again, shivering and alone in her room at the orphanage; terrified and sad. "I, uh..." she started. "I'm not sure of the right way to do this, so...I'm sorry if I'm doing it all wrong." She grunted and winced as she struggled to support her body's weight on her wobbly legs. She took Unagi's swords in her hands, laying the scabbards across her outstretched palms as if to offer them up to Isawa. She bowed her head as she began to speak.

"Isawa-sama, when I arrived in Megatokyo a week ago, a very brave, strong and noble man came to my aid and protected me. His name was Kusanagi Hideo. He was a jumper like myself, a master samurai from Old Nippon and a stranger in this time. He had a heart of gold...and unmatched courage. I know that he would have faced any danger for me, or for any one of the people in this room, without a thought to his own safety. He..." Trixie took a shaky breath, fighting back a sob. "He died protecting me...but I know that, in serving me, he served Isawa-Shoten. He was a great warrior and an incalculable asset to our efforts...he served me well, and he served you well, Isawa-sama." Trixie lifted the swords. "I humbly ask of you to accept Unagi's swords in his memory. He arrived in Megatokyo as a ronin...I hope that you will accept his patronage as a samurai so that his spirit will find peace."

"I am...touched, and honored, miss Trixie-kun." Isawa made a shallow bow, and took Unagi's swords from her. "Your devotion to Kusanagi-san is quite admirable. I can tell he meant a great deal to you...never fear. I shall take it upon myself to insure that the Isawa-Shoten Corporation will hallow his name and keep his honored memory alive." He gestured to an I-S Corp. functionary and handed him the swords, imparting their value with a pointed look.

"Arigato gozaimasu, Isawa-sama." Painfully, Trixie stood and bowed. She walked back to her friends at the other end of the conference room. Nichiren quickly looped an arm around the fox-girl's shoulders to keep her from falling. Trixie sighed and gave Nichiren a tiny smile. Nichiren gave her a quick peck on the cheek. "He would've liked that, Trixie-chan. You did well."

"I really hope so." Trixie, resting her head sadly on Nichiren's shoulder. "I miss him." She shut her eyes and squeezed against the wolf-girl's soft fur, feeling cold inside.

"Me too...hey, speaking of missing people, aren't we still missing someone?" asked Nichiren. "Where is Fortunato? I had forgotten all about him!"

"Oh, not that cyber-jerk again!" grumbled Keomi. She crossed her arms and scowled. "I had enough of him before!"

"Hey, don't speak badly about 'Nat," said Andy. "When you scampered off in the HardSuit, he worked his holographic butt off tracking you down. If he hadn't, we might never have located you!"

"Yes, and he assisted us on the raid of Miramoto Tower!" Nichiren interjected.

"He hacked the Miramoto datastructure and destroyed the mainframe system," said Maji. "In a way, he did as much as any of us, if not more."

"Uh, yeah, what she said," chimed Joe, pointing at Maji.

"You're kidding!" said Keomi. "Wow. That's amazing...I never knew he had it in him! Isawa-sama, could we get one of Fortunato's holo-modules in here? I'd really like to thank him."

"Er, yes, well..." Isawa looked uncomfortable. "There is actually a problem with that. You see, Fortunato was able to transfer the data from Miramoto's databases into ours, excepting all Suyakkui-related information--somehow, that must have gotten lost in the transmission, or perhaps it was too highly-encrypted for him to decipher in time. In any case, we were able to discover authentic records of Miramoto's plans for selling weapons of mass destruction to hostile agencies throughout the world; these reports were then leaked to the press anonymously. The rest of the data was destroyed, as we cannot have any evidence on file that would incriminate the Corporation. Dirty business, this hacking," said Director Shoten, taking a moment to clean his glasses with a small blue cloth. "Hopefully, we can keep that sort of thing to a minimum in the future. In any case, as the Miramoto files were transferred, someone--we can only imagine it to be an agent working for Miramoto--placed a virus in our mainframe. As we destroyed the Miramoto data, the virus was triggered; and it systematically wiped out all our Fortunato databanks."

"What?" asked Andy.

"I don't understand," said Nichiren. "You mean he's...gone?"

"I'm afraid so," said Isawa, putting his glasses back on. "All the data we have applied to the Fortunato program over the last twenty-five years, all the information from the digitization of his brain, all the upgrades and maintenance--gone in a flash. Whoever did it must have been an expert. All we have left is this compact disc imprinted with the most recent version of his software," he said, removing a silver disc from inside his blazer. "We attempted to backwards-engineer his program data from the disc, but it won't allow us to read it--it just displays a message that we are to place the CD in a holo-generator when the members of the strike team have returned from their mission. I assume that you will all understand what this is about?"

"Probably," said Keomi.

"Isawa-sama, please--let us see what Fortunato wanted us to know," said Nichiren.

"Very well," he said, and placed the CD in a black box holo-generator. It fired itself up, and its small, telescoping holo-gun pivoted around to face the team. It sparked.

"BANZAIIII!" Bombastic, superheroic music blared from the speaker as Fortunato appeared, posing dramatically in a ridiculously-pumped up comic-book character costume--red cape, blue tights, obscenely bulging muscles and the letters "F-U!" emblazoned on his chest in neon yellow. An American flag waved in the background. "Yes! It is I, Fortunato! Destroyer of evil! Master of Electronic Stuff! Never defeated, never been cheated, noodles reheated! Ladies love me! Servers FEAR me! SUUUURGE!!!" He flexed his muscles like a steroidal weightlifter, his face twisting itself into cartoonish caricatures. The team groaned as one.

"Okay, okay! Forget that!" Fortunato waved away his background and superhero costume, which disappeared in a puff of smoke. His normal outfit reappeared. "If you hadn't guessed by now, this is a pre-recorded message. And if you're listening to it, that means that the good-guys--that's us, and by us I mean you and ME--won! WOOHOO!" Confetti and streamers exploded behind him as Fortunato merrily danced. "Good job, kids! The bullet of good capped evil's ass, and HOW! Let me tell you something, boys and girls, Miramoto deserved it. The stuff I found on him--WOOH!" Fortunato held his nose and waved his hand around, as if there was a terrible smell in the room. "Let us NOT even go there. This guy was one BAAAD monkey. Anyway...

"The reason I'm not delivering this message in person to you happy shiny people is simply this--" He raised his hand as if delivering an oath. "I, Tsubasa Asahara, of sound mind and NO body; fully admit to the hacking of the Isawa-Shoten mainframe system; and that with a few keystrokes, a pinch of happy thoughts--[zoink!]--a dash of fairy dust--[bling!]--and a wiggle of my nose--[twigglewigglewink!]--I deleted my own databanks!" He switched to a comical Kansai accent. "That's rahht folks, mah brain's Shake N' Bake! An' aah hay-ulped!" With a comical wink and foot-wide grin, he gave a big thumbs-up.

Isawa gasped. "Fortunato!..."

The hologram continued. "Isawa-sama, I do honestly want to apologise to you. We've had some great times together, no doubt about it. You're a great boss and a swell guy. You're even a better dresser than I am!" He winked. "But...I just can't go on like this. Everytime you burn a new copy of my brain, every time there's a new iteration or an upgrade or a recompile--I lose a little part of myself, my personality, whatever made me human back when I was alive. I used to be a stable, smart, dependable guy, not some whacked-out pervert freakshow. And just look at me now! I hate to be a cliche here, but I can feel my mind going. I can feel it. And I shudder to think how far I'll be gone come Version 8.0. I know you guys are gonna miss me--but believe me, I've been missing me for the last twenty-some years. Hey, trust me, it's gonna be a walk in the park for you compared do what I've gone through. You can cope!

"And to you guys--you nutty, kooky, mixed-up kids--" Fortunato addressed the team. "Y'all are without a doubt some of the coolest people I ever worked with, alive or dead. I know we didn't always get along, but hey, that's life. For you, anyway." He smirked. "It was a blast, and not just the parts that involved nudity. Well, okay, *especially* those parts. I'd like to say I'll never forget you guys, I really would; but considering my memory's all just disappearing ones and zeroes these days..." he shrugged. "Let's just say it's been real. Real what, I don't know. But it's been as real as real gets."

Fortunato made a snappy salute. "Isawa-sama! Now that I've deleted my own databanks and taken steps to insure my own permanent vacation, I respectfully request that you destroy this CD in a matter befitting the Undead King of Electronic Hell. Something poetic, like crushing it under the weight of several women wrestling in warm miso soup...mmmm! Miso! Yeah, miso horny! No, no, that's no good..." Fortunato snapped his fingers. "Hey, I got it! Nichiren honey, here's your chance to do to me what you've been wanting to do all this time--cut me up into teensy-weensy little pieces!" A drumroll started behind Fortunato. "Get that sword ready, chica-boom, 'cause here comes daddy! FIVE! FOUR! THREE! TWO! ONE!" Fortunato crouched as if he were going to jump. "Adios de BAI-BAI!!!~~" Leaping up, he blew a kiss and vanished in an explosion of light and color.

Fortunato's CD forcefully ejected itself from the holo-generator, flying across the room and landing in Nichiren's hand. "Fortunato-san?" she asked softly, looking at the silvery disc and seeing only her reflection. "Oh...this is all that's left of him..."

"Nichi-chan, can I see that for a sec?" Andy reached over and took the CD from Nichiren, examining its data side with his sunglasses in zoom mode. "Hmm...yeah, it's just as I thought." He held the disc up to the light and let everyone else look. "He must have rigged his generator's laser to scorch the CD surface. That message we just saw is the only playable track on this entire thing--the rest of it is totally corrupted and unreadable." He handed the disc back to Nichiren. "That Fortunato--he was one clever SOB. I'm just sorry I never got to thank him."

"Poor Fortunato..." said Nichiren, staring at the disc. "He only wanted to be a whole person again. I hope that, wherever his spirit resides, he's at peace..." She looked up at Director Isawa. "Isawa-sama, I couldn't destroy this. I know it's an unusual request, but may I keep him...I mean, 'it?' I'd...like to have something to remember him by."

"I...suppose that's not unreasonable," said Director Isawa, looking a little upset. "After all this time and effort invested in the Fortunato program...if we had only known how it was affecting him, perhaps we could have..." Isawa's voice trailed off. The presence of another person in the doorway drew his attention. "Ah. Miramoto-kun. You've come to say goodbye to your teammates, I take it?"

"So, the little digi-freak chose the coward's way out, huh?" Michi was leaning against the doorjamb, arms crossed, looking casually smug. She was dressed in the denim jacket and worn-looking clothes from the night she had met the rest of the team. "What a pity. I can't say I'm surprised, though." She walked into the conference room, a cocky smile on her face.

"It ain't nice to talk about the dead that way, kid," said Joe, looking at her through narrowed eyes.

"Oh, PLEASE spare me. Fortunato's been dead for longer than I've been alive. I'd say that particular boat has sailed." Michi made a dismissive gesture, stopping in front of Keomi. "You. I have something for you. I don't want it anymore." She held up her hand, dangling a necklace from the tip of her little finger.

"Oh!" Keomi took the necklace from Michi. "It's my...Andy, look! It's my mamori!" Overjoyed, she slipped it back around her neck. "For a while, I thought I'd lost this forever! Where on earth did you find it?"

"Never mind that, Keomi-chan; it's not important. Enjoy." Michi turned to Andy. "And you. I have something for you, too." Before Andy could react, Michi was up on her tip-toes, her hand on his shoulder, whispering a single word in his ear: "HUSH."

In his mind, Andy could feel a bolt of mental energy break through into his consciousness. He gasped. Michi had tried to read his mind before with no success--but this was not the same thing. Like driving a railroad spike into a stone, with a single thrust of her psychic power she had implanted a message into his mind--a message that left him stunned:

"Remember this, Andy--ALWAYS remember this--I could have made you a god. If you had been smart enough to love me, we could have roamed the earth together like the ancients, taking what we wanted from the weak, stupid cattle around us; living in the long shadows and breeding the big lies. You and I? We could have owned this planet, we could have accomplished what the gods could not, we could have PAVED OVER THE GODDAMNED HUMAN RACE and started over again in a perfect empty world, just...you...and...me. Don't ever forget how you let me down, Andrew Montgomery. Don't ever forget how you let opportunity pass you by. I'll be watching you, Andy. I'll be counting your mistakes. I'll be documenting your downfall. You...and your little pussycat, too."

Back in reality, Michi had already walked away from Andy, who was still reeling from the psychic blast that she had delivered to his mind. Keomi was far too distracted by her newly-returned pendant to notice the look of shock on his face. Michi walked towards Director Isawa, hand extended, smiling pleasantly. "Isawa-sama, it's been an interesting experience working for you. But I'm afraid I must be going."

Isawa accepted her hand and shook it heartily. "Certainly, I understand. I can't tell you how fortunate I feel to have had you on our side--and equally so that you don't share your uncle's insane lusts for power."

Michi smiled wider, a gleam in her eye. "Well, you know what they say, Isawa-kun; the apple doesn't usually fall too far from the tree." She was still shaking his hand.

"Er..." Isawa wasn't sure what to say next. "Yes, well--"

Suddenly, Michi snap-kicked Tetsuo in the chest, sending him rolling backwards and crashing into the far wall. In the blink of an eye, Michi had yanked Isawa's arm around his back and stood on his other side, pinning him. She held the palm of her left hand up to his temple.

"Isawa-sama!--" shouted Andy.

"Aaah! Tetsuo-sama!" cried Nichiren.

"Michi! Don't do it!" shouted Maji.

"Freeze, all of you! Do it," said Michi, flexing the muscles in her arm. A glistening, razor-sharp spike of hardened Suyakkui slid out from her skin at the bottom of her palm, gleaming wetly in the flourescent light. "...or Isawa here gets my uncle's special recipe right through his soft, squishy cerebellum." She cackled.

"This is stupid, Michi," snarled Trixie. "You can't win here. Just let him go." Though weak, her fingers twitched in anticipation of calling her sword.

"You MONSTER!" Nichiren's hackles were raised. She was halfway into her demon-form. "You FIEND! You USED us this whole time, just to get to Isawa-sama!"

"Michi, you total f*ckin' BITCH!" shouted Keomi. "I can't believe I trusted you for a second! What kind of stunt are you trying to pull, anyway?"

"Okay, first off, I *CAN* get away with this; thanks for your concern, everybody." Michi sneered. "Secondly, uh, yeah. DUH. Could it have been more obvious to you that I wasn't exactly working for the greater good of the Isawa-Shoten Corporation? I hate to break it to you, but you're all hopelessly naive. Even for brainless do-gooders like G.I. Jughead over there--"

"Hey!" said Joe.

"You leave him alone!" said Maji, getting defensive.

"Yeah, like you're much better, you scrap-heap reject." She turned her attention to Nichiren and Trixie. "Don't get me started on you two, you furry freaks. I bet you give each other mange!"

"That's ENOUGH!" shouted Keomi.

Michi turned her evil gaze to Keomi. "Listen, miss kitty, what I could say to you right now would fill a BOOK. But let me leave you with one single thought that's going to stay with you for the rest of your miserable little life--your boyfriend's a LOUSY KISSER."

BA-BOOM. The air in the conference room was shattered by the force of the bombshell Michi dropped. For a few seconds, Keomi was at a loss for words.

She shook, her muscles twitching in anger. Her teeth ground together. Her golden eyes had shrunk to pinpricks, and her pink hair stood on end. "You...mean..." Keomi began to say, growling in the back of her throat.

Andy's heart stopped. He winced and swallowed hard, awaiting the inevitable face-crunching slap that Keomi was sure to give him. He wondered temporarily if Isawa-Shoten Corp's medical insurance covered reconstructive plastic surgery--then winced harder when he realized that, as of yesterday, he was no longer an IS Corp. employee.

Dramatically, Keomi's left hand lanced out in Michi's direction with a whooshing sound. "You mean...MY FIANCEE!!!" Light gleamed [bliiiing!] off the rather large emerald set in the center of the golden band on her left ring finger. Everyone gasped.

"That's RIGHT! Andy and I are engaged!" Keomi grinned triumphantly. "And nothing you could ever do or say is gonna make me jealous ever again! We love each other, and we trust each other completely! Hell, I don't care if you DID kiss him! He's all mine, and I am his forever! And for your information, Miss Thang, Andy is a *phenomenal* kisser! I'd demonstrate that for ya right here and now if I weren't so busy getting ready to KICK YOUR SCRAWNY LITTLE ASS!!!!!

"Uh, yeah! That's right!" yelled Andy. "You tell 'er, honey!"

"Oh. Well. How charmingly domestic. Tell me, have you all of a sudden FORGOTTEN THAT I'M HOLDING YOUR BOSS HOSTAGE?" She jabbed at Isawa's head with her Suyakkui-spike, nicking his temple. A tiny drop of blood formed on the tip. Isawa winced. Everyone sucked in their breath. "Focus, people. Stay with me. I am not, by nature, a patient girl."

"P-perhaps you should tell us your demands," stammered Isawa, struggling to keep his dignity intact. "Tell us what you want. We may yet bring this to a peaceful resolution."

"Did I ASK you, little man? I don't think so." Michi gritted her teeth and glared back at Keomi. "Yes. Point three. 'What I'm trying to pull.' What I want is what's rightfully mine--what this company stole from my uncle's databanks."

"What?--" started Isawa.

"You heard me, mister CEO. I want all your data on Suyakkui--how it's manufactured, how to contain it, how to control it."

"But--" interjected Andy. "Don't you already know all that? Like, with your cockroaches?"

Michi, exasperated, rolled her eyes. "YES, I know how to control it in miniscule amounts. But my uncle created the stuff--he MUST have known more than I do. And he knew how to make more of it. I NEED that data to continue with my plans." She scowled. "You know, I really feel sorry for you if you don't find that plainly obvious."

"Okay, and these would be your plans to...help me out here, fruitcake...take over the world?" asked Trixie, with eyebrow raised sarcastically and hands in finger-quotes. "Is there some sort of 'defective cartoon supervillain' gene in your family?" She narrowed her eyes. "Out of curiosity...do you find yourself preoccupied with the eradication of Smurfs and all things Smurfy? You're quite 'Gargamel-esque' in your insanity, Michi. You really should have that checked out."

"Oh...PLEASE!...keep talking. I'd LOVE an excuse to jam this spike through Isawa's head and get my revenge that way." She tightened her grip on Isawa's arm, making him wince. "I suggest we play this one how I want it played." She nodded at Maji. "You--junkface. Get a data terminal up here. Get me all the information that this loser stole from my uncle. I want it NOW."

"Th-there is no data!" said Isawa. "N-none of it was transferred. And the Miramoto databanks were destroyed!"

"Yes, yes, that's a lovely story. Now get the terminal, cyclops, or there's gonna be brains to mop up."

"You don't get it, do you?" snapped Keomi. "There *is* no data on your precious Suyakkui. You're wasting your time here. Give it up!"

Michi ground her teeth together. "FINE! Then we'll do this a different way. Isawa-kun and I are going for a little walk down to the data center. He's going to do me the favor of FINDING the Suyakkui data in the Isawa-Shoten databanks. He's going to copy it down all nice and neat on a disk for me. And then I'm going to walk out of here with him as my hostage. Maybe then we can discuss terms of negotiation--how many pieces of him you want back at a time, how BIG you want the pieces to be, that sort of thing. Just remember--you chose to do this the *hard* way."

"THAT'S QUITE ENOUGH!" barked Isawa, taking advantage of a brief loosening in Michi's grip to deliver a solid knee-check to her solar plexus. She staggered back, eyes bulging in surprise. He spun away from his captor and took the stance of a Tae Kwon Do master, meeting her surprised gaze; old but well-toned muscles rippling under his business attire. "Miramoto-san," he gravely intoned, "we of the Isawa-Shoten Corporation do not take kindly to insinuations of extortion. Nor do we suffer evil gladly. You have tried my patience and that of my couriers--and even if we DID have Yosuke Miramoto's Suyakkui information on file, we would sooner suffer death than hand it over to the likes of you." He stared her down with steely intensity, as did the rest of the team members.

Michi suddenly realized that she was surrounded. Joe's hands balled into fists the size of canned hams. Trixie, weak but determined, drew her sword. Andy drew his gun and slid off the safety. Maji charged up her wrist-blasters. And both Keomi and Nichiren's hackles were raised--they snarled in unison, teeth bared and nostrils flaring.

Michi, cornered and shocked, grew red. She screwed up her face in hated, scowling at her former hostage. Her eyes glowed bright white. "Liar! You're LYING TO ME! NEVER LIE TO ME! EYAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!" Moving too quickly for anyone to draw a bead on her, Michi feinted forward and brought her arm back to punch with her Suyakkui spike.

A hand caught her foot and dragged her back as she thrusted forward. "Eh?--" Michi blinked.

A yawning, howling maw of transdimensional space opened up directly behind Michi. Bolts of red lightning sparked out from the gap, striking her body and dragging her backwards. She screamed unintelligibly, clawing madly at the floor tiles with Suyakkui talons that sprouted forth from her fingers. But the pull of the portal was far too strong for her. With a final, blood-curdling screech, she vanished into the portal, which closed itself up; leaving behind a shimmering halo of static electricity that quickly faded.

Tetsuo had crawled on the floor from where his wheelchair had toppled over to snag Michi before she had been able to harm anyone. "Isawa-sama," he rasped weakly, "I am sorry...for not doing that sooner."

"Tetsuo-sama! Are you allright?" Nichiren and Isawa lifted Tetsuo back into his wheelchair. Andy rang for the nurse to re-attach Tetsuo's IVs. "I am...I'm allright, I think," said the young demon. "I guess I'm not as weak as I thought I was."

"Tetsuo-kun," said Isawa, "you saved my life. I owe you a great debt. But tell me--where did you send her?"

"I don't know," said Tetsuo, smiling faintly. "When I open a portal, I have to concentrate on an image of where the portal will end. But for her..." He looked at where the portal had appeared. "I didn't concentrate at all. I didn't even think. I simply opened the portal and...tossed her in." He shrugged nonchalantly. "She could be anywhere, I suppose."

"I hope she ends up on Pluto," said Trixie.

"Yeah? I hope she ends up in Cleveland," said Joe.

"Heh. You win." Trixie smirked.

Tetsuo took a few moments to regain his strength. Soon, he was ready to transport Joe home. "Are you ready, Joe-san?"

"Yeah, I guess," said Joe. "Can you get me to Lüdenscheid? There's an APC factory there, I should be able to snag myself a new mech."

"Certainly. Give me a minute or so to home in on the proper timespace coordinates of your native dimension." He nodded at the team. "You may want to take a moment to say goodbye."

Joe walked over to Andy and Keomi. "Well, bossman, this is where I get off," he said, shaking Andy's hand and smiling. "It was fun, I'll give you that. But dismantling a Nazi suit under heavy shelling at midnight is gonna seem like a piece o' cake compared to th' stuff I've had to pull off in the last week."

Andy grimaced as Joe squeezed his hand just a little too tightly for comfort. "It was great having you with us, Joe," he said. "We're gonna miss you."

"Gonna miss you guys too," he said. He nodded at Keomi. "Ma'am. Congratulations on your gettin' engaged and all, hope the honeymoon is happy. You take care, now."

"Will do." Keomi smiled back at Joe.

"Allright, ya big lug," said Trixie, giving Joe a bear hug. "Go make us proud. Give 'em hell, soldier."

"You got it, toots. I'll give 'em one from you, okay?" He and Trixie extended their fists and 'punched one in.' "Take it easy, y' hear me?"

Joe shook hands with Nichiren. "Little lady, it was great workin' with ya. I need you to do me a favor, okay? Take care o' my girl here," he said, indicating Majikimi with a nod of his head. "Make sure she don't get herself in any too bad scrapes--I couldn't bear the thought o' that pretty face getting hurt. Izzit a deal?"

"Consider it done, Joe-san. Don't worry...I'll really miss you!"

"You too, kid." He playfully ruffled the fur on Nichiren's head. Finally, Joe came to Maji. They embraced tightly, holding each other close and kissing with the passion of two people who knew they would never see each other again. They exchanged words too quiet for the others to hear, kissed once more, and broke away.

Joe took a deep breath and let it out. He walked up to Tetsuo. "Okay. Let's roll."

Within seconds, a portal opened in the far wall, sparking and crackling like the one that had swallowed Michi. Joe approached it and turned his back to it, standing fully at attention. His back ramrod straight, he gave his friends a precise military salute as he took one last look at his comrades and at the woman he loved. After a second's hesitation, Joe turned and strode into the portal, not looking back. It closed up after him, leaving behind no trace.

"I just need to get to my bike," said Trixie. "It's...somewhere, I think around the Jersey border in Connecticut. It's been awhile, so it might be impounded somewhere--if it is, I can break it out, no sweat. Can you find it?"

"I should be able to, with a moment's search," said Tetsuo.

"Thanks." Trixie walked haltingly over to Keomi and Andy. "So, this is it," she said. "It feels so weird that I'll never get to see you guys ever again...it's like I've known you two for a lot longer than a week. I know how stupid that sounds..."

"No, I think I know what you mean," said Keomi. "Battlefield conditions bringing people closer together, that sort of thing. Happens all the time."

"I guess, yeah." Trixie could tell by the wavering sparkle in Keomi's eyes that the cat-girl was concealing her sadness behind a professional exterior. She smiled to herself. "That, and you guys remind me of another couple I used to hang out with. They were cute together--just like you two." She put her arms around the both of them and hugged. "Be happy. That's all I ask."

"You too, Trix," said Andy, giving her a brotherly squeeze. "Take good care of yourself."

"Thank you for everything," said Keomi, hugging back. "Trixie, I'm really going to miss sparring with you."

"Yeah, you'll miss it, I won't;" said Trixie, backing out of the group hug. "If there's a way to send chiropractor bills interdimensionally, you guys are paying for my spinal realignment," she said with a crooked smile. She winked at Keomi. "Crazy kung-fu catgirl, throwing me into a wall like that..." she muttered good-naturedly and shook her head.

Trixie came to Maji and shook her hand. "Good luck on your new gig, Maji. Try to keep this place in line, okay?"

"You know I'll do my best. Take care, Trixie-kun."

"Okay." Trixie sighed and threw her arms around Nichiren. "And you...I think I'm going to miss you most of all, Scarecrow."

The wolf-girl hugged her tightly. "I'm going to miss you too...it won't be the same here without you, Trixie-chan."

"I know. It'll be quieter." With her thumb, Trixie lightly traced a circled cross on Nichiren's forehead; a boon of protection that her mentor Brian had always granted to her when he had to leave her. "Be safe. Be good. Be well. Be...uh..." She forgot the rest of the words necessary to grant the boon. She shrugged and smiled. "Bea Arthur." She kissed Nichiren's fuzzy forehead at the center of the cross and squeezed the wolf-girl one last time.

"Thank you all for being so good to me," said Trixie, walking towards Tetsuo. "I..." She hesitated, unspeakable words on the tip of her tongue. "I'm ready," she said to the young demon.

A portal opened up to Trixie's left, sparkling and buzzing. She looked back at the remainder of the team with sweet sadness in her eyes and tried to speak, but realized she had nothing to say--nothing poigniant, nothing reassuring, nothing biting; nothing that would last. Her friends were waving to her, telling her goodbye, but she could not hear them for the tears in her eyes.

Trixie managed a genuine, if sad, smile; and blew them all a kiss from her fingertips. "Later," she said, and stepped into the portal. She vanished.

"Both of your retirement benefit packages and yearly salaries for the next five years have been liquidated into an offshore account, along with a bonus for (ahem) performance above and beyond the call of duty," said Director Isawa to Andy and Keomi, as they waited on the heliport. "We'll transmit the account information to you on a secure channel once you have arrived at your destination. And of course, your Isawa-Shoten Corporate Account cards are still active and welcome anywhere in Japan. Should you ever need anything while in Megatokyo, the Isawa-Shoten corporation will be only too pleased to assist you monetarily."

Keomi and Andy bowed. "Isawa-sama, you shower us with generosity. We're not worthy of such rewards."

"Nonsense! Consider this Corporation in your debt. Montgomery-kun, Suku-kun, I am indeed filled with gratitude for your commitment to duty." Isawa rubbed his chin, as if suddenly contemplating something. "Of course, there is the issue of what you did to Seiran-chan...my granddaughters are in her fan club. They even got her autograph at the last Comiket. I'm sure they'll be devastated to hear that she was destroyed."

Andy and Keomi grimaced and looked at each other, sweating furiously.

Director Isawa let out a belly laugh and clapped Andy and Keomi on the shoulder. "Don't worry! I understand, it was all done in the line of duty. Our PR department will put a positive spin on all this somehow, and the MTPD will come out smelling like a rose, with dignity intact."

"Ah heh...that's, uh, great..." Andy rubbed the back of his head, somewhat embarrassed.

"Eh...yeah. Heh, heh heh..." Keomi winced.

"There's one more thing before we go, Director Isawa," said Andy, producing a computer disk from his jacket pocket. "All the blueprints and design specs for the Hardsuit and several other devices are on this disk. If IS Corp. would be interested in developing any of them, I'd be only too happy to pass over the rights of production, in exchange for the licensing fees."

"But of course! We will make sure to credit you with the patents." Taking the disk from Andy, Director Isawa seemed deeply pleased. "Shoten-san and I are going to miss you two. I speak without embellishment when I say that you were the best couriers this corporation ever had. Your replacements--Majimiki and Nichiren--have big shoes to fill...but I'm sure they will do splendidly." He bowed deeply. "The best of luck to you both. And may you live a long, happy and healthy life together."

"Thank you, Isawa-sama," said Keomi. She and Andy returned his bow, and stood to watch him leave the heliport. The sound of an approaching helicopter made the air vibrate and kicked up wind.

"So..." said Keomi. "What do we do now? This is all happening so fast...I haven't even had time to ask what you plan to do next!"

"What I plan to do?" asked Andy, pointing to himself. "Well...I was thinking about what you had said a while back, about getting out of the city for a little break. I thought maybe we could take a little trip, see the world, no schedules or nothin'; just flying by the seat of our pants and taking it easy."

"Your plans sound good so far," said Keomi, eyes twinkling.

Andy continued. "And then, we could go somewhere a little less crowded, someplace with lots of room, lots of grass and trees, not too many buildings. Someplace like, oh say...a cabin in Montana with its own weight room, nice big underground garage, a hill in back and a lake out front; with no neighbors around for miles and miles. Plenty of wide open spaces...fields full of yellow wildflowers, and clear skies at night, so we can watch the stars."

"That sounds great, love. If only we--" Keomi took a second look at her fiancee--he was being serious. She gasped. "You can't mean?...no WAY!" Suddenly giddy, she punched him in the shoulder.

"Ow! Yes way!" he chuckled, his arm stinging from the imprint left by Keomi's emerald ring.

"But...when?"

"The night we went to the Palace of Jurai. I made a little call to a real estate specialist who owed Isawa-Shoten a favor. A few transactions here and there, and the place is all ours." He winked. "Whaddaya say, kitten? Come with me to the West?"

"Oh, Andy..." Keomi wrapped her arms around her man. "I'd go anywhere with you. You make me so happy!"

The helicopter landed. Ducking under the rotor, Andy helped Keomi into her seat and clambered into the pilot's side. As he gently nudged the control yoke forward, Keomi rested her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes, blissfully relaxed.

Together, they spun off into the bright blue day.

Rain.

Tall grass.

Dust.

...Gasoline?

Trixie slowly opened her eyes. She was in an empty field by the side of a deserted road, a feathery gray sky hanging low enough to brush the tops of the evergreens across the street. Her chest hurt and her legs felt weak. The air was heavy with cold wetness.

She struggled to sit up, balancing on her elbows, her stomach fluttering with the exertion. Across from the tips of her boots, she could see her motorcycle--Graywing--lying in the grass, unharmed and unmoved from when she had fallen into the dimensional portal. It would seem that nobody had been past here since she had disappeared...a week ago? A month? A million years? Trixie wondered if it even mattered, and wearily slipped off her elbows to collapse back on the ground.

The events of the past few days played themselves out on the movie screen in Trixie's head. Dizzy and weak, she started to wonder if she really had dreamed it all. She touched her breastbone where Aingeal had pierced her, slicing all the way through her chest and coming out her back; pinning her like a baloon in a carny dart-throwing booth. She knew she would find no scar--but the area stung and ached deeply, sending shockwaves of pain through her entire body. She yipped and arced her back, gasping for air.

Something missing, she thought. There's something missing.

As she regained her breath and settled down on the dusty grass, Trixie realized what it was that was missing.

It began to rain. Hard. The rain mixed with Trixie's tears as she stared up into the sky.

"Unagi."

Trixie rolled over, not noticing that her dusty clothes were now muddy from the rain. She curled up into a tiny ball and wept. The rain didn't care.


Michi sat indian-style and sifted sand through her fingers. This is indeed an odd shade of orange, she thought to herself.

The wind whipped her red-black hair around, and the overwhelming heat of a merciless binary sun beat down on her denim-draped limbs. This was indeed a desert, but it was like no desert on Earth. The sky was a deep crystal blue, dark enough to reveal a cluster of tributary moons and stars bright enough to burn through the thin daylight atmosphere. Jagged rock formations of darkest obsidian burst from the sand dunes at irregular intervals, winding their way to the sun like ropy vines of black glass. And the air was filled with an intriguing smell--something within the sand, something that smelled like power. Intoxicating power.

Michi was alone, and as near as she could tell, she was probably the only living thing for hundreds of miles. She couldn't give the roughest guess as to where she was, either; it just wasn't worth thinking about. Of all the dimensions and possible places she could have ended up in, she was mind-bogglingly lucky to have been transported to a place with gravity and an oxygen atmosphere.

The last of the sand passed through Michi's fingertips, blowing away on the relentless wind. She watched it slip away, lost in thought. Then, in a sudden flurry of movement, she withdrew two small objects from her inner pocket, eyeing them greedily.

For a moment, she sat staring at her two "aces in the hole"--a tiny, self-contained refrigeration capsule which contained the sample of Andy's blood, and a pocket computer that contained the data on the spectrographic, radiolographic, and molecular structure analyses of Keomi's pendant. She smiled down at the objects in her hands. Nothing ever ends, she thought. Ever.

Gazing upon her two precious prizes, Michi came to a decision. Pocketing them, she stood and took a look around her, seeking a shape in the horizon. In the glow of the setting suns, she saw something--there--in the Southwest; or what she took to be the Southwest, in any case. There was something out there, perhaps a settlement or a mountain or a forest. Maybe nothing. Maybe...

Michi whistled sharply. A skin-slit opened at her wrist, and a single Suyakkui cockroach crawled out, closing the slit behind it. The roach opened its carapace and fluttered its wings, buzzing up to her eye-level and then out ahead towards the shape on the horizon.

Michi followed it across the sand. She whistled a happy tune as she walked.

The suns set as the desert descended into darkness.

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~ ~ the end ~ ~
 
     
 
berus_roth 
  teadee
 
05:13pm 01/05/2004
  The night air was cool and damp. The pale moon hung full in the starry, cloudless sky. It's pearlescent light painted the great city in muted shades of blue and gray. Cast in such quiet tones, the MegaTokyo skyline seemed to slumber. To the casual observer, it radiated the beautiful surreality of a steel and glass landscape bathed in almost-colorless, almost-pure white light.

"Wheeeeeeeee! Watch this, Andy!"

"Jesus Christ, Keomi! Are you trying to kill yourself?! Get back here!"

"Catch me if you can, slowpoke!"

The rooftop of the Isawa-Shoten building erupted in a mixture of dead-serious warnings and playful, laughing taunts. Seemingly oblivious to the soft white splendor around them, Andy and Keomi shattered the silence of the night.

On the very edge of the building's roof, Keomi's bare feet slapped against the stone ledge as she ran at top speed along its length. Every few seconds, she would glance back at Andy, whose feet seemed to be welded in place near the roof's helipad, as he shouted another plea for her to get the hell off of there before you break your damn fool neck!

"C'mon, Keomi, cut it out! You're scaring me."

"Make me!" She turned back and stuck out her tongue, mockingly. "Nyaaaaaaa!"

It seemed that each time he made a move to stop her, Keomi would simply reach a corner of the roof, plant her foot and turn in a new direction. Without missing a beat, she ran lap after lap around the square ledge. Andy was not sure if his heart was pounding out of fear or had simply stopped altogether as he watched Keomi run.

The catgirl danced along the roof's edge, leaping up and twirling in the air only to land again in perfect stride. At a dead run, she would close her eyes and let loose in a fit of laughter. Her tail swished from side to side and spun like a gyroscope to keep her balanced.

"Keomi, please!" Andy begged. He was not sure how much more of her little athletic exhibition his nerves could take.
"Just cut it out, okay?"

"Watch this, Andy!" Keomi replied as if she had not heard a word he said.

Before he could declare that he did not want to watch this, or that, or anything else Keomi had planned, the catgirl dropped into a series of cartwheels which led directly into ten sequential back handsprings.

"Keomi!"

Precisely in time with his final, bellowing shout, Keomi skidded to a stop. Her arms were raised above her head in a "V" and she posed the way a gymnast might after a brilliant acrobatic routine in the Olympics.

"Ta-daaaaaaa!" She applauded herself and smiled a big toothy smile.
"So, what did you think, Andy?"

She turned her two golden eyes towards her boyfriend. His forehead was damp with cold sweat that glistened in the moonlight. His face was pale and he simply stared at her with a slackjawed, eye-twitching expression of complete disbelief.

"Hummmph!"
Seeing his reaction, Keomi planted her hands on her hips and spun away from him in a dejected pout. She stood with her back to him, her toes curling over the edge of the building's roof.
"Well fine then!"

Andy blinked, still too shocked and bewildered to form words. Slowly, his brain caught up to Keomi's hurt feelings and he began to clap. Andy slapped his cold, clammy palms together over and over in a clamorous ovation to Keomi's skill and the simple fact that she had not fallen to her death.

"Oh... uh.. Wow!" He stammered at first.
"I mean, that was amazing, Ke-Ke."

He continuted to clap and offer gushing words of praise as he approached her. Finally, when he was standing next to her, looking up at her upon the ledge, she turned and smiled.

"You really liked it?"

Andy nodded enthusiastically. "Uh-huh! And how!"

Keomi's eyes sparkled and witout warning she jumped down off the ledge and into the grasp of a very surprised Andy. Throwing her arms around his neck and wrapping her legs around his waist she hugged his head against her chest tightly.

"You're so sweet!"

From his current position, Andy offered up a muffled, "Phank oo."

After holding the embrace for a few seconds, Keomi released her boyfriend - to his slight disappointment - and began to dance and skip around him in a tight circle. She grasped his hands in hers and tugged on his arms.

"Come on, Andy," she said in a laughing voice.
"Dance with me!"

He watched her, allowing himself to be pulled and led around in a circle while Keomi continued to hum and dance along with music which was, apparently, playing quite loudly in her head. Finally, after watching her for what seemed like several minutes, Andy just started laughing.

"You, Miss Suku, are nuts."

Keomi, still dancing, released his hands and spun on her heel. When she faced him again, she snatched the front of his T-shirt in both hands and jerked him towards her, nearly pulling him up off the ground. Startled, Andy stared into Keomi's large golden eyes. Her face was barely an inch from his own and he could feel her warm breath on his cheek.

"I am not nuts," she growled fiercely from behind a laughing smile.
"I am happy!"

Keomi released him and spun away, dancing across the rooftop singing one word over and over to herself.

"Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy!"

The sight made Andy shake his head, but he smiled just the same. He could understand where she was coming from, though. He understood completely. She was safe and they were together. Almost all of their team had returned alive and they had - at the risk of sounding cliche - saved the friggin' world.

Still, Andy had to admit that Keomi's bizarre happy dance up there on the roof of the IScorp building in the middle of the night was perhaps the most surreal thing he had seen that whole messed-up week. He just had to laugh.



________________________________

Five minutes later, Andy sat on the roof with his back propped up against its stone ledge. Keomi was curled up beside him, her head resting comfortably on his lap as she enjoyed a much-needed catnap.

"mmm... happy..." Keomi mumbled contentedly in her sleep.

Stroking her long, red-voilet hair gently with his hand, Andy smiled down at her. He watched the way her ear swiveled in search of some distant sound which was too soft for him to hear. He watched the way her body slowly rose and fell with each breath and how her tail swished each time he slid his fingers across her cheek.

For the better part of an hour they stayed like that, quiet and still under the moonlight. It was only after he saw Keomi's tail twitch and noticed the subtle change in her breathing that Andy broke the silence.

"So Keomi..." he started.

"Hmm...?" She half-sighed, half-moaned her sleepy reply.

"The reason I came up here. Well..." Andy paused to consider his words.
"See, I've got some good news. And some bad news, and... And a question."

"Mmmm... okay." Keomi yawned and pushed herself up on all fours.

She wiped some sleep from her eye and then looked at Andy. Her eyes were only half-open and her eyelids seemed heavy with a desire to go back to sleep. Without saying anything else, she put her hands on Andy's shoulders and pulled herself into his lap. The catgirl nestled her head on his left shoulder and settled herself against his body, trying to drift back into blissful slumber.

"Uh.." Andy tugged gently on Keomi's right ear.
"Hey. Don'cha want to hear the good news?"

Keomi swatted his hand away from her ear and yawned again.
"Yeah yeah sure. And the bad news and the question so shoot."

The seriousness of what he had to say once again gave Andy pause. Using the wrong words could turn even good news sour. He knew that one misspoken phrase could ruin their night, and possibly a great deal more.

"Alright," he began.
"Good news first, then."

Keomi jabbed him in the ribs.
"Spit it out already."

"Ow. Hehe. Yeah, right. Well the good news is that... well the doctors say that the suyakkui in your body has gone completely inert."

"Inert?" Keomi sat up, pushing her hair out of her face and now very awake.
"What does that mean? Inert."

Andy felt his heart rate triple. He was sweating.
"Oh! Inert means that it... I mean, it's, like, asleep. Dormant."

"Dormant?"
Keomi's brow furrowed and he could see worry spreading across her face. Andy started to panic.

"No! It's not bad, Keomi. It's good! Really. Dormant is good."
He grasped her hands and squeezed them reassuringly as he talked.
"It's almost like the suyakkui isn't even there anymore. It's dead."

Tiny tears formed in the corners of Keomi's eyes.
"Dead?"

Andy's face went white.
"No! Not dead! It... it's asleep!"

"Asleep?"

"Gyaaaaa!! Nooo! Not asleep! The suyakkui... It.. It.. It.."
Andy stammered, at a loss for words. His mind spun down into a spiral of bad analogies for her current situation. There simply seemed no good way to describe, in layman's terms, having a living psycho-energetic metal permanantly bonded to your cells at a molecular level.
OhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGod.. This was supposed to be the good news! he realized in dismay.
"Listen, kitten. The suyakkui... well, it's a part of you now. But that's not bad. The suyakkui isn't alive anymore. It can't move or do anything at all to you, so you're perfectly fine. Okay? You're fine, and the suyakkui won't ever hurt you or do anything ever again."

Wiping away the mist from her eyes, Keomi sniffled a little. She looked at her hand, then at Andy, then back at her hand.
"But... it makes my skin smell funny."

Andy forced a grin.
"Trust me, Kitten, you're the only one who will ever notice."

"Nichiren noticed." Keomi grumbled and folded her arms over her chest.

"Oh... well..."
Andy sighed and gave Keomi a hug.
"I'm sorry about that, Ke-Ke. But when I think about what could have happened, I'm just happy that it wasn't a whole lot worse."

Still grumbling, Keomi said, "Oh gee thanks. That makes me feel a whole lot better. So what's the bad news?"

Releasing her, Andy leaned back and looked at the unhappy catgirl in his lap. Nope, this is definitly not going the way I had planned. Not at all, he sighed to himself.

"The bad news... Well the recovery teams Isawa-san sent to Miramoto Tower were able to recover pretty much everything that we left behind, but-"

"What about your car?!" Keomi interrupted.

His train of thought was momentarily derailed. Andy stared at his girlfriend for a few seconds, finally wrapping his brain around her question.

"The car? The car is gone, Keomi. I blew it up and there's nothing left."

Her ears drooped and Keomi sighed, disappointed. "Oh."

"Yeah. That's the whole point of having a self-destruct mechanism, Kitten. Don't worry about it."
He patted Keomi on the head, then continued.
"Anyway, the recovery teams found all our stuff except for-"

"Oh my God! They didn't find Unagi's body, did they?! That's terrible mmmphhmmpfftmm-"

With his hand firmly placed over Keomi's mouth, Andy reassured her that Unagi's body had indeed been recovered and was being prepared for a funeral ceremony at that very moment.

"Now just hush and let me finish, wouldja? Thank you. I'm sorry, Keomi, but they didn't find your lucky pendant. I'm really sorry."

Initially, Keomi's only reaction was a blank, slightly confused stare followed by a few seconds of intense eye blinking. Finally, she pulled Andy's hand from her mouth.

"They didn't find it?"

Andy shook his head.

"They didn't find it? Are you sure, because that's really weird. It's pretty close by. Are you sure they didn't find it and bring it back here?"

"What are you..?" he started to ask.

"My mamori feels really close by, so I'm pretty sure it's in the building somewhere, Andy."

Once again, Andy tried to get some sort of explanation.
"How do you-?"

"The jewel in my pendant is a soul-stone, Andy. I told you this before, didn't I? I'm sure I told you this already."

Andy just stared back at her, trying to look both innocent and ignorant at the same time. Keomi shrugged.

"Oh well. A soul-stone is a magic jewel. It is linked to its owner through a binding spell."

Arching an eyebrow, Andy asked, "But why would-?"

"Once it's bound to a person, the soul-stone becomes a key to be used in all sorts of magical incantations. Healing, purification, location. All sorts of usefull stuff. And I know it's nearby."

After such a declaration there was little Andy could do besides sit there and nod his head.

"Gotcha," he said.

"Don't worry, Andy. I'm sure it will turn up sooner or later." She smiled at him.
"Gee, that wasn't so bad. What was the question you wanted to ask me?"

Andy blushed. "Oh! Uh..."

The question...

Slowly, deliberately, Andrew Montgomery stood. With an extended arm, he helped Keomi to her feet. Pale moonlight illuminated them. To Andy, Keomi's skin glowed softly, like pure white marble, like silk.

God, she's beautiful...

There would be no stammering or false starts this time. Andy was resolute. He steeled himself inside and allowed the words to drift across his consciousness.

It has to be perfect this time...

Keomi deserved a proper setting, free of distractions or unpleasantness. She deserved a place and time that she could etch into her mind and treasure for the rest of her life.

In the cool quiet of the MegaTokyo night, Andy drew a deep breath.

Now...

"Keomi, for a long time we-"

"Oh wow!" Keomi shouted and ran past Andy to the edge of the roof. She pointed up, gesturing in amazement at the night sky.
"Shooting stars, Andy! Look at them all!"

In that moment, there was a numbness. Andy clutched the small velvety box in his right hand. The perfect words, carefully chosen and lovingly crafted into just the right phrases, were poised on the tip of his tongue. It was the perfect moment, as picturesque a time and place as Andy was likely to find. It was the moment they would treasure forever, and she was completely ignoring him!

"So pretty!" Keomi was cheering and gasping at the celestial lightshow above them as Andy slowly turned and approached her.

"Listen, Keomi. I have something-"

"Whoa! Did you see that one, Andy? Are you looking? Wow!"

Andy's left eye began to twitch. His hands worked the velvet box. He felt the cool metal of the ring inside. While she watched the meteor shower in giggling wonder, Andy tried to salvage the moment.

"Keomi, please. Just-"

Again, the distracted catgirl cut him off.
"Look! Look at-"

"Dammit Keomi!!"

It was a blur. The act was made by a man whose mind floated in the swirling sea between passion and insanity. Andy grabbed Keomi by the shoulder and spun her to face him.

Their eyes met. Their gazes locked for the smallest sliver of a second, but in that time there was such passion in Andys' eyes that it causes an almost electric spark between them. It was like a bolt of lightning rushing down each of their spines. The fur on Keomi's tail bristled.

She gasped.

Their lips met.

Keomi felt a strange weightlessness, a blissful numbness that swept over her whole body in the space of an instant.

Their lips parted, but Andy did not step away. It was with more than a small amount of confusion that Keomi watched her boyfriend drop to one knee before her. His pose seemed very strange, yet familiar. She looked down at him and knew she had seen it before.

Their hands pressed together and Keomi felt something cool against her flesh. She tried to look at her hand to see what it was, but she could not tear her eyes from Andy's intense gaze.

"Keomi Suku," he said, barely whispering.

At that moment, he let her hand slip from his and he held his breath. Andy watched Keomi lift her hand. A smile crept across his lips as she stared at the third finger of her left hand with wide, watering eyes.

"Will you marry me?"

She was at a loss. Marry? she thought. He's asking me to marry him? Keomi stared at the gold band on her finger, at the large green stone set upon it. She turned her hand over, watching the moonlight catch and reflect from the facets within the smooth emerald.

He's asking for real this time! The final certainty of that realization gave Keomi a feeling that transcended joy. It was intense, elusive, frightening, and comforting all at once.

Her mind flashed back to that moment in the alleyway, back to the moment she had seen this ring for the first time. It almost broke her heart to remember what she had done to the man she loved.

And he's still asking me? Even after that?
The doubts which had lingered, the clouds within her heart were all blasted away. No matter how many times he told her, no matter how sincere the words he spoke when he said he loved her, the doubts had remained. Keomi had wondered if the doubts could ever be completely erased.

Now she knew. He means it. He-

Andy wiped a tear from her cheek with his thumb.
"This is forever, Kitten, so if you need some time to think it-"

No more words! Keomi thew her arms around Andy's neck and held him tight. The tears flowed freely down her cheeks, hot and wet and sweet. She did not need to hear any more words from this man; this wonderful, beautiful, brilliant man who she loved.

But there is one word... As she held him, Keomi felt it surging up from the depths of her soul. She could not contain it even if she tried. But she did not try. There was only one word left between them, and when she spoke it their world was finally complete.

"YES!"
 
     
 
hemlock_martini 
  teadee
 
05:08pm 01/05/2004
  Looking through the windshield of the truck, it was as still as an oil painting.

Thousands of cops, guns drawn, stances firm, faces set in masks of agitation, outrage and disbelief; standing among the ruined vehicles and rubble in the street, eerily silent. The Hardbodies--sweethearts of the MTPD--were all dead. The MTPD were through f*cking around, and were waiting for the slightest provocation from the stolen SWAT truck for the chance to open fire as one.

Over the silence, an odd sound arose--a clicking, crunching, grinding sound. With her highly-sensitive feline ears, Keomi could faintly hear the sound over the purring motor of the SWAT van, and it took a second for her to figure out what it was--it was the simultaneous grinding of a thousand sets of cop teeth. It made her ears and tail twitch in agitation.

Andy blanched. "Wow," he whispered, turning his eyes to Keomi. "Ke-ke, I'm so sorry. I don't have any more backup plans...I don't know what else to do here." He sighed. "We're kinda...screwed."

"It looks that way, doesn't it?" said Keomi.

"Keomi...I'm really sorry. We tried so hard...I tried so hard to get you out of here, and look how we end up. This sucks!" he hissed.

"Don't be such a silly man," said Keomi, smiling gently and ruffling Andy's hair. "Nobody could have done a better job than you did. You came and rescued me. You died and came back to life for me. You even blew up your car for me! I mean, color me impressed!" She kissed him lightly on the cheek. "I will never, ever, even for a second, doubt that you love me, ever again. Andrew Montgomery, you mean the world to me--and I love you."

"You mean it? Babe...I love you too." They kissed, quickly. "So...if we get out of this alive...you think they'll let me have conjugal visits with you, me being in prison and all?"

"Uh...I'm thinking that I'll probably be in prison too, hon. You know...blowing up police property and all that."

"Oh." Andy puzzled for a second. "D'ya think maybe they'd let us move into the same cell, then?"

"YOU IN THE TRUCK!" blasted the bullhorn voice again. "YOU NOW HAVE TEN SECONDS TO EXIT THE VEHICLE AND SURRENDER YOURSELVES, OR WE OPEN FIRE! THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE! TEN!...NINE!...EIGHT!..."

"Well...should we?..." asked Andy.

"I...I don't know!" answered Keomi. "Surrendering seems so wrong, and yet...they'll kill us if we don't...But!..."

"SEVEN!...SIX!...FIVE!..."

Andy grabbed Keomi's hand tightly. "I know what you mean, babes. Should we stay?"

Keomi flashed Andy a determined smile. "Yeah. Let's." She held on to his hand in a vice-grip and took a deep breath.

"FOUR!...THREE!...TWO!...O--eh?"

The sound of glass smashing against concrete distracted Inspector Mizuhara and the rest of the MTPD. They wheeled around to see a young woman stepping out of the ruined facade of Miramoto Tower--she had accidentally pushed on one of the foyer's glass doors, causing it to fall over and crash on the ground. The girl appeared to be carrying a naked man with horns over one shoulder, and was propping up the body of another girl with the other arm. "Oh! I'm sorry! I, uh, didn't mean to do that..." she said, seeing the entire Megatokyo police force turn her way and train their weapons on her head. A dozen red laser dots from sniper's sights painted her face as she blushed profusely. "Uh, it...it was already broken." She indicated the broken door with a nod of her head and a nervous titter and smile. A huge sweatdrop ran down her forehead.

"WHAT-WHAT-WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?" roared Inspector Mizuhara, pointing at the girl with his bullhorn. It accidentally slipped from his grip and smashed itself on the ground, crimping the speaker-cone in half. "AAARGH!" he screamed, jumping up and down on the bits and pieces of his ruined bullhorn. "CAN THIS DAY GET ANY MORE WEIRD?"

"Um, can somebody help me get my friends here to a doctor?..." asked Nichiren, nervously eyeing a few police officers that had begun to approach her. "They're both hurt pretty bad, and I, uh...oh dear, you're not going to be helpful, are you?"

Suddenly, the roaring of high-tech jet engines filled everyone's ears. The wind kicked up, obscuring the street and intersections in huge clouds of dust. Everyone looked around them in confusion.

"Ehn?" said Andy.

"Huh?" asked Inspector Mizuhara.

"What?" asked Nichiren.

A small, weak voice spoke up from Nichiren's side--"Don' worry, kid. It's just the cavalry, comin' ta save th' day." Trixie coughed and slumped back into unconsciousness.

A police officer spied something in the air, floating towards them slowly. "LOOK!" he shouted and pointed.

Everyone turned to see Majimiki, resplendent in her glossly black bikini-style Flightsuit, her hair whipping in the wind, her laser cannon hefted over one shoulder, light glinting off her cybernetic eye, lips twisted into a sensual sneer. She looked to the police officers like some sort of futuristic Amazon warrior-woman--which was not a half-bad description, really--as she hovered thirty feet above them, the vernier jets of her Flightsuit thrumming with a blue-white glow.

For a second, the MTPD looked up in awe. Some of them wondered--was this the long-rumoured fourth HardBody, the advanced new model come to avenge the death of her sisters? Who developed that jet-pack that she's wearing? Is she as hot up close as she is when she's flying around like that? I wonder if she likes mochi ice cream like Massahiro did? Maybe if I started brushing my teeth and cut back on the donuts, would she go out with me?

Unfortunately for them, they would never find out.

Maji lifted her laser rifle and fired a single burst of plasma into the air. She pointed at the rabble below her, and shouted her order.

"DEVILBUNNIES! ATTAAAAAACK!"

From behind Maji, the dust cloud exploded with the noise of hundreds--no, thousands--of motorcycles being revved and peeling out. Bursting through the cloud, innumerable Devilbunnies shot screaming like teenaged, hormonal bats out of hell, flooding the street, the sidewalks, the gutters, some of them--seemingly defying gravity and all known laws of physics, as teenage girls are wont to do occasionally--riding their bikes along the vertical surfaces of nearby buildings; whooping as they hopped windows and awnings like moguls. They screeched and catcalled and howled as they swarmed the streets around Miramoto Tower.

And every single one of them was dressed in a long sparkly blue-green wig, a tiger-print bikini with a fox-tail sticking out of the waistband; and was toting a very large machine gun.

Within seconds, the stunned MTPD was overwhelmed with Devilbunnies--faced with the decision of whether to fire on them or shyly ask them out on a date (or ask if they had an available older sister), most officers just stared blankly, mouths agape; until a cycle-driving 'Bunny kicked them in the ribs or drove by and shot huge holes in their patrol cars. The noise of motorcycle engines, gunfire, and high-pitched war whoops was everywhere. If trying to contain the driver of the red sports car had been full-scale panic; THIS was pure, unadulterated chaos in its most concentrated form. A diesel-snorting, lead-pumping, bikini-flaunting Plague of Devilbunnies had descended upon the MTPD, and there would be no escape.

Andy looked at Keomi as Devilbunny carnage exploded all about them. "Uh. Well. That's convenient for us, isn't it?"

"Mm, yeah. Very Deus Ex Machina. Let's leave, Andy. Now."

"Allrighty then."

Andy slipped the SWAT truck into gear and carefully picked his way across the street, where Nichiren was waiting with Trixie and her strange demonic captor. Keomi climbed in the back and quickly pulled them all inside. Andy put the pedal to the metal and punched through a poorly-constructed roadblock, speeding down a stretch of mostly-empty highway. Nobody noticed their escape, save for Maji and Joe; who caught up with the truck via Flightsuit moments later.

Andy looked back at the bed of the truck. "Everybody okay and accounted for?" he asked of his passengers. He did a quick headcount, and felt a numbing shock when he realized that--minus the rescued hostage--there was one missing.

Nichiren sat on the right side, Trixie's head resting in her lap. Glumly, she answered Andy. "Yes. We're all here, Andy-san." Nichiren gently stroked Trixie's hair and looked down at her with concern.

Andy's heart skipped a beat. Keomi, realizing what had happened, put a hand on his shoulder. "Just drive," she said gently, noting his sadness. "It's time to go home, Andy."

The SWAT truck sped off into the new day, heading for Isawa-Shoten headquarters.



--the next day--


"It's your move."

Two older gaijin, looking both out of place and like part of the scenery, sit on a park bench that overlooks the harbor of the Shimonoseki strait. Between them sits a small holo-chessboard. Beyond them lies the network of docks and piers that make up the harbor. The sun is out, and seagulls cry overhead. Small fluffy clouds dot the upper atmosphere. Upon the edge of the furthest pier, a young woman stands weeping silently, grasping a bejeweled sword and looking out at the sea.

Black is winning.

The first gaijin--the one whose turn it is--squints silently at the board through thick, circular glasses. The small Siamese cat that rests on his head yawns and licks a paw, lolling on his perch. The gaijin takes his time in selecting his move, then feebly extends a finger to nudge a piece. "Bishop takes Knight," he says; and it is so. The holographic pieces move according to the voice command, and on the board a white Bishop topples a black Knight.

"What?" shouts the second gaijin, scrutinizing the board and scratching his stubbly chin. "Why, you double-crossing...oooh...YOU! HAH!" The second gaijin triumphantly shoves a holographic piece into place. "Rook takes Bishop! PH34R M`/ L33T CH355 5KILLZ!" He stands to do a shaky little victory dance, but his back pains him, and he sits, suddenly grumpy.

"You should be more calm," says the first gaijin, quietly. "You'll live longer."

"Live longer? Here? Bah," exclaimed the second. "I don' like it here, anyways! The booze isn't cheap any more, there aren't any more zombies to slay, and dagnabbit, I ain't had a decent game of Quake in years!"

"Now, now," says the first, "remember your heart condition."

"Heart condition, nothin!" he spat. "You're th' one who dragged us here! 'Let's go to Japan,' you said. 'We need a break,' you said. 'Don't pee on the nice industry people,' you said! Phooey! We've been stuck in this Romero-forsaken country for almost eighty years now!"

"Sixty-five," says the first one, tired of correcting his friend's wild exaggerations. "And hasn't it been at least a little fun?" He pushes his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose. The cat mews, as if in agreement.

"Shaddup about fun! I'm tired of this big city, Ultra-Chiba or whaddever you call it. As soon as I cn' ditch you and get myself some decent booze, I'm a-gettin' a plane ticket an' going back to...to...uh..." The second gaijin's eyes defocused for a moment. "Where are we from again?...Well, it don't matter, dangit! I'm tired a' this place! Now move or I'll smack ya with my PLUS FIVE CANE A' WHACKIN!"

The first gaijin smiles innocently and pushes his piece into place. "Queen takes Rook. Check and Mate. You're really not very good at chess, Largo."

-----

Silently, quietly weeping, Nichiren stared out over the sea, grasping her sword in one hand. Her mind flew back to a time, ages ago, where the Dan-no-Ura was filled with the bodies of dead men...a whirlpool of death and blood. A pain in her shoulder...and then...

And then I came here...and everything changed.

Nichiren looked at the sword that she had brought with her; the bejeweled katana that had not left her side since the moment she had arrived in Megatokyo. Even after drinking the blood of so many, its metallic sheen was unmarred and still mirror-like, nary a chip was missing from its blade-edge. The sun glinted off its surface, dazzling her eyes and culminating in a starburst of white light that gleamed at the tip. She looked out at the sea again. This seems an appropriate resting place for it as any, she thought. Perhaps...perhaps it should be mine as well. Nichiren hung her head and sighed deeply.

Behind her, the two gaijin had noticed the sullen wolf-girl, and were talking amongst themselves. "D'ya think she's sad 'cause she lost her squeeky toy?" asked Largo.

"I don't think so," said Piro, casually sketching Nichiren's depressed posture in a small sketchbook. "Poor girl. She looks so sad...kinda cute, too."

"Cute! Phaah. Whadda you know about 'cute?' She's a dog!"

"I dunno," he said, still sketching. "I like her ears."

"Boy, are your priorities messed up. You need to start drawin' better-looking girls."

Piro looked sideways at Largo. "What, like that booth-babe that kept breaking your arm?"

"Yeah! I mean, no! I mean, shut up about that allready! That was over ninety years ago!" Largo frothed at the mouth. Piro rolled his eyes and continued sketching as Largo ranted on. "I'm talking about girls like...girls like..." Largo's train of thought was interrupted by the sound of jet engines rapidly approaching.

"Like who?" asked Piro. A sudden wind whipped the pages of his sketchbook around. Piro's cat put its paws over its ears.

Largo pointed up. "LIKE HER! L33T CHIXX0R AT 12 O'CLOCK!"

Maji maneuvered the Flightsuit expertly, taking a low approach to Shimonoseki harbor; her black bikini-style armor glinting in the bright sunlight. She passed over the two gaijin, who gazed up at her in awe. Landing at the base of the dock, she powered down the jet verniers and walked to where the wolf-girl was standing. "Nichiren-san! We've been looking all over for you!" she called, cheerfully.

"Oh...hello." Nichiren glanced back to look at Maji, then continued staring out over the sea.

"It's allright, I've found her," said Maji, barking into a comlink. She shut it off and walked to the edge of the pier. "How long have you been out here?...oh! What a view!" Maji sat down on the edge of the pier, dangling her legs off the edge, suddenly oblivious to Nichiren. "I've lived in Megatokyo all my life, and I've never seen the ocean...well, in the time I come from, things are very different. In my time, the ocean is off-limits...what little water is left isn't fit to drink. Here, it's a little polluted, but still...it's so beautiful; blue and alive..." They stared out at the waves for a few silent moments. Maji's gaze bounced over the waves, entranced by the rhythm of the tide, the soothing blueness of the water. Nichiren couldn't help but imagine the strait full of dead bodies.

"I...suppose you'll be returning to your own time, Maji-san;" said Nichiren quietly.

"I thought about it," said Maji, propping her chin on her hand and leaning her elbow on her thigh. "But after seeing the world the way it is now...I decided I'd much rather work to change things for the better here in this time, to make sure Megatokyo doesn't turn out to be such a nightmare in the future." She smiled a little. "I got a lecture from Andy about how my staying would screw with the space-time continuum, and how it could affect my own personal timeline. I quite respectfully told him where he could stick his continuum. Then he offered me his job." Maji chuckled under her breath.

"Ehh?...nani?"

"That's affirmative. I'm staying in Megatokyo, as a courier for Isawa-Shoten. Back home, I'd be just another walking casualty, waiting for my number to be up. Here, I can really make a difference." Maji kicked at the water, splashing a bit of foam around with the tip of her boot. "What about you, Nichi-san? You're going to return to old Nippon, right?" Maji looked up and saw that the wolf-girl had been crying. "Oh," said Maji, suddenly panicked. She stood, bowing lightly. "I've said something to upset you. I am so sorry. I really am. I--I'm not used to emotions, sometimes I say something wrong without realizing...I'm so sorry--"

"No, no, it's not that...it's just..." Nichiren turned away, running a hand through her pale blonde hair. "I...tried to see the Emperor, but I was turned away."

"I don't understand."

"I wanted to give the Emperor of Japan this sword, to show him my appreciation for...you see...I used to be his ancestors' bodyguard, and...I wanted to say goodbye, in a way." Nichiren sniffed. "They told me he was too busy to speak to me. They told me he didn't want to talk to a demon, and they made me leave. I couldn't even offer my services to join his security staff. They didn't want me there." Nichren hung her head in shame, burying herself in Maji's shoulder.

"Ehm..." Maji stared at Nichiren's head, puzzled, wondering what she should do next. She wasn't used to comforting anyone, and wasn't sure how to go about it. Timidly, she patted the wolf-girl on the head and spoke in soothing tones. "Uh...you...shouldn't cry," said Maji, gently pushing the wolf-girl away, holding her by her shoulders. "It will be allright. Maybe you can go back to your own time and make things right there."

"No...that's impossible," said Nichiren, wiping away a stray tear. "In my time, the Empress and young Emperor are dead...I failed them. And I can't go back to a point in time when I could have saved them. Isawa-sama said that it would be too risky, and might undo everything we've accomplished here..." Her head sunk. "I can't go back home. And there's nothing for me here. I should let the water take me so that I can join Tatewaki..."

"Don't speak nonsense, Nichiren-san." Maji shook her gently. "I know you've been through a lot, but you can't give up like this. The past is the past, and we can't change it; not even with magic. But here you are, in the future. And what happens from here on in hasn't been written yet. I'm living proof." Maji smiled a little. "Just by being here, I've altered my own timeline. I've cut my existence out of my own future. Andy's so confused as to why I haven't suddenly disappeared in a puff of smoke. Don't you see, Nichiren? We can make our own future. It's up to us--it always has been."

Nichiren stopped crying. "Maji-san...I..." She took a deep breath and exhaled. "You're right. Throwing my life away because of my past would be foolish. Thank you for helping me see that. I just wish I knew what I could do here, in Megatokyo. It seems that I don't belong here, and yet there's nowhere else I can go, nothing I can do."

"Of course you belong here, silly. You're going to be an Isawa-Shoten courier, just like me!"

"Whaaaa?"

"C'mon back with me! I've got it all worked out. Keomi's quitting too, of course, so there's another job opening." Maji grabbed Nichiren's hand and began to drag her back along the pier. "You'd be great as a courier! Human Resources has your paperwork all lined up, Isawa-sama even said that you wouldn't need to interview for the position! C'mon, it'll be fun!"

"But, Maji-san!--" interjected Nichiren.

"You said you needed somewhere to go, something to do," said Maji. "This is the opportunity you need to start to belong somewhere!"

"That's all well and good, but--" Nichiren dug in her heels. "STOP!"

Maji let go of the wolf-girl's hand. Nichiren stood at the base of the pier, looking at the sword in her hand. She glanced back at Maji. "There's something I must do first, before I embrace the future...I must say goodbye...to my past." Nichiren suddenly dashed headlong towards the end of the pier.

"Hey, what--" started Maji, but by the time she could have grabbed for the wolf-girl, she was already at the end of the pier, hurling the bejewled sword out across the ocean as hard as she could throw it. It shot into the air like a bolt of lightning, spinning end over end as it hurtled across the waves.

Nichiren crouched, hands on knees, watching it fall. In a space of a second, she saw how beautiful the sword was, how the light caught the jewels on the hilt, how fine the metalwork was. She thought about how much time it must have taken to craft such a sword, to forge the blade, folding the metal time and time again so that it gained the tensile strength necessary to keep the sword from breaking even under the most brutal battle conditions. She thought about the delicate braided silk wrapped around the hilt, how underneath sat the tang end of the blade, inscribed with the names of the swordmakers; master artisans who died multiple thousands of years ago--whose spirits must reside within the sword itself.

In short, she was throwing a priceless Japanese national treasure into the ocean.

Because she was depressed.

In that second, Nichiren began to feel very, very stupid.

"NO!" she cried, stretching out her hand as if the sword would hear and return to her. "I shouldn't have done that! DAMN IT!" She swore, cursing her impetuousness as she watched the blade-edge slice into the water.

Behind her, Nichiren was tangentally aware of the sound of booming jet engines. A blur of black metal and chrome suddenly swooped over her, hovered over the ocean for a second, and punched through the water's surface, kicking up steam and surf as Maji's Flightsuit got its first ever underwater test. "Maji, don't!" Nichiren called, but it was too late. She had already submerged herself under the waves, and was no longer visible.

Several very long seconds later, Maji burst from the water, the Flightsuit's jets sputtering and coughing. Gray smoke wafted from the power pack as Maji touched down on the edge of the pier, coughing and wheezing. "Hey, why didn't you tell me how bad this water tastes!" she hacked, crouched over and spitting out a bucketfull of ocean water. "S' awful! Blecch! Eeyugggh! Anyway, here." Maji tossed Nichiren a familiar-looking sword, now tassled with a streamer of seaweed.

"Maji..." Nichiren was shocked. "How did you...but you didn't have to...thank you!"

"Don't mention it," said Maji, shaking water out of the Flightsuit's nooks and crannies. "It's what friends do. And since you're going to be a courier...we're like partners too now, right?" Maji offered her hand to Nichiren.

Nichiren looked at her hand for a minute, and shook it firmly. "Right!" Nichiren smiled, warmly. She was starting to feel better already.

"Right! Well, let's get back to HQ. C'mon, I'll give you a ride," said Maji, indicating the Flightsuit.

"Are you sure you can fly?"

"Affirmative. Internal engine systems are five by five. Controls are good to go. Me personally, I'm a little waterlogged but otherwise ship-shape." She gave Nichiren a thumbs-up and a toothy, confident grin. "Ready?"

"Yes--but first, there's something else I need to do. Can you take me to the Imperial Palace in Kyoto? I have a plan!" Nichiren hopped into Maji's arms.

"Can do, partner!" Maji hit the jets. She and Nichiren lifted off into the sky. "To the Imperial Palace!" Maji shouted excitedly.

"Uh...Maji-san..."

"Yes!"

"Do...you know where it is? I can't remember how I got there this morning. Or, ah, how I got to the river, for that matter." Nichiren winced sheepishly.

Maji rolled her eye. "Right. To a gas station! To buy a map!" She flew lower.


-----


The young man sat comfortably on his futon and sipped his green tea in the paper-lined room.

The tri-d television display in the corner played the news at a comfortably low volume. The reporter was talking about the shocking and bizarre happenstances of the past twenty-four hours; how the massive blobs of purple slime had disappeared almost as quickly as they had arrived, about the battle outside and within Miramoto Tower, and the dissolution of the Miramoto business empire. Overnight, one of Japan's largest employers had simply--well, not simply, but suddenly--ceased to be. Tens of thousands were out of work. Allegations of dangerous weapons programs developed by Miramoto Corp. to have been sold to other countries worldwide--most of them unfriendly to each other, and Japan--had begun to surface, as well as rumors of strange genetic experiments conducted on human beings and Jumpers; among others. Perhaps, the young man mused, it is for the best that Miramoto is no more. If these allegations are true; Yosuke Miramoto truly was an evil man. And yet...the absence of his empire will bring an economic crisis to Japan, causing the people great suffering.

The young man sighed and leaned back, staring at the ceiling. He clicked off the tri-D display and tried to think. No spark of inspiration came to him, no sudden realization of a way to fix things. He considered praying to his ancestors for guidance; but in his private thoughts the young man often doubted that his ancestors even listened to him.

Later that day, he knew; his advisors would brief him on the situation, glossing over the fine details; and would take time to reassure him that the Prime Minister had the situation well under control. Once again, he would be handed a prepared speech to give on television, be forced to wear a suit and tie, and to lie to his people; stressing calmness of action, stability, and the importance of not losing face. Once again, he would return to his quarters and fail to sleep, quivering on top of his silken sheets like a frightened child, wondering how he had let his people down once more. Once again he would cry out for his medication in the middle of the night, sending servants scurrying into his chambers. The next day he would be bedridden with fear and pain.

How I wish...the young man thought, contemplating his hands. How I wish I were stronger. So I could do more. How I wish they would at least let me try to be an Emperor to my people. How I wish that, just once, I could take charge and help my country...just once.

A sudden noise outside his chamber--a crash of splintering wood, distant shouts of the palace guards. Somewhere, a tinny alarm bell had begun to ring. "What's this?" said the young man, standing and going to the door; sliding it open. In the hallway of his private chambers, the inner security door was being rammed from the outside; the armor-plated metal door buckled and fell off its hinges with a thundering CRASH. In stepped two figures, obscured by a cloud of dust--he could see that one, the dark-haired woman, was wearing some sort of armored bikini, the other was some sort of monstrous wolf; walking on hind legs and toting a large sword. The young man swallowed hard and began to sweat, but did not run--he knew he must stand up to them somehow. And on top of that, nothing this interesting--not even becoming Emperor at 11 years of age, four years ago--had ever happened to him.

The demon-thing strode up to him, snarling. "Stand aside, boy! We seek the Emperor!"

"I...I am..." The young man tried to stop his shaking, finally gathering up all his courage in a single shout. "I AM the Emperor! And how dare you enter my quarters like this!"

"Eh?" The demon-thing seemed to shrink and shift, changing itself into a confused-looking young woman with fuzzy wolf-ears and canine facial features. "Oh...my Lord, please forgive us!" She instantly prostrated herself on the ground with her forehead to the floor. "A thousand apologies! We did not know!" Her companion in black did the same. "We're sorry, your Highness. We only wish to speak with you," she said.

Immediately, a detatchment of guards burst through the door, shouting and brandishing their weapons. The young Emperor--whose eye had been caught by the wolf-girl's sword--raised his voice. "Stop! Do not shoot! You men, wait outside the door. These two wish to speak with me. I will call for you if I need you." Reluctantly, the Emperor's guards backed away, exiting the hallway. They hovered right outside, waiting for any sign of danger.

The young Emperor looked down at the two young women who had burst into his private chambers so rudely. He crossed his arms and attempted to sound imperious. "Well? I'm a busy man. Speak." His voice cracked, and he hoped they wouldn't notice.

"H--hai." Nichiren sat up, still kneeling, and cleared her throat. "Your excellency. My name is Nichiren Akane Hibiki. Long ago, I served your ancestor, the Empress Nii, and her son. I was their bodyguard and protector. While in their service, I attained this sword..." She presented the sword to the young man, one hand under the hilt and the other hand cradling the blade. "...which I greatly wish to return to its rightful owners, the ruling house of Nippon. I know that I am not worthy of your grace, oh my Emperor, but I hope that you will accept this meager gift in lieu of my servitude. I cannot be your protector, my Lord, but my dearest wish is that this sword serves you as well as it served me."

The Emperor took the sword from Nichiren, hefting its weight in his hand, admiring its beauty. "Interesting," he said. "Tell me, ookami-san; where did you come across the Muramasa?"

"The...Muramasa?" Nichiren's eyes boggled. "You mean...that's..."

"Yes. I recognize it from illustrations in our historical texts. It was lost to us sometime in the twelfth or thirteenth century--a large battle of some kind took place, and it was assumed that the sword was stolen by bandits, or possibly broken on the battlefield." The young man tilted the blade back and forth, watching the glints of light play across the mirror-like metal. "I am no expert on swords, but it seems not to have aged a day in almost a thousand years. Truly remarkable!" The Emperor looked down at Nichiren. "Ookami-san, I thank you sincerely for returning this treasure to us. Will you and your friend come with me, please?"

Nichiren and Maji stood and followed the young man as they walked into a longer hallway, which terminated in a single, vault-like door. The Emperor stepped up to a control panel on the door and keyed in a complex code. A small scanner aparatus emerged from the wall and completed a brief retina and handprint scan of the Emperor; then retracted. The door slid open, revealing that it was at least three feet thick. Inside, supported by earthquake-proof pylons and lined with bulletproof glass, stood hundreds upon hundreds of display cases containing the priceless riches of a nation--ancient scrolls, ornamental armor, jewelry, and thousands more pieces of dazzling antiquity. "You see, we recently recovered the scabbard of the Muramasa from an unearthed tomb in Kansai. Perhaps it was meant to be that the Muramasa itself would be returned to us at this time." He pressed his palm to a hand-scanner on the base of a display case, which swung open at his touch, and pulled out a beautiful hand-tooled leather scabbard. The young Emperor held up the scabbard and sword, and slid the two together. It was a perfect fit.

"Unbelievable!" said Maji.

"And to think...after all this time..." said Nichiren, her mouth slightly agape. "The mythical Muramasa, sword of ancient legends...all this time, I was carrying it with me. I can't get over that!"

The young Emperor smiled. "I wish to thank you both for bringing this sword to me. I understand now why you broke in. I hope you didn't hurt any of my men on your way here."

"Oh, no, your Highness!" chimed Maji. "At the worst, they're lightly stunned."

"That's good. To be honest, I keep telling our Head of Security that the Palace defenses need to be beefed up. Perhaps now that two young ladies burst into my most private chambers without firing a single shot, they'll take me seriously!" He laughed heartily, and Maji and Nichiren laughed with him.

They left the vault chamber together, the metal blast door slamming shut behind them. In the hallway beyond, the young Emperor stopped and rubbed his chin contemplatively. "Well...I suppose this is the custom for an Emperor who has recieved a great boon..." He shrugged. "And how often will I get to do this?" He turned towards the wolf-girl. "Nichiren Akane Hibiki! Kneel."

"Yes, my Lord," said Nichiren, without a trace of hesitation. She turned her eyes to the floor.

"For returning the Muramasa to the Imperial Vault, you may request one wish from the Emperor of Japan. Name one thing that a man may do or have or learn, between where the sun rises and sets in the whole of the Empire of Japan; and it shall be yours. You have my word..." The Emperor's voice trailed off as he looked down at Nichiren and blushed furiously--he could not stop his hands from reaching out and touching them. "Ah...so soft!"

Nichiren yipped under her breath as she felt a slightly painful tugging. "Eh...my Lord...what are you doing?"

The young Emperor was playing with Nichiren's wolf-ears, admiring their fine white fur. He tugged again. "Forgive me, ookami-san. They're real, aren't they?" For a moment, he was a kid again, innocently playing. "I couldn't help myself. They're so cute!" he laughed.

Nichiren stood, and without another word, wrapped her arms around the Emperor in a warm, soft hug. Maji gasped--even SHE knew that hugging the Emperor was an offense punishable by death. In her mind, she began calculating escape routes, and started wondering if there was a skylight nearby that she could fly through.

"This is all I want, my Lord;" Nichren said to the Emperor, still hugging him. "I just wanted to say goodbye, and...to thank you." She took a deep breath and sighed, finally feeling like she had closed the door on her past.

"Well...ah...then, uh...wish, ah, granted!" The young Emperor--slightly dazed--hugged Nichiren back.

Awkwardly, Nichiren and Maji said their goodbyes to the young Emperor, and left the palace. He walked out of his chambers to watch them go, giving his assistants orders to allow the two strange women to leave unharmed, and to repair the damaged door as soon as possible. In his hand, he still held the sheathed Muramasa, and it was that at which he gazed now; transfixed by its beauty and age. He slipped the scabbard into his sash and tightened his hakama. A new, calming resolve settled over him.

The young Emperor called over one of his advisors. "Gather the heads of Parliament, and bring together the leaders of the Economic Council. We must gather together in committee to plan for the upcoming economic crises."

"B-but sir," stammered the advisor, "The Prime Minister has stated that--"

"I care not what the Prime Minister has said! I wish to be fully briefed on the economic situation of Japan! Call them out now, and get the media involved as well!" He placed one hand on the hilt of the Muramasa. "I know I'm just a figurehead. I know I'm no world leader. But the people of my country deserve someone to stand up for them--someone strong to help lead them through adversity." He set his jaw. "There will be times of trouble ahead, but by the will of my ancestors, I will not let the people of my Empire suffer needlessly. They need me, now. And I shall not let them down."

Andy sat in an uncomfortable chair in the Isawa-Shoten infirmary, watching the medical monitors that surrounded Trixie's bed. Their mechanical bleeps, clicks and whirrs formed a backdrop of quiet noise that filled the white, sterile space of the room. Trixie's condition was stable, as were her vital signs--slow, but stable. And after twelve hours of surgery to close up her multiple gunshot and stab wounds, she now slept peacefully; her abdomen mummified in gauze bandages and IV drips placed in her arm.

They had all kept vigil in shifts for the past twenty-four hours, making sure that none of the monitors started flashing or howling, making sure that the EEG lines did not dip into the red. Joe had insisted on being first, and refused to leave her bedside until Maji returned with Nichiren and gave him a direct order to go get some shut-eye. Maji was next, then Michi; who--to everyone's surprise--did not complain. Nichiren had come, sat and talked softly to Trixie for seven hours straight; telling her old stories that Nichiren's mother had told her--stories long forgotten that were beginning to bubble up, unbidden, in her memory. She knew that Trixie could not hear her, but wanted to tell her anyway. After her, Keomi and Andy had stood watch together--she sat in his lap and idly ran her fingers through his blue, spiky hair as they talked quietly to each other in lover-speak; all the while keeping one eye on the patient.

Keomi had left about fifteen minutes ago. She had been ravenously hungry, and Andy insisted that she get something to eat and grab a nap if she felt like it. She had been reluctant to go, but her hunger--and Andy's insistence--won out. Now, with the room devoid of everything but the mechanical sounds of the machines keeping Trixie alive, Andy stared out into space; letting his mind clear itself of all his old nightmares. He was happy to let them go, emptying out his subconscious into the clean, white space of the infirmary. After all, it seemed as if there were new dreams ahead.

The EEG monitor stirred, bleeped. Trixie's eyelids fluttered, still clamped shut. She moaned, shifting her head a little.

Andy scooted his chair closely to the hospital bed. "Trix? Can you hear me?" He reached out and held her limp, clammy hand. "It's me, An--uh, 'Speed.'" He halfway-smiled.

Trixie made a questioning noise in her throat, slowly trying to form words with her mouth. "Sphh...sph...ss...speed?"

"Yeah. 'Speed.'"

She opened her eyes a tiny crack, unfocused and blurry. "Suh...spuh. SpeedBuggy." She managed a tiny, weak smile and attempted a raspberry. "Thbbt...t...thbt...b...bht."

Andy, confused and surprised, suppressed a laugh. "Did you say...'speedbuggy?'"

"Hanna Barbera...bef...before your time. S' a car that can...lick things." Trixie spoke slowly, trying hard to enunciate.

Oh good, thought Andy. she's delirious. "Trixie...how do you feel?"

She smacked her dry lips. "Driven."

"Driven?"

"Driven...like the snow....driven together....driven apart. Driven away to the west...a black dress..."

He rubbed Trixie's hand, trying to bring her back to reality. "Come on girl, stay with us. We nearly lost you, before."

Trixie's forehead wrinkled and she tried to stretch. "God...I had such...weird dreams. I had this one where I was...dead...and I was trying to get into the afterlife...and everybody I knew who was dead was in there, and I'm on the outside...looking in...and I forgot to make a reservation. They wouldn't let me in. I wasn't on the list, you know, it was...like a...a nightclub or something." Trixie swallowed painfully, her eyes opening for another second before clamping shut. "And I had this other dream where everybody was monkeys."

"Monkeys?"

"Yeah. Nichiren an' Maji an' Michi an' Joe and evverbody was monkeys, and I was a...penguin, I think. Yeah, penguin. Maybe a unicorn, I dunno. And you were there but you weren't a monkey...you were this little blue fetus-lizard-thing. And all the monkeys were throwing their poop at me."

"Um...wow."

"Yeah. Poop-throwin' monkeys, every last one o'them." Trixie chuckled painfully, as if remembering something funny. "An', oh yeah; I had this other crazy dream...it was like we were all in a building or something, and we were in a long hallway, and Unagi died. Got shot. Isn't that crazy? Imagine, somebody as fast as him. Gettin' shot. It's insane."

Andy's face went slack. He cupped his other hand around Trixie's and took a deep breath. "Um, listen...Trixie...that wasn't--"

Trixie squeezed Andy's hand as hard as she could, stopping him from finishing. "I know," she said, opening her eyes. "But if you knew what I'd give for that to have been a...dream...if you only knew." Her grip slackened. She locked her purple eyes on Andy's; and tried not to cry. "Did everybody else make it out okay?"

"Yeah. Yeah, they did. Except...uh...the wolf-guy. Nichiren said his name was Tatewaki. I guess...you two met. He didn't make it." Andy's eyes drifted to the floor. "Nichiren...she's pretty broken up about him."

"Dammit." Trixie closed her eyes again. "I really liked him, too. He seemed...good for her."

A moment of silence passed. As soon as Andy was sure that Trixie had passed back into sleep, she piped up--"Can I bum a cigarette off you?"

"Ah. No. I don't smoke. And aside from that, I don't think you should smoke right now, not in your condition."

"What, am I pregnant?" Trixie looked slit-eyed at Andy.

"Um...not according to your charts." Andy got closer to Trixie. "Listen, I should tell you what's happened here. They--the Isawa-Shoten surgeons--dug almost three pounds of lead slugs out of your body. You had so many injuries...stab wounds, entry wounds, exit wounds, broken ribs, severed arteries, you name it...none of us really thought you were going to make it. But..." He squeezed her hand without thinking about it. "On the operating table, your body sorta started knitting itself back together. Our doctors were able to put you back together and make you whole again, thanks to your regenerative ability. They say they've never seen anything even remotely like it."

"Yeah...that's the glam for you."

"I'm sorry...what?"

"Glam. Glamour. Magic...aw, forget it...nevermind. I'm just lucky...that's all."

"Yeah, well...I'll accept 'lucky' for now. I've been there."

"I get any scars?"

"Nope. Not a one. From what I understand, your external wounds healed as beautifully as your internal ones did."

Trixie made a sour face. "Damn."

"What, you wanted scars or something?"

"Yeah. Chicks dig scars." Trixie flashed Andy an weakly enigmatic smile. Before he could respond, she continued. "So...mister speedbuggy...what I wanna know is, did she say 'yes?'"

"Did...who say...huh?"

"Don't play stupid...did she say 'yes?'"

"You mean..." Andy blinked. "Keomi?...Yeah, well...not exactly. She sorta said 'yes,' but not directly...it's hard to explain. How did you...?"

"Please. Figure it wasn't obvious. Figure that bulge in your pocket this entire time just happens to look like a Tiffany's wedding band box. Figure you weren't glad to see me the first time I noticed it...and figure what I got a peep at when you were in bed the other morning didn't fit the description. See what I'm getting at, Sparky?"

Andy's face grew red, setting off a nice contrast between his skin and his hair. "Uh...uhm...well, I, uh..."

"Hey." Trixie opened her eyes again, looked at Andy. "Good for you. Good for you both. I hate to spoil the suspense for you here, but I have a good feeling she'll say yes. And I know you two'll be happy together. I can usually tell these things...usually." She tossed him a lopsided smile. "Hang onto her tight, speedbuggy. And make sure she hangs on to you right back. Okay?" She sniffed a little.

"Yeah...okay." Andy smiled back and squeezed her hand.

By about that time, Keomi had walked back and glanced in the room to see that Trixie was awake and alive. In a few minutes, the exuberant catgirl had roused the entire team, who arrived with warm welcomes back to the land of the living, and wishes for a speedy recovery. Joe offered to give Trixie a piggyback ride down to the cafeteria for black coffee and cigarettes; an offer that she almost didn't refuse. Maji told her how the Devilbunnies had begged her to ask Trixie to become their new BossBunny--apparently, ever since the rabbit-faced Mistress Tira had retreated in shame after having been defeated; the gang had been without a leader. Trixie declined that too, though a little more forcefully; managing a chuckle. Michi congratulated her on being alive; Trixie extended the same congratulations back to Michi. And Nichiren solemnly presented Trixie with Unagi's katana and wakizashi, recovered from the wreckage of Miramoto Tower--she propped them up on a chair next to the bed, where Trixie could look at them. After a few minutes of cheerful banter, hand-squeezes and kisses on the cheek, the team filed back out of Trixie's room; leaving her alone to get some rest.

The lights dimmed now; Trixie turned her head to look at Unagi's swords. The lacquered wooden scabbards gleamed bleakly in the low fluorescent light. They seemed to Trixie to be fixed, inanimate objects, locked in time and space--as dead and as unmovable as fossils set in stone, without their owner's hands to guide them. They might as well stay propped up on the infirmary chair for the remainder of all time--without Unagi, the swords were useless. Nothing was left behind but a wisp of memory and spirit to tell the world that these had once been the tools of a master; an artist whose canvas was the dry, dusty roads and barren fields of Old Nippon; his paint the blood of demons and evil men.

"Hey," she croaked, talking to the swords. "I thought...for a while there...you weren't going to be like all the others." Trixie's eyes began to flutter closed. "But you were, Unagi. You're just like everyone else I've ever loved..." Her eyes shut, Trixie was drifting off to sleep. "They all went away...they all left me alone."

A black shroud descended upon her, and Trixie floated deep into darkness.
 
     
 
berus_roth 
  teadee
 
04:58pm 01/05/2004
  "Looks like the sun's coming up," Andy remarked casually as he peered eastward through the MegaTokyo skyline. High above him, a blue-black sky brightened to the dark gray of fast-moving storm clouds which had long since spent their watery cargo.

"Storm's breaking up as well," Keomi replied, stifling a yawn.

Careful to avoid the dripping oil pan and the exposed, greasy front axle of their adopted overturned police car, Andy shifted in his crouch, fishing a small green, red and white package from his jacket pocket.
"Tomato Pretz™?"

Flicking a small shard of broken safety glass from her black pleated skirt, Keomi turned and arched an eyebrow.
"For breakfast?"

One of the salty tomatoey pretzel sticks, already halfway devoured, was clenched between Andy's teeth. He grinned back and tossed her the package while munching down the rest of his pretzel.

"The cops haven't shot at us in a while. I wonder..." said Andy as he peered around the police car's front bumper. The action drew a few poorly aimed shots from the nearest officers.

Andy jerked his head back and ducked behind the shelter of the overturned police cruiser. Keomi just laughed and pointed a pretzel stick at him.

"Hush, you," Andy snapped, mildly embarrassed. "Eat your breakfast."

A damp silence settled over the street once more. Warm sunlight fell on Andy's face. Sitting in the street, he busied himself refilling the clips of his and Keomi's borrowed police pistols, while beside him his girlfriend happily devoured the rest of the Tomato Pretz™ sticks.

Suddenly, above them, the Miramoto Tower began to shake. A low rumble filled the air.

"What the hell...?" Andy grumbled under his breath, craning his neck to see what was causing the disturbance. Unable to discern any change in the outside of the Tower, he glanced back to Keomi and was immediately concerned. The cat-girl's ears drooped noticeably and the fur on her tail bristled.
"Keomi?" He asked, worried by her appearance and the memory of her professed bond with Yosuke Miramoto.
"Keomi, are you-"

"He's dead," she said flatly.

In a flash, Andy was beside her. He held her by the shoulders and looked into her glassy, unfocused eyes. Her announcement should have been a relief, but for Andy it just reminded him of Keomi's ordeal during her abduction by Miramoto. Andy shook her, trying to snap her back to herself.
"Keomi? Keomi!" He shouted, then slapped her lightly on the cheek.

Her eyelids fluttered, then two golden catlike eyes narrowed and focused on the blue haired man with a very worried expression.

"He is dead, Andy. I..." Keomi, paused, holding a hand to her chest.
"I felt it."

Her expression almost mirrored that of her boyfriend. The sensation and the fact that she was aware of the moment of Miramoto's death frightened and confused her. Her heart beat faster and she felt it through her blouse. Her right hand tightened, gripping a handful of the white material as her eyes searched Andy's face for reassurance or comfort of some kind.

"It... It will be okay, Kitten." Andy squeezed her shoulders and forced a smile to his face.
"I promise."

Keomi tried to smile, but the effort faltered. Tears began to well up in her eyes. She felt the tears coming and wanted to stop them, wanted to will them away, but she could not stop them. Hot and wet, they filled her eyes and blurred her vision. Fear rushed through her like an icy flood in her mind.

Before her, holding her and looking into her watery eyes, Andy knew what it was that caused them. The same fear, the same concerns had been in his mind from the moment Miramoto's alterations to Keomi had appeared. Now, crouching behind the police car, Andy saw that Keomi shared these same fears. He saw, and knew what he had to do.

What did he do to me? Am I still the same person I was? I'm a monster! He twisted my mind and my body. I'm different now. How can he still see me the same? He can't. He..

Lost in a swirling vortex of doubt and panic, Keomi never saw it coming. The kiss, though unexpected, was familiar and warm. It was so simple an act, yet it washed all her fear away. In that one act, with that one kiss Andy spoke volumes to her.

You are the same. You are Keomi. You are my Keomi and I love you just the same.

Their lips parted. Her tears dried. Their fears evaporated and the doubts were washed away. Keomi finally returned Andy's smile. There, in the rainsoaked street they sat, confident in their unbreakable love while above them a cloud formed.

It was Keomi who saw it first, looking up to see why the morning sun no longer fell on her face. She saw it and smiled in relief.

"Andy, look." She gestured skyward. "The suyakkui is breaking up. It's over."

Breaking his gaze away from the woman he loved, Andy glanced up at Miramoto Tower. He saw the dark brown clouds moving out from the building and thinning away into the sky. Watching them, he slowly realized what he was seeing. Not smoke, not some kind of gas, not clouds at all; they were huge swarms of flying cockroaches.

Andy's left eye twitched. His face went pale and he fainted dead away, falling face first onto Keomi's skirt.

Looking down at him, she smiled softly. Andy's irrational fear of insects never failed to amuse her. She ran her fingers through his short blue hair and sighed contentedly.

"Even after all of this," she whispered to herself. "I guess we really are still the same."

"Hold your positions, you cowards! I want containment of that alleyway! You! Get that barracade back up!" Chief Inspector Masamichi Mizuhara bellowed. Even without the aid of his trademark white and red bullhorn, Chief Mizuhara's thunderous voice would have reached the ears of every man stationed at Miramoto Tower that day.

Gesturing forcefully with his free hand, the Chief stabbed a commanding finger at one officer, then another, issuing orders and restoring a small measure of discipline to the mostly confused and frightened police still surrounding the huge edifice. From a pocket of his well worn brown trenchcoat, the Chief withdrew his already cocked and loaded snub nosed revolver and fired two shots into the air.

"Dammit men! Show a little courage! You!" He pointed his gun at a nearby officer.
"What would your ancestors think of you running away from a bunch of purple goo?! You! And you!" The snubnosed pistol waved wildly in his hand, sweeping across the crowd of police near Chief Mizuahara.
"How will you face your families tonight? Eh?!"

"And you!" The Chief pocketed his gun and grabbed a passing policeman by his collar.

"Y-yes, sir?" the young man stammered.

Dropping his bullhorn to his side and pulling up the collar of his trenchcoat, the Chief growled an order.

"Get those damn roaches off my car."

Behind them, the chief's white Toyohara G-9000 sports car was covered by a moving, crawling layer of brown roaches. The young policeman swallowed hard, holding his baton with two shaking white-gloved hands.

"Y-ye-yes sir.."

As the officer moved off to clean his car of its multi-legged hitchikers, Chief Mizuahara raised his bullhorn to his mouth again and called out.

"Where the blazes is our backup?!"

"Backup, Andy?" Keomi whispered as she and her boyfriend peered cautiously around the bumper of their overturned police car.

Andy, still not fully recovered from the sight of all those cockroaches, did not answer right away. A quick bop on the head from Keomi brought his pale, and still twitching face back to hers.

"Backup?" she repeated.

Andy pressed his eyes shut and swallowed hard forcing himself to calm down. He opened his eyes slowly.

"Could only be one thing, Ke-ke," he replied solemnly.

"No," she gasped. "You don't mean..."

The sound of men's voices shouting in joy and relief drew them both back to their bumper and they again looked carefully around to see what was causing the uproar.

"It's them!" One officer shouted.

"We're saved!" Another yelled, waving his arms at an oncoming vehicle, still concealed within the long shadows of the morning.

"They're here!" Added an old veteran cop with gray whiskers.

"They're awesome!" A younger counterpart shouted.

"They're the best!"

"They are so cute!!" Almost every officer sighed in unison.

From the depths of the shadows, a lone vehicle rumbled. A massive armored urban assault vehicle, it's huge tank treads crunched the pavement beneath them and the barrel of it's long cannon pointed the way towards Miramoto Tower.

Atop the rolling earthquake stood two very special operatives of the MegaTokyo Police Special Urban Combat Division. Their silhouetted forms were hard to make out at first.

"Can you see them? Can you see them?" A young officer asked frantically as he tried to peer over the shoulders of taller men in front of him.

"Wow! I wish I'd brought my camera. Akai is sooo cute!"

"What?? No way! Seiran is the cutest!"

"You're both crazy! Masshiro-chan is cuter than both of them!"

"Baka!"

"What did you say?!"

"Seiran!"

"Masshiro-chan!"

"Akai!"

"Masshiro-chan!!"

"I kill you!"

The crowd of police quickly degenerated into a brawling mob of men shouting the names of three mysterious young women.

Andy, satisfied with what he had seen, and well aware of what approached them, slumped back behind the car.

"Yep," he sighed. "It's the HardBodies."

"Here." Andy tossed his leather jacket to Keomi and offered her one of the two pistols they had at their disposal.

"What's this for, Andy?" Keomi asked, holding the bulletproof garment in her arms.

Andy stood up, looking without fear over the top of their overturned police car. Though she did not fully understand why he was taking such a risk, Keomi followed suit and gazed out at the sea of police, all clamboring to get close to the huge tank and its passengers.

"I don't get it, Andy. It looks like a tank with two schoolgirls on top of it."

Scratching her head in confuion, Keomi turned to Andy. He smiled.

"Clever bastards." Turning away from the pitiful display of rampant fanboy-ism, Andy cleared his throat and explained the genius of the MegaTokyo Police's HardBody unit.
"See, Kitten, statistics tell us that the vast and overwhelming majority of violent criminals are young to middle-aged men. Put the jacket on, honey."

The catgirl nodded, donning Andy's special armored jacket as he continued his exposition.

"The cops figured that the best way to combat these angry men was to confront them with that which they find most attractive; the thing that turns all men into drooling, clueless idiots."

Keomi furrowed her brow and chewed her bottom lip in a very effective unspoken Huh?.

"Really hot women in schoolgirl outfits!" Andy declared, sweeping his arm towards the police and pointing at the two figures perched atop the assault vehicle.

"Aaaoooohhhhhh... I see." Keomi nodded, then frowned. "I guess. But what-"

"There's Akai, the hand-to-hand combat expert, in her trademark black and gray pleated skirt and red blazer."
As she watched him, Keomi could not ignore the slight glimmer in Andy's eyes as he described the three members of the HardBodies team. The fur on her tail bristled.
"And Seiran, the weapons expert. See? She's the one in the blue sailor fuku holding the minigun."

"So where's the third?" Keomi growled, not so much curious as annoyed.

"Masshiro-chan? Ah, she's the driver." Andy's eyes took on a dreamy, far away look as he spoke about the last HardBody.
"I've never actually seen her, but I've heard that she is the best-looking of them all. She wears an oversized white sweater and short white skirt."
He turned to his girlfriend, grinning.
"See, she almost never gets out of the tank becau- ghyuuurrckt..."

His voice trailed off in a strangled choking sound as Keomi grabbed his shirt collar and lifted him from the ground with it.

"Sounds like you really like these girls, Andy. Maybe you wanna just go over there and join them, huh?"

Keomi's ears were flat back against the sides of her head and her eyes glowed with a golden, jealous rage that Andy had never seen before. He felt fear, cold and terrifying, deep within his soul.

"Nuhngg-hhnng, Nuuuhngg-uhhng!" he gurgled through the choke hold, waving his hands in innocent protest.

With a Humph! Keomi released him and dropped him to the wet pavement. She folded her arms over her chest and turned her back on him, nearly slapping him with her tail.

"Jeeze, babe! What the hell?"

"You tell me, mister... mister... HardBody-lover!" Keomi snapped.

He was beside her, squeezing her shoulder and smoothing down her red-violet hair.
"Aw, no way, kitten! You gotta be kidding me. I mean, sure they're cute and all..."

Andy heard Keomi growling again and her ears flattened out once more.

"But they're robots, babe! I mean, I like high tech toys as much as the next extraterrestrial grease monkey, but I prefer flesh and blood to cold steel."

Andy grinned.

"Really?" the catgirl giggled, suddenly happy again.

"You betcha," he replied.

Keomi's elbow jabbed him in the guts and knocked the wind out of him.

"I'm still mad at you, mister. You better have one heck of a plan for getting us out of here if you ever plan on getting any of my 'flesh and blood' again." She stomped her foot, then faltered.
"Uh... wait. That didn't come out right."

"Gotcha, "Andy chuckled, rubbing his stomach.
"You want plan? I got plan. C'mere."

He motioned Keomi closer and began whispering in her fuzzy ear. As she listened, her tail twitched and her expression cycled through a series of emotions ranging from confusion to disbelief and finally eager excitement.

A few moments later, wearing Andy's leather jacket and a big toothy grin, Keomi strolled casually from behind their overturned police car and headed towards Andy's red sports car at a leisurely pace. As she walked, her eyes were closed and she hummed a happy tune from her childhood.

Watching her go, Andy could not contain a self-congratulatory grin at his own genius. The plan was perfect. It depended on only two things. The first was timing. Andy had to be in the right place at the right moment and make his move on Keomi's signal. The second crucial element was even more important. If this second, key piece of the plan faltered even for a second it would spell certain death for both himself and his girlfriend. It was the thing on which the entire maneuver depended. It was Keomi's sex appeal.

The catgirl moved, unnoticed, from the overturned police car to Andy's sports car. As she walked, she cast a sideways glance at the throngs of police drooling and fawning over the newly-arrived HardBodies unit. From the fanboy cops, Keomi turned her gaze to the large shiny black tank in the center of their ranks. She focused in on the two petite figures atop the rolling armored vehicle, each dressed in its trademark colored schoolgirl outfit. Keomi's eyes glimmered with a predatory glow.

Over the drone of adoring male voices, her sharp ears could pick out individual shouts of praise.

"Oh Akai! You're the best!"

"Oh Seiran! You're my hero!"

"Oh Masshiro-chan! Won't you come out and play?"

Keomi gritted her teeth, grimacing in disgust at the pathetic display. Even as she reached the car, she could not help but make a few mocking comments under her breath.

"Oh Robo-chan... you're so freakin' pretty. Oh Toaster-chan, won't you sign my forehead? Ooooooooh Aluminim Can-chan... Blech!"

The catgirl carefully reached her right arm throught the broken driver's side window and placed her hand on the center of the sports car's steering wheel. She looked again at the tank and two robot policewomen and their frothing pile of fan. Keomi hissed between her teeth.

"Pathetic."

With that, she leaned down on the steering wheel, blowing the red car's horn. The piercing atonal sound pierced even the swirling cloud of adulation surrounding the police and their HardBodies crew.

During the brief, drowning monotone of the sports car's horn, every single pair of eyes in the vicinity of Miramoto Tower turned and fixed itself on the violet haired catgirl causing the auditory disturbance.

As the sound slowly faded into echoes drifting away down the deserted MegaTokyo streets, one single cry rose up from the police ranks. One single thought, shared by all, was given voice. In unison, they cried out.

"WHAT??!!??"

Somewhere near the front of their ranks, a young policeman weakly wondered aloud.
"Uh... Hey! Isn't that one of the escaped suspects?"

Suddenly, the entire assembly of officers was buzzing.

"What? Her?"

"Is it? I can't see her very well."

"Who? That girl? An escaped suspect?"

A cop on crutches shook his fist in the air.
"She shot me in the knee!"

"She kicked me in the face!"
Another officer, one who had been unfortunate enough to be standing next to Keomi when she and Andy made their daring escape from the immobile sports car, chimed in.

"She's the one!"

"That's her!" The cry went up.

"She's the escapee!"

"She's cute!!"

"Whaa..?" Everyone turned to see who had made the last comment. It seemed to come from right next to each of them, yet from nowhere at all. It was a mysterious voice which had no face.

Keomi smiled. Right on cue, darling.
Still grinning widely, the curvaceous catgirl strolled from beside the sports car. She moved slowly, deliberately swinging her hips as she walked. Her short black skirt danced around her legs like a puppet on a string responding to Keomi's carefully calculated movements.

Slowly at first, a new murmor filtered through the police ranks.

"Cute?"

"Where? Is she really?"

"I can't see her very well. Is she cute?"

"Wow! She is cute!"

"Sure is!"

Standing beside the HardBodies' tank, Chief Inspector Masamichi Mizuhara grabbed the binoculars from a nearby S.W.A.T. member, choking the man with its strap. A slight blush came across his face as she stared up and down the fugitive catgirl's figure.

Keomi ran a hand through her long, flowing red-violet hair and stepped casually in front of Andy's red sports car. She cast her gaze upon the center of the police ranks, eyelashes fluttering coyly.

Then, in a sudden dramatic move, she lifted her right leg and slammed her foot down onto the pavement. Her tennis shoe dug into the black gravelly surface and slid out to the side. Keomi took up an agressive, wide stance and planted her fists firmly on her hips.

Various "Oooh"'s and "Aaaah"'s went up from the police audience. A soft breeze blew. Keomi's long hair and short skirt floated playfully on the wind and the catgirl flashed a broad, defiant sneer. There was a moment of palpable silence, where there was no sound; no movement save Keomi's red-violet hair and black pleated skirt.

The moment passed.

"So!" Keomi shouted. Her voice echoed off of the skyscrapers and filled the area surrounding Miramoto Tower.
"You boys think those three robot girls are pretty cute, eh? Think they're sexy?"

Before anyone could reply, the striped-tailed catgirl cut loose with a long, hearty laugh. The mocking sound continued for what seemed like an eternity to the police. Small tears formed in Keomi's eyes, so intense was her merriment.

With startling abruptness, Keomi's laughter stopped. She stabbed a finger at the police, pointing directly at the HardBodies and their tank.
"Those tin cans don't even know the meaning of the word sexy!"

Gasps of horror and shock rose up from the assembled police. Each man turned to his fellow officers, astonished and full of disbelief at what he had heard.

"How dare she?"

"Not sexy? Masshiro-chan?"

"What gall!"

"What nerve!"

"What a body!!" Again the mysterious voice cried out above the rest. Again every man searched for its source, but came up empty.

Standing defiantly in front of the sports car, Keomi again smiled to herself. Your plan seems to be working. Lucky for you.

During all of this, the two visible members of the HardBodies unit stood silently still on top of their tank. They stared with unimpressed expressions at the upstart catgirl before them. To the trained observer, however, the android policewomen's faces plainly declared their impression of thier slanderer. There was one shared thought on their electronic minds: Bitch.

Within the police ranks, more men turned to Keomi's cause. Praise of her figure, her features, her hair and her dramatically striped fur rose from the lips of the newly-converted.

A schism quickly formed within the police ranks. More and more men began to speak treasonous thoughts against the HardBodies members. Faced with the sight of Keomi, men were swayed from the true path, saying that this violet-haired catgirl might be more attractive than the special police squad. The argument became heated. The cops quickly came to blows.

Officer turned on officer. Men weilding batons and orange hazard cones waged battle with one another over who was more attractive. The hardcore HardBody fans battled their misguided coworkers who fought under the new catgirl's banner. All seemed ready to degenerate into chaos.

"God dammit! Cut this crap out right now!!"

Red and white bullhorn in hand, Chief Inspector Masamichi Mizuhara stood atop a police cruiser and fired his snub nosed revolver into the air.
"You pathetic excuses for police officers! You disgrace yourselves! Control your emotions! Get a grip!!"

Slowly, the fighting subsided. There were still a few muffled shouts of loyalty, however.

"Akai-chan."

"Neko-chan. Neko-chan!"

"HardBodies forever!"

In front of Andy's red sports car, Keomi began laughing again. She did not stop until all eyes were on her once more. Silence fell on the scene. As everyone watched, Keomi formed her right hand into a fist. Her eyes closed tight and she set her teeth in a determined grimace. Her head was bowed in classic lone-warrior-against-the-world fashion.

"There is only one way to decide this matter," she stated firmly. Never raising her head or opening her eyes, Keomi stood. She seemed to be focusing deep within herself.

In the air surrounding her, a strange pink aura of light started to glow. Mysterious wind swirled around her body, lifting the edges of her skirt and tossing her long red-violet hair. The corner of her mouth twitched.

Keomi's golden eyes flashed open. Brilliant rays of violet energy seemed to shoot from her body. Her voice rang out.

"Let's FIGHT!!"

"Fai-to! Fai-to! Fai-to! Fai-to!" In the courtyard and street surrounding Miramoto Tower, the cry went up. Policemen of every age chanted and pumped their fists in the air.

"Fai-to! Fai-to! Fai-to! Fai-to!" Hastily-constructed banners waved in the breeze. Sporting the painted characters for Akai, Seiran, Masshiro-chan and Neko-chan, each declared the officers' support for their chosen warrior maiden.

"Fai-to! Fai-to! Fai-to! Fai-to!"

"A fight, Chief Inspector?" Akai's synthetically sweet voice asked. The android officer's green glassy eyes blinked in affected confusion as she addressed her superior.

Chief Inspector Mizuhara grinned widely, giving the robotic girl a thumbs-up sign.
"You got it!"

Standing beside her fellow HardBody, Seiran held her minigun in one hand. She lifted her left thumb to her lip and nervously chewed the nail.
"But sir," her artificially timid and youthful voice spoke up.
"Our physiognomic configuration is not optimized for engaging female opponents."

Inspector Mizuhara's eyes pressed closed as he offered up a full-face-smile. Patting the blue-clad Seiran softly on the head, he replied.
"I have no idea what the hell that means. Good luck!"

"But sir!" Akai interrupted. "This is against protocol. The HardBodies Unit is only supposed to be deployed against men! What about procedure? What about-"

"Procedure be damned, little robot girl! This fight isn't about protocol or any of that other crap!"
Chief Inspector Mizuhara's eyes took on a far away look. His brow furrowed and he made a dramatic pose, pointing off in a random direction with great enthusiasm.
"This fight is about honor! Now! For the honor of the MegaTokyo Police Department, into battle!"

Twin sweatdrops formed on the temple of each of the two HardBody members beside him. They sighed unenthusiastically, and replied in unison.

"Hai."

Turning together, the red-clad Akai and her gun-toting comrade Seiran faced their opponent. A hundred meters away, Keomi had taken a seat on the hood of Andy's red sports car and was reclining leisurely as she awaited the coming fight.

Keomi pretended to stifle a yawn. She sized up the competition, remembering what Andy had told her about the members of the HardBody team. Even as she watched the robotic cops prepare to attack, the catgirl could not shake the nagging voice in the back of her mind.

I wonder if the others in the Tower are okay... I wonder if they will make it out... And what about Joe? Maji? Where are they?
A soft wind blew a few red-violet strands of hair across Keomi's face. She absentmindedly brushed them aside.
Andy said he still couldn't reach any of them with his radio... Is there some kind of interference... or are they...? No! They will make it out! And it's up to us to make sure they have a ride home! These police bitches have got to go!!!

Somewhere in the sea of policemen, Andy slipped between men who were essentially incoherent as they rode the biggest testosterone high of their lives. Hiding his blue hair under a borrowed S.W.A.T. team cap and wearing a likewise nicked police jacket, Andy moved slowly towards his goal.

As the pre-fight excitement neared critical mass, Andy paused and tried the radio transmitter in his red-mirrored sunglasses. Tapping the arm of his glasses, he whispered.
"Joe? Trixie? Fortunato? Anybody? Michi, can you hear me?"

The only reply was static, nearly drowned out by the thunderous cheering of hundreds of eager cops. Andy sighed and continued his march towards the rear of the police ranks.
Just a little longer, Kitten, he thought. Almost got it.

Two petite figures moved out of the crowd of police and began to approach Keomi. The catgirl slid off the hood of Andy's car, never taking her eyes off of the two HardBodies.

On the left there was a girl with short black hair, cut in a bob which bounced as she walked. She had piercing green eyes and wore red sneakers, loose white socks, and a red blazer. The jacket was cut in the style of most high school uniforms, but in place of a school emblem it sported a golden seal of the MegaTokyo Police.

Akai was the hand-to-hand combat specialist. Keomi knew that most of the hard fighting would be against this robot. The catgirl's gaze shifted a few feet to the right.

Walking beside Akai was a taller robotic girl with long blonde hair, tied in twin pony tails on either side of her head. Seiran wore her trademark blue sailor fuku, loafers and short white socks. In her right hand she held a huge minigun. This robot's pale blue eyes narrowed menacingly as Keomi watched her.

Seiran was the munitions expert. The minigun she carried could fire twenty rounds of armor piercing bullets each second and held enough ammunition to take out a small army. Keomi could not help but envy the blue-clad android's arsenal. She was sure that the minigun was not the full extent of Seiran's hardware, though she could not quite guess where on her rather simply outfit the robotic officer might conceal any more weapons.

When the two HardBody members had closed to within fifty meters of the red sports car, they stopped. Akai slid her right hand through her short black hair and smiled coyly. Beside her, Seiran struck a seductive pose. She maneuvered her minigun behind her back with both hands, accidentally lifting her short blue skirt a few inches in the process. Letting a few strands of blonde synthetic hair drift across her eyes, the blue-eyed android blushed.

"Alright criminal!" Akai shouted. She pointed a dagger-like finger at Keomi and sneered.
"This... This is your last chance! Surrender or pay the price!"

As she watched the two artificial policewomen put on their little show, Keomi did all she could just to keep from laughing out loud. After Akai's demand, the catgirl placed two fingers against her forehead and looked as if the android's words were causing her actual physical pain.

"Oh, puh-leeeze..." she skoffed. Keomi laughed and placed her hands on her hips, striking a very sarcastic posture.
"Is this the part where you tell me you fight for love and justice, and that if I don't repent my evil ways you will punish me?"

Her golden eyes flashed. In one smooth movement, Keomi swiveled her hips and curled her tail around her legs. Angling her hips so that the breeze lifted her skirt playfully, she crossed her arms under her ample chest and hugged herself.

Thus posed, she winked at the two rather confused robots.
"Give it up girls," Keomi purred.
"You're dealing with a pro."

Behind the HardBodies, several policemen fainted away at the mere sight of Keomi's accentuated curves and uplifted bust. Grown men searched frantically for handkerchiefs with which to stifle embarrassing nosebleeds. It was apparent to the red and blue androids that they would have to rethink their strategy. Keomi had beaten them at their own game.

Farther away, beyond the throngs of rapidly overheating police officers, Andy slipped beneath a wooden barricade and made his way to a side street. Checking to make sure no one was watching what he was doing (as if that was even a possibility considering the live entertainment he had arranged) he walked slowly towards his goal.

Andy looked around the darkened street, and as he did he felt a strange kind of excitement. It was a warm fuzzy sensation, like butterflies in his stomach, and his heart was beating faster. Surrounding him were vehicles of every description, parked there by the officers who had responded to the emergency call at Miramoto Tower.

The blue-haired young man lifted the S.W.A.T. cap from his head and wiped a few beads of sweat from his brow.

There's a pursuit cruiser, he thought, taking inventory of the vehicles at his disposal. And a rocket bike... and an armored transport... and... and..

He was like a kid set loose in a toy store. Andy moved from police car to motorcycle to armored truck, sliding his hand across the smooth, cool metal surfaces of each. A goofy grin crept across his lips.

"I know... I know," he whispered to nobody at all.
"I wish I could just take you all home with me, but..."

Slowly, he narrowed his choices for the team's getaway vehicle. Andy assessed each for its acceleration, maneuverability and armor. Despite his deep-seeded need for speed, he knew he had to be practical in his decision. Finally, his red-mirrored gaze fell upon his final choice.

Andy smiled. "Come to papa."

"Suck hot lead, you fuzzy eared cat-bitch!" Seiran whipped her huge minigun from behind her back and filled the air with it's deadly hum. The bullets fired so quickly, one after the other, that there was no discernable sound for their individual discharge. There was just a constant, low pitched hum followed instantly by the sound of hundreds of bullets ripping apart pavement and bouncing loudly from the armored shell of Andy's red sports car.

The spot in the street where Keomi had been standing was blasted out of existance. A cloud of dust and gravel and debris exploded from the ground, and behind it onlookers could actually see the red sports car moving in response to the minigun's assault.

What they did not see was Keomi. The initial attack had been so quick, that most of the police were still getting over the shock and surprise by the time anyone realized that the violet-haired woman was nowhere in sight.

Turning their collective gaze to the two robotic women in the red and blue outfits, the police saw Seiran, still staring intently at where her gun was firing. It was the spot where Keomi had been. Glancing to Akai beside her, they noticed that the green eyed robot was staring not straight ahead, but straight up.

The catgirl had been a blur, even to the HardBodies' sophisticated visual sensors. Intent on unleashing a hail of blazing death, Seiran had not even been able to track her. Akai was not so distracted.

At the last second, Akai leapt aside, narrowly avoiding Keomi's counterattack. The catgirl slammed her fist into the ground where the black-haired robot had been standing. Pulling her fist from the pavement, Keomi smiled.

"Not bad." Her golden eyes flashed and she launched herself at Akai. Keomi's fist landed against the robot's right arm as it blocked her punch. The catgirl followed with a sweeping kick at the HardBody's head wich instead found her left arm. Blocked again, Keomi growled loudly.

A flurry of punches and elbows exploded between the two female fighters. Both landed a few blows, neither gave ground. Keomi took a fist in the jaw and tasted blood. In a burst of anger, she threw herself into a front flip and dropped the back of her right heel on top of Akai's head.

The catgirl could have sworn she saw the color fade from the android's green eyes, just for a moment. Keomi planted her feet again, preparing to press her attack. It was then that she noticed an eerie silence in the air.

The minigun... stopped. She thought. Since Seiran was no longer firing blindly at the sports car, Keomi reasoned that she must have been preparing a new attack. Just as the catgirl started to turn and investigate, she felt a stinging pain in her back.

[BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!]

Two more sharp pains followed the first, stabbing into her shoulders and side. Keomi's back arched reflexivly and she spun. She saw the minigun lying on the ground. Beside it, Seiran had produced two large pistols, one in each hand, and was aiming them right at Keomi's face.

[BLAM! BLAMBLAMBLAM!!]

Keomi threw her arms up a split second before the next round of bullets hit. The tiny metal projectiles struck her in the forearms, stomach and chest, but Andy's special armored jacket took most of the impact.

Little bitch! Keomi snarled in her mind. Gonna pay for that... good thing Andy gave me his jacket, though.

Crouching in the street, Keomi kept her arms up in front of her face, watching for Seiran's next move. Blonde pony tails drifting on the breeze, the blue-eyed robot reset her aim and prepared to fire again.

I think she's figured out my secret, Keomi reasoned as she watched the robot shift her aim.
At this range she won't have any problem taking out my knees or some other body part not covered by the jacket. Gotta time this just right.

Suddenly, from behind her, Keomi heard footfalls on the pavement. Without looking, she knew Akai had recovered from the kick to her head and was moving in for another attack. Keomi kept her eyes on Seiran. She waited, watching for the moment to act. Her heart beat once, pumping blood out into her body. The sound was like a gunshot in her mind.

NOW!

Seiran's fingers pulled against the triggers of her twin pistols, firing directly at the exposed areas of Keomi's head. Keomi did not hear the sound of the gunfire, did not see Akai as her fist punched the air where the catgirl had been crouched an instant before. She did not see Seiran's bullets rip into Akai's stomach and right leg.

Keomi was airborn, flying up and ahead, somersaulting towards her target. Behind her she knew Akai had taken the two bullets. The injury would slow the red-clad android down at the very least.

It'll give me time to deal with her friend, Keomi thought with a smile. Still turning her flip through the air, the catgirl reached behind her back and pulled two black metallic objects from the waistband of her skirt.

Her golden eyes flashed with deadly intent. Her fists gripped two pistols. Her lips pulled back in a smile.

Below the catgirl's falling form, Seiran stared up at her in stunned amazement. The blonde android stumbled backwards, trying to lock Keomi in her sights. The HardBody fired her pistols into the air, her bullets narrowly missing their target.

[BLAM! BLAM!]

Seiran watched Keomi pull her own guns from behind her back.

[BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!]

One of the android's bullets ripped a hole in Keomi's fluttering black skirt.

[BLAM! BLAM!]

Keomi winced as the last bullet caught her in the ribs. She shrugged the pain away, knowing that she would only have a bruise to show for it later on.

[BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! *click*]

As Keomi came down on her, Seiran fell backwards, landing on the pavement in a sprawl. The android levelled her guns at the rapidly approaching catgirl and squeezed their triggers again and again and again. Her robot brain registered the number of bullets each clip could hold. It counted each as it was fired. As the distance between the target and itself quickly approached zero, so too did the number of bullets in each gun.

Keomi landed with a double thud. Her feet solidly planted on each side of Seiran's body. She smiled widely, staring down at the prone robot girl in her blue sailor outfit.

Seiran's blue eyes did not go wide with fear. She did not cower, or cry out. She simply brought her guns to bear, pointing them straight at Keomi's face.

[*click* *click* *clickclickclick*]

The auditory input to Seiran's android brain told her that there were no more bullets in her guns. Her eyes stared up, unblinking, at the violet haired catgirl above her. She watched as Keomi slid her knees inside of Seiran's arms and then dropped down, pinning the robot's arms to the ground.

Keomi knelt above her and smiled sweetly. She pressed both of her guns under the robot girl's chin. Just before she pulled the triggers, she narrowed her eyes and growled.

"Bang."

Gasps of horror and shocked dismay erupted from the police ranks as they watched Keomi blast the blond android's head from it's shoulders. Grown men wept, falling on their fellow officers for support as the full impact of what they had witnessed made their legs go weak beneath them.

Keomi heard it all, and it made her smile.
Serves them right for getting all worked up over a robot. Maybe now they can go out and get a real girlfriend.

The catgirl chuckled, standing up slowly and turning back to where she knew Akai would be laying on the ground. She brought up her two guns, ready to finish off the second HardBody in similar fashion to her partner.

Now, she mused. Time for the oth-OWW!!

From out of nowhere, something hit her hands with incredible speed and force. Keomi felt the guns rip from her grip and heard them rattle across the pavement to the side. Before her eyes could focus, she felt something hit the side of her head. Very, very hard.

Keomi knew that she had gone airborn after the blow. She later realized that it had been someone's foot that caused her to go flying through the air. She blinked, finding herself face down on the pavement. Her head hurt and her eyes simply would not focus properly.

The sound of someone's footsteps beside her drew Keomi's eyes to the left and up. Standing over her she saw Akai, red blazer torn across the middle. A strange dark fluid dripped from her stomach and ran down her bare right leg.

The android was limping slightly, a result of the bullets she had taken from Seiran's guns. Akai reached down and grabbed Keomi by her right ankle. Squeezing hard enough to cause the catgirl real pain, the android spoke in a cold emotionless voice.

"You killed Seiran." Akai's green eyes stared with that same strange cold lifeless quality as she spoke.
"It is now time for you to scream."

With superhuman strength, the android Akai lifted Keomi with one hand gripping the catgirl's ankle and began to swing her around like a ragdoll. Spinning in one spot, the red-clad robot turned round and round so that she and Keomi resembled some sort of high speed windmill gone mad.

Keomi felt the blood rushing to her head as she tried to focus on the world as it blurred past her. She gritted her teeth against the pain in her leg, knowing that the android, driven by some kind of twisted revenge subroutine, was determined to hear her scream.

Head throbbing and feeling more than a little queasy, Keomi struggled against the force of her own momentum. That, coupled with Akai's iron grip on her ankle, was threatening to rip the catgirl in half. Finally, after realizing that a side-effect of Akai's attack resulted in her skirt being pushed up over her waist, Keomi did cry out.

Struggling to cover her exposed undergarments, Keomi let loose a piercing cry. Her eyes flashed with fiery anger and she kicked with her left leg, smashing the android policewoman's hand.

"Let! Go!!"

Her kick was powerful and accurate. Akai's grip was broken and Keomi flew off like a shot while the android fell backwards. The assembled police officers let out a gasp as they watched the violet-haired catgirl sail through the air and then smash through a nearby brick wall.

Akai pushed herself up and brushed a few strands of synthetic black hair from her green eyes to survey the aftermath of her attack. She expected to see the shattered stones of the flattened wall covered in Keomi's blood. They were not. A moment later, Akai watched as Keomi pushed herself up from the rubble and casually swiped bits of dust and stone from her jacket and skirt.

Their eyes locked. Keomi growled and her aura of pink energy filled the air around her. Akai balled her hands into fists. An electric blue spark of energy arced from her damaged midsection down her right arm.

Far off in the distance, a voice shouted.

"Kick her ass, Neko-chan!"

Keomi smiled, and both combatants hurled themselves bodily at one another. Akai attempted to sreamline her body, flattening out and launching herself at her enemy with one arm extended in a flying punch. Keomi ran towards her, leaping up at the last moment and leap-frogging over the robot's attack.

The catgirl's sneakers hit the pavement and she immediately pirouetted on one foot, lashing out with a series of spinning kicks. Akai dodged and blocked, ducking down and swiping Keomi's feet out from under her.

The two women grappled on the ground, pulling at each other's hair and clawing at each other's faces. They rolled across the paved courtyard and into the grass near Miramoto Tower. All the while, the MegaTokyo police cheered them on with shouts and whistles and thunderous applause.

Once in the grass, the bralwing female combatants kicked up a cloud of dirt and dust which quickly hid them from view. The only indication that the girls were still fighting was the continued production of dust and flying grass. The police audience grew quiet, waiting with bated breath to see who would emerge from the cloud victorious.

Moments passed. Finally, in a blur, both women shot upwards and away from the thinning dust cloud. Akai flew backwards, never taking her eyes from the backflipping Keomi.

As soon as her red sneaker hit the pavement, the robot policewoman was off like a shot. She became little more than a red blur as she rushed towards her opponent once again. Awaiting the attack, Keomi smiled. Wiping drops of sweat from her brow with the back of her hand, the catgirl retreated a few paces, trying to gauge the distance between herself and the speeding android.

Taking another step backwards, Keomi's tail felt something behind her. She glanced back.

Andy's car.

Directly behind her was the stalled red sports car, with it's shattered driver's side window. There was no time for the catgirl to find a way around the obstacle, however. Turning forward once more, she saw Akai. The robot girl was mere feet away, slicing through the air in a flying kick aimed at Keomi's knees.

Akai's kick landed with incredible force, but her foot did not find it's intended target. At the last moment, Keomi jumped up, kicking her legs out in a split to avoid the android's attack. Akai's foot slammed into the driver's side door of Andy's car. Sounding more like a gunshot than a kick, the impact pushed the car sideways several inches across the pavement.

Amazed that anyone could have had reflexes fast enough to dodge her strike, Akai staggered back a few paces before finding her footing. She looked up. There she saw Keomi, still performing her midair split. The catgirl's hands planted on the edge of the sports car's roof, just above the driver's side door.

She held the handstand for a few seconds, pulling her legs back together above her. Her fuzzy ears twitched, hearing Akai take a step towards her. Then, in a brilliant move, Keomi dropped her feet down in front of her. Her legs swung down through the sports car's open sunroof and she used the edge of the roof like a gymnast would use a horizontal bar.

Swinging through the sunroof, her feet then continued out the broken driver's side window. The last thing Akai's visual sensors saw before the world blurred away was the bottoms of Keomi's sneakers as they slammed into her face.

Her counterattack successful, Keomi finished her revolution around the driver's side window frame and resumed her handstand. Posing briefly, the graceful catgirl then cartwheeled down the edge of the car's roof. She landed behind the car, her face covered by an ear-to-ear smile.

Keomi pumped her fists in the air, laughing loudly.
"This is great! I haven't had this much fun in weeks!"

Several yards away, Akai struggled to lift herself up from the ground. Her arms trembled with the effort as synthetic muscles strained to their limits. The android turned her face towards Keomi, staring with the same glowing green eyes. Her lips curled in a snarl and a dark liquid streamed between her perfect white teeth, running down her chin and dripping profusely onto the pavement.

When the robot girl in the red blazer had finally found her feet again, Keomi began to hop up and down in anticipation. Her expression was eager. Her voice was filled with laughter.
"Woo-hoo! Alright! I thought I might have finished you off with that one, Toaster-chan. After they way your friend's head just popped right off, I didn't expect you to get back up."

The android did not smile. She wiped the blue-black liquid from her chin with her right sleeve and began taking shaky steps towards the cheery catgirl. When she spoke, her voice sounded even more artificial than before.
"My name is Akai, and you will find that my construction is much more durable than that of Seiran. I was built for hand combat. I have never lost a fight. You may rest assured that after my next attack, you will not be smiling."
In a rage, the android ripped her tattered red blazer off, revealing a white short-sleeved button down shirt and a large laceration across her stomach. Throwing herself into a run, Akai finished her threat.
"You will be dead!"

Giggling with sheer delight, Keomi backpedalled. She skipped away as Akai lashed out with blinding speed. However, Keomi was having far too much fun to stand still and fight. Instead, the catgirl began to run. Laughing and waving over her shoulder mockingly, she scampered about the courtyard. Leaping over the broken bits of the brick wall, skipping past the cheering policemen and somersaulting over Andy's sports car, Keomi led the android on a merry chase. She was always smiling, and always one step ahead.

Akai was beginning to lose patience. As Keomi planted her feet near the edge of the courtyard, the robot attacked with every ounce of speed and strength her body could generate. Keomi spun, watching with a grin as Akai's punch slipped past her.

Planting her right foot, Akai turned with a second punch, and then a third. Keomi swatted them all aside with ease. The robot policewoman's green eyes glowed even brighter as she drew her right fist back and let the fourth punch fly.

The android missed. Keomi pushed herself into the air and countered with a knee to the back of her opponent's head. There was a loud crack as knee hit skull. Keomi landed softly on one foot, eyes closed and grinning like a cheshire cat. Akai's face slammed into the courtyard's pavement, shattering the stone on impact.

Locking her hands behind her head, Keomi laced her fingers together and laughed.
"Hey Toaster-chan, I'm still not dead."

The catgirl playfully tapped Akai's limp form with her toe. She seemed genuinely disappointed with the robot did not respond.
"Oh well," she sighed. "I guess I broke her. tsk tsk tsk. Such a pity. Oh well, see you later, Toas-"





The world exploded into fire and deafening thunder and Keomi was blasted into the air. She felt the heat singeing the fur on her tail as she tumbled end over end. Her ears hurt from ringing so loudly. It was not until she finally slammed down on her back that she could tell which way was up.

"Aaaaaoouuwww..."

The catgirl struggled to open her eyes. Her mouth tasted like ash and blood. Whatever she had landed on was hard and smooth like metal. The simple fact that it had not been crushed by her impact told her still-spinning mind that it was some part of Andy's car.

She blinked her eyes open, rolling onto her side and trying very hard not to pass out. The world came into view, though it was very blurry at first. Keomi still could not hear anything over the ringing in her ears.

Despite that, she could feel the car vibrating beneath her. Something big was moving in her direction. It was close by. Slowly, Keomi began to piece together what had happened. Even before the strangely artificial female voice boomed into her ears, Keomi knew that she was dealing with the last HardBody.

I guess trying to blow people up is Masshiro-chan's way of saying 'hello', Keomi thought sarcastically as she tried to prop herself up on her elbow.

She was on top of Andy's car, lying just behind the sunroof. As her golden eyes strained to focus, she could just make out the large black shape of the HardBody tank as it slowly rolled towards her.

Gotta move! she silently ordered herself. However, when she tried, the dazed catgirl lost her balance and ended up flat on her back staring up at the blindly blue sky.
"Got.. to... hunfff." Keomi gritted her teeth against the pain in her head and managed to roll up onto her hands and knees.
"Got to.."

"Keomi?" A familiar male voice shouted weakly into her left ear.

"Andy?" Keomi asked aloud. For a moment, she forgot about the small communicator Andy had stuck behind her ear. Given the fact that none of their teammates were able to respond to his calls, Keomi's boyfriend had rigged a high-power short range comm system for them to use.

"Keomi!" Andy's voice called out again. "Keomi, are you okay? What the hell was that explosion?"

The catgirl chuckled, laughing at herself for being so absentminded. She gingerly sat back on her haunches and looked at the oncoming black tank.

"Oh, the usual. Someone tried to blow me up again."

Sitting behind the wheel of his borrowed police vehicle, a large, heavily-armored S.W.A.T. truck, Andy tapped the arm of his red-mirrored sunglasses. Keomi's tone was calm, almost whimsical, but her voice sounded strange to him. He finished hot-wiring the truck and gunned its loud engine.
"Hang on, Kitten! I'm on my way!"

Keomi did not reply. Andy chewed his bottom lip, a worried expression creeping its way onto his face. As he rounded the corner from the makeshift side street parking lot, the site which greeted him did nothing to ease Andy's anxiety.

His eyes widened and he gasped, "Oh my God."

All of the assembled police were scattering, running in all directions from a large black tank. Further off, Andy saw a huge pillar of fire and smoke, obviously resulting from the explosion he had heard just a moment before.

As he scanned the area further, he spotted his sports car, still sitting where he and Keomi had left it when it had run out of gas. Using his sunglasses' zoom capability, he saw his girlfriend.

"KEOMI!!" Andy shouted.

He could see her, sitting atop the immobile red car. She seemed injured. Her ears drooped and her tail was just lying limply behind her. Just a few meters away, rolling inexorably towards the violet haired woman, was the HardBodies' tank.

"Keomi! Get out of there!"

After a short burst of static, Keomi's voice replied weakly. Still chuckling eerily, she replied.
"I would love to, hon. But my legs just won't move."
There was a brief pause, then she added, "I have to lead that robo-bitch away from your car before it gets smashed up."

Foot pressed to the floor, Andy urged his sluggish conveyance to greater speed.
She's out of it... he thought. Totally out of it.

"Forget the car, Ke-Ke! Just run!"

Through his glasses, Andy saw Keomi turn and smile in his direction. The expression on his girlfriend's face made Andy's chest hurt. His mind raced.
I have to get her out of there! I have to think of something! Fast! I have to... THAT'S IT!

"Keomi! Get on the trunk! Hurry!"

Her soft voice answered, sounding confused.
"The trunk?"

"God dammit, girl! Just DO IT!"

His words sounded harsh in her ear. Keomi could see the S.W.A.T. truck approaching in the distance. She knew Andy was behind the wheel. Her gaze shifted back to the HardBodies' tank as it approached at an ever-incresing pace.

He'll never get here in time, she told herself.

"GET! ON! THE! TRUUUUUNK!!"

Keomi slowly obeyed. She rolled onto her side and slid down the car's rear window, landing in a heap on top of the small trunk. With great effort, she managed to pull her feet underneath her again.

Peering back over the car's roof, Keomi shouted.
"Okay! Now what?"

Andy's voice crackled back.
"Hang on!"

Chunks of pavement flew up from the tank's treads as it came closer. Keomi could see the hulking metal beast's huge cannon aimed directly at her, yet she had a feeling it would not fire.
She wants to run me down.
The thought gave Keomi little comfort.

Suddenly there came a loud hissing sound from beneath Keomi's feet. The tank was so close, she could have spit on it. It was nearly on top of her. It's huge treads clawed their way onto the car's shiny red hood. Keomi's eyes widened as the tank loomed over her. Then she felt herself being launched into the air.

The sports car's trunk exploded upward, blasted from it's hinges by powerful hydraulics within the car's body. Wind whipped past her as Keomi flew. She was over fifty feet in the air before she realized what had happened.

The catapult!

Keomi had to smile at the irony of the device's name, considering how it had just been used. She remembered when Andy had first installed it as a way to repel unwanted hitch-hikers.

Below her, Keomi saw Andy's stolen S.W.A.T. truck. She tucked herself into a ball and tried to soften her landing as much as possible. She hit the armored roof with a resounding whump! and nearly rolled off the side before coming to rest.

In her left ear, she hard Andy's concerned voice again.
"You okay?"

"Fine.. ughh.. and dandy, sweetheart. Quick thinking."

Before Andy could offer his relieved reply, two white tennis shoes followed by one ragged catgirl swung through the passenger's side window. Keomi fell into the truck's cab and slumped against Andy's left side.

"Hey, babe." Andy smiled as he wrapped his arm around her and pulled her close.
"Miss me?"

Keomi simply sighed contentedly.
"Now, what?"

Shifting his gaze back to the tank, Andy's lip curled in anger. He saw the huge black rolling weapon as it sat perched atop his red sports car. His special sunglasses fed him information about its heat emissions, its armor plating and weapon systems. Scanning through the deluge of information, Andy found what he was looking for.

He squeezed Keomi again and reached up to the left arm of his sunglasses.
"Masshiro-chan likes to see things blow up?" he asked rhetorically.
"Fine."

Keomi sat up, staring quizzically at her boyfiend as he input a long series of commands into his visor. Her eyes grew wide as she realized what he was doing. She grabbed his arm.

"Andy, wait!"

He sneered. "Bye-bye robo-bitch."

There was a blinding white light which forced Keomi to cover her eyes. Andy's sunglasses automatically dimmed, shielding his eyes from the intense blast. He watched, smiling wickedly, as the HardBodies' tank, his little red sports car, and the far side of the Miramoto Tower courtyard evaporated in a ball of white-hot flame.

Within the red sports car, dozens of high-explosives had detonated at once. Though shielded from outward attacks, the car's special armored shell was actually designed to give way to the internal blast. Sitting atop the car, and with relatively weak underbody armor, the HardBodies' tank, as well as its driver, were blown into atoms.

Andy watched as the explosion engulfed his car. He smiled at the sight of the huge black tank being pushed up into the air by the powerful blast. Finally, he let out a sigh as the tank vanished in a second blast caused by its own munitions.

"Oh my God!" Keomi cried in horror.
"Andy! You.. You killed you car!"

Pressing down the gas pedal and directing the S.W.A.T. truck towards the Miramoto Tower's main entrace, Andy turned to his stunned girlfriend and smiled. It was an earnest, contented expression.
"I had to pay her back for trying to blow you up, Kitten."

Andy winked and the pair travelled in silence until they had reached their destination. Backing up carefully, Andy maneuvered the truck's rear doors so that they were only a few meters from the Tower's entryway.

When the truck was parked to his satisfaction, Andy pulled a police pistol from the glovebox and turned to Keomi.
"Okay. You stay here while I... while I go... uh.. Keomi? What's wrong?"

As he spoke, the violet-haired catgirl never looked at him. She was staring out the truck's windshield at something in front of them. Slowly, Andy realized this and turned to see for himself what was distracting her.

There, assembled before the Miramoto Tower in all their glory, were the members of the MegaTokyo Police Department. No longer were they distracted by cute girls in short skirts fighting for their entertainment. No longer were they divided by petty differences of opinion.

Each and every cop had a gun aimed directly at the S.W.A.T. truck. Every one of them wore an expression of absolute concentration and dedication to their goal. One man, standing on a police cruiser in the middle of their ranks, raised a red and white bullhorn to his mouth and spoke.

"You in the truck! Come out with your hands up or we'll blow you the hell away!"
 
     
 
hemlock_martini 
  teadee
 
04:55pm 01/05/2004
  Nichiren leaned against the wall of the freight elevator, breathing heavily. Across from her, Tatewaki stood, his metal club held loosely in one hand, his expression slack, his gaze a million miles away. A vast ocean of silence filled the space between them as the small chamber slowly ascended to the penthouse floor. For a moment, Nichiren flashed back to the nightmare that Miramoto had induced in her mind--she shook her head, clearing away the painful imagery.

Nichiren’s skin crawled. Ever since she had arrived in the Tower, she could smell something in the air--Nichren assumed it had been the Suyakkui that Miramoto used, that it had somehow saturated the building’s environment. But it wasn’t the Suyakkui. It was the stench of death that hung heavy about her now, infusing every breath she took with its miasmal vapors that spoke of madness, sorrow and blood...death spread over her like the damp, ash-black fog of the heath; slicking her fur with its brackish wetness, clogging her pores and filling the back of her throat--now dry and raspy like sackcloth--causing her to choke. Nichiren squeezed her eyes shut, trying to clear her mind.

Unagi was dead. Trixie would not survive on her own. Would she and Tatewaki be next? Why did they leave Trixie? What awaited them at the top of the Tower? Would she be able to avenge her mother? What if they were too late? What if Miramoto was simply too powerful? What then?

A single thought, like a red-hot cinder, burned its way through the layers of confusion in Nichiren’s mind like so much rice paper. Her eyes snapped open, focused on Tatewaki.

“Taki...” she started. “Back there...the Ninjamecha...why did...?”

Tatewaki blinked and looked at Nichiren as if in a dream. His face fell, and instantly, Nichiren could see the immeasurable sadness in his eyes. She knew then that she didn’t need an answer--it would not have helped.

“No...never mind...” she said, as she stepped forward and wrapped her slim arms around his wide chest, hugging him close, burying her face in his soft, silvery fur. Tatewaki hesitated for a moment, then returned her embrace, enclosing her body in loving warmth.

They stood together like that for a long while, breathing together, deriving strength from their closeness. Then Tatewaki pulled back, still cradling Nichiren in his arms, looking down into her eyes. “When this is over,” he said, “I promise...I’ll take you away from all this.” He brushed a strand of silky white fur from her cheek. “I swear it.”

Nichiren’s mouth moved, but no words came out. Finally she uttered, “Just hold me.”

Crushing herself once again into Tatewaki’s warmth, Nichiren began to feel the presence of another...a hating, devouring, destructive spirit, tinted with insanity. Even now, as they approached the penthouse level, she could feel Miramoto’s grip growing tighter. Beyond him, she could sense the spirit of her mother growing stronger as well, could hear her restless voice calling for vengeance.

And beyond them both...the Other. His power...it’s so strong. I can feel it.

He’s here.

[*NOTE: "JADF" = "Japan Advanced Defense Force"]

The door to the elevator slid open, splaying its shaft of fluorescent light upon the gloomy darkness of the penthouse floor. The scent of death once more assaulted Nichiren's senses as she and Tatewaki stepped out of the elevator, which slammed shut behind them with a sudden "WHOOSH!" leaving them in the pitch blackness.

They walked cautiously together, weapons drawn, danger senses on full alert. They picked their way through winding corridors and empty rooms shrouded in shadows and cobwebs, illuminated only by the wan, purple moonlight that shone dully through thin, vertical windows. Out of the corner of her eye, Nichiren kept catching glimpses of...something, hovering right outside of her field of perception. She could swear that the walls were moving--and she couldn't be sure if it was only her imagination. Finally, Tatewaki pointed to a set of heavy mahogany doors lined in gold trim. "There," he said quietly.

Nichiren and Tatewaki entered Miramoto's office, not quite knowing what to expect. Miramoto's chair was turned away from his desk, facing the panoramic window. In the middle distance, a metallic-purple colossus strode through the skyscrapers towards Miramoto Tower. The glass, however, blocked out the noise from the street; drenching the scene in a surreal silence that was punctuated only by Miramoto's bizarre taste in office decor.

"Look upon my works, ye mortals, and despair;" said Miramoto grandly, still facing the window; his voice reflecting a mixture of smugness and awe. "Magnificent, isn't she? Such immense power...and a diabolical mind as well. I do so wish I could have kept her by my side all this time, instead of abandoning her as I did...but in the long run, things tend to work out well, as they always do. Don't you think so, Nichiren?" Miramoto turned to face them both, placing his elbows on his desk, folding his hands and resting his upper lip lightly against the tips of his index fingers.

"That's...that thing is Michi?" asked Nichiren. She was too startled to ask why Miramoto knew her name.

"Indeed. She has harnessed the power of my Suyakkui quite nicely, I should say. And she is providing my potential buyers with an even more effective demonstration than the one I had planned! Let me show you." Miramoto chuckled and thumbed a button on his desk. A video wall slid into place, displaying multiple camera angles of the Michi-thing striding through the Megatokyo streets, crushing everything in its path, striking down police helicopters with a wave of its bulbous arm, impenetrable to the missiles and cannon rounds being fired upon it by the JADF*. "This video feed is being broadcast to arms dealers around the globe, in order to properly demonstrate the destructive power of my Suyakkui. Originally, I had thought that simply covering Megatokyo in Suyakkui would be enough to convince my buyers of its potential as a weapon--but now they're seeing something even better. They see a weapon capable of not only mass destruction, but one that can take any form its bearer desires, and remains invulnerable to any physical attack. My dear niece has, in her own way, made nuclear war obsolete! The next war--when it is fought, and it WILL be fought--will see an army of these beautiful giants on each side, battling for supremacy. And it is I--Yosuke Miramoto--who will sell the nations of the world the instruments of their own doom!"

Tatewaki bristled, grinding his teeth. "You...you're insane. I knew it before...but..."

"And you're forgetting one thing! Once she arrives, Michi will tear this Tower apart and destroy you! If she's that strong, you don't stand a chance!" Nichiren shouted.

"Ah, but my dear child, you assume far too much." Miramoto leaned back in his chair. "I allowed Michi to take control of the Suyakkui. Once I figured out what her plans were, I simply goaded her into action and allowed her to think she had bested me. Once she arrives, I will take control once more and crush her mind...just as easily as I've crushed your little invasion of my Tower. Do you see?" The small, self-satisfied smile that had sat on Miramoto's face had spread into a toothy, evil-looking grin. The reflection from the video screen made him appear even more ghoulish. "Everything is going according to plan. I will arise victorious...but not until after I have destroyed you, Nichiren Akane Hibiki."

"How...how do you know my name?" Nichiren shook with fear and rage.

Miramoto laughed--a screechy, greasy laugh that set both wolf-demons' fur on edge. "I know a great deal about a lot of things. About your mother, for instance...and your grandfather!" Laughter again, filling the room with a high-pitched chittering sound. Miramoto's stout barrel chest heaved. "The things I know about you...hmm-muuuaaaaHAAHAHAHAAAAAAAA!!!! Things you couldn't possibly understand with your primitive half-demon intellect! Things that could tear your mind apart...your stupid, weak, canine mind, fit only for fighting and rutting!" Miramoto frothed at the mouth. "I'm surprised anyone as stupid as a demon ever made it this far--I wouldn't have guessed you could operate an elevator!"

"THAAAT'S ENOUUUUUGH!!!" Tatewaki howled, his fangs bared and ears flatted against his head. "Don't you EVER speak to her like that! This ends right NOW,
Miramoto! RRRRRRAAAAGGGHHH!!!" Tatewaki brought his metal club down onto Miramoto's desk.

The desk didn't shatter into pieces like Tatewaki thought it would. Instead the desk bowed, absorbing the force of Tatewaki's blow and reflecting it back with a watery "Blorp!" Tatewaki, still gripping the club, flew backwards as they were both tossed across the office, crashing into the rear wall.

"Taki!" Nichiren ran to his side and helped him up. All around them, the things in Miramoto's office--the desk, the chair, the wall hangings, the carpet, the
artworks--EVERYTHING began to melt, dissolving into slithering piles of pink goo. "Weak-minded fools!" shouted Miramoto. "Do you really think I'd let you get this far, just to let your pathetic little plans succeed? This is MY Tower! And here, I am GOD!" The Suyakkui swirled around Miramoto, surrounding his body, submerging it completely. What emerged from the Suyakkui whirlwind was a multi-limbed behemoth, replete with snapping claws, spiked tails and sucker-tipped tentacles. Miramoto's human head jutted obscenely from its center, laughing. "This...this is a truth you will learn through PAIN," it said.

Nichiren and Tatewaki stood together, stoically facing down the monster that Miramoto had become. Tatewaki snarled, "Pain means nothing to a demon! We will take you down together, devil of men! Your reign of terror ends right here, right now!" They drew their weapons and, growling, prepared to strike as one.

"Ah, Tatewaki. Thank you so much for reminding me, I've been so busy that I had nearly forgotten." Miramoto cackled. "Your little insurrection is at an end. I hope you enjoyed your adventure with the bitch..." He spat the word at Nichiren. "...brief though it may have been. I hereby revoke your free will. Once again, you are MINE to CONTROL."

Tatewaki dropped his club, clutched at his head and screamed. Nichiren looked on in horror, helpless, as Miramoto's psychic influence invaded his mind, animating his limbs, making him walk in a herky-jerk fashion, stumbling blindly across the room. Tatewaki still screamed, fighting Miramoto's power with all his strength; but it was a losing battle--he simply wasn't strong enough. Miramoto's meat puppet traipsed across the floor on invisible strings, shuffling slowly towards Nichiren, drooling and slavering in a grotesque parody of affection. She shrank away, shuddering. "What's the matter, little dog?" said Miramoto. "Don't you want your boyfriend to give you a little...KISS?" He shrieked in a fit of insane laughter.

"Taki...no...you have to fight it...you have to fight--UUUMPH!" The possessed wolf-demon picked Nichiren up and squeezed her close, his rough, drool-slicked tongue raking against her face obscenely. "Nnnghh...urrh...Tatewaki...snap...OUT OF IT!" Nichiren wiggled one arm free from his crushing embrace and summoned a spark of energy that gathered in her fingertips. She cocked her arm back and gave Tatewaki a resounding SLAP across his face, causing him to stagger back in pain and confusion, dropping her in the process. He whimpered, clutching at his injured muzzle.

Nichiren struggled to her feet. "Ta...Taki...oh, my love...are you..." She approached him cautiously, arm outstretched. She realized a moment too late how foolish this was. Tatewaki--still possessed--whipped around and swiped his sharpened claws at her, screeching and gibbering. Nichiren backflipped out of the way, but missed her landing and crashed against a wall. Three jagged streaks of red decorated Nichiren's right cheek where Tatewaki's claws had cut her. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Tatewaki pick up his club and run towards her, club held high above his head, ready to crush her body into a pulp.

Nichiren tumbled for her katana and snatched it up just in time to block Tatewaki's downward swing. A resounding CLANG shook her bones as the club struck, and sparks flew from where the two metal weapons met. Nichiren strained against Tatewaki's bulk and power as she kept his weapon from completing its journey.

"Yes...that would be enjoyable, wouldn't it?" said Miramoto, as if happening upon a brilliant idea. Tatewaki backed off instantly, and took a fighting stance some distance away from Nichiren. "You two will fight each other for my amusement. That should help kill some time before Michi joins our little party, wouldn't you say?"

"Miramoto, you--aah!" Nichiren had turned to say something to the megalomaniac, but Tatewaki had already begun to charge towards her. She deflected his repeated blows, fending him off as well as she could--but his attacks were persistent, and while under the control of Miramoto, Tatewaki would not tire. Still, Nichiren kept on the defensive, blocking and parrying with deft bladework and skillful determination. She refused to take the offensive, and held back from attacking when she saw and opening in his patterns. I must not...I must not harm him! Though he is controlled by the devil Miramoto...he is the man I love! I must keep fighting him...I must find a way to end this... Her mind raced as she continued to frustrate Tatewaki's attacks. The metal of Nichiren's katana and of Tatewaki's club began to glow red-hot from the repeated strikes.

Soon, Tatewaki had begun to wear Nichiren down. His blows grew faster and more intense, and she found it almost impossible to keep up with him. Suddenly, he lunged forward, tackling her and pinning her down. Their weapons--now white hot from the pressure--met and clashed against each other. Nichiren snarled and bared her teeth, pushing against him with all her might.

"Nnn--nn...nnm...Nichiren...p-p...please..." Tatewaki's voice--his real voice, the one that cried out from deep within a body that was no longer his--hissed out from between bared fangs. "K..k-kill m-me. It'ss...ss...only way..."

"Taki...NO!" With a burst of emotion, Nichiren curled up her legs and kicked, propelling Tatewaki across the room. He landed, recovered, and began to charge once more.

Nichiren leapt to her feet and began to charge towards him. She screamed--"KYAAAAA!"--and infused her katana with magical energy. Drawing back, she swung the sword with every ounce of strength she had left, neatly making three swipes in one smooth, masterful stroke as Tatewaki leveled his club at her.



~~SHING! SHING! SHINGGGG!~~


Tatewaki's club fell apart in his hands, splitting itself into three useless chunks that fell to the floor even as he continued to move forward. In the split second following, Nichiren realized that he was open for her to deliver the coup de grace--a quick slice through the ribcage to pierce the heart. In the same instant, she cursed herself for thinking such a thing, even in the heat of battle. She forced her arm to stop moving--but soon felt a familiar presence; not only in her mind, but all around her...

Dark, long raven hair, swaying in the breeze. White, silken robes. The smell of jasmine and the bitter coldness of winter. Soft sighs of regret.

Watching human families in the small towns from our hidden place in the woods, watching them grow together, do things that we cannot. Listen to their fearful words as they describe us...monsters in the darkness.

Are we, mother? Monsters, I mean...

No more than they are, my cub. No more than they are.

The shame of being half-demon, even as the appointed guardian of the Emperor itself...sound of hushed conversations in rooms lined with waxen white paper...rainy battlefields in the onset of autumn. "The Responsibility We Carry." Saying goodbye...saying goodbye, and never knowing why...

A soft hand enclosed Nichiren's, guiding her sword arm on to its destination. A softer voice spoke in her mind.

"I hope that some day, my cub, you'll come to know why this had to be. For now, all I can do is beg your forgiveness."

"Mother! NO!"

"Nichiren."

Tatewaki's voice. Calm. Warm. No longer posessed.

"Open your eyes, love. Please."

Nichiren's eyes were clamped shut. She had stopped moving when her sword had found Tatewaki's chest. She could feel his blood pooling on the ground--her paw-pads were slick with it. She breathed in heaving sobs, jaw clenched.

"Please. Nichiren." Tatewaki gently pleaded.

Slowly, she opened her eyes. Tatewaki was smiling. "You've freed me," he said, shakily reaching for her sword-hand. "I'm no longer a slave...no longer held by this mortal's threats...no longer the betrayer of my clan. You've given me...the greatest gift I could have ever hoped for from anyone." Tatewaki moved forward, reaching further for Nichiren; impaling himself more deeply on her sword.

"Taki! Don't! You'll..."

"Hush...my love, I know. This is the way...it had to be. Just grant me...this..." His bloody hands reached her arms, and he pulled himself up to stand in front of her, weak-kneed but determined. Nichiren's sword was driven to the hilt into his chest. Out of shock, she still held it firmly, her sword hand knuckle-white and shaking.

Nichiren and Tatewaki looked deeply into each others' eyes. He reached out his fingers, stroked her face gently, fluttering his finger-pads along her delicate cheekbones. "I...will tell my ancestors about you...the wonderful girl who set me free." Cupping her face in his hands, Tatewaki kissed her lips once. "Be strong...my love, my dearest Nichiren...always...be strong...for me."

With that, the light left Tatewaki's eyes. Gently, slowly, laid Nichiren his body down on the floor. For some reason, she found herself unable to cry. "I will...my love...Tatewaki...I will be strong for you," she whispered into his ear, timidly stroking the matted fur of his muzzle.

A sharp cannon blast of sound punctuated the silence. It shocked the air around the empty office, reverberating painfully in Nichiren's ears. The blast came again--Nichiren looked up to see Miramoto, his human hands freed from the blob of Suyakkui, clapping slowly as to commend her for a bravado performance.

"Well done, little dog!" he brayed, still clapping. "Such masterful skill. It was dazzling to watch. And the way you cold-heartedly slew your dearest love--heart-wrenching, truly. I thank you for providing me with my evening's entertainment."

Slowly, Nichiren stood, pulling her katana free from Tatewaki's body. She popped her stiff neck and cracked her knuckles. Her eyes were ice.

"Ah, but you forget your devotion so quickly!" chortled Miramoto. "What? No tears for your pitiful boyfriend? I thought you loved him sooo much." Miramoto's voice was cloyingly pouty.

Nichiren lifted her blade to her face, and slowly ran her tongue along the bloody blade. She gathered the red liquid on her tongue, swallowing hard. She could feel her blood boil--feel Tatewaki's essence mixing with hers. A fiery demonic rage began to well from deep within her.

"Bakayaro," she said, lowering her sword, "I have years to weep for Tatewaki. Years...that you will not have." Wind and light began to swirl around Nichiren as her demonic powers began to manifest themselves. Her bloody kimono fluttered in the sudden storm. Nichiren's eyes began to glow red as her demon-wolf metamorphosis completed itself. She hefted the katana in a killing stroke. "Devil of men, I shall feast upon your soul!" growled Nichiren.

"Heh," said Miramoto, lifting his upper body out of the Suyakkui, leaving his legs a mass of tentacles and pseudopods. "So, you may prove to be a challenge after all. Very well. If it's a fight you're wanting..." A tentacle of Suyakkui lanced out from the blob and covered Miramoto's arm and fist. It solidified, leaving a double-edged Suyakkui sword in the palm of his hand. Miramoto brought the two-handed sword in front of him in a classic kendo stance. "Come on, then! Have at you!"

Nichiren lunged forward with a guttural scream. The two clashed.

------------------------------

"Umm...Keomi? Babe?"

"Mmm."

"Honey?"

"YES, Andy."

"You're not, uh...mad at me, are you?"

"Heavens, no. Whatever could give you that idea?"

"Oh, uh...good. 'Cause I--"

"It's just that, if I were to save you from the skyscraper stronghold of a psychotic industrialist, and the rescue mission was dependant on, oh say, my car; I would have had the brains to at least put more than HALF A TANK OF GAS IN." Keomi ground her teeth and snarled.

"Quiet, you two! And keep those hands up!" shouted one of the four cops surrounding Andy and Keomi. Together, they stood outside the now-gasless sports car, hands on top of their heads, trying to remain oblivious to the certain doom that was currently rushing towards them.

"Hey, listen!" Andy sniped back. "I spent *ALL LAST NIGHT* working on the car, getting it ready for today! I got the vulcan cannons working, primed the flamethrowers, got the turbo boosters up to top condition, I loaded extra rounds in the missle launchers--hell, I did everything but put two coats of wax on it and take a picture to send into 'Heavily Armed Hot Rod Magazine!' So excuse ME if I was a little distracted by the fact that my girlfriend had been kidnapped and tortured!"

"Oh, well, THAT'S convenient. Andy, where I come from, there are no cars. I don't even DRIVE. And even *I* know that putting GAS IN THE CAR is the FIRST thing you do! Baka!"

"Yeah? Well, I didn't hear you complaining when you were beating the living tar out of me back there. You killed me! If I hadn't been able to snap myself back together--"

"Allright, that's enough!" barked another one of the cops. "Shut up or we start shooting!"

"These two are almost bad as the wife an' me," mumbled the third cop. "I hear ya," murmured the fourth.

"OOOH! Andy! You...you...stupid...MAN! You drive me crazy sometimes!" Keomi ranted. "You NEVER think ahead, you spend more time with your CAR than you do with me, it just...makes me want to...YEEEAAAAAAGGHH!" Keomi threw a punch, but not at Andy. Her graceful feline-femme fist liquified the face of the nearest cop. Keomi caught his handgun in mid-air, and whirling around, emptied two rounds apiece into the legs of the other three cops, dropping them. She snagged Andy by the scruff of his neck and ran, half-dragging him behind her. They were half a block away and hiding behind an overturned cop car before Andy knew what had happened.

"Uh..." Andy blinked hard. Keomi was crouched next to him in the dim light, her eyes twinkling. "Kitten?..." he asked weakly.

Keomi pulled him towards her and kissed him violently, grinding her lips into his and giving his tonsils a thorough workout.* Andy was surprised, but didn't exactly protest. After about forty-five seconds, they came up for air. "Whoo!" said Keomi, smiling again. "Feeling better now. Thanks hon, I needed that!"

"Nyyehhenmmnnghhh..." was Andy's reply, happily gurgled through a dazed smile.

"Andy, look!" Keomi and Andy peered over the cop car to see the Michi-lith stomp into the city block that contained Miramoto Tower. The metallic purple giant stood before the Tower--its cyclopean height still dwarfed by the mammoth proportions of Miramoto's skyscraper--and lifted its arms to its chest-level. The eerie white glow from its eyes grew brigher. As if the Tower were magnetic and the Michi-lith were made of iron filings, its body began to come apart, flinging massive blobs of Suyakkui onto the Tower. Soon, the Tower's surface was covered in a thick sheet of Suyakkui that surrounded all sides of it and slowly slithered upwards; sheathing the entire building in a throbbing purple membrane.

"What in the Sweet Monkey Jesus is she doing?" asked Andy.

"She's trying to reach the penthouse level to kill Miramoto," said Keomi. "I just hope that's where she stops, or we'll have an even bigger problem on our hands."


::* hey BR, does Andy even have tonsils? ::

High above Andy and Keomi, the fight between Nichiren and Miramoto raged on. The two combatants clashed, traversing the length of the penthouse office; their weapons visible only as vague blurs that bashed and scraped against each other; raising showers of blinding sparks.

Miramoto blocked a high lunge and stabbed towards Nichiren's midsection. Nichiren tucked-and-rolled, striking for Miramoto's left flank. In the blink of an eye, a tendril of Suyakkui lanced out, striking her in the chest--Nichiren absorbed the blow, spinning backwards and landing on her back.

"COWARD!" she howled, picking herself up. "Fight me like a man, damn you!"

"Oh, please;" said Miramoto, condescendingly. "Do you really think I got this far in life without cheating? You really are exceptionally dull, even for a half-demon. Besides, it's only too easy to get inside your mind and see what moves you're about to make before you make them. Foolish girl...you should have known better than to challenge a god to a duel!" Miramoto laughed heartily.

Nichiren growled, her lips twitching over sharpened teeth. "You people...you psychic humans...REALLY...piss me OFF!" She sprinted towards Miramoto, bringing her katana down to generate a whirlwind of attacks. "Let's see you dodge THIS!"

Miramoto nimbly dodged Nichiren's attacks, until a feint to the right caught him off guard--allowing her to get in a glancing blow off his left shoulder. Miramoto reared back, shrieking in surprise, pain and rage; grabbing for his injured shoulder. A telekinetic blast took Nichiren off her feet and knocked her back. Miramoto, eyes wide with a sudden burst of anger, looked back at his fallen adversary, stretching out his sword-arm. "Enough of this petty foolishness! Play-time is OVER!" The sword in Miramoto's hand had begun to melt and re-shape itself. In an instant, it resembled a hand-cannon with an obscenely long barrel; pointed directly at Nichiren.

Nichiren saw what was coming, and tried to move; but to no avail. The cannon fired, shooting a head-sized glob of semi-solid Suyakkui at the fallen wolf-girl. The glob spattered against her and the floor, pinning her legs down. She struggled to break free. Miramoto, cackling evilly, fired again and again, covering Nichiren in the viscous liquid metal. She struggled valiantly to raise her katana to block the Suyakkui, but a tendril whipped out and snatched it away from her hand. "Ah-ah-ahh," sniggered Miramoto, "I don't think so." The tendril deposited it on a ceiling tile, adhering it there with a Suyakkui glob, keeping the sword firmly out of Nichiren's reach.

Miramoto advanced on Nichiren, firing glob after glob of Suyakkui--soon, she was encased almost entirely in a solid coccoon of the super-metal. Her limbs pinned down, Nichiren screamed in frustration and struggled mightily against her bonds.

"It's no use squirming, little dog;" said Miramoto, hefting his Suyakkui cannon on his shoulder, "but I have a feeling you already know this." He leaned in close. "I'd just like to thank you, by the way. You've been quite an entertaining guest. And it's not everyday I get to kill two demons in a row. Today has been something of a personal best for me, I'm sure you understand." He stood back up, leveling his cannon at Nichiren's face at point-blank range. "Be sure and say 'hello' to Tatewaki for me. Oh, and let him know that I'm coming for his ancestors and wiping all traces of his clan clean from the time-space continuum as soon as things are wrapped up here..." Miramoto rubbed his chin in contemplation. "I wonder if that will affect his existence in the Underworld at all, my having killed the people responsible for his birth? Too bad, I suppose we'll never know. Oh well, that's metaphysics for you!" Miramoto laughed maniacally and prepared to fire.

Nichiren squeezed her eyes shut, prepared for the glob of Suyakkui to cover her face and mouth, suffocating her. But she remembered her mother's face--and opened her eyes, glaring at her enemy with pure defiance. I am sorry, mother, she thought; I cannot avenge your restless spirit. But I will face my death with open eyes, as befits a true demon. She took a deep breath and steeled herself, snarling.

"YO! HE-BITCH!"

Suddenly, before Miramoto could shoot, a flashing green shaft of light spun across the penthouse. It sliced right through the Suyakkui cannon, reducing it to a pool of cockroaches. It was a Celtic short sword, engraved with runes and magickal designs--the sword found purchase in the bulletproof glass of the panoramic window and stuck there. Miramoto, snarling, whirled to face its owner.

Trixie slammed and locked the door shut and wrenched off the brass doorknob behind her, ripping it from its mahogany frame with her bare hands. She faced Miramoto, hunched over, hands grasping, flecks of purple slowly returning to her wide, ice-blue eyes; her face a mask of madness and torturous hate. Her chest rose and fell in shaking, heaving gasps. Rivulets of blood ran down her face, her arms, and soaked through her clothes, pockmarked with bullet holes. She gritted her teeth and cracked her knuckles, muscles writhing like snakes. "You f*ck with my friends...you f*ck with me." Shakily, but with steely determination, she took a fighting stance and gestured towards Miramoto with a quick nod of her head. "Let's go."

Miramoto, nonplussed, sighed deeply. "You Americans," he said, stretching out a tendril to snatch Aingeal from its resting place in the window. He held the sword up to the light, admiring its design. "Always arriving late, and without an invitation...always interfering...where you're not WANTED!" The tendril lanced out towards Trixie. Nichiren screeched--"NO!"

Trixie gasped in pain and shock, a cloud of blood bursting from her lips. Her body flew back, stopped and supported by the heavy mahogany door--Aingeal had been thrust all the way through her abdomen and now its point was lodged in the door behind her. She slumped back, twitching; gouts of blood spilling from her open mouth.

"Hmph. Go to hell, my dear," said Miramoto, gloating. He turned his attention back to Nichiren, unaware that Michi's Suyakkui body had begun to spill into the penthouse via the tiny slit that Aingeal had left in the window. It quickly pooled around Miramoto's feet.

Miramoto was about to re-form his Suyakkui cannon to put an end to Nichiren, but was interrupted by a sound--a MADDENING sound--someone laughing. Trixie, her face still a twisted visage of insanity, was laughing out loud, despite the fact that her life was quickly slipping away. "Eh?" said Miramoto, turning back to face the fox-girl. He approached her, curious.

"Go...to hell?" Trixie gasped, chest heaving, her eyes lolling back in her head. "Sure...sure thing. Jusss...just do me...one, one favor..." She licked her blood-slicked lips and struggled for breath. "Why don't you take me...by the hand..." Miramoto drew closer.

Trixie's eyes flicked open. They were as wide as poker chips and bright blue. "...AND SHOW ME THE WAY." Her right arm was a blur. In a split-second, Trixie had flexed her wrist, triggering a spring-clip, which loaded a snub-nosed revolver into her waiting palm; and fired three shots at Miramoto at point-blank range.

Miramoto barely had time to dodge. He didn't, in fact, have time to dodge; the most he could do was extend his telekinesis to change the flight path of the bullets so that they would not strike him. In this, he succeeded; sending the bullets careening over his right shoulder, where they bounced off the bulletproof glass of the window...and ricocheted to where Nichiren's sword was stuck to the ceiling with a glob of Suyakkui. The explosive rounds ignited themselves upon impact, weakening the Suyakkui with a small explosion. The sword began to fall. Miramoto looked back at Trixie; fury and disbelief painted on his face. "HOW?..." is all he had time to say.

"Nichiren, NOW!" screamed Trixie, collapsing back against the mahogany door, moaning in pain.

Nichiren could feel her power building up once again. The Suyakkui had begun to weaken, growing brittle. This is it! "Mother...give me the STRENGTH!" she cried, letting the power flow through her like a thousand rushing rivers. In a mighty heave, she broke free of her metal bonds, shattering them like glass. Her demonic power drove her body forward. She caught the sword in her outstretched hand.

At the same time, Michi's Suyakkui-body had flooded the room, cracking the window open wider. She formed a ring of spikes surrounding Miramoto, who recoiled in horror as the spikes, as one, dove inward to pierce his ribcage. Now, Uncle! YOU WILL TASTE MY WRATH! she screamed.

The Suyakkui spears thrust at Miramoto, gouging out chunks of flesh. One spear found its goal--Miramoto's heart--and skewered it. He cried out in defeat. Michi shrieked in bloody victory, savoring the feeling of Miramoto's ebbing life--but he was not yet dead.

"MOTHER! GUIDE MY SWORD!"

Miramoto had strength enough to see Nichiren speeding towards him, sword at the ready, her body engulfed in a gauzy white spiritual aura. Her skin seemed darker, and her hair was jet black. But the expression of pure, righteous hatred was the same. "MOTHER! I AM THE INSTRUMENT OF OUR VENGANCE!" she cried, her voice echoing throughout the Underworld. Nichiren brought her katana down.

For a moment, time slowed to a crawl. Lightning flashed in the darkness outside the Tower. In its reflection, Nichiren and Miramoto were starkly outlined in black and white.

"No...it's you!" gasped Miramoto with his dying breath. "How can this be?"

Nichiren's sword found its mark and made a clean, smooth cut.

Michi screamed in frustration. Her revenge had been denied. In her shock, all the Suyakkui--hers and Miramoto's--spilled back out of the penthouse, sucked out the way it had entered; shattering the window with its weight. The layer of liquid metal surrounding Miramoto Tower dissolved into the air, breaking off into massive clouds of cockroaches which, freed out outside control, quickly dispersed themselves into the Megatokyo skies. On street level, a single glob of Suyakkui landed, pushing itself down a sewer drain.

Back in the penthouse, Nichiren was down on one knee, propped up by her katana. Miramoto's headless body lay at the dead center of the room. His head laid somewhere to the left. "It's over, Mother," she said softly. A gentle wind caressed Nichiren's long blonde hair, blowing it back from her face. She could have sworn she heard a sigh of relief on the wind. Or perhaps it was just thunder...a light rain began to fall outside as the dawning sun burned silently behind a heavy veil of clouds.

Nichiren stood and ran back to the mahogany doors, where Trixie was still impaled. "Trixie! Please...can you hear me?" She was still alive, but just barely. She murmured something that Nichiren couldn't catch.

"Trixie...here..." Nichiren raised Trixie's left hand to Aingeal's handle, curled her fingers around the grip. "Call...call it," Nichiren said. "Call your sword back to you."

The fox-girl grunted, her cheek twitching. Aingeal disappeared, having been 'sheathed.' Trixie, now at the whim of gravity, sank to the ground, where Nichiren caught her and cradled her against her lap.

Trixie's eyes--now a deep, vibrant purple with no traces of blue--opened and tried to focus on Nichiren. "Nichi-chan..." she said weakly, "did...the goodguys...win?"

"Yes, kitsune-chan," said Nichiren, happy that her friend was still alive. She rubbed Trixie's face, clearing away the streaked blood and matted hair. "They did."

"Nichi...we...we were the goodguys...right?"

"...Yes. Please, don't try to talk, Trixie..."

The tiniest of smiles found its way to Trixie's lips for the briefest of seconds. "Yay for th' goodguys..." she croaked. Trixie closed her eyes and slipped deep into unconsciousness.

Nichiren laid Trixie down on the floor, gently, and checked her pulse--she was fading fast. But...this isn't over. She felt bad leaving the fox-girl behind like this. Hopefully, finding the other presence that Nichiren had felt wouldn't take long.

After a few minutes of searching and trusting her senses, Nichiren expended the barest remnants of her power and smashed through the hidden metal door, breaking the hinges with a single punch. The corridor was dark and long, but Nichiren found her way to the end. All the way down, she kept repeating in her head what she had said to Miramoto..."I have years to weep for Tatewaki...I have years to weep...years to weep for Tatewaki...years..." Even now, she wondered what had made her say that.

The demon was strapped to a medical table of some sort--unclothed and emaciated, he looked as if he had been kept there for years. Nichiren quickly set about to releasing him from his bonds and the support systems keeping him sedated. He was tall--much taller than the wolf-girl--but his muscles had withered, making his body very light. To Nichiren, his skin felt like ancient silk. An odd, blackish sheen glinted in the dark where two large horns curved from the back of his head and around the sides of his face.

Hastily, Nichiren wrapped his shivering body in an emergency blanket and lifted him up in her arms. He snapped awake. For a minute, they stared at each other in the near-darkness, not knowing what to expect.

Looking deeply into her eyes, the demon smiled. For a moment, Nichiren forgot all about the battle, Tatewaki, Michi, Miramoto, Trixie, and the mission--she forgot all about her pain and the heartache behind her and ahead of her. She simply looked into the eyes of this demon--this man--whom it seemed she'd known her entire life; and felt...warm, would be the only way to describe it. A rich, fulfilling, glowing warmth that she never wanted to stop feeling. Nichiren took a deep breath, let it out slowly. I've found him, she thought; both knowing with all her soul and completely unaware of who "him" was.

"I'm taking you home," she said to the man. "Don't worry." She suddenly remembered her mother saying that at some time to her...or had it been someone else?...in any case, the demon suddenly went slack in her arms and lost consciousness. She carried him out of the corridor and back into Miramoto's office.

Outside, the sun had begun to burn away the tiny rain clouds. Trixie was still alive, but fading fast. Nichiren recovered her sword and slipped it into her sash; over her left shoulder she carried the rescued demon. She propped up Trixie under her right arm, the fox-girl's boots dragging along the ground. Nichiren sighed resolutely. "Right," she said. "Time to go." Nichiren kicked down the mahogany door and started the long descent to the street.

-----

At the bottom of a sewer tunnel, several smaller blobs of Suyakkui were coming together, clumping up into one larger central blob. After a few moments, they coalesced into a single shape--that of a young woman with red-and-black hair, curled up into a fetal position. Minutes passed. Her heart began to beat once more. Blood flowed through her newly-reformed veins. Her lungs ached for air.

Gasping, Michi broke free from her protective womb of Suyakkui, staggering naked and disoriented into the wet darkness of the Megatokyo sewers. Bits of brittle, inanimate Suyakkui clung to her skin--she brushed it off as she tried to gain her bearings, as gawky and uncoordinated as a newborn giraffe. The constant sound of running water kept her from focusing her mind--she rubbed her forehead, trying to gather her thoughts into a single pile.

Suyakkui...all dissolved...human. Single mind. No longer...

...within my body...the Suyakkui...

Uncle...Miramoto dead...DEAD!...I did it! I...

No...NO! The wolf-demon...the BITCH...

NICHIREN AKANE HIBIKI! hatehatehatehatehateFOREVERHATEforeverforeverforever...

Must...must find and...must claim...REVENGE!

This sudden burst of rage made Michi's head throb. She clutched at her forehead, feeling something hard, stonelike in her palm. She opened her hand and gazed at the artifact therein. It sparkled in the gray light of the sewer. A moment of clarity graced the cloudy chaos that was her newly reborn mind.

Perhaps revenge...is best left...for another day.

Michi closed her fist on the artifact and walked into the tunnels, making her way back to Isawa-Shoten Headquarters.

-----

Keomi winced. Her hand reached for her collar, seemingly of its own volition. "Michi..." she said.

"Whassat babe? You okay?" asked Andy.

"Yeah, it's...nevermind."
 
     
 
berus_roth 
  teadee
 
04:54pm 01/05/2004
  Like a scene from a cheesy 1970's monster movie, Michi's giant suyakkui creation stepped over an office complex and crushed several police armored vehicles on its inexorable march towards Miramoto Tower. Ground spotlights criss-crossed it's shiny purple skin. Police and pedestrian alike cried out in shock and fear as they caught sight of the monstrosity, absurdly huge against the Megatokyo business district's skyline.

As a spray of police bullets traced a line across the windshield of his sports car, Andy leaned over the dashboard and craned his neck. He stared up, up, all the way to the top of Michi's shiny new body. The sight of his psionic-powered ally gave Andy hope for victory, but it also made him very, very nervous.

Turning to Keomi, who was fidgeting with a lapful of automatic weapons, Andy half-joked.

"Now there's somethin' you don't see every day."

Keomi did not so much as fake a grin.

"She's out of her mind, Andy. And she's even more powerful than her uncle now." Her words made Andy even more uncomfortable than before.
"I can barely hear Yosuke anymore. Michi's voice is clawing at my mind. I never thought she would go this far, Andy."

Swerving to avoid a cadre of overzealous SWAT team members, the blue-haired driver grimaced. The thought of Keomi being somehow connected to the suyakkui and to Miramoto himself filled Andy with the same kind of dread he had felt when Keomi was first abducted. It made him even more anxious to hear her call their enemy by his first name.

"Whatever he did to you, Kitten, I swear I'll undo it. Once we get back to IS corp. I'll..."

"He said it was irreversable, Andy. The suyakkui is a part of me now."
Keomi picked up a custom uzi and slid a clip into the handle. She remembered being in Miramoto's lab. The memory of floating in the huge glass tube of suyakkui, of feeling it seep into her flesh as Yosuke Miramoto looked on made her shiver.
"Now... and forever."

"Bullshit!"
Andy slammed the car into a lower gear and blasted through a hastily-assembled police barracade. Tiny bits of wood and metal showerd the car as its engine roared.
"Miramoto is a liar and a goddam psychopath, Keomi. Don't you dare believe anything he told you. You'll be back to normal soon enough. I swear!"

She turned to him and smiled. It was a warm smile, but weak. Keomi saw the determination in Andy's face. It did give her a sense of hope, but she knew better.
For a moment, she wanted to soothe him and tell him he was right. Perhaps if she told him that, then she would even believe it herself. She laid her hand on his as he gripped the gearshift. Leaning over, she kissed him on the cheek.

Without a word, Keomi rolled down her window and began spraying nearby police with fire from her uzi.

"Keomi! What the hell...?"

She turned her head slightly and gave him a wink.

"Relax, hun. They're just rubber bullets."

On Keomi's side of the car, scores of cops fell over grasping at legs or arms or just ducking for cover as the hail of painful projectiles pelted their ranks. Andy cut a hard left turn, giving Keomi a clear shot at half of Megatokyo's Finest.

Listening to the gunfire and the rumbling of his car's engine, Andy smiled. Just like old times, he thought. Then the earth shook again from another of the giant suyakkui-Michi's footfalls.

Andy pulled a hand-over-hand turn and swung back around towards the main gate of Miramoto Tower.

"Whatever's going on in there, we have to keep these cops outside."
Andy set his jaw and drove headlong at another SWAT team near the tower's entrance. Watching the startled men and women scatter, he could not suppress a grin.

Keomi laid down another salvo of rubber bullets to discourage any heroics from the cops nearby.
"Unagi and the other will have their hands full with Miramoto's security forces inside, Andy. We should go in and help them. The might need us."

"No can do, Kitten."
Police bullets rebounded loudly from the window mere inches from his left ear as Andy drove.
"We had a plan. They can take care of themselves."

Keomi withdrew her uzi and looked anxiously at the man behind the wheel.
"But what about Joe and Maji? We haven't seen either of them, Andy. We should at least go look for them."

"I hear ya, Ke-Ke. I do."
Andy swerved as another swarm of bullets assaulted his side of the car.
"But, we're needed here. We have to distract these police and we have to be ready to clear a path for the others when they come out of that damn tower. You under-Owshit!!"

A sound like a small explosion drowned out Keomi's surprised yelp and Andy's curses. Bits of shattered glass flew into the car's cabin and cut into their skin. In a reflex, Andy's left hand jerked up to protect that side of his face from any further injury.
On her side of the car, Keomi was mostly unscathed by the sudden failure of the car's "indestructable" driver-side window. She saw, too late, that Andy was temporarily unable to steer.

The catgirl dove for the wheel, catching it just as the car went into a skid. Holding on for dear life, Keomi tried to correct their course, but she could only watch as the car hopped a curb and smashed through an armored Miramoto guard booth.
With a sudden, bone-jarring impact, they came to rest against the side of the Tower itself. Keomi pushed herself out of Andy's lap and looked into his face.

"Andy! Are you...?"

He gave her wink and a lopsided smile, wincing as the cuts on his cheek protested the move. Helping her back into her own seat, Andy gunned the car's engine back to life and gripped the wheel.

"Okay. Now I am really pissed off."
 
     
 
hemlock_martini 
  teadee
 
04:50pm 01/05/2004
  Michi rematerialized in the dank, slippery darkness of the Megatokyo sewer system. All around her, she could hear the rumbling roar of Suyakkui being pulled from the depths of the sewers to burst out onto the streets, slowly filling the city above with living, writhing tendrils of purple ooze. Gritting her teeth, she held her breath against the stench of decay and reached into her jacket for a familiar metal canister.

She wrenched the lid from the canister and upended it, spilling out its contents--her captured cockroach helpers--onto the dry brick floor of the tunnel intersection. They skittered around her in a ragged semicircle, awaiting her command.

"Go," she said. "Tell the others."

With that, the roaches flew in all directions, diving through cracks in between bricks, scampering into drainpipes, slipping into tiny spaces wherein only their ilk could fit. In seconds, Michi could feel the power surging and throbbing beneath her, all around her--a bright shiver of energy that shot right through the earth, with her at the center.

Michi began to bang her fists against the brick walls of the sewer with rhythmic abandon. Soon, the sewer shook and reverberated with the force of her blows. Purple slime began to ooze from the cracks in the walls, from between the bricks, from broken drain sluices. From every direction, Suyakkui began to flow towards her with the force of a dozen runaway trains.

"Uncle..." she said under her breath as she continued to beat on the walls, "you'll soon regret what you did...to me...to my parents...you'll soon regret leaving me to DIE in some stinking institution...Uncle...you'll regret the day you made me your enemy! I WILL SEE TO THAT!!!"

She could see it now--a solid wave of Suyakkui speeding through the sewer tunnel, rushing towards her from all four directions, ready to envelop her completely. "UNCLE!" she cried. "I COME FOR YOU!"

With a singluar banshee scream, Michi poured her essence into the wave of Suyakkui, infusing the metallic sludge with her body's energy. In a fraction of a second, she had become one with the Suyakkui as it burst through the ceiling of the sewer and shot skyward, twisting and churning, forming a column of glassy purple ooze as tall as a skyscraper.

Having merged herself completely with the Suyzakkui, Michi's consciousness was scattered throughout the mass of slime. As it moved, she began to think and function as a singular entity composed of trillions of Suyakkui molecules. From her vantage point, she could sense the Suyakkui Sea, having been launched by Miramoto, start to spread throughout the streets. It seemed to have risen up from the outskirts of the Shibuya Megaplex, and was slowly moving both inward--towards Miramoto Tower--and outwards, to engulf the rest of Megatokyo.

It must be stopped, she thought, the column's molecules vibrating at the same thoughtwave frequency. And then...I shall have my revenge!

The column of Suyakkui controlled by Michi buckled halfway, then bent completely in a gentle curve, spilling out into a mobile wave that rushed down upon the street and moved forwards in a giant, sweeping stride. The wave compacted itself, then stretched up-and-out again, speeding its way towards the Shibuya outskirts. From the distance, it would have appeared to a viewer (who was not already running away in fear and panic) like a gigantic purple Slinky making its way across the city. In this manner, it made its way to the Sea in a matter of seconds.

Fighting against the Suyakkui Sea turned out to be not an exercise of brute force, but an act of sheer willpower and careful strategy. Michi's Suyakkui mass had parasitically attatched itself to the larger Sea, then spread itself over a wide area, slowly sapping the Sea's energy and size by absorbing bits of it and increasing the amount of Suyakkui under Michi's control. But the Sea--which was under the power of Miramoto's prodigious psionic strength--proved to be a tenacious opponent. Michi's powers were taxed to their fullest as she fought her uncle's influence; micromanaging a few billion Suyakkui molecules at a time, attacking the weak and undefended points of the Sea and its master, trying desperately not to lose ground.

In the madness of fighting the Sea, she could feel her Uncle's influence, hear his voice in her mind(s): You cannot win, little girl. My powers are far greater than yours, and you know it. Better to end this foolish attempt now before you are destroyed.

So you think I'm weak, do you? Michi shot back. I'm not the screaming child you left at the Institute so many years ago, Uncle. My powers have increased since then in ways you can't even imagine. Take...this!

All around Megatokyo, jets of Suyakkui burst anew from the sewers, drawn from hidden reserviors that Michi had been stocking over the last year. The massive columns rose above the skyline, towering above the mountains of steel and glass that made up the city. Terrified citizens watched, too awed to move, as living masses of purple slime shot through the air across city blocks, winding through streets and around buildings like gelatinous, eyeless worms; burrowing with feverish hunger into the gargantuan purple curtain that was Miramoto's Suyakkui Sea. Michi's influence thus spread, the chaos of battle raged on; filling the streets of Shibuya with its evil-smelling runoff. The populace, half-mad with horror, could only watch dumbfounded as the unimaginable nightmare continued.

Forked shards of lightning crackled through the Sea as the two mental forces waged war upon each other. The Sea boiled, twisting in upon itself as Michi fought for control of the massive blob; which continued to spread.

An impressive move, said Miramoto's voice. But I'm afraid it won't save you, my dear. And it's a pity, too. At one time, you held such promise. His words rang true--even with the fresh infusion of Michi-controlled Suyakkui, Miramoto had begun to isolate his niece's influence over the Sea, cutting off the flow of her energy throughout the quivering mass. You see how easily I suppress your efforts? Your powers shall never be equal to mine, foolish girl.

Michi was wracked with mental anguish, feeling the Sea contract around her; sensing Miramoto's psionic probes prickling her consciousness with electrical jolts. She howled noiselessly. Recoiling, she regrouped her Suyakkui and launched another attack at the core of the Sea. She withdrew into a mental shell, drawing her psionic influence around herself like armor.

Of course, there is another option, said Miramoto's voice. Quit this pointless exercise and join me...it is your only chance to survive. Together, you and I could wield such power over these pathetic humans. We are their betters, after all; it's only right that people like us should rule the planet--and after tonight, my child, that rule will be MINE. Michi could see Miramoto in her mind's eye...a beatific expression on his face, his hand outstretched, reaching out to take her away from the madness and pain. Come. Join me. Rule by my side. It is your destiny.

If she had had lips, Michi would have sneered. The trap had been set perfectly. Miramoto had taken the bait, like she knew he would. Mentally, she hissed one word--S-S-S-S-S-S-SUCKER!!!

Michi's Suyakkui crystallized, expanding into the Sea and cracking it wide open. Spiky, barbed tenrils of hard metal jabbed into the soft, squishy ooze, absorbing and freezing it solid like liquid nitrogen. Miramoto's voice howled in frustration as the amount of Suyakkui he controlled dropped to practically nothing; what was left of his influence floundered pathetically against Michi's psionic lockdown.

The solidified Suyakkui sea now hovered above Megatokyo like some huge, sparkling sea anemone; supported by crystalline pillars that sprouted from the surface of the city. A full moon shone darkly through its translucent body, bathing the earth below in eerie purple light.

The small, gelatinous blobs of Suyakkui still under Miramoto's control fell from the solid mass onto the streets below, exploding into huge clouds of cockroaches that scattered instantly, free from their cruel master's mental controls. Try though he did, Miramoto's attempts to regain control were for naught--he railed against Michi's psionic power, trying to find a weak spot in her armor. This--this cannot be! I am the master! I am in control! You...you cannot DO THIS!

YOU JUST DON'T GET IT, DO YOU? Michi's voice bellowed through the ether. This isn't about POWER anymore. This isn't about CONTROL. This isn't about the rest of the world! The solid mass of Suyakkui had begun to shift, slowly changing shape under Michi's influence. I'm sick and TIRED of your pathetic attempts to control me! Every time I fall asleep I can hear your voice in my mind, trying to sneak into my thoughts...trying to take the power that I spent YEARS building up! Trying to bring me to your side so I can be your slave...your WHIPPING BOY! NO MORE! Now, it's just YOU...and ME.

Huge areas of the Suyakkui Sea melted and re-solidified, moving mass around and forming itself into a different shape; looking much like a living ice-sculpture. Soon, it stood above the city on two thick, multi-jointed pillars as the mass bubbled and frothed, forming a humaniform torso and arms.

You wanted me, Uncle, said Michi's voice. And now you're gonna get me. *ALL* of me! The mass of Suyakkui had formed itself into a monstrous humanoid figure that dwarfed the city around it. Two piercing white eyes burned from its smooth, glassy face. It began to walk slowly forward, sending violent tremors through the ground as it headed for Miramoto Tower.

"Oi! You guys!" Trixie yelled down the elevator shaft. "Up here, hurry up!"

On the floor below, Nichiren and Unagi wrenched the elevator door open and peered up at Trixie. "Mistress! Are you unharmed?" asked Unagi.

"I'm slightly singed, but otherwise peachy. C'mon y'all, we have another elevator to catch!"

Unagi and the two wolf-demons scaled the inside of the shaft and joined Trixie on the fifth floor. "Okay, we need to get to the freight elevator on the other side of this floor. That should take us all the way to the penthouse level, and..." Trixie stopped and tilted her head to one side, squinting quizzically at Tatewaki.

"Oh! Ah, Trixie-chan, I'd like you to meet--" Nichiren stammered.

"Noodle Boy!" exclaimed Trixie, cheerfully leaping into Tatewaki's arms. "I almost didn't recognize you with your clothes on!" She began to vigarously scratch him behind the ears, making his leg twitch and causing Nichiren to blush through her fur. "Who's a good boy! Who's a big bad wolfy doggy demon boy widda fuzzy fuzzy head? Yes oo are, yesss oo are! Aww, izzums big bad fuzzy-wuzzy...mama gonna take you home with her, yes she is!" Trixie was enjoying herself a little too much.

"Erm...ah, yes, well..." A large sweatdrop fell from Tatewaki's forehead.

Trixie addressed Nichiren. "Nichi-chan, he's so cuu-uuute! You two are going to have *adorable* puppies together. Can I have one if I promise to take good care of it, pleeeeease pretty please? I'll walk it every day and clean up after it and feed it and give it a bath every daaaay! PLEEEEEEASE?"

Nichiren crumpled under the collossal weight of her embarrassment. "Onegaiiii~..." she whimper-moaned, growing pale.

"Ahm, Mistress Kitsune..." Unagi tried to get Trixie's attention and was ignored.

Trixie turned back to Tatewaki, twisting her fingers in the long locks of silver fur on his scalp. "So, tall dark and scruffy," she giggle-snorted, "just what in the world *are* you doing in Miramoto Tower? Sightseeing? Industrial espionage? Looking for things to take a whizz on?"

"Uh...well...I'd love to tell you, miss, but I...don't think we have the time." Gently, he set Trixie down and looked past her; where countless dozens of Ninjamecha had arrived silently and had advanced on the foursome like a metal shadow. Trixie yelped and jumped over to Unagi's side, who stood firmly defiant against the encroaching attackers. "More of Miramoto's metal warriors. Fodder for my blades," said Unagi.

Nichiren was taken aback by the suddenness of the Ninjamechs' approach and momentarily forgot herself. "Tatewaki! Stay back, they have swords!" she cried out, shielding him from harm.

"Yasha-san; we *all* have swords," growled Unagi irritatedly, drawing his katana and wakizashi.

"Oh...right. Sorry." Nichiren drew her katana as Trixie called Aingeal on her right. "Taki, what about you?"

"Do not fret, love;" said Tatewaki, pulling a hachimaki out from the inner folds of his robes and tying it around his forehead, "I have not come...unprepared!" He made a strange gesture in the air. "Ii-IKUZE!..." he grunted, and the shape of a massive metal club appeared in his left hand. Tatewaki hefted it in a killing stroke and gestured towards the approaching Ninjamecha with a crooked finger, lips curled in a defiant sneer. "Begin."

With that, the battle commenced. Unagi was the first to enter the fray, addressing his robotic enemies with a deafening battle-cry and laying into their metal bodies with the speed and grace of a true artist of swordsmanship. They came apart before him, limbs flying like broken reeds before a scythe, Unagi's swords flowing like electrified water through a river of black cloth. Nichiren quickly followed suit, her canine legs propelling her upwards and over the Ninjamechs; she had neatly beheaded seven before her wolflike paws had touched the ground. They quickly encircled the demon-girl, but Nichiren whirled her katana in a broken circle, striking key points on the mechs' armor. Half a second later, the mecha simultaneously collapsed into piles of robot parts, sparking and sizzling. She snarled in victory, and hurled herself back into the battle.

Trixie spun her magical sword ahead of her like a buzzsaw, its green fire cleaving easily through the Ninjamech's armor. She stabbed one in the chest, pulled it back and, lifting it above her head, hurled the mech towards a small group of its cohorts, downing them effectively. She spin-kicked another, ripping its head clean off; and plowed into the spasming body with her shoulder. She used the mech's body as a battering ram, running with it and slamming into a small group of other mechs, crushing them into the wall and cracking their armor plating open like a lobster tail. MMMmmm, lobster, she thought for a split-second before sweep-kicking another Ninjamech's legs out from underneath it and jamming Aingeal in its back, pinning it to the floor.

Tatewaki strode into the center of the battle, swinging his metal club in wide arcs. The Ninjamecha foolish enough to stand in his way were practically disintegrated by the half-demon's club, their bodies reduced to basic electronic components almost instantly. He cut wide swathes through the attacking horde, growling and snapping, muscles rippling under his kimono.

But almost as quickly as he had begun to fight, there came a change in the Ninjamechs' attacks on Tatewaki. Where before they had dove in headlong to attack him direcly, now they held back, forming a tight circle around him; the circumference of which just barely exceeded the distance of his club's length. He swung at them again and again, hitting only air--they kept their distance, seemingly taunting him with their expressionless electronic eyes.

Tatewaki grew frustrated. "Fight me! Damn you, FIGHT ME!" Frustration gave way to desperation as he began to realize why the Ninjamecha that surrounded him would not attack him. He swung in wider arcs, nearly dislocating both his arms, trying to strike one mech--in a blink of an eye, they would jump to one side or the next, just barely escaping his wrath every time. Tatewaki screamed in rage and mindlessly pummelled the air. As one, the Ninjamecha slinked away from Tatewaki, ignoring him as he nearly collapsed from exertion. "NO!" he shouted.

Nichiren saw all of this. In the blur of combat, out of the corner of her perception, she could see her love strike time and time again at the mecha with all his might, only to see them dance out of his way. This puzzled her, even while she struck down enemies on both sides; she could not help but wonder: What does this mean? Why won't they attack him? Could it be that--NO! In her confusion, a shuriken flung by an unseen Ninjamech embedded itself in her arm. Nichiren shrieked in pain. She quickly dug the chrome-plated star out of her flesh and hurled it with demonic strength back to where it had come from; splitting the Ninjamech completely in half. She pushed her thoughts about her lover aside and focused on the battle itself--no matter what the reason, she knew Tatewaki would have a good reason for what had just happened. He'll HAVE to.

Scattered Ninjamech bodies littered Unagi's path as he continued to slaughter the black-garbed enemies left and right. In Unagi's mind, in the ceaseless roar of combat, the past and the present had begun to blur together. He could smell the smoking cedar wood of his master's burning fortress. He could see the familiar white-and-green sashes of Lord Isao's retainers, splattered as they had been with gore and grime from Unagi's attack. He could taste their blood on his tongue as he struck them down without care or hesitation, feel their rising bloodlust even as his took over his spirit, guiding his blades to intrude upon their soft flesh, driving him ever onward towards the heart of the fortress, and the single act of attrition that would forever seal his doom as a samurai.

His face was a mask of hate. His eyes stared straight forward as he cut down his foes. His jaw clenched in determination...

The Oni...

Something in Unagi's mind stirred--a memory...a recent memory.

The mask of the Oni...

The horned mask of the warrior in his dream--the maddening vision that the warlord Miramoto had placed in Unagi's mind. Did it have deeper significance? Was it a portent of his destiny?

The mask...behind the mask was I...I am the Oni. I AM THE ONI!

Unagi flashed back to the dream--the blood on the blade, his brother and sister-in-law lay dying in pools of their own blood on the tatami mat of his brothers' house. The sword had been Unagi's...as had been the hand that guided it. The mask fell to the floor, clattered ominously against the overwhelming silence. A strange drumming began to pound in his ears.

The Oni...THE ONI!

"NOOOO!!!" cried Unagi, slicing through the last of the Ninjamecha that had surrounded him. They fell, shattering into tiny pieces by the force of his blow. Trembling, Unagi sheathed his katana and wakizashi. "What have I become?" he asked out loud. "The Oni...my master..."

In his heart, Unagi had always known that his master's slaughter was an act of rage. But now, five hundred years later and in a world he could never truly understand, he finally came to realize what he had done. The ghosts of his brother and his wife could never be truly avenged as long as he let the Oni--Unagi's hatred--rule his actions. Killing Lord Isao had not been an act of a bushi--had he committed that murder with a clear heart and head, had he not allowed his actions to be fueled by rage; perhaps then could he have committed seppuku with a clear conscience. But his anger had kept him from taking the noble route. The spirits of the people he had sought to avenge would never gain peace until Unagi could quell his anger and commit himself to true bushido--until then, he would forever be the Oni, doomed to spill their blood time and time again in his dreams.

Unagi dropped to his knees and took a deep breath, closing his eyes. He remembered his moment of satori on the rooftop, a moment of transcendent clarity so pure that it had hurt; shaking his consciousness to its very foundations. It was this same satori that broke through to him now. Now, he saw the true path of bushido before him, illuminated as if by the light of a thousand sunrises. It seemed to Unagi that the path had laid before him all his life--now all there was to do was to set upon it on the right foot.

Unagi opened his eyes, feeling only stillness in his heart and soul. A group of Ninjamecha was indeed speeding his way, weapons drawn. Unagi felt no fear, no rage, no desire to cut them down. He felt his body begin to move, reacting naturally to the situation like a machine. He drew his swords and, moving efficiently and calmly, sliced through the mechs' black armor with surprisingly little effort. Unagi allowed his body to follow through with his sword strokes, moving as if in a dream. To others it would have appeared that he was moving at blinding speeds; faster than Unagi had ever gone before. To him, though; it seemed as if he and his opponents were floating through the air as though underwater, parrying each others' blows with graceful fluidity. In a matter of seconds, he had cut down twice as many has he had before; though still they came. He calmly pressed onwards, feeling only tranquility in his soul.

Trixie's fighting style differed from Unagi's, in that it was a lot less reliant on inner tranquility; and much more dependant on a mental soundtrack of hardcore punk-rock and a willingness to gleefully destroy other people's property. At that moment, she was busy tossing a heavy desk at her nearest opponent, howling her lungs out. It crashed against the Ninjamech, trapping him underneath and squishing his circuitboards. She hoppped from desk to desk in the office space, kicking monitors and desk lamps at her pursuers, and generally having a fun time jumping around and breaking things.

She had reached the end of the office space, and still she was hemmed in by Ninjamechs. "Don't you guys ever go on break?" she sneered, ducking around a corner and sprinting down a corridor that lead to the main open area of the fifth floor. Out of the corner of her eye, Trixie spotted a cushy leather office chair sitting unattended in a private office. "Ooh! Instant fun!" she said, formulating a bizarre plan. She dragged the chair out into the corridor, sat down in it and pulled out her Maulers. "Over here, suckers!"

A gaggle of Ninjamecha rounded the corner. Trixie opened fire on them, sending the office chair flying back in the opposite direction on its casters. She whooped and hollered with delight, mowing down the black-clad droids as she sped backwards. But a poorly-placed Ninjamech limb--probably having been sliced off by Unagi--blocked her chair's progress and tipped it over; sending Trixie tumbling onto the floor.

Quickly, she picked herself up. "Aw, man! I was just starting to enjoy that!..." Trixie noticed that one Ninjamech of the group that had chased her was still standing--in fact, it was charging towards her with sword drawn and raised above its head. Trixie looked at the office chair and grinned madly. With a "hup...hup...HAAAAHH!" she had righted it, started it rolling, and was "surfing" it in the charging Ninjamech's direction.

The two collided. Trixie jumped and kicked forward with both feet, knocking the mech's sword out of its hands and wrapping her legs against its neck. She back-somersaulted, bringing the mech's body to the ground so that she ended up sitting on its chest; its flailing head between her thighs.

"Hey, while you're down there..." she started with a saucy wink, but thought better of it and twitched her knees, snapping the Ninjamech's metal spine. "Eh...you're not really my type, anyway." She stood and wrenched the mech's head from its neck, then turned and tossed it at another mecha that was trying to sneak up on her from behind. It dropped, fried circuits crackling. Behind it, Trixie could see a long corridor that lead to a foyer, in which she could just barely spot a pair of metal doors. That's it! That's the elevator! She drew her Mauler and fired into the air three times. "MARINES!" she shouted to Unagi, Nichiren and Tatewaki. "WE ARE LEAVING!" She gestured to them to follow her.

In a matter of seconds, her three comrades had joined her at the entrance to the corridor. "There's so many of them!" shouted Nichren breathlessly as she reached the entrance.

"You okay?" asked Trixie, eyeing Nichiren's wound.

"I'm fine." She nodded towards Unagi and Tatewaki, who were running to catch up. "Here they come." She grabbed on to Tatewaki as he arrived.

"Okay you guys, elevator's at the end of this hallway. C'mon!" Trixie waved them along but stayed at the entrance, watching the approaching wave of Ninjamecha. Nichiren and Tatewaki started towards the elevator, but Unagi hesitated. "Mistress? What are you doing?"

Trixie pulled her last grenade from her belt. "Sending our pals a little present and covering our butts. Now get going, Uni-san! Get on that elevator NOW!" She grabbed Unagi's shoulders, turned him around and slapped him on the ass, sending the samurai--shocked and somewhat reluctantly--on his way.

Trixie tossed the grenade up in the air and caught it casually as one would a baseball, cooly staring down her foes with a smirk as they steadily approached. "It was fun playing with you, boys, but I'm afraid we just can't stay--gotta hot date with the big boss. Say hello to Joey for me! HuuuAAHH!" Trixie pulled the pin and tossed it overhand into the center of the group of mecha.

The Ninjamech in the very center of the group quickly extended its hand and caught the grenade. It moved to the front of the group.

"What...the...crap?" Trixie's jaw slackened. "You're not supposed to DO that! You can't just CATCH a grenade! You're supposed to...to...oh...poop." The mech had begun to wind up an overhanded pitch. Trixie squeezed her eyes shut, grimaced, and began to whimper a little, waiting for the inevitable KA-BOOM that would reduce her to her component molecules.

K-tink.

"Whuh?--OOF!" KA-BOOOOOOOOOM!!!

Trixie was dragged backwards down the hallway--well, half-dragged by Tatewaki, half-blown by the explosion, anyway--and fell flat on her back in a smoky cloud of debris. The smiling demon-boy had had the presence of mind to run back down the corridor, pop the grenade back at the Ninjamecha with his metal club and yank Trixie out of the blast radius. They were unharmed but not unhurt. "Are you okay, miss?" asked Tatewaki, picking himself and Trixie up.

"Yeah! Yeah, thanks, I--" Crunching sounds of movement behind them. Not all of the Ninjamecha had been exploded in the blast, and some of them had begun to move through the rubble and flames. "Go! Get to the elevator!" shouted Trixie, clapping Taki on the back. He took the hint and began to run. Trixie turned and drew her Mauler, firing indiscriminately into the wall of fire. She then began to follow the demon-boy, limping painfully.

At the elevator doors, Unagi and Nichiren watched the action unfold. "Are they allright?" asked Nichiren, trying to make out the details at the other end of the corridor.

"Yes, I think--" Unagi started, but stopped. Past Tatewaki and Trixie, a Ninjamech had entered the corridor, heading for both of them. Unagi could see that the black armor had been stripped from one of its arms, and a strange shape--an elongated barrel of some sort--now jutted from the arm's metal musculature. A gun! The barrel was pointed straight at Trixie's back.

There was no time to shout for her to turn around, no time to tell her to run, no time to even think. Unagi sprinted down the corridor, drawing his wakizashi. Tatewaki, confused as to why the samurai was barrelling straight for him, dove out of Unagi's way, flattening himself on the floor. Trixie, still limping towards the elevator doors, glanced up to see Unagi bearing down on her, wakizashi held in his right hand like a javelin.

"GET DOWN!" he roared.

Trixie ducked her head just as Unagi leapt over her, lancing his wakizashi forward in the air. It flew towards the Ninjamech, embedding itself in its chest, sending the robotic killer hurtling backwards. Trixie was out of danger.

But the mech's gun-arm had already been given the command to fire.

In a single thunderclap, Unagi's body was blown back and crumpled to the debris-strewn floor, a crimson stain spreading across the front of his kimono.

Trixie turned, watching him fall. "NOOO!" she screamed, running to him. Nichiren ran to help her.

Together, they dragged Unagi back across the corridor to the elevator doors. His body left behind a smeared trail of red. "Go on, Mistress, please...the mission must be completed," he said, breathing raggedly. "I must..."

"No. No way, I'm not leaving you!" Trixie shouted. She glanced around them, finding a small metal door to the side of the foyer--a broom closet. She gestured to Nichiren and Tatewaki. "Help me. HELP ME! I have to get him in here!" Together, they wrenched the door open to reveal a small, mostly empty room. They carried Unagi's body inside.

Trixie knelt over Unagi, brushing the matted blood and hair out of his face. "I'm not leaving you, Uni-san...I'm not leaving you." She looked up to Nichiren and Tatewaki, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Go."

"But--" started Tatewaki.

"GO!!!" screeched Trixie. Her shrill scream echoed in the small room. "Go NOW!!!" she said, pointing her gun at them. Her teeth were clenched and her gun hand was shaking violently.

Nichiren and Tatewaki exchanged wide-eyed, tortured looks, and quietly left. Trixie watched them enter the elevator together, saw the doors slide shut. She hastily closed and bolted the door to the closet. Trixie knelt at Unagi's side, clutching his hand. "I'm here, Unagi," she said.

"Mistress..." he coughed. "I'm sorry."

"Uni-san, you have nothing to be sorry for. You saved my life, I can't count how many times now. Just don't try to talk, okay?" Trixie flicked on the small lightbulb, fighting back tears, and peeled away a layer of Unagi's kimono. The wound was deep, and he was losing a lot of blood. Trixie found herself totally at a loss--even if she had known something about first aid, would she have been able to save him?

Unagi lifted his hand and closed his kimono. "I am...sorry, Mistress Kitsune. I fear that it is too late for me...and I am sorry that I won't be able to protect you any further." Unagi coughed, speckles of blood coating his lips. His words were strained, forced between lips that grew paler with each passing second. "My only wish...is for your...continued safety."

Trixie grasped his hand. "Don't talk like that. You're going to be okay. You're-you're gonna be just fine! The wound's not that bad, it's, it's just a flesh wound."

Unagi almost laughed. "Mistress, it's so nice of you to try to fool me."

"Unagi-san, please..." Trixie had begun to seriously weep. She held his hand up to her face, bringing his knuckles to her lips.

"Do not grieve...for me, Kitsune-san. Soon I shall rejoin...my ancestors. I only hope that my ghost might...protect you in this strange world." Unagi reached out a finger and touched her cheek. "Such delicate tears, Mistress. Do not fear, for I will always be with you...when you are alone, you will not be alone. I swear it." Unagi wheezed.

"No...Uni...please don't die..."

"I only hope that...I served you well in this life, Mistress." Unagi coughed again, his body shuddering. There was metallic crashing sound outside--a part of her knew that the Ninjamecha had crushed the elevator doors to keep her from joining Nichiren and Tatewaki. She ignored this.

"Unagi...you served me better than you could ever know." She could hear the mecha banging on the door to the closet. They knew she was in there. Not yet. "I couldn't have survived in this place without you...you're my savior, Unagi. You're my big brother, and I love you...I love you very much!" Tears streamed down Trixie's cheeks as she squeezed Unagi's hand. "Please, I..."

Unagi coughed. "Big brother...I like that, Mistress. Very...much." Blood seeped through Unagi's kimono, soaking Trixie's clothes. "I have...come to love you...as well." More banging from outside.

"Uni...if, if you gotta go..." Trixie sighed, swallowing hard; her throat suddenly full of cobwebs and plaster dust. "...it's okay." She kissed him tenderly on the forehead. "Miss you, always...I love you, Unagi-san." Trixie sniffled.

Unagi sighed and smiled, his last breath seeping from his lungs. As his eyes fluttered closed, they opened wide for a moment, focused somewhere out in space. "Brother?" he asked. With that, Unagi's limbs went limp. Crying and shuddering, Trixie touched Unagi's face and closed his eyes.

She hugged Unagi's body, shaking and weeping, rocking back and forth. The Ninjamecha outside continued to beat on the door rhythmically, trying to break it down from the outside. Finally, when she couldn't stand it anymore, she dropped Unagi and wailed, clutching her temples.

"GODDAMMIT!"


"THIS ISN'T SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN!"


"THIS ISN'T HOW THE STORY IS SUPPOSED TO END!!!"


"DO YOU HEAR ME? THIS WASN'T SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN!"


"DAMN YOU! DAMN YOU!!!"


Trixie curled up into a ball, shuddering, sobbing, covered in blood. The banging grew louder and louder. Soon, she could hear a tiny voice in the back of her mind, whispering, like cigarette smoke curled into words.

Come, child.

"No," she sobbed.

This is the only way, child. The only way.

"No! Leave me alone!"

Let me help you. You know that this is the only way.

"I don't wanna," she cried.

Let go, child. Let go.

Trixie could feel the coldness seeping into her blood. Her unseleigh nature, her darker Changeling side, had begun to take hold of her thoughts and actions. Soon, she would be a heartless, unfeeling machine for whom pain would register only as extraneous data, and for whom emotion would be discarded as useless. "No...please," she whimpered. She could feel the colour of her eyes changing from a rich royal purple to an icy shade of blue. "Please don't do this..."

The voices sang to her.

Come away O human child, to the waters and the wild

--hands reaching for guns, methodically reloading them....tears will cleanse the blood from sticky trigger fingers--

With a faery hand in hand,

--slowly standing, bones brittle as talc, skin dry as leather...no more tears, no more sobbing, just breathing in and out--

For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand...

--the banging won't stop and soon they'll be through the door...places, everyone, the show is about to begin--

the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

The door broke off its hinges. Trixie's mind came apart into a symphony of fear and bullets.

Joe tumbled from One's cockpit onto the hard tarmac. He coughed and wheezed, crouched over with his hands on his knees. A thin trickle of blood ran from the corner of his mouth. Still, he managed a grin as he straightened his spine and glowered at the approaching Messerschmidts. "Allright," he said, hands on hips, as if he were a Little League coach addressing a rival team, "you sons-of-bitches ready to surrender?"

The mobile suits halted. Germanic laughter boomed from their loudspeakers. One by one, the pilots shut down their suits and lowered themselves to the street on zip-lines. They continued to laugh heartily as they surrounded Joe in a half-circle, smirking brightly. Their leather jumpsuits gleamed dully in the reflected flames.

General Kraken had exited his suit and joined his men, smiling like a chess grandmaster who had finally cornered a worthy opponent, and was savoring the moment before declaring checkmate. His five-foot-seven frame was wiry and spare, and his cleanly-shaved head was criscrossed with scars. He removed his gloves and addressed Joe in English. "So, this is the Amerikaner we have been chasing all this time? A simple footsoldier, it would seem. A decent mechanic, no doubt. But not a true warrior, I am afraid. Such a pity. I had expected a greater challenge."

"You," said Joe, his eyes focusing. "You're Kraken."

"General Kraken, if you please, Herr 'Joe.' Soon to be Head Commandant of this world's most powerful armed force. It is a shame that it won't be the same world I had hoped to help conquer, but I have found that one world is as good as another, ja? And once this world is under Miyamoto's control, we shall return to Germany to continue our service to the Axis."

Joe wasn't listening. His eyes had focused hard and glassy, giving Kraken and his men what Joe's drill seargeant had called 'the two-thousand-yard stare.' "I was there. Bleibtrau Hospital in Dusseldorf. You bombed it."

"Ach. Yes, I recall that one. A standard military surgical strike. Necessary measures, to be sure. A nest of informants and spies, you see. We of the Reich cannot afford intelligence leaks. You are a military man, I'm sure you understand." Kraken tossed his head back, looking both slightly embarassed and pleased with himself.

"I was there," continued Joe, unwavering. "We heard about the strike five minutes before it happened. I was helping Tank get the wounded out--your wounded, General. Your soldiers and our P.O.W.'s."

"You Allied scum. Your compassion is your greatest weakness."

"I'm not finished, punk. We got about half of them out when the buzzbombs landed. Uber Alice was helping clear out the obstetrics ward..." Joe's voice cracked. He had always tried hard not to think about that day, but now the memories came flooding back. Joe's sadness churned in the fiery forge of his guts and was melted down into white-hot rage. His teeth clenched and his hands formed rock-hard fists. "She didn't make it out. Neither did any of those innocent women and children. Two hundred and twenty-three dead. I got out alive. Tank was right behind me..." Joe swallowed hard. "He made it clear but he took fifteen pounds of shrapnel. It looked like he'd been mauled by hungry bears. His last words..." Joe reached behind him and drew a wicked-looking bowie knife, twelve inches long if it was an inch, with a nasty serrated edge and the word "TANK" neatly burned into the wooden handle. "...Tank said to me, 'you find that General Kraken...and you cut that son-of-a-bitch's heart right out.' I don't know how you do things in Germany, but back home, we believe in honoring a dyin' man's last request."

Kraken laughed--haughty indifference coloured with the palest tint of nervousness--and clapped his hands. "Ah! Such melodrama! A wonderful performance, Amerikaner. I had no idea that you were so talented." Kraken's men snickered. He continued, "But this is where your performance draws to a close. I am a busy man, Herr Joe, and you have taken up enough of my time. I bid you audwiedersen." Kraken snapped his fingers. "Dieter! If you please..."

One of the mecha pilots who had stood back from the group stomped into the forefront. He was a monstrosity of a man, at least seven-and-a-half feet tall, his flightsuit bulging obscenely with rippling muscle. He looked strong enough to lift a Messerschmidt and toss it thirty meters--or crush it into a tiny metal ball. Dieter heaved his massive bulk in front of Joe and sized up the American pilot, staring down with beady little red eyes.

Joe smirked and sheathed his knife. "Hmf. The bigger they come," he said to himself. Joe went into his familiar fighting stance, knuckles up, and brushed his nose with his thumb. "C'mon Frankenstein, let's dance," he said, going into his boxer's shuffle.

Dieter just stood there, motionless. An unmovable rock. A Teutonic Monolith.

"Allright then--" said Joe, heaving his left fist at Dieter's stomach. The impact sounded--and felt--like Joe had slammed his fist into a brick wall. He recoiled, grimacing in pain, and launched a right hook to Dieter's jaw. THUD. Like pounding against a cannonball. Joe was confused--how could anybody be this tough? Out of options, Joe sent the toe of his boot hurtling towards Dieter's crotch--it reverberated off the Nazi's yarbles with a resounding "CLANG."

"Gaah!" shouted Joe. In frustration, he hurled his fist at Dieter again--who caught and twisted it, spinning Joe's body like a pinwheel. Dieter flung Joe backwards, displaying about as much effort as a normal man would opening up the Sunday paper. Joe landed hard and sprung back up, determined. He ran up to Dieter and, avoiding Dieter's lunge, ducked under the huge Nazi's legs and leapt up on his back, trying to throttle him. Dieter calmly hyper-extended his arms and grabbed Joe by the shoulders, flinging him like a sack of garbage about twenty feet, where Joe collided with One's right leg.

"Do you like your new playmate, ah, Amerikaner?" asked Kraken, chortling, watching Joe struggle to his feet. "My man Dieter is a prototype of the New Soldier that will supplant the Steel Tide and insure victory for the Axis. Grown in a test tube, and outfitted with the latest in bionics--genetic and biological engineering at its finest. Mein Fuerher will be proud, ja? With Megatokyo technology on our side, it will be a very simple process to wipe out the Allied forces, once Herr Miyamoto returns us to the Fatherland. Wouldn't you agree?"

"Never," growled Joe, spitting blood onto the tarmac. "Your days are numbered--yours and your Fuerher's. You might get rid of me here today, but you better believe back home there's a lot more guys just like me who won't give up--who won't rest--until every one of you fascists get what's coming to you." Joe stood up straight, his chest heaving, jaw set in determination. "Freedom can't be stopped. Hope can't be crushed. And brother, you shoulda known better than to mess with the United States of America!"

"Enough rhetoric! Dieter, destroy him!" cried Kraken.

The man-made monster advanced towards Joe, making the ground tremble with every footstep. Joe smacked One's lower leg section with the flat of his hand, releasing his tools from a hollow compartment. Joe picked up a socket wrench the size of a fence-post and, feinting under Dieter's open-handed strike, swung at his head like Babe Ruth. A breadbox-sixed dent appeared in Dieter's head. As the monstrous Nazi staggered back, Joe ran back to One's right leg--his eyes found the newly-carved weld where, just a few days ago, the knee joint had collapsed. Joe dug the prongs of the wrench into the weld and pulled hard, popping out the joint and splitting the hydraulic line.

Dieter had recovered enough to start back towards Joe. He never saw what was about to hit him--but the screams of his terrified comrades should have been clue enough. Joe's mech toppled forward, depositing five tons of Detroit steel and Megatokyo technology right on top of Dieter and two of the other Messerschmidt pilots, crushing them instantly. Joe, hefting his socket wrench over his shoulder, stepped over the wreckage of his mech and addressed Kraken and the remaining pilots. With a gleam in his eye, he crooked his finger at them in a beckoning motion and bared his teeth. "Next."

For a second, the three Nazis regarded Joe with the awe and horror they had only before experienced through the faces of their victims. Then Kraken, white as a sheet, turned tail and ran, followed by one of the two remaining pilots. The other pilot, quivering like a leaf, drew his trusty Luger and swore at Joe in German. Joe strode up to him casually, smiling. "Hey, ah, pal...you forgot to take the safety off."

"Vas?..." said the pilot, confused.

"Yeah, the safety. Little switch on the side there. Like that." Joe reached over and clicked off the gun's safety.

The pilot smiled, nervously. "D...d...danke schoen."

"Don't mention it." Joe swung the wrench one-handed, driving it down on the pilot's head, knocking him into a deep, dark oblivion.

General Kraken and his remaining pilot scrambled through the city streets pell-mell, losing their sense of direction. Soon, they found themselves at a dead end, surrounded by flaming wreckage of cars and buildings--the fallout of the mecha battle. "Mein Herr," said the pilot, "perhaps we should back-track. I think I saw a way..." The pilot hiccupped and stopped speaking. He looked down at his chest to see two metal prongs jutting out of his jumpsuit. The pilot's eyes rolled up in the back of his head, and he collapsed, spilling forward. Joe had hurled his wrench over his head like a tomahawk, and his weapon had found purchase in the pilot's back. Stepping over the rubble, Joe called out to the General. "We were talking about the last request of a dying man, Herr Kraken. So, tell me...what's your last request?" He drew his knife, placed it between his teeth pirate-style, and charged full-bore at the General.

--------------------------

Maji was getting anxious. She had long run out of helicopters to shoot down, and Megatokyo Police activity was scattered and chatotic. The skies of Megatokyo were calming down, but the action on the ground was heating up. Now that the Suyakkui Sea had split open, opening up the streets leading into the Shibuya Megaplex, police cruisers and armored vehicles had begun to swarm towards Miramoto Tower. Maji scanned the desolate, burning streets of the city as she flew above them.

Maji knew she should probably get to Miyamoto Tower soon and assist her comrades in the assault--but something else bothered her. Joe. She flipped on her scanner--faint signs of life three blocks down. She increased her flight-suit's speed, only to find--oh no--One, a discarded hulk, laying face-down on the blacktop without a pilot. Please please please let him be okay, she thought, as she sped towards the flickering life-signs.

Joe was slumped against the remains of a gutted sedan, sucking on an unlit filterless Chesterfield. He leaned his head over and lit the cigarette on an open flame sputtering from the engine housing, taking a deep drag. He blew the smoke out and coughed a little, holding his ripped tank top over the bullet wounds in his shoulder and chest. "It's good to be alive," he mused aloud, "very damned good to be alive."

Maji buzzed overhead and descended to the vacant lot. "Joe! I'm so glad I found you! Are you okay?" she asked.

"Ah, kid," he said, "you are a sight for sore eyes. How ya doin'?"

"I'm fine--" she said, touching down and running over to Joe. "You're hurt!" she said, greatly dismayed.

Joe gave her a 'what are you talking about?' look, then glanced down at the bloody cloth he was clutching to his arm and chest. "Oh, what, this? Ahh, it ain't much. It stings a little bit, but I've had plenty worse." His charm, though false, was infectious. Maji found herself smiling back at Joe.

"Come on," she said, helping him up. "I'll get you out of here."

"What? Like, fly me out? Don't trouble yourself, sugar, I'll walk. There's a bus stop three blocks down--"

"I won't hear it. I won't," she said, putting a finger to his lips, "hear a word of it. Just relax and let me take care of you."

Joe grumbled and mumbled as he lifted himself into Maji's arms. Something felt wrong about this in a way that kinda bothered him. Wasn't the guy supposed to carry the girl off in his arms and not the other way 'round? But the gentle smile behind Maji's faceplate made all the pain that Joe was in seem to melt away. A big goofy grin slapped itself on Joe's face.

"So what happened to One? And what were you doing down there, anyway?" asked Maji.

"Well, One put in a hard day's work, you know? And I guess you could say I was saying goodbye...to some old friends." The two spun away into the Megatokyo night sky.

--------------------------

They lit down on a rooftop across from Megatokyo Tower. "Why're we stoppin' here?" asked Joe.

"Take a look for yourself," said Maji, walking to the ledge and powering down her FlightSuit. "And keep low."

They peered off the edge of the roof to see at least ten dozen squads of Megatokyo's Finest, armed to the teeth and swarming the streets around the Tower. Heavy armored vehicles and SWAT teams were moving into position, ready to take on whatever armed force was currently raiding the Tower. Spotlights swept back and forth, playing against the Tower's matte-black surface. "Holy sheeze," said Joe, "lookit all those cops. I ain't seen so much security since Joe Louis came to town...hey, wouldja look at that!" He pointed his finger at a small red blur that was weaving its way through multiple troop emplacements. "Ain't that whats-is-name's jalopy? You know, the lil' grease monkey with the blue hair."

"Andy-san!" Maji leaned forward and switched on her telescopic view. Sure enough, it was the candy-apple-red sports car careening around police vehicles and through swarms of helmeted riot cops; piloted by a rather agitated-looking--and yet somewhat serene--Andy Montgomery. Maji could see an exhausted face framed by bright pink hair--Keomi!--who actually seemed to be enjoying herself.

"It's him. Them. Keomi's with him, she looks fine!"

"Allright! The babe's in the bag, now all we gotta worry about is taking that Miramoto guy out of the picture."

"All this police activity is going to make getting to the Tower extremely difficult," said Maji, scanning the area and taking inventory of the heavy equipment being paraded around. "If I could just hit that troop transport there, and that HARV there...that might scatter them enough so we could get across before they could regroup. Let's see..." Maji brought her laser rifle around and loaded a vector solution into the targeting computer.

Joe put his hand on Maji's shoulder. "I don't think that's such a good idea there, sugar. These boys got sharpshooters all over this place; they run a line-of-sight on that pop gun a'yours and we're both suckin' lead. Not to mention they're all civvies, ya know, they're just doin' their jobs. Besides," he said, "what's gonna stop 'em from blastin' us once we get back outta that Tower? We can't exactly come out and say 'hey guys, we're on your side' and expect 'em to believe us."

"Hmm." Maji shut down her targeting computer and placed the rifle aside. "I suppose you're right. So we're stuck here for right now...but how are we going to get the strike team out once we're done?"

Below them, Andy's sports car made another circuit through the police barricades, careening around a corner and trying to find an exit. "And what're those two gonna do?" asked Joe.

Maji shrugged. "Beats me. If Miramoto hadn't shorted out our headsets, I'd ask him myself. Anyway, I'm not worried about them; as long as they remain in the car they should be fine. That thing's nigh-invulnerable."

Joe snapped his fingers and grinned. "The car! That's it! Maji, honey, how much juice you got left in that jet thing?"

Maji checked her gauges. "Enough for another hour's worth of flight, maybe an hour and twenty if I kick in the reserves. Why?"

"I got our escape plan covered. But I need you to go get someone for us. Can you do it?"

"'Get someone?' 'Someone' who?" she asked.

Joe told her. Maji looked at him suspiciously. "Are...you sure about this?"

"Sure as ten dimes gets you a dollar." Joe smirked confidently.

"Well, okay. I guess we don't have any other choice." She flicked a few switches on her arm-mounted control panel and walked towards the other ledge. "I'll be back as soon as I can. I hope this works."

"You're forgetting something," said Joe, following her the the ledge.

"No, actually, I'm not. I've got my rifle right heee--MMMPH!"

In one graceful, Cary Grant-worthy move; Joe swept Maji off her feet and kissed her passionately, deeply. For a second, she fought against him--she wasn't used to physical contact with other human beings, much less being *kissed* by one--but quickly found herself responding in kind to his tender embrace, her body fitting neatly against his. Never before had she felt anything so...right. They were entwined together in a moment that seemed to last both forever and, yet, wasn't nearly long enough...

They broke off the kiss and looked deeply into each other's eyes. "See?" said Joe. "I told ya you were forgetting something."

"Ah...I..." Maji struggled to regain her composure. "Joe...I..." She tried to find the right words, but they wouldn't come.

Joe smiled, gently, and put a finger to her lips. "It's okay," he said, gently lifting her to her feet. "Don't. It's okay."

They stood there for another moment, looking deeply into one another's eyes...then Maji sighed, started the FlightSuit's verniers, and shot away into the inky Megatokyo sky without another word. Joe watched his love disappear into the night and wistfully blew her a solitary kiss.

As he watched Maji fly away, Joe took no notice of the rumbling, crunching sound that was filling the streets around the Tower...the sound which got louder and louder with every passing second.
 
     
 
snowelf 
  teadee
 
04:49pm 01/05/2004
  *Suddenly, Nichiren saw a familiar figure coming into view. Tatewaki, looking wild-eyed, but determined. "Nichi-chan..." he said softly, as Nichiren flew into his arms.

Strangely enough, Tatewaki had no regrets. He knew that his family would probably die, and so would he. But he did not care. All that mattered was Nichiren. He could not do as Miramoto had asked, and kill Nichiren.

"I know you're here to get rid of Miramoto." Tatewaki said firmly. "He knows you are here, and he asked me...to kill you. I can't do that, Nichiren." The wolf-girl smiled. "Then join us, Taki." "If you want me here?" The wolf-boy looked shy all of a sudden, and Nichiren was vididly reminded of the fact that he was just her age. "Of course I do, Taki." She turned to look at Trixie. "You were talking about a plan?"
 
     
 
hemlock_martini 
  teadee
 
04:47pm 01/05/2004
  What Fortunato had said was true. He was hacking into the Miramoto datastructure, but not in a way that any human could ever experience. His electronic consciousness had become one with the uplink, and was speeding like a bullet train towards the heart of the memory core. Around Fortunato, a halo of pure energy buzzed and throbbed; its surface dotted with numbers and arcane signals--the halo extended neon tendrils to ensnare and dissolve the countermeasure attacks launched by Miramoto's security system. Like a white-hot meteor slamming through a frozen glacier, Fortunato's consciousness roared through the delicate crystalline latticeworks of the Miramoto datastructure. He had broken the building itself, impaired its ability to operate, and shut down the computer network--now for the big enchildada, he thought. Fortunato laughed haughtily, punching through the inner firewall and de-rezzing the outside line.

The memory core sat in the middle distance--a metallic orb the size of a small moon, dotted with spikes and spires that crackled with electrical energy, floating in a miasmal sea of purple irridescence. Fortunato, floating in the zero-gee environment, opened up several subcommand windows, beaming at the sight. "There she is," he said, punching commands into the windows, practically slavering at the sight of the Miramoto memory core floating helpless, defensless and demure before him like an unpicked apple ready to be plucked--plucked good and hard. "Come on baby...open on up for daddy..." he muttered, multiple arms sprouting multiple hands to enter innumerable commands. "I crave your sweet...soft...nougaty...caramel...center!"

Whatever he'd done, it appeared to have worked. A spire on the orb elongated, snaked out, stretched itself like a bendy straw towards Fortunato. The spire unfolded its yawning maw, revealing a well-lit tunnel that led to the very center of the Miramoto memory core.

"Oooh, sweetheart," cooed Miramoto. "You won't regret this. Don't worry--" he cracked his knuckles--"I'll be *REAL* gentle. Here I come, baby!" Fortunato sped towards the entrance to the tunnel.

But before he could enter, a series of doors began to slam shut within the tunnel. Fortunato could see them close, one after the other--the final door slammed shut in his face, blocking him from entering the tunnel at all. He skidded to a halt, smirking and rolling up his sleeves with gusto. "Oh, I *love* it when they play hard to get!"

A husky voice from somewhere behind him caught Fortunato's attention. "Asahara, even dead, you're a male chauvinist pig."

He whirled around at the sound of his original human name. "Now, now, Kimiko-chan, you know I haven't answered to that name for a long time." Fortunato smiled brightly at the smoky apparition of Sylph, who stood floating behind him; her vaporous extremities trailing off like mist in light wind. "You're right about the male chauvinist pig thing, though. What can I say, I gotta be me!" He shrugged.

Sylph's glowing green eyes narrowed into slits. "Wretch. You're not worth the zeroes and ones you're encoded with!"

"Ooo--ooo. Scary stuff. I'm all intimidated now. Wanna insult my choice of OS next?"

"You've had your fun here, Fortunato. But now it's time for you to pay." She crossed her arms. "You're a fair opponent. I'll give you one chance to leave now so that we might finish this a different day. But if you refuse..."

"Oh. Well, that's awfully sporting of you, I *must* say." Fortunato floated close to Sylph. "Let me give you a chance of your own, then."

"How charming. You have 10 nanoseconds."

"Come with me." Fortunato's smile was surprisingly genuine, which put Sylph on edge. "Let's do this together, you and me; let's take down Miramoto as a team."

"Are you insane?" Sylph recoiled. "What makes you think I would want to do that?"

Fortunato adjusted his glasses. "Well, for starters, Yosuke's a *badguy.* I mean, I know he's your dad and all, but, you know; I thought you'd notice he's a megalomaniacal nutjob who wants to take over the world. You sorta hang out with him, and it's kinda obvious, don't you think? I mean...*honestly.*"

Sylph's voice was leaden. "You try my patience, corpse. Five nanoseconds."

"Okay, well, consider this," said Fortunato, floating closer. "We're both the best there is at what we do, there's no denying that. We've been playing this little game of cat-and-mouse for years; I attack a database for IS Corp, you try to corrupt my memory files, etcetera etcetera..." Fortunato was actually being charming. Sylph was not used to this at all. "We should be working together for something, at least this once. After all, this *is* my last gig."

"What do you mean by that? Three nanoseconds."

Fortunato smirked. "I'm retiring, babe. I'm through bein' everybody's garbage boy. No more hacking for this cat, I'm getting too old for it. So this is my last job." Fortunato suddenly seized Sylph gently by the upper arms. "C'mon, we should be a team on this one! We'll never get this opportunity again, so why not make the most of it? We get to help save the world, have a little fun, get the fame and acclaim that's rightfully ours..." Fortunato's eyebrow arched. "Maybe, ah, get to know each other a little better...if you know what I mean." He winked, wiggled his eyebrows, and rubbed his thumbs suggestively against her smoky cyberflesh.

Sylph sucker-punched Fortunato in the face, sending him spinning away from her. "Time's up, dead man," she said, her voice brimming over with hatred. "How DARE you ask me to betray my father! Degenerate toad! Your lack of tact is almost as flawed as your sense of decency. When my father's plans succeed, I will be the one standing by his side, ruling in his stead."

"You? Give me a break!"

"Of course, I! Who better to govern the worldwide grid? When I re-enter the world of flesh, I will retain my powers and rule the Net at my father's behest. You, who have no body to return to, could never understand this."

Fortunato adjusted his glasses. "I think you're making some pretty flawed assumptions, there. I also think you're a few gigs short of a terabyte. I guess there's really no hope for you--you're even starting to sound like dear old dad!" He began to re-route power to his icon, growing in apparent size; his musculature shifting, bulking up. "So be it. If you won't listen to reason...I *will* take you down." Forutnato had never sounded so serious.

"Very well, then," said Sylph, changing her mass equally, her icon morphing into that of a vast, tentacled monster-woman. "You'll regret this, I swear it!" Two dark, abstract-looking shapes burst into existence on either side of Sylph--one was squarish, blocky and jagged, like flexible rock that had taken on human form, and the other was jagged and silvery, a shifting, fluid glyph of reflective chrome.

"What's the matter, baby?" said Fortunato. "Don't think you can finish me off yourself? That's called 'cheating,' ya cheeky little minx."

"After all this time, you expect me to fight fair *now?*" sniggered Sylph. "I'm sure you recognize GILGAMESH," she said, indicating the stone-like figure to her right, "and ENKIDU." She gestured to her left at the jagged metal creature. "The boys and I have been waiting for an opportunity like this. First we're going to defeat you and reduce you to your most basic components. Then we're going to cut off your access to the outside world. Then we're going to assimilate your memory banks. And then," she said, practically licking her lips in evil--almost sexual--anticipation, "we're going to have such fun taking you apart, sector...by...sector." To emphasize her point, GILGAMESH flexed his stony muscles and grunted threateningly, while ENKIDU extended a dozen whirling blades and hissed.

"Sylphy, honey, sweetheart, light of my life; I'd just love to see you try." Fortunato squared his shoulders and beckoned to his opponents. "Bring it."

DING!

The doors to the freight elevator opened up on Level 5.

Immediately, a horde of Ninjamecha--who had been lying in wait for the elevator's eventual arrival--pounced at the threshhold and readied their weapons, preparing to exterminate anything inside.

The inner door slid open, revealing three bare walls and a floor. Nobody and nothing inside.

If they had been human, the Ninjamechs might have groaned in disappointment or confusion. They might have shrugged sheepishly at one another and gone about their business, or perhaps they would have searched the elevator to make sure it was entirely empty. Being machines, of course, they simply slinked back into position and began to return to their hiding places.

Most of them had made it back before a shrill whistle got their attention. They spun around to see Trixie, hanging upside-down from the ceiling of the elevator, grinning. "Hey stoopids! TIME TO DIE!" She drew her Maulers and mowed down a dozen Ninjamechs, firing on full-auto, twisting and pivoting her body like a gun turret. Pieces of black armor and bits of wiring and circuit-board shrapnel flew through the air. Trixie pulled her body back into the elevator just as the doors slid shut.

It took about two seconds for the remaining Ninjamecha to reach the elevator doors. Working as a team, they wrenched it open, once again revealing an empty elevator--Trixie had escaped through the emergency hatch in the ceiling. The 'mechs flooded into the elevator, grasping for the hatch.

Trixie had shimmied her way up the elevator's support cable and got a hand-hold on a crossbeam. The Ninjamechs had made it onto the roof of the elevator and were quickly climbing after her. Trixie wrapped her legs around the crossbeam and, inverting her body, fired point-blank at the advancing 'mechs; being careful not to hit the roof of the elevator itself. "C'mon...just a few more of you...c'mon..." she muttered, hastily reloading and squeezing off a couple parting shots.

The maximum possible number of Ninjamecha had now completely filled the elevator. Its roof was covered in 'mecha, both functional and non-functional; with the functional ones trying desperately to scramble up the support cable. Trixie harnessed her Maulers and drew Aingeal, dropping down onto the cable itself, mere inches from the closest Ninjamech. She winked at it and pursed her lips. With a playful "Okay I luv yoo buh-bye!" she swiped her sword through the cable right below her handhold, cutting loose the elevator and its robotic cargo. The elevator plummeted into the deepest darkness of the thirty-five stories-tall shaft, leaving behind a yawning vacuum of whooshing air and one rather pleased fox-girl, hanging by a frayed metal cable and giggling to herself. "Cool! It worked! Yatta! Go me!"

As she climbed back up to the crossbeam, Trixie tried to work out in her head how fast the elevator was going, and how far it had already traveled in relation to what floor it would be closest to. She also wondered if the Ninjamecha had noticed the remote charges she had placed all over the roof and ceiling of the elevator. She frowned for a second, trying to ponder all of the variables. "Ah, f*ck it," she said, wrapping her legs back around the crossbeam, pulling the detonator remote off her belt and thumbing the activator with glee. "Go boom now!"

A huge rumbling noise thundered through the elevator shaft, bringing with it a gust of super-heated air. Far below her, Trixie could see something glowing blue--a tower of flame that was engulfing everything in its wake. It hurtled up the shaft, speeding towards her small and highly flammable body. Momentarily panicked, Trixie dropped the remote and tried to wrench her legs free from the crossbeam. After a few frantic tugs, she had been able to wrest herself free from her precarious perch; she had however, in her haste, neglected to find anything else to hang on to, and began to free-fall.

Trixie yowled, frantically and comically waving her arms and legs like it would help her to somehow develop the power of flight. Various lives--not just hers but also those of well-known celebrities, historical figures and fictional characters--passed before her eyes as she plummeted towards her certain fiery doom.

Suddenly a huge rush of hot air pushed upwards by the blue fireball caught Trixie's body and sent it speeding upwards. Trixie was surprised to find herself capable of the thought that this was, at least, *slightly* better than falling; but it didn't stop her from screaming. Then, in a feat of aerial acrobatics rivaling anything ever done by the Flying Elvises, Trixie shot out of the elevator shaft, propelled by the jet of hot air onto the fifth floor where she flew across the office space and collided SPLAT face-first with a window, slightly singed and flatter than usual; but very much alive.

Her body slowly peeled itself away and Trixie lay flat on her back on the fifth floor. She whipped out her lighter and a slightly bent cigarette. Lighting the cig, she took a long, long drag and let out the smoke slowly, contemplatively. "I love it when a plan comes together," she said.

"PLASMA LANCE!!!" Jagged electric bolts of fury pulsed forth from Sylph's fingertips, striking at Fortunato. He ducked and dodged around the energy projectiles, weaving through the bolts like a jetfighter dodging oncoming missles. Around them, the Miramoto datastructure quaked and throbbed, overloading with power from the cyber-battle raging between Sylph and Fortunato.

They had fought like this for what had seemed like hours, but in reality only seconds had passed--Sylph would launch a powerful attack, and Fortunato would slip out of her grip; safe but utterly unable to launch an attack of his own. GILGAMESH and ENKIDU saw to that, keeping the interloper in check while Sylph's powers recharged.

Fortunato, though he was growing frustrated, was also loving the attention; not to mention the ample opportunity to taunt the living daylights out of Sylph. He backflipped and spun through another array of bolts, grinning like a madman. "Yeah, baby! I got yer Plasma Lance right here!" He leered and posed, thrusting his pelvis suggestively. "Oh YEAH!"

Sylph, enraged, brought her hands back above her head. Needless to say, she didn't appreciate Fortunato's not-so-subtle sense of humour. "Why...won't...you...just...DIE?!?!?" She flung her hands down, unleashing a barrage of more powerful bolts. Fortunato stood his ground and, bringing his index and middle fingers together, quickly traced a semicircle in the air around his body, out of which burst a stream of purple flame. "POWER WAVE! ABSORB!" said Fortunato, giving voice command to a defense subroutine. Sylph's bolts struck the flame and were instantly sucked in, changing the flame into a perfectly round orb of boiling energy that hovered motionless in front of Fortunato. "And...REFLECT!" Fortunato punched through the orb with the flat of his hand, sending it hurtling towards Sylph. It struck Sylph's Gorgon-like icon in the solar plexus, draining some of her energy but fueling her rage.

"Damn you, Asahara!" she screamed, recoiling as the plasma energy crackled and arced over her icon, burning her armor-hard skin. "You don't get it, do you? You're a corpse who lacks the common sense to know when he's dead and buried! A reanimated cretin, barely even powerful enough to imitate human form!" Her blazing green eyes peered down on him with hatred and condescension. "You are a mere puppet, a shadow of a living thing! I don't know why I'm wasting my energy on a pathetic worm such as you!"

Fortunato paused, faux-confused. "So...are...you coming on to me or something? Because, see, I was under the impression that we had a 'working relationship,' and it's my understanding that going beyond those boundaries can sometimes cause problems, so you see..."

"EEEEEYYYYAAAAAARGH!!!" Sylph arched her back and howled in rage, the datastructure shuddering violently from the force of her anger. GILGAMESH and ENKIDU sped towards Fortunato, swinging wildly. Fortunato snapped his fingers. "MINISPLIT!" Fortunato's body came apart, forming itself into several dozen tiny versions of himself, flowing over the two enforcers like a swarm of bees and heading for Sylph. "RAMMING SPEED!" their tiny voices cried as one, attacking Sylph's massive icon.

"What?" Sylph tried to brush off the chibi-Fortunato clones, but there were simply too many--punching, kicking, biting her cyber-armor, crawling all over her body, taunting and laughing. "Get OFF me, you...little...FREAKS!" She tried to shake them off, but no use--the chibis were just as tenacious as their progenitor, holding on to her enormous frame with grim determination. From the sound of things, it appeared as if they were enjoying the ride--some even shouted "more, more! Go faaaster! WHEEEEE!" as Sylph whipped her body around, trying to rid herself of the insectile invasion. She tried not to think of where on her body the tiny perverts wanted to climb next. She brushed more fervently, shaking a few loose--but the rest had already crawled up onto her back and re-formed into a single, regular-size Fortunato. Before Sylph could do anything about it, he leapt up on her shoulders, hefting a wooden mallet at least ten times his size over his head. "TIMEOUT!" he said, gleefully swinging the massive mallet down on Sylph's forehead.

BONGGGG! Sylph flew backwards from the force of Fortunato's strike. "Whyyy...youuuu..." she could feel her processor cycles slowing as the datastructure began to blur around her. Sylph's icon reverted to its normal size as she flew, tumbling end-over-end through empty cyberspace.

Fortunato tossed the mallet over his shoulder and brushed his hands together. "That oughta cool you down for a while. Go think about what a bad girl you've been, and come back when you're ready to behave!" he called after her. "Now then, to deal with Beavis and Butthe--OOMPH!" GILGAMESH's rocky mass tackled Fortunato from behind, sending him spinning.

Fortunato righted himself and began to prepare a retalitory attack, only to be flattened by a stony fist. He struggled to maintain stability as GILGAMESH pummeled him mercilessly. Being an artificial person, Fortunato couldn't feel pain in the "real world;" but here in the plane of cyberspace, pain was all too real--and it came with the dreaded knowledge that whatever damage done to him would eventually corrupt his internal data, leaving him wounded just as any downed soldier would be, bleeding to death on a "real" battlefield. Something had to be done--and fast.

Fortunato, momentarily stunned, lolled on his side, motionless. GILGAMESH stood back, admiring his handiwork as ENKIDU approached, awaiting his turn to work over the interloping hacker. ENKIDU's sibilant hiss echoed throughout the arena as he extended a dozen silvery, serrated blades and hovered closer to Fortunato, quivering with all the enthusiasm of a high school sadist preparing to dissect a frog in Biology class.

Suddenly, Fortunato twisted his body over and tapped ENKIDU on his silvery dome. "FREEZE TAG!" Instantly, the chrome-like enforcer was encased in a solid sphere of ice. Fortunato melted a hand-hold into the ice-ball and whipped it at GILGAMESH. "YOU'RE IT!" The ice-ball slammed into the rocky enforcer, sending him flying into the depths of the datastructure. ENKIDU, now freed of the ice, screeched in rage and confusion and began to charge full-bore at Fortunato, his body twisting itself into a whirling vortex of pain, an unimaginable number of blades protruding from its surface, spinning headlong at the interloper.

"So you wanna play after all, huh?" said Fortunato. "Okay. We'll play. FORM BLAZING SWORD!"

Fortunato brought his fists together in an all-too-familiar gesture as dramatic music swelled up around him for no apparent reason. Bringing his fists apart, a shining, glowing bolt of steel suddenly appeared; growing into an obscenely long and ornate sword that Fortunato wielded with ease.

The two combatants rushed towards each other. Inches before he would be fatally impaled on ENKIDU's blades, Fortunato brought the Blazing Sword down in a graceful, two-handed barbarian stroke that cleaved ENKIDU cleanly in twain. ENKIDU's two halves fell to either side of Fortunato and, hissing and buzzing, slowly faded away into electronic nothingness. Its power dissipated, the Blazing Sword disappeared in a similar fashion, vanishing from Fortunato's grip. He breathed deeply, relieved that his attack had worked.

A rumbling sound--like rolling thunder--reached Fortunato. He could see GILGAMESH in the distance, chugging like a runaway freight train, heading straight for him. ENKIDU's death had beefed up his resources, and there would be no stopping the remaining enforcer. GILGAMESH roared as he careened towards the interloper, rocklike muscles bulging and flexing.

Fortunato stood up straight and pointed his right hand at GILGAMESH, curling his pinky and ring fingers in so that it adopted the shape of a gun. With his left hand, he pulled the thumb back as if pulling back the hammer on a revolver. He stood like this, pointing, and waited. He could see GILGAMESH's form getting larger as more and more system resources were pumped into him. Soon, the rocky juggernaut had become a lumbering giant, barreling headlong towards the tiny human form. The "ground" shook with each of GILGAMESH's footfalls.

Fortunato allowed the giant to come closer, waiting until he was sure--soon, he could see the tiny chinks in GILGAMESH's stone armor, could see the detail of aggregate in his skin. He saw the giant's weak spot, a tiny crack along the neck joint--he would get only one shot of this.

Fortunato aimed carefully and brought his thumb down. "BANG BANG--YOU'RE DEAD," he said.

An intense blast of heat energy--analogous to that of an A-bomb--suddenly burst from Fortunato's outstretched finger and plowed into the stony giant. The beam found the tiny flaw and cracked it wide open--the energy flowed into GILGAMESH's massive body, disintegrating him almost instantly. There was a rush of sound--a throaty scream from the dying giant--and then a vast silence; as the mighty behemoth was reduced to polygons, then wireframe, then digital nothingness before Fortunato's eyes.

Fortunato fell to his knees, exhausted. The "BANG BANG" attack was only to be used as a last resort, and this had definitely been the proper time to use it. Now his energy was all but depleted. Fortunato had just enough to finish the job and take care of the Miramoto data core, but that was only if--

"YAAAAGH!" Fortunato screamed as plasma energy shot through him, crawling over his skin like electric snakes. Sylph stood over him, her eyes red with fury. "YOU DESTROYED THEM! I'LL *KILL* YOU!" Her fingers elongated and became ragged, spiked claws. She sliced at Fortuanto's body, cutting him deep, ripping into him repeatedly. He cried out in agony and pushed himself away, but soon she was on him once more, clawing at his icon like a feral animal. "You can't escape from me this time, Asahara! You'll learn what it truly means to be dead!" she snarled, wrapping her hands around Fortunato's throat.

Fortunato struggled to breathe and speak, his eyes bulging, face contorted in pain. "One...one more thing...t' show...you..." he choked. Behind his back, Fortunato's fingers had opened up a datawindow and were punching in commands.

"What are y--?..." Sylph started to say, before she and Fortunato were sucked soundlessly into the vortex he opened.

Fortunato had disappeared from her grasp and her sight. Sylph drifted in a dark tunnel, the walls as smooth as glass. Data flowed past her in either direction, finally slowing down and coelescing into a pile of official looking documents, sorted by date. "What is this, Asahara? More trickery?"

"Read and be enlightened," said Fortunato's voice, echoing down the tunnel. He was in this sector somewhere, but Sylph couldn't quite tell where--it was unsettling to know that he had carried this data node all the way with him into the Miramoto datastructure, he must have had to expend a great deal of system resources just to render this little trap. Sylph scowled and eyed the documents. "You're just delaying the inevitable, Asahara. Come out and show yourself so that we can finish this!"

"Gladly. Just read the documents, then I'm all yours. I want you to know the truth before we say goodbye." She could practically hear Fortunato's smug, self-satisfied smile in his words--but what was this other emotion that she could detect? Regret? Pity, maybe? Sylph couldn't be sure. Idly, she opened the first document--Kimiko Miramoto's birth certificate.

"Where did you get this?" she snapped.

Silence. No witty rejoinder from Fortunato, who was still hiding somewhere out of sight.

She flipped through the rest of the files--pretty dry stuff, really. Records of Miramoto Cybernetic Labs, the security video of Kimiko Miramoto undergoing the cerebral digitisation process; wherein her consciousness was separated from her biological body and placed in the Miramoto databanks, eventually becoming the entity known as Sylph. A receipt and claim slip--as morbid as that might sound--for the Phaedrux Cryogenics Lab in Zurich, signed by Yosuke Miramoto for one body, kept in suspended animation for over twenty years. All things that Sylph was intimately familiar with. "This is what you wanted me to see? What's the point behind all this?"

Fortunato's voice took on a grave tone. "Okay. So you're familiar with the fakes. Now get a good look at the real documents."

"Fakes?" Immediately, the datastream switched, delivering a new set of documents. The one on top was the same--Kimiko's birth certificate, but paperclipped to it was another, smaller piece of holographic card--a death certificate, dated April 1, 2037. "What? I...I don't understand!"

"Read on." Fortunato's voice was staring to sound downright ghostly. Sylph pored through the rest of the documents, the thickest one being the clinical records for the Phaedrux Cryogenics Lab; which gave the names for each and every person placed in suspended animation in the lab over the last twenty years. Kimiko Miramoto was not mentioned anywhere in the records as having been frozen, or even admitted. There was, however, one receipt from the Phaedrux Lab, an invoice for one Cryogenic Body Stasis Pod--and only enough cryo-freezing agent to last for three days. "Wh...what is all this?"

"It's the truth, Kimiko-chan. I'm sorry."

"What truth?" shouted Sylph. "I know what you're trying to do, Asahara! It won't work! You're trying to turn me against my father by forging these documents--I should have expected such a pathetic maneuver from the likes of you!"

"Don't believe me, do you? Have you viewed the unedited security video file yet? It's rather illuminating. I believe it ties everything together." Fortunato's voice should have been taunting and playful. But his leaden tones and serious statements made Sylph all the more unsettled. Reluctantly, she watched the video file.

The security camera had recorded everything about the cerebral digitisation process, in this respect the "unedited" file seemed not to differ from the original version that Sylph had seen so many times. But where that one had cut off after a certain point, this video file continued. After the surgical part of the process had been completed, Kimiko's body had been placed into the CryoPod, but something was wrong--it was obvious to Sylph that the limited amount of freezing agent her father's surgeons had on hand would have been insufficient to successfully transfer her body to Zurich. Indeed, after everything had been finished, the Pod was not airlifted anywhere--according to the tape, her body had sat there for several hours after the digitisation process had been declared a success. A quick visual blip, and then the video dissolved into static. Sylph rewinded the video file to where the blip had appeared, and watched as Yosuke Miramoto--her own father--ambled into frame and, without any sense of ceremony or regret; shut down the CryoPod and silenced the screaming medical monitors. As Kimiko Miramoto's body slowly died encased in glass, Yosuke turned to see that the security camera was still recording. He reached for the lens, and...static.

"No..." Sylph trembled. "That...it...it can't be true...it's not possible! YOU!" she screamed. "You forged these documents! You created that video file! You try to torture me with lies!"

"No, Kimiko-chan." Fortunato's voice was eerily calm--and filled with sadness. "I didn't have to forge anything. This is the truth--the truth that has been hidden from you for twenty years. Your father knew how powerful you would be once the digitsation process was complete. He never had any intention of returning your mind to your original body. Sylph was more valuable to him than Kimiko Miramoto had ever been. I...I'm sorry."

"LIES! ALL LIES!" Sylph pounded against the glassy walls of the tunnel. "Don't try to trick me! These documents are forged! My father would never...ever..."

"The documents aren't forged. Let me show you..." The datastream flipped again, showing two documents side-by-side. "This is the fake..." The document reduced itself to byzantine lines of code. "...and this is the original." The second document did the same, only it was obvious to the well-trained eye that the second was, indeed, a fully-certified original document; whereas the first was nothing more than a well-done forgery. The datastream flipped through the rest of the documents this way, proving the veracity of the original documents.

Sylph was horrified. Fortunato continued. "It took me years to compile all this information, Kimiko-chan. I knew that someday you and I were going to come to terms, and I knew that you deserved to know the truth. Your father is an evil man. I hope that now, you can understand...I didn't want to hurt you, Kimiko. But the truth always hurts..."

Sylph couldn't hear him. She was too busy screaming. Her scream resonated throughout the tunnel, cracking it, breaking it down, reducing it to ones and zeroes. Her scream reached through the entire Miramoto datastructure, shaking it to its very core and creating a pulse wave that ricocheted off of every node on the Internet, causing the very technostructure of the Earth to flux and quiver.

---

Kimiko Miramoto found herself floating in an empty, dark space, bathed in soft white light from above. Her favourite blue dress--the one she had worn to her graduation from Megatokyo University--felt soft against her skin, and fluttered pleasantly in the slight breeze. Her neatly manicured hands touched her face, finding the soft warmth of human flesh for the first time in over twenty years. Soft, honey-brown hair cascaded down around her shoulders. A golden locket--the last present that her mother had given Kimiko before her untimely death--shone against the blue weave of her dress. "So...this is what it's like to be dead," she said out loud. The quality of her voice--like music from some ancient woodwind compared to the digital hiss she was used to--surprised her.

"Not exactly," said Fortunato. He was hovering next to her--more to the point, he was holding her in his arms. "This is what it's like to be alive. For a little while." He had recovered from the beating she had given him--for a moment, she was struck by how handsome Fortunato seemed in this soft light.

"How..." she began to ask, but decided that she'd rather not know how Fortunato had done this. "What...what do I look like?" she said.

Fortunato cocked his head and gave her an appraising look. "Well...if I wasn't such a filthy pervert, I'd, ah...say that you were a very beautiful young woman. You have lovely skin, long flowing hair...and the greenest eyes I think I've ever seen. In short," he said, "you're someone I've always wanted to get to know. Ever since I could see you peeping out from behind that mask your father made you wear, I knew...if I could just get to know Kimiko, and not Sylph...perhaps we could be friends after all." He gave her a soft smile. "Was it worth it?"

"Yes...I think so," she said. Suddenly sad, she looked away from Fortunato. "I have something to tell you. My father...had a great deal of faith in me when I was Sylph. And he entrusted me with protecting the data core. The only way to get to the core...is through me." She turned her eyes to Fortunato. "In order for you to finish your mission, I have to die. It's the only way."

"No." said Fortunato. "I'm sorry. I've spent my entire existence working around stuff like that. There has to be a way, and if I have to spend the rest of my runtime to find it, I will." He shook his head. "This is why I've battled with you for so many years, Kimiko-chan. You're the one thing that's kept me going all this time. And I can't let you go now."

"I wish there was another way. I really do..." She looked back into his eyes. Was he about to cry? Kimiko couldn't think about that now. "But this is too important. I knew all along how evil my father was...but I couldn't break free from evil when I was Sylph. Now, in order to save myself...and the rest of the world...I have to let go. I have to let you do this."

"No. I..."

"Shhh." Kimiko put a finger to her lips and smiled. "Promise me one thing, just one...when you take out the data core, erase all the information on Suyakkui. How to make it, how to control it...it's too dangerous for people to have. You must promise me this."

Fortunato shrugged. "I had always planned on deleting it anyway. There's no sense in giving good people the ability to destroy the world. Somehow, no matter what happens, something always goes wrong." He smiled a little.

"Thank you...Fortunato, my friend. The only person I could always count on." Kimiko reached up to touch his cheek. Her fingertips came back moist. "Just one more thing, Asahara..."

"Yes...Kimiiko-chan?" His voice wavered and broke, though his smile never did.

Kimiko savored this moment--her smile broadened, even as tears began to well up in her eyes. "Shut up and kiss me, you bastard."

Fortunato melted into Kimiko, both of them experincing the one thing denied them for so many years--human contact. His tears flowed into hers. Their bodies faintly glowed with shared warmth in the cold, unfeeling depths of cyberspace.

Kimikio reached up, felt the golden locket, admired how shiny and cool it felt in her hand. She felt the inscription on the back and suddenly remembered what it said. She closed her eyes and pulled hard on the chain.

It broke.
 
     
 
berus_roth 
  teadee
 
04:45pm 01/05/2004
  Andy leaned against the hood of his sports car, rubbing his right cheek. A fresh red handprint was visible there.

"I cannot believe you, Andrew Montgomery!"
A few feet away, Keomi made a fairly expressive hummmphh! She then spun around and stabbed an accusatory finger at her boyfriend.
"You did that on purpose! You actually let me kill you. Baka..."

All of the tension of the last day, of wondering if he would ever see his beloved catgirl again, of imagining what horrible things Miramoto was doing to her, of hoping he could find some way to save her, it all faded away. The only thing Andy was left with was a goofy, lopsided grin.

"I said I was sorry like ten times, Kitten."

Andy watched as a very unimpressed Keomi continued to smooth out her skirt and pick small bits of trash off of her person.

"Sorry?"
Keomi rolled her eyes and made an exasperated expression as she said the word. She picked a piece of shredded paper off her blouse.

"Yeah," Andy replied.
The young man stood up from his seat on the car's hood and stopped rubbing his reddened cheek. His arms spread wide in a full-body shrug as he asked,
"C'mon, babe. Cut me some slack. What more do you want from me here?"

He watched as Keomi stopped her preening, balled her hands into fists and slowly turned to face him. Here eyes were narrow and her jaw was set. She spoke slowly, intoning each syllable as she stalked towards him.

"You just sat there and let me beat you to a pulp. Then you intentionally let me think I had killed you. And now you ask me what I want?"

She was standing only a foot away, looking him straight in the eye as she said the last sentence. For a moment, as he looked into Keomi's eyes, Andy was uncertain. He briefly considered another apology, perhaps with the words beautiful, wonderful, gorgeous, clever, and I love you a whole lot mixed in.

But Keomi's gaze softened. She let out a long breath, sounding as if she were holding back tears. Looking at him, his arms open wide, his face that adorable, familiar mix of happiness and fear she had come to love, and she let herself fall into him. She wrapped her arms around his chest, laying her head on his shoulder, sighing contentedly.

"I just want you to hold me."

Andy tried to blink the confusion from his face. His heart sped up, feeling her weight on him. She felt warm, familiar. She felt like home.

Slowly, he lowered his outstretched arms, wrapping her in a tight embrace. He didn't say anything. At that moment, there was no need for words. They were together, finally together again, and as they held one another they both knew that words would have only gotten in the way.

Standing in the alley, they both slowly became aware of a low rumbling beneath their feet. Reluctantly, their arms released and they separated, looking around for a source to the ground's strange movements.

"Earthquake?" Andy guessed.
"Or some kind of explosion, maybe?"

"No..." Keomi whispered and Andy watched as her eyes flickered in a way he had never seen before.
"It's the suyakkui."

"Hey," he placed his hands on her shoulders, turning her to face him. He looked into her eyes, shaking her.
"Keomi. Hey! You okay?"

She blinked, shaking her head, as if to clear it of a distracting thought.
"Yeah. I'm fine, Andy. It's just..."
Turning slightly, she looked up and over her shoulder at the Miramoto Tower.
"It's just that I can still hear him, like a whisper in the back of my head. It's Miramoto. He's calling the suyakkui up from the sewers!"
 
     
 
hemlock_martini 
  teadee
 
04:39pm 01/05/2004
  The sub-basement of Miramoto Tower was alive with unusual activity. Hordes of security troops swarmed the dimly-lit catwalks and walkways, armed to the teeth and bristling with tension. An attack was being carried out on the Tower itself, though it was unclear what exactly was going on--comm lines had been cut somehow, handheld radios were the only means of effective communication. The front gate and entryway had been under siege, and the Ninjamecha had been deployed to combat the apparent threat in that part of the complex, but the security cameras in that area had mysteriously shorted out, and nobody was able to get near it. To make matters worse, Yosuke Miramoto had seen fit to psyonically amplify the threat-response mechanism in the brains of his troops; changing normally loyal and mild-mannered security guards into highly paranoid, efficient and remorseless killing machines. These troops tromped through the walkways of the sub-basement, nerves on edge and trigger fingers extrememly itchy, just waiting for a threat to present itself.

Such a threat was currently skittering down a ventilation shaft, panting heavily and heading directly for Mainframe 3-G.

Radio chatter indicated that the bio-scanners had picked up a small lifeform in the air shaft--a possible intruder. The troops scrambled to the upper catwalks, where the air shaft would be easily accessible. They waited patiently, listening carefully for the telltale sounds of something travelling through the duct--then quickly removed a five-foot-long section of the shaft with their laser cutters, sending the aluminum tube crashing to the ground. Whatever had been in the shaft would now be trapped inside. The security troops trained their guns on the shaft section carefully, waiting for any signs of movement.

The movements they got were too fast to shoot at. At once, a beam of green light split the tube lengthwise down the middle. A hand holding a machine pistol emerged from the split and sprayed bullets in 180 degrees, and the beam of green light--a blade of some kind--launched itself into the nearest guard’s chest, where it was embedded.

Everyone jumped back, except for those who were hit; they slumped to the ground and died. The guard reeled in shock from having a two-foot-long glowing green sword embedded in his chest, but did not fall. Approximately one half of a second passed.

A young lady suddenly burst from the split in the shaft and, pulling her blade out of the chest of the impaled guard, used his body as a step-ladder and jumped up-and-over him; landing so that she stood back-to-back with the hapless guard. The security troops opened fire with their semiautomatic rifles. The guard’s body armor was thick enough to keep bullets from passing through his body and hitting the young woman, who seemed to have no moral difficulty using him as a human shield. The guard reeled and shuddered with the impact of the bullets, but still would not fall.

As soon as all the troops’ clips had been emptied, the girl bent sideways around her human shield and hurled her sword at another trooper--this time it found its purchase in his forehead, dropping him instantly. She then drew another pistol and leapt up into the air, perching on her shield’s shoulders and blasting away two-fisted at his comrades. Within a matter of seconds, she had dispatched six of them.

Finally, the poor guard she had used as a shield fell to the hard metal grate that served as the floor of the catwalk. Trixie retrieved Aingeal and ‘sheathed’ her sword, popping a fresh clip into each of her Mauler DX-9’s. She blew a loose strand of hair away from her face and calmly reflected, remembering this feeling from her youth--becoming the bringer of death, the smile behind the trigger. Long ago, a period of confusion and madness in her life had turned her from a peaceful, harmless creature to an efficient, dauntless killer of men--thanks to Brian’s doppelganger, something deep within her had been triggered, something ruthless; and now, being a mercenary was almost second-nature to Trixie. Having a gun in her hand both disturbed and thrilled her in ways she couldn’t explain. "Play time," she muttered, taking the Silver Bullet out of her mouth and shoving it back into her belt.

The catwalk was now devoid of guards, but would not stay that way for long. Already, she could hear them charging up to where she stood. Trixie glanced around herself, trying to gain her bearings. Across from her, four floors down and visible through a maze of catwalks, was the computer lab wherein sat the mainframe to which Fortunato needed her to attach the Silver Bullet. "Hm. This could get tricky," she said to herself as a volley of bullets rattled the wall near her head. A phalanx of troops had gained entrance to the catwalk and was barreling towards her.

Trixie glanced down and took notice of the horizontal supports holding up the catwalk. She holstered her Maulers and drew Aingeal, charging towards the security troops at full speed. The distance soon closed between the two--but before they could reach her, Trixie bent down and cut all the way through the catwalk at just the right point--it tilted forward like a see-saw, pitching the troops forward and sending them screaming into the lower levels of the sub-basement. Trixie ran and jumped onto the raised side of the catwalk, scrambling up and over it, landing on a narrow walkway. She was closer to the mainframe, but still had a long way to go--and now, as bullets ricocheted off where she had been standing only seconds ago, it was obvious that the troops were aware of her presence. Trixie sprinted down the walkway and dove for the metal floor as a small explosion burst behind her.

Trixie brought out her assault rifle--as she had requested, the same model Keomi had tried to use on her--and, gritting her teeth, returned fire, cursing under her breath. Armor-piercing slugs ripped through the guards that had been shooting at her. The gun's recoil was light, and the action was smooth as silk--good accuracy, too. Wow. This *is* a nice gun. Maybe I can convince Andy to let me bring it home with m--AAAAGH! A trooper's bullet had grazed her thigh. Trixie knelt and got the guard in her sights--three rounds, chased by the curses she spat, brought him down easily.

The coast was now clear, for at least the next few seconds. Trixie ignored the pain as best as she could, and vaulting the walkway railing, backflipped two stories onto another catwalk. She landed with a CLANK, drawing her large-bore revolver, keeping the assault rifle in her right hand.

A barrage of lead rained down upon Trixie’s catwalk. Looking up, she spied a multitude of troops gunning for her position--Trixie juked and vaulted, dodging their shots and returning them in kind. When their shooting had stopped, Trixie blew open the lock to the computer lab with a well-placed blast from the revolver, and rushed inside.

A featureless narrow corridor greeted her. She sprinted down the corridor, ignoring the sounds coming from behind her, indicating that a group of security troops were closing in on her tail. She was more concerned with the set of circular blast doors at the opposite end of the corridor, which were closing rapidly; irising in like the shutter of a camera.

Thinking quickly, Trixie holstered her guns and flipped into a handspring. Tumbling end-over-end, she angled her body to slip through the narrow and ever-shrinking gap in the blast door. Crap! That won’t be enough! she thought, as the door slid shut at a faster speed than she had initially expected. Inches before reaching the door, Trixie switched to her fox-body; becoming just small enough to pass through the tiny gap right before it slid shut, locking off the corridor from the computer lab. She hit the ground and rolled, shifting back to human and slamming her shoulder into a rack of computers.

The Silver Bullet had been travelling with Trixie, but the belt that had been carrying it had disappeared when she shifted to fox. Fortunately, it had made it through the gap as well--Trixie caught a glimpse of it flying overhead as she had rolled to a stop. She heard it fall somewhere on the floor of the lab, not far from where she sat. Gotta get that thing--but first things first. Trixie shot out the door controls on the lab side of the corridor, barring the security troops from entering.

She stood and looked around the lab, not too terribly impressed with the complex mid-twenty-first-century computer technology that surrounded her on both sides, and looked around the place for the tiny piece of dodgy circuitboard that was going to help Fortunato hack into the Miramoto mainframe and do whatever it was that he was planning on. After a frantic minute of searching, Trixie found the Silver Bullet underneath a desk chair. She stooped to pick it up. “There you are, you little sucker,” she said, standing.

“Drop it,” said the voice behind the gun that had been jabbed into the back of her neck.

Ah fscknuts! thought Trixie to herself as she slowly raised her arms. She cursed herself for not noticing the guard when she had first entered the lab, for not noticing his scent, for not hearing him approach. She was so busy cursing at herself that she forgot to drop her gun.

“I said drop it!” spat the guard, whipping her around and rudely yanking Trixie’s gun away from her. He popped open the revolver’s chamber, spilling the bullets on the floor; then discarded the gun. The guard, sneering, pulled back the hammer on his own gun and clicked his radio on. “Lab 3-G. I have an intruder here.” He snapped off the volume control and leered at her. “Don’t move, bitch.”

Trixie noticed the strange irridescence in the man's eyes--some sort of mind control, she thought. She didn’t say anything, but was taking careful inventory of her immediate surroundings. She glanced up and saw what she was hoping to see. Nestled in among the various wires, tubes and pipes that were strung across the low ceiling of the lab, a sturdy metal pipe--a gas line--ran directly overhead.

Trixie head-faked to the left to appear as if someone was coming. When the guard turned to check, Trixie quickly lifted up her right leg, soccer-kicking the bullet that had landed on her foot to about eye-level. Time slowed. The guard turned back to match gazes with Trixie--they were both fixated on the bullet, which seemed to hover in midair, spinning, looking like a drop of mercury fluctuating and undulating in zero-gravity.

With a wink, Trixie completed her kick, bringing her leg parallel with her chest and sending the bullet into the gas line, rupturing it. A jet of concentrated natural gas spewed forth, spraying into the eyes of the Guard. He screamed and jumped back, clutching at his face.

Trixie used the momentum of her kick to propel herself up to the ceiling and, hanging onto a light fixture, broke out her Zippo lighter. “How ‘bout a little fire, scarecrow?” she cackled, popping it open and clicking the fuse, holding the open flame near the gas line.

Fire spewed forth from the rupture in the gas line, enveloping the guard in a pool of flame. Auto-extinguishers emerged from slots in the walls and put out the fire--but they were too late to save the guard. In seconds, he had become a charred husk, billows of black smoke emanating from his barbecued body.

Trixie dropped to the ground, recovering the Silver Bullet. “Just because I *am* a bitch doesn’t mean you can call me one,” she said to the smouldering corpse. “And never, EVER yank my gun away like that. Well, I hope you’ve learned your lesson from all this.” She blew the body a kiss and sprinted away.

Trixie didn’t have much time left. She searched frantically for the correct mainframe that Fortunato had told her about--finally locating it, she broke open the casing and inserted the Silver Bullet where Fortunato had indicated, flipping its little internal switch to “ON.” After a few seconds, Trixie noticed a change in the lab--the terminals that lined the walls all indicated the same thing; massive amounts of data was being appropriated. The distant electronic klaxons had ceased screaming; hell, the whole tone of the place had suddenly gotten a lot more peaceful. Whatever Fortunato was doing, it seemed to be working.

Of course, this hadn’t stopped the security forces from breaking down the blast doors and flooding into the computer lab, shouting and shooting. Trixie bolted, running deeper into the lab; drastically outnumbered and outclassed by her pursuers. She skidded around corners and ran deeper into the bowels of the Tower sub-basement--walls and lights became a blur as her panic level increased, and the security troops drew closer.

Finally, Trixie came to the end of the line--a blank wall, featureless save for two lights in the center, at the end of a wide hallway. This was it--the last stand. So...this is how it ends. Trixie stopped at the wall, huffing and puffing--she drew her Maulers and stood with her back to the wall, ready and determined to make Miramoto’s victory a costly one. Her jaw was set, and icy determination flashed in her purple eyes.

The security troops--more than thirty heavily armed troopers--rounded the corner and slowed down, taking up positions.

Trixie screamed, “Come on, you spineless bastards! I’ll take you all on--every last one of you! C’mon! Right now!”

She hadn’t heard the soft “ding!” sound, nor had she heard the distinct sound of elevator doors sliding open. Nor had Trixie heard the deep, guttural growling emanating from the open elevator behind her. What she could see, however, was that the security troops had stopped in their tracks, suddenly frightened. Pure terror was reflected on their faces--a few had turned bright white. Almost all at once, the troops dropped their guns, turned and ran back the way they had come, tripping over each other and scrambling to get away.

Trixie was confused. “Whuh?...I mean, uh...DAMN RIGHT! You’d BETTER run away! Ya bunch of WIMPS! Come on BACK here and get what’s COMING to you! I...ummm...” Trixie turned around.

The blank wall had been, in fact, the elevator port. Inside the open elevator stood Nichiren, resplendent in her full-demon-wolf mode; snarling and bristling. Unagi stood next to her with swords drawn, bemused at the troops’ hasty retreat. “Going up, mistress Kitsune?” he asked, smiling.

“Uh...yeah!” Trixie shrugged--a little surprised, a little disappointed--and walked into the elevator. “You know, I *did* have the whole situation under control here...” The doors closed behind her.

Thirty floors is a long way down--it's also a long, long way up.

Unagi, Michi, Nichiren and Trixie rode the elevator enveloped in uncomfortable silence. Michi leaned against the rear wall, arms crossed and eyes closed, trying to get a handle on her uncle's psychic signature. Nichiren, tense and agitated, stared at the door, waiting for it to open so that she could spring into action. Trixie fidgeted, having already reloaded her guns; and slouched uncomfortably in the center. Unagi stood to the side, staring at the walls of the strange metal carriage, and wondered why it was taking so long. His stomach growled.

Finally, bored out of her skull, Trixie realized that she couldn't take it anymore--the discomfort, the waiting, the tedium, the sheer emotional and physical torture of it all--she had had enough!

She began to whistle "The Girl From Ipanema."

After about thirty seconds, Michi grumbled. "Do you think you could stop that?"

"Aaaahhhhmmm..." Trixie considered it. "No." She began whistling again.

Unagi looked on with detatched amusement--the red-and-black-haired girl didn't seem to like his mistress' song very much, as a vein started throbbing in her forehead, and her neck muscles clenched as tightly as her teeth. She brought her hands to her ears, trying to block out the catchy-yet-annoyingly-repetitious Bacharachian melody. Michi looked as if, at any second, she would begin to scream bloody murder.

Nichiren had to fight to stifle her giggles. Trixie kept looking at her out of the corner of her eye and making goofy faces as she whistled that maddening tune. Trixie's head had even began to bob back in forth in time to the song, making Nichiren snort and squeeze her eyes shut, a few tiny drops of laughter-tears eaking out of the corners. On a day where she had been so tense, Nichiren was surprised how easily Trixie could still make her laugh. And knowing that Michi was getting so annoyed made the whole thing funnier.

Michi could take no more. She clawed at her face, rolled her eyes into the back of her head and shuddered--it felt as if her head would explode! "CEASE THAT INFERNAL WHISTLING!!! IT'S DRIVING ME INSAAAAANE!!!!!" she screamed at Trixie, causing Unagi and Nichiren to recoil and back away.

Trixie paused, not turning around. For a few seconds, she was completely silent. And then..."Hmm hmm hmm, hmmmm hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm, hah-hmm hmm hmm..." she began to hum "The Girl From Ipanema" with gusto, bobbing her head back and forth and grinning like a Muppet. Nichiren burst into laughter, banging her fist on the wall of the elevator. Even the usually-stoic Unagi chuckled at his mistress' irreverence and at Michi's impotent frustration.

"Why...YOU...GAAAAH!" Michi had reached out her hands to throttle Trixie, but a sudden burst of static and feedback in her headset made her stumble back and smack her head against the wall of the elevator. Unagi, Nichiren and Trixie heard the same burst of noise, and clutched their ears in surprise and pain. A few seconds later, a familiar--and rather chirpy--voice burst through the static, accompanied by bombastic, heavy-beat music. "GOOOOOOOOOOD MORNING MEGATOKYOOOO! This is Professor F, Live and Direct here on Isawa-Shoten Radio, givin' shout-outs to all my IS homies and stromies currently all up in the Miramoto Tower-of-Terror! How 'yall feelin' in there?"

"Fortunato! What the hell?" said Trixie into her headset.

"Indeed and indubitably it is I! Good show, gurly girl, nice going with the Silver Bullet--a Winner Is You! I'm currently hackin' and slackin' and slicin' and dicin' my way into the Miramoto datastructure, and it's all thanks to you and that foxy lil' tail of yours. Nice job, you get a biscuit! WOOF WOOF!" Trixie rolled her eyes at Fortunato's bizarre DJ banter.

"Tell us something that makes sense, you reconstituted cretin," snapped Michi.

"Oooh, aren't we *SASSY* today! If you must know, Miramoto's goon squad is scattered, unorganized and trampled, Joe is currently kicking Mechanazi boo-tay up and down the street, Majikimi is taking care of the 5-0's all by herself, and according to the weather report and city cams, there's a one hundred percent chance of big purple globs of evil goo running amuck and threatening all life as we know it! This weather report was brought to you by Miramoto Corporation, the makers of Suyakkui! Suyakkui: it's everywhere. GET USED TO IT!"

"What about Andy and Keomi?" asked Nichiren.

"Don't know, can't say. They're not on any cams I can pick up. Anyway, if they're anywhere on street-level, they're about to get a very rude and goopy awakening!"

"I...see." Michi's anger had dissipated, replaced with the realization that it was up to her to undo her uncle's destructive acts. "I...have to go," she said suddenly, white light enveloping her body. In a flash, she had teleported away.

"Oh, how *nice* of you," said Trixie, sarcastically. "Don't tell us 'good luck' or 'see ya later' or 'hope ya don't die,' or anything like that. You might hurt yourself! Stupid lousy little...GRRR!"

"Ooooo...I just hate her...so...MUCH sometimes!..." Nichiren mimed throttling Michi, snarling. "She's just...and I...and I wanna...OOOH!"

"I know! She's just a...just a...a..." Trixie gesticulated wildly, searching for the right word.

"Psycho hose-beast?" asked Unagi.

Trixie and Nichiren turned and stared at Unagi with bulging eyes and gaping mouths. "Where...where did you...hear...?" Trixie managed.

"On the television machine at Montgomery-dono's stronghold. I was watching some sort of play, done without theatrical trappings. The performers' usage of vulgar argot instead of traditional nihongo fascinated me." Unagi shrugged casually. "I picked up a few phrases."

"Oh...well, that's..." Nichiren started.

The white light reappeared as Michi re-teleported into the elevator, surprising the rest. She looked harried and pressed for time. "Look," she said, "I know how this is going to sound, but I may not get a second chance to say this...and, well...I wanted to wish you all good luck. I appreciate everything you've done to help rid the world of my uncle's evil, and I promise I won't let you down." Unagi could swear he saw a tiny gleam of empathy and humanity flash in Michi's eyes--then, once more, she was gone, leaving the other three in silence.

For a minute, they all just stood and stared at the space where Michi had been. Then, without warning, Nichiren turned and punched the wall as hard as she could, leaving a huge fist-imprint. "DAMMIT! Now I hate her even MORE!" she cried.

The lights dimmed slightly in the elevator--it felt as if it were slowing down. Indeed, the floor indicator hovered, then stopped on "4." "Smooth move, Nichiren," said Trixie. "You broke it!"

"Nope, that was me--just *where* do you kooky kids think you're going?" asked Fortunato over the headsets.

"Level five!" said Nichiren. "We have to get up there and switch elevators--this one ends at level five and the other ones go all the way up to the penthouse level."

"I *know* that, mein fraluleinhunde liebchen;" said Fortunato, "but right now level five is a big ol' no-no for you guys. It's packed with those robot ninja dudes, and when I say packed, I mean *PACKED.* So many of 'em down there, looks like a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie just waiting to happen."

"I defeated a score of these metal beasts earlier. Their destruction should be exceedingly simple for the three of us to handle," grunted Unagi.

"Maybe, maybe not, but I'm talking about sheer force of numbers here. Statistically, the odds are not with you three on this one--my projections show about 80 to 1 odds that you guys won't end up on the wrong end of ninja-stabby. You'll have to find another way."

"Can't you just, you know, get into their computer brain gizmos and override them or something?" asked Trixie.

"Don't you think I would've done that if I could?" Fortunato sounded a little irritated. "I locked down all the internal defenses in the Tower--autoguns, gas-launchers, laser-traps, what-have-you--but shortly after they initialised, the Ninjamecha went autonomous and started taking orders from their internal CPUs, not the Miramoto mainframes. Musta been a failsafe feature for just such an occasion as this. They're running the show now and there's nothing I can do to stop them!"

"But we have to get to the fifth floor!" said Nichiren. "It's our only hope of getting to the upper levels of the Tower!"

They fell silent once again. Finally, Trixie said, "Okay. I have a plan..."
 
     
 
berus_roth 
  teadee
 
04:14pm 01/05/2004
  Andy shoved a small silver cylinder back into his jacket pocket as yet another line of pavement was blasted apart by the HardSuit's guns. Cupping his free right hand to his mouth, he called back to Michi.
"No good!"

"Damn," Michi cursed under her breath. Yelling above the echoing sounds of gunfire, she replied,
"My uncle must have removed your remote shutdown system from the Suit! What now?"

Before he could answer, the dark alley was filled with the light and heat of a surging wall of fire. Andy recoiled from it, pushing himself as far back into his little nook in the wall as he could. A few meters away, by the car, he heard Nichiren yelp in surprise and pain. Beads of hot sweat rolled down his face as the HardSuit's flamethrower filled the alley with blazing death.

The flames finally receeded. Andy could see Nichiren crouched behind the car nursing a singed tail. Beside the wolf-girl, Michi peered over the car's trunk, a very frustrated expression on her face.

"We have to get out of here!" Andy yelled.
"Here, take the keys! Use the remote to unlock the doors and start the engine!"

Sticking his left hand blindly around the corner and into the alley, he fired a few distracting shots in the general direction of the HardSuit. With his right hand, he hurled the keys to his sports car into Michi's waiting grasp. However, instead of using the remote as she had been istructed to do, Michi just stared at the small device in her had for a long few moments.

"What's wro-" Nichiren started to ask.

Michi cut her off with a wave of her hand. The young woman's face was intense, her vision focused on something far away in her mind's eye. She dropped Andy's keys on the ground between her feet and began rubbing her temples slowly, eyes closed.

"Michi-?"

Again, Nichiren's inquiry was cut short, this time by a harsh "Sssshhhhhh!" from Michi.
"Something's not right, Nichiren. Listen."

Michi reached out suddenly, grasping Nichiren's shoulders roughly with both hands. The wolf-girl tried to pull away, but was instantly fixed by Michi's piercing gaze and wild, sparkling eyes.
"Listen, Nichiren. It's up to you. Andy will never do it."

As she spoke the last, Michi frowned and looked away towards Andy in his concrete shelter. She sighed and shook her head, apparently disappointed in some thought she kept unspoken.

"He can't do it, Nichiren. It's up to you. Do yo understand?"

The intensity of her words, her voice, kept Nichiren spellbound. Her wolf ears lay flat back against her head. Tears began to well up in her eyes because she did not blink, could not blink or look away from Michi's gaze.

"Do you understand?!" Michi repeated.

Slowly, almost reluctantly, Nichiren nodded her assent. Michi pulled her hands from the woman's shoulders and picked up the car keys. She quickly opened the trunk and rummaged for a moment, emerging with a small pistol and clip.

After loading her gun, Michi turned again to Nichiren, who crouched unmoving in the same spot.
"Ready? You'll have to be quick or you'll be killed."

"I... I know that." Balancing on her pawlike feet, Nichiren gripped the handle of her katana and peered around the left side of Andy's car at the HardSuit.

Without another spoken word, Michi sprang from her protected spot behind the car and took a stance beside it's back right tire. Five quick shots rang out from the gun in her shaking hands. Still pulling the trigger, Michi yelled to her backup still crouching behind the car.
"Now!"

Detecting a new target, the HardSuit ceased its fire on Andy and the street on the left side of his car. Both arms swung up and pointed directly at Michi as she shot at the mechanized suit. Michi froze, staring down the barrels of the Suit's twin machine guns.

"Now, dammit!"

To Andy, Nichiren was a blur. There was a sound of silk being rubbed and pulled by her legs as she ran. The wolf-girl kept low, staying hidden behind the sports car for as long as possible, then leaping out and striding at full speed towards her target. Andy watched it all unfold in a matter of a few seconds, bewildered by the two women's actions. He wanted to stop them, to call them back to the safety of the car, but there was no time. There was no time to do anything but watch, and try to comprehend what they had planned.

The Suit opened fire on Michi, but the girl's telekenetic powers tossed the bullets aside like moths in a hurricane. Still, the HardSuit fired, the intelligence behind its controls knowing full well that this girl could not block its firepower for long.

Nichiren's appearance on its right side barely registered before the wolf-girl was upon it. Her katana reflected the orange and white of the Suit's gun exhaust back at it. The curved blade itself seemed to be alight with fire as Nichiren swung it and struck it home. There was no room for error, no second chance if she missed. Her strike had to find its mark the first time or she would die.
The sword met the Suit just below the chin, it's razor edge finding the gap between the helmet and neck. There was as sudden burst of sound, like a knife on a chalkboard. For a moment afterward there was silence. Nichiren stood, holding a long breath in her lungs, arms outstretched with her sword pointing to the end of the alley.





The Suit's guns died instantly and it stood motionless for a few fractions of a second. A small spark erupted from the neck. The Suit jerked and fell forward, it's helmet coming loose and falling away to bounce on the street. Decapitated, the HardSuit lay motionless, save for its twitching tail wich vibrated and jerked for several seconds.

Nichiren did not see the results of her attack. She did not have to look to know what she had done. She dropped her sword to the ground and fell to her knees. Her expression was one of shock, disbelief, and fear. Further back, Michi let out a heavy sigh and leaned against the car. She wiped sweat from her forhead and tossed her pistol to the ground.

The Suit's tail finally fell silent. Its helmet rocked slowly to a stop, resting a meter from it's body. Andy saw it all. His eyes burned with tears. His mouth hung open. He was aghast.

"No." He whispered, his whole body shaking.

"Nooooo!" Andy ran, Glock still in hand, to where the HardSuit lay. He stumbled and fell on his knees beside the destroyed Suit, the machine built to encase and protect his beloved. His brain searched for understanding.

"Keomi... Why? What did you...?" He looked at Nichiren, though she did not meet his gaze.

The wolf girl stood without turning and answered.
"I'm sorry."

"You!" His hands curled into fists and he pointed his gun at Nichiren's back.

"It was my idea, Andy. I'm sorry-"

Before Michi could finish her sentence, Andy spun, gun aimed at Michi's face. His finger pressed against the trigger. Michi's eyes flashed. His gun ripped free from Andy's grasp and he was knocked bodily to the ground.

"I was saying, Andrew, that I'm sorry we didn't tell you what we were doing. There wasn't time to explain and I knew you would try to stop us," Michi concluded.

Andy could not believe what he was hearing. "Of course I would, you bitch! You killed her!"

Michi's mouth twisted, her face flashed disappointment and insult.
"tsch. Is that all you have to say? Ungrateful..."

As the young woman moved towards him, Andy noticed that Nichiren had come to stand beside him, though she still did not meet his gaze. Michi stopped and reached down for the HardSuit's helmet which lay at her feet. She lifted the metal head, holding it upside down like a full punch bowl and looking disdainfully at Andy. Slowly, she turned the helmet right side up so that the open neck pointed down.

Andy started to look away as a thick liquid dripped from the helmet. He could hardly believe Michi was putting on such a gruesome, morbid display and had no desire to see Keomi's blood spilled out at his feet.

But Nichiren stopped him. "Do not look away, Andy-san."

The viscous fluid poured out of the helmet in Michi's hands. Dark in color, it did not seem like blood. Suddenly, understanding hit Andy like a bolt from the blue.

"Suyakkui!?!?" he blurted out.

Glancing behind him, he saw a similar flow oozing from the open neck of the HardSuit's body.

"But... I thought.." he stammered.

"I know what you thought, dammit." Michi spat back, throwing the helmet to the ground.

Nichiren offered him a hand up. "I am so sorry, Andy-san. We knew you would never agree to this plan of action, but when Michi discovered her uncle's trick she had to act quickly."

Andy looked back at Michi, who added, "Once I knew, he knew it. And once he knew that I knew, there was no time left to try and convince you. We had to do it right then. No hesitation, no delay. If not, my uncle would have really cut loose with the HardSuit and there would have truly been nowhere to hide."

"Fine. Okay. I understand. Good job." Andy was rambling, his eyes darted around the alley, not fixing on any one thing.

Nichiren retrieved his lost Glock and handed it back to him. She spoke softly to him, giving voice to the one thought in Andy's head.
"If Keomi was not in the Suit, then.. where is she?"

Her words hung in the air, heavy with implication and meaning. The three people stood in silence, none looking at the other. All wondered what action to take next.

"Well?"

Again, Michi gave Andy a cross look from the corner of her eye. She focused harder.

"Joe is in good spirits, fighting Nazis. Maji also seems to be safe, though... different somehow than before. I can't explain it."

"And Trixie?" Nichiren interrupted.

"Is a small fox. That's all I can tell. Unagi seems to be engaged in combat as well. They both seem mostly unhurt, though they will not stay that way for long inside my uncle's tower without backup." Michi finished her mental scan of the team and turned to Andy.
"I say we go in. The service entrance is unguarded now."

All three looked in unison at the defeated HardSuit.

Andy cleared his throat and loaded a fresh clip into his Glock.
"Agreed. We'll hook up with Unagi and Trixie and make our way up the Tower together. Once Miramoto's influence is removed we should be able to find Keomi much easier."

"And Tatewaki... and the other..." Nichiren's voice was barely a whisper.

"What's that, Nichi?" Andy asked.

"Nothing. We should go quickly." Her eyes hardened as they moved towards the open service entrance on Miramoto Tower's east side, but Michi noticed that Nichiren's wolf tail was drooping.

Michi and Nichiren took the lead, with Andy following them into an empty hallway beyond the service entrance door. Together they stalked quietly towards a waiting freight elevator at the far end of the hall.

"What floor?" Andy asked when they were all inside.

Michi consulted her schematic printout a moment. "Three. We can cross over to here and take this escalator down to the lobby and meet up with Unagi right there."

Andy nodded. "Sounds good."

He moved to press the appropriate button on the elevator's controls.



"Huh?" He paused, shaking his head slightly.
"You say something, Michi?"

Behind him, the young woman glanced up from her schematics and arched an eyebrow.
"No. Are you-?"

Without warning, Andy's face went white. His eyes unfocused and his hand began to shake.




This time the voice wsa clear. Clear and familiar it flowed through his mind like a warm breeze. An image flashed into Andy's mind, bright white and colorless. A face, a person, her arm outstretched.

Without a word, Andy bolted from the elevator, sprinting down the empty hallway towards the service entrance and alleyway beyond. In the elevator, Nichiren and Michi exchanged bewildered glances, then turned together and called after him,
"Andy?!"

On their own the doors to the elevator slammed shut in the two young women's faces. Before either could react, the lift started its ascent, taking Nichiren and Michi with it.

In the alley, Andy paid no mind to the loss of his comrades. They might have been gone, but the young man was not alone. Beside his car, standing mere feet from him, was the figure of a woman. Athletic, statuesque, with curves that defied the laws of physics, the sight which greeted Andrew Montgomery in that alleyway sent shivers down his spine and warmed his heart at the same time.
He stared at her without speaking. A tightness in his stomach melted away and he felt an incredible weight lift from his shoulders. His world was set back on its axis. His mind, once filled with fear and uncertainty, was laid at ease.

She was here.

"Keomi?"

He could scarecely believe it was true.



As it had been in his mind, she stood before him. Her right arm outstretched, beckoning him forward. Her eyes called to him. He stared into her eyes, losing himself in their liquid depths.

"Keomi." He called her name again.

Andy could almost hear her voice as he had in the elevator. He listened, reaching out to her with all that he was. Waiting, not daring to breath lest the sound should make him miss her reply.
Then, as it had before, a voice flowed into his mind. He stared into his beloved's eyes, into her very soul, and listened.




What he heard made him recoil in shock and revulsion. The chilling voice ripped into his mind as well as that of his dear Keomi. Andy saw her eyes go cold. The warmth of Keomi's soul vanished in an instant, replaced with a vacant, mindless stare.

Suddenly, the very floor of the alley began to swirl and move. Suyakkui oozed and pulled its way from within the fallen HardSuit. It flowed from the shadows and moved like a living puddle across the pavement.
Yet it did not move towards Andy as he first expected. Glock drawn and trained on the purple slime, he watched with a quickening heart as the suyakkui sped towards the unmoving Keomi.

There was no time to move, or even to utter a word of protest. The undulating mass of ooze pooled around the frozen catgirl's bare feet. It sent tendrils around her ankles and up her legs. The purple substance snaked its way over Keomi's flesh, covering her from the toes up in a sheath of suyakkui.

In a matter of seconds the process was complete. Keomi's fair skin, her white and violet fur and hair, even her golden eyes were all covered in the monochrome of deep purple. Andy could not breathe. He watched, waiting for this nightmare to end.

Keomi did not move. Her arms hung at her side and she looked like a statue carved from purple stone and polished smooth. Dim lights of the alley reflected from her shiny purple body as she stood motionless.

Taking a few tentative steps towards her, Andy tried to swallow but found his mouth and throat painfully dry.

"K..Keomi?" he whispered.

Her eyes flashed open and Andy nearly fell over backwards in surprise. He raised his gun relexivley, then forced his hand down when he realized what he was doing. His mind reeled, searching for a solution, for a way to free his beloved without harming her.

I need Michi... he realized too late. By now she and Nichiren were both long gone and unable to help him.
No. There has to be a way to reach her under all that slime.

"Keomi!" Andy shouted.
"Keomi, babe. It's me. It's Andy. Can you hear me, sweetness?"

She did not reply. He was about to call to her again when the voice came once more into his mind. Miramoto's power spilled over. His mental commands were so forceful, so potent that they hit Andy like a physical blow. He staggered back.

Miramoto ordered Keomi to attack, to bend her new flesh to his will and destroy Andy. All over her body, the suyakkui swirled and flowed, pulsing and moving itself to a spot on her right hand. The spot grew as Miramoto's commands kept coming.

Desperation gripped Andy. He tried to summon the courage to fight Miramoto's control over his dearest love. He struggled for the answer.

But then, in an instant, it was too late.



Purple tentacles lanced out from Keomi's fingertips, stabbing and whipping at Andy. He could hear them cutting the air inches from his head as he backpedalled, ducking and dodging the suyakkui projectiles as best he could. Andy stuffed his pistol into its holster as, a few feet away, purple lips curled back in a cruel smile. Miramoto's latest weapon revelled in its work.

Andy lost his footing as one of Keomi's tendrils narrowly missed his right eye, sliding instead through the flesh of his cheek. He fell, hitting the back of his head on the east hallway's stone floor. Blinking away stars, Andy looked up and saw the ceiling of the Miramoto Tower's east hallway. Briefly, he wondered how long it would take him to reach the service elevator in which he had left Michi and Nichiren.

Even in his wildest daydreams, Andy had never considered himself anywhere near a match for his girlfriend. Keomi Suku was an extremely powerful and fierce fighter, possessing that rare mix of innate skill and passion which had, in the past, given her the ability to rise above any threat and defeat any opponent. Even after all the time they had spent together, Andy was still awestruck whenever he caught a glimpse of Keomi fighting flat-out. With any thought of the consequences or fear of injury or defeat driven from her mind, Keomi transformed her body into a precision instrument of violence and destruction. She was a force of nature, and at her best there was no one who could stop her.

A dozen memories of Keomi in battle flowed past his mind's eye, streaming through Andy's consciousness as he blinked the stars away and struggled to get up to his feet. Thoughts of the elevator and a possible escape were the only hope he had of surviving the night. Andy turned over, resting on his hands and knees. He looked up, spotting the open doors of the elevator.

Now or never...

He stood and took one shaky step. Something grabbed his right ankle, wrapping around it with painful force. Andy glanced down and saw a shiny purple rope tied around his leg. Before he could even begin to think of a way to remove it, he was ripped from his feet and tossed through the air. He looked like a fishing lure at the end of a long purple line being whipped back, ready for the cast. Andy saw only a blur of black sky then building, then stars again as he slammed down onto the hood of his sports car.

The breath was forced from his lungs on impact. He lay there, curling up and choking, mentally gauging the pains he felt on his left side to check for possible broken bones. After a few short moments, Andy rolled over and gasped. A purple face stared back at him. Keomi crouched on the hood of the car, feet underneath her, hands on her knees, staring down at her prey. Her tail twitched anxiously.

Andy shivered and tried to slide away. In his entire life he had never felt the way he did as he stared up into Keomi's glowing yellow eyes. It was like looking into the jaws of death itself. He was afraid, scared witless, frozen on the hood of his own car. At that moment, Andy was a helpless mouse, pinned under Keomi's razor claws.

"K... Ke.. Ke..." Andy stuttered, shaking violently from the shock and fear and adrenaline in his system.
"Keo-mmmph."

A cold purple hand slapped against his mouth, closing down on his jaw and muffling his words. His eyes blinked up at her as Keomi leaned down even closer. Her nose grazed his forhead as she inhaled his scent, savoring his fear. She exhaled slowly into his face and Andy's nose crinkled against the stench of suyakkui on her breath.

Keomi's lips pulled back into a braod smile. Andy tried to pull away from the sight of her bright teeth and sharp canines. Terrified beyond reason and unable even to recognize this creature as someone who had once loved and cared for him, Andy wimpered and placed a trembling hand on her arm. He felt her grip tighten, squeezing around his jaw and face. Keomi spun, flinging Andy several feet away onto the ground where he lay in a heap.

The ground was still warm from the HardSuit's flamethrower attack. Andy hugged it, trying to stay as motionless as possible. Fear kept him paralyzed. He wanted to know what Keomi was doing, if she was moving towards him, crawling like a predatory cat towards her victim. But he could not look, was too terrified to move at all. Then, an unexpected voice rang out in the alley.

"Very disappointing, Mr. Montgomery."

The speaker was male. Andy recognized the voice immediately. It was the same voice which had commanded his beloved Keomi to attach him only a few moments earlier.
Miramoto!

Andy sprang up, pistol in hand. He aimed his gun, pointing it in all directions as he sought the speaker, the source of the voice he had heard. His car was where he expected. Keomi still crouched on its hood. Her cold yellow eyes stared back at him. Andy closed his eyes and looked away.

"That's better." The voice again. Andy realized it was speaking directly to his mind.
"I was expecting more of a fight from you, Andrew."

"You want a fight? Come out! Show yourself, bastard!" Andy yelled, his voice echoing off the cold stone walls of the alley. He gripped his left side as he spoke. Sharp pains stabbed him from the same side on which he had landed when Keomi dropped him onto his car.
"Leave her out of this, Miramoto!"

"Oh, I think not," was the laughing reply.

Before he even saw her move, Keomi was on him. Her fist dug into his stomach with the force of a sledgehammer, lifting Andy off his feet. A second blow to the same spot was followed quickly by a third and fourth. Andy sprawled onto his back, looking up just in time to see Keomi in midair above him. She seemed suspended there for an instant, then fell like a pile driver into his chest. Her feet dug into his flesh and he heard ribs crack.

Andy's stomach lurched. He felt sick and nearly passed out from the sudden pain, but Keomi would not relent. Her clawed fingers dug into his hair on either side of his head. She paused, again smiling down at him, then rolled herself backwards down his legs, pulling his head with her. She finished her maneuver, lying on her back with Andy suspended above her. He lay perched on her feet, which still clawed at his chest. His arms and legs hung loose on either side of her.

Keomi held him there, her hands pressed against his head and holding him still. She stared into his eyes and began to kick him fiercely in the chest. Andy's body bounced violently from the blows while Keomi held his head still. Arms and legs flailed wildly for a handful of seconds while Keomi pounded him from below.

Just as Andy's eyes began to roll back into his head, Keomi released her grip on his head and kicked him away. He crashed into a nearby wall, going limp and slumping to the ground. His senses swirled in pain and disorientation. Andy's chest hurt. His back hurt. He could not breathe.

"How entertaining." In his office, Yosuke Miramoto watched the fight unfold in his mind. He saw Andy's face contort in pain when Keomi landed on his chest. He watched, smiling, as Keomi kicked him across the alley.

The fat man reclined in his chair, confident in his mental control over the cat-girl in the alley far below. In his right hand, he held the small white band and green jewel of Keomi's choker. Such an intimate and total thrall required a personal possession as a bond to Miramoto's slaves. Two fat fingers rubbed the jewel's smooth surface. Miramoto stared at it, letting the jewel's facets reflect the lights in his office. The tiny sparks dazzled in his black eyes as Keomi continued her attack.

"Ke-cough cough-Keomi! Stop!" Andy pleaded, pushing himself up from another bone-crushing attack by his brainwashed girlfriend. She just stood, looking at him with cold eyes, unaffected by his words. Andy leaned on a wall, supporting himself as he straightened up.
"Keomi... please. Don't.."

His plea faded as Keomi again lunged at him. She planted one foot on the ground in front of him, the next on his left leg. Pushing herself up, she climbed, running up him. She then stood, balancing with one foot on his right shoulder. The move took only a second to complete and Andy barely had time to notice her weight on him before her right foot connected with the back of his head and sent him flying across the alley again.

Andy rolled to a stop in the center of the street. He coughed and sputtered, fighting against unconsciousness. Slowly, with agonizing effort, he turned his broken body over and looked up towards his beloved again. He blinked once. Her fist slammed into his face.

Strangely, he did not feel her punch, just the impact of the back of his head as it bounced off the pavement. Andy's nose was broken and his lips were both split open. With one eye, he watched as Keomi moved in. Her shiny purple body crept over him and she sat on his chest. With methodical cruelty, she punched him in the face again, then again, and again and again.

Then, abruptly, she stopped. Andy became aware that the pain in his face was not getting worse. His right eye opened and he tried to focus on the blurry figure poised on top of him. Keomi sat, crouching on his chest. Her right hand was wrapped loosely around his throat. Andy guessed this was to prevent his head from moving too much as she punched it. Her left arm was cocked, ready to deliver another blow. He waited, but she did not strike.

Instead, Keomi moved her hand down slowly. She touched Andy's lip with one finger, sending fresh stinging pain to his already overworked brain. While he watched with one eye, Keomi lifted her finger up and stared at the warm liquid on it's tip.

Miramoto leaned forward in his plush chair. He closed his eyes, concentrating on the image Keomi's eyes were sending him.

"What's this?" he mumbled to himself.

Lying on the pavement, his breath coming in ragged gasps, Andy waited for Keomi to make some sort of move. He heard the voice come again, pushing into his mind.

"Explain this, Montgomery," Miramoto demanded.

Andy coughed, sputtering, "B.. Bite me."

Above him, Keomi's face twisted into a snarl. Andy knew it was merely a reflection of the man who was controlling her. On her purple finger, Andy's blood began to dry. He looked up at it, thinking for perhaps the hundredth time in his life how odd it looked to see his own blue blood. Physically, Andy looked completely human. Except for the blue hair, he conceded. Otherwise, there was no indication of his otherworldly origins.

Despite the pain, Andy risked a smile. A plan began to form in his head. He knew it was the only chance Keomi had.

"Explain!" Miramoto's voice made Andy flinch.

"Go ... to hell," he replied, almost spitting the words back at him.

Then Keomi stood, taking a few steps backwards away from Andy's prone body. It was then that he felt it. To Andy it seemed like someone had placed an icepack on his head. Cold and with a sound like static or white noise, Yosuke Miramoto's mental probe forced its way into Andy's consciousness. On his back, Andy laughed.

"Come on, then. You... cough You won't do any b.. better than Michi." Andy's mind flashed back to that night, spent out drinking and clubbing with Keomi; to the next day and the hangover, the encounter with Michi outside Keomi's apartment and his later revelation to Miramoto's neice... and, the box in his pocket.

The present pulled him back as the cold sensation began to spread. Andy felt the presence of Miramoto's mind growing. His plan was working. Standing nearby, Keomi watched with a blank expression the mental struggle in her boyfriend's head. Minutes passed in the quiet alley. Andy kept his good eye on Keomi and waited.

In his office, Miramoto pounded his desk with his plump fists. Andy's mind slipped from his grasp once again. Flashes of memories appeared, and then evaporated before he could understand them. He had never felt a mind like that of Andrew Montgomery. It was strange, almost frightening in its design. Miramoto clenched his teeth and pushed harder, summoning up all of his strength in the mental duel.

Andy's consciousness swirled around him as the fat man pressed his questions.

"What are you?" he asked.

A man, came the reply.

"You're lying." Yosuke dug his fingernails into his desk, straining even harder to see into the hidden corners of Andy's mind.
"Show me. Show me what you really are!"

Blue blood dried on Andy's lips, cracking as he smiled again. The icy pain stabbed through his mind and once again threatened to tear away his sanity.

Come on, you fat bastard! Andy taunted Miramoto, goading him on to more powerful attacks on his mind.
You want the truth, then you'll have to rip it out of me!

Miramoto was quick to oblige his demands. Andy looked at Keomi. He watched and waited.

The change came all at once. One moment, she stood like a statue, staring with unblinking eyes. Then she went limp, barely catching herself before she fell to the ground. Keomi rubbed her head, moaning softly. Her eyes blinked and when they opened again the strange yellow glow was gone. She knelt in the alley, staring down at her purple body trying to remember what was happening.

"Yes.." Andy wispered.

It had been a calculated risk. He tauned Miramoto with the mystery of his blue blood and once in Andy's mind, the telepathic monster had become too enthralled by his own attack to maintain control over Keomi. Andy smiled again, waiting for the cat-girl to notice him.

Her golden eyes blinked. Still baffled by her current situation, she looked around at the alley, the car, and then finally at the person lying on the ground in front of her. The shock of it nearly froze her heart.

"Andy!"

Keomi stood, moving towards her love, her most treasured friend and partner. She took one step. Before her second footfall, Andy knew his plan had failed.

Miramoto felt the shock of Keomi's awakening. Her fear and confusion exploded outward through the suyakkui when she saw Andy lying on the ground. In that instant, Miramoto knew he had been baited. He saw through Andy's plan. The twisted industrialist withdrew himself from Andy's alien mindscape, simultaneously berating himself for being so clumsy and congratulating his opponent for a gambit well played.

"Clever, Mr. Montgomery."

The words were barely in Andy's mind before Keomi stopped in her tracks. Her face went blank and the warmth in her eyes vanished once again. Tears of frustration stung Andy's eyes. His hands clenched into fists and he punched the pavement. Miramoto spoke one final time to his worthy adversary.

"A pity I do not have time to dissect you properly."
At his desk, Miramoto sighed.
"Goodbye."

Andy reached into his jacket. He felt the handle of his Glock, still loaded, in its holster. A wirlwind of confused thoughts rushed through his mind. He might still be able to stop Keomi with one good shot. Or he could spare her the pain of knowing she had killed him by doing the job himself. Could he kill her? Could he kill himself?

His fingers grazed a small box in his jacket pocket. Andy closed his eyes and in his mind's eye he saw a golden band with a mounted jewel. He saw it in its velvet box. Then, with a smile, he imagined it on Keomi's hand. Her true hand, soft and warm, rested in his own as he pictured himself sliding the ring onto her finger.

Andy opened his eyes. He had one last desperate plan. Keomi stood above him. Her right hand was drawn back like a dagger. Andy realized there was no chance to stop what was coming.

Too late.

Keomi fell, planting her knees on either side of Andy's body. She hovered above him, kneeling, staring down at him with golden eyes. Her eyes seemed to soften, growing moist with tears which Miramoto could not hold back. Keomi hesitated for an agonizingly short moment.

Then she struck. Her hand cut the air, driving down into the center of Andy's chest. The clawed hand drove through his body and dug into the pavement below. There was a spray of blue blood which left droplets all over Keomi's purple body.

The sight of her arm plunged through his chest made his eyes go wide, but only for a moment. Then his face softened. He looked up at Keomi, knowing that this, at least, would be enough. His right hand slid free of this jacket, taking the small velvet box with it. With his thumb, Andy popped the box open, revealing a gold and emerald ring. It was meant to be an engagement ring, but Andy had imagined a more romantic setting for his proposal.

"Promised myself... I'd ask you... even... if it was the last thing I ever did, babe."

Blue blood tricked between Andy's teeth as he spoke. Keomi's hot tears fell onto his face from above. Andy raised the box, offering it to Keomi. With tears streaking her purple cheeks, she trembled. Her voice, Keomi's true voice, whispered. It sounded as if it came from far away, calling out to him.

"Andy?"

He smiled. There was only one thing left to do now.

"May sound silly under the circumstances, babe... but...cough cough You.. cough You wanna get married?"

With those words, Andy's body went limp. His right hand and its proffered ring fell to the pavement beside him. The ring tumbled out of its box, making a soft metallic sound as it rolled next to Keomi's leg and lay on the ground. Shakily, tears filling her eyes and her bottom lip trembling, Keomi slowly leaned over. Gripping the golden band between two purple claws, she lifted it to her face, turning it round in her grasp as though she did not quite understand what it was.

"Andy?" she whispered, dropping the ring onto Andy's body.

She stood slowly, shaking her head in disbelief, denying the horror she saw before her. Eyes pressed closed, Keomi's mouth opened in a primal scream of pain and fury.
"AAAAAAAAANNNNNNNNNDDDDDDYYYYYY!!!!"

In a flash of violet energy which welled up from deep within her, the suyakkui shell which had covered her exploded from her body, flying away and splattering on the walls of the alley. On impact, the purple slime transformed into showers of cockroaches which fell to the ground and skittered off into the darkness.

Keomi fell to the ground, her body shaking with sobs. She had killed him. No matter what the circumstances, that truth remained. With her own hands she had killed the man she loved above all else, and that truth cut her to the soul.

In his office, Miramoto clutched his head. He cursed under his breath and flung Keomi's jeweled choker away in pain and disgust. The mental bond with Keomi was weakened without the necklace in his hand, but the aftershocks of her re-awakening ripped through his mind nonetheless. His eyes filled with a strange violet light. The fat man fell to his knees, cursing aloud.

"Damn you, girl! God damn you and your filthy emotions!"

Yosuke Miramoto, ruler of an industrial empire and the architect of armageddon, collapsed to the plush carpeted floor of his office. A single tear stained his cheek.

"Damn... you.. both."

There is a point where grief and despair give way to exhaustion. It is at this point that the conscious mind, overburdened by emotion and pushed beyond its physical limits, temporarily shuts down. Reason and logic become skewed and priorities shift from the important to the trivial.

Keomi sat on the street in that dark alley. Her tears had long since dried on her cheeks and her sobs had ceased. She simply sat, motionless and limp, trembling every now and then from the cold, and stared at a small velvet box on the ground. Pale skin prickled with goosebumps. Her fuzzy white and violet ears drooped on either side of her head, sagging pitifully. Behind her, a long white and violet striped tail lay motionless on the pavement.

A chilly wind blew again, swirling around the dead end alleyway and tossing strands of red-violet hair across Keomi's face. The hair settled across her skin and fell in her eyes, yet she did not blink. She did not move at all. The only indication that she was even alive was her heartbeat. The muscle in her chest pounded. It forced blood to weary muscles, spurred on by the adrenaline in her system. The force of her hearbeat shook her whole body. She swayed slightly with each pulse, eyes still staring down at the box on the ground.

From far away, the sounds of battle, explosions and gunfire and voices, drifted into the alley. Keomi blinked. Slowly, her mind accepted this input, telling her that somewhere nearby people were fighting.

Keomi looked down at herself.

"I should get dressed," she said absentmindedly. Her voice was tired, emotionless, and barely above a whisper.

Slowly, the cat-girl rose from the ground. Bare feet shuffled on the ground as she walked towards the red sports car in front of her. Keomi's eyes focused straight ahead, never looking down. Somehow she knew there was something there which she did not want to see.

Moving to the rear of the car, Keomi stared down at its trunk, at the set of keys she somehow knew were still in the lock. She reached down and turned the key. Inside the car's trunk she found a bag of clothes.

She was dressed in short order, moving mechanically, going through motions which had been repeated each day of her life. Keomi buttoned up her white blouse and smoothed down her black pleated skirt. Sitting on the ground, she pulled on her socks and white tennis shoes.

Finally, she pulled out a soft, fuzzy pink sweater. She held it, rubbing her fingers across the material. Staring at the garment in her hand, Keomi started to shake. A memory drifted into her mind.

It was her birthday. She sat on the couch in her apartment, a half eaten cake on the small table in front of her. Her hands greedily pulled at shiny gold paper, revealing a long flat white box.

Otanjoubiomedetougozaimasu, babe.

That voice spoke in her mind, wishing her a Happy Birthday. It was so warm, so familiar. Keomi remembered smiling as she opened the box. Inisde there had been a pink sweater. It was the first present Andy had ever given her.

"Andy," she whispered.

More images exploded into her mind. Andy flew through the air, smashing into his car. Purple feet landed on his chest as he lay on the ground. Keomi heard his bones snap. A purple fist pounded on Andy's face, shattering his nose and bloodying his lips.

Finally, a purple hand stabbed into his chest. Keomi saw blood. Blue blood sprayed into her eyes and covered her body.

She stiffened and dropped the sweater onto the ground.

"Andy!" Panic gripped her, squeezing her heart and making her chest hurt.
"Oh God."

Her tennis shoes pounded the pavement as she ran. Her breath came quickly almost making her hyperventilate. Five strides brought her from behind the car. Her eyes saw him. She stopped, frozen.

"Oh God."

Then she was cradling him in her arms, his head lay in her lap. She cried. Huge wet tears streamed down her cheeks and fell on Andy's face. Holding him like that, she sat in the street for a long time. The pain slowly, inexorably pulled her mind back to reality.

Keomi tried to figure out what to do. Where should she go? What would her life be like now? Without Andy, would life even be worth living at all?

"There's no point," she sobbed.

Her eyes fell on Andy's gun. His Glock lay on the ground beside her, calling to her.

"That's right." Keomi choked back her tears, wiping her cheeks dry.
"There's just no point to it. Not anymore."

Her hand moved down to the gun beside her. The answer it represented seemed so obvious. It was the way to end the nightmare, to wipe away the pain. It was just so simple. Without Andy, she had no reason to go on.

The gun felt strangely heavy in her grasp. She lifted it, feeling its cold metal under her fingers. With practiced ease, Keomi checked the clip. It was nearly full. Her thumb flipped the safety OFF.

"No point."

With her finger on the trigger, Keomi gripped the top of the gun and chambered a round. She held the gun in front of her, hesitating for a handful of seconds. Then, she raised it, trembling.

Her arm was shaking as she lifted the gun. Keomi closed her golden eyes, she thought, for the last time.

"It's what I deserve," she whispered.

"I... beg to differ, babe."

Her arm stopped. Keomi's brow furrowed. She could not understand what had happened. She felt something on her wrist.

Impossible, she thought. Her eyes opened slowly and looked down.

"You trying to bail on me, Ke-Ke?" Andy grinned up at her through swollen lips. His bloody hand gripped her wrist, forstalling her final solution.

Keomi shreiked, tearing her arm free from Andy's hand and throwing his gun across the alley. The stunned cat-girl stumbled to her feet, backing away from her dead boyfriend.

Andy pushed himself up onto his elbows. Keomi blinked in disbelief. A strange humming sound filled the alley and she watched, transfixed as the hole in Andy's chest slowly began to close itself. The cuts on his face and lips sealed themselves as well.

Keomi shook her head, gripping the front of her blouse in sweaty clinched fists. She watched on. Andy's chest expanded, the sound of broken bones clicking and snapping back into place echoed from the walls of the otherwise silent alley. Finally, Andy raised his right hand and pinched his nose, twisting it back into place with a wet sounding *crack*.

The pools of blue blood which had surrounded his corpse were gone. Keomi could see the veins under Andy's skin bulging and pulsing with his restored heartbeats. He pushed himself up onto his feet and gingerly stood, rubbing his chest gently, cursing.

"Ow, dammit," he mumbled. Then he looked up at Keomi, grinning sheepishly.
"Sorry, Kitten. But now you know why I let you handle all the rough stuff. Putting myself back together really fscking hurts."

Keomi smiled. Then her eyes rolled back in her head and she fainted dead away, falling onto a pile of garbage bags.
 
     
 
hemlock_martini 
  teadee
 
04:12pm 01/05/2004
  Maji's thermal imaging was flooded with blurry red ghosts--the silouhettes of Messerschmidt mobile suits rushing in to attack her. She was surprised by their speed and apparent grace; for such large mecha they were rather swift--a worrying thought. Even more worrying were the blinking LEDs on the FlightSuit's HUD, indicating that the Suit's systems were beginning to overheat. "Blast!" she snarled. "Override safety systems. Reroute power from rear verniers to--AAAGH!"

Something--felt like a huge metal fist, which is probably what it was--slammed into Maji, sending her into a flat spin. The partially-cloaked mobile suits were upon her, and seemed determined to destroy her, swiping at her blindly like a child would swat a fly. She regained her altitude, nearly smashing herself against a brick wall, and turned to see the blurry hulk rushing towards her at full speed. Maji struggled with the controls, fighting for control and pushing her Suit to its limits.

It was at this point that the FlightSuit's system CPU flashed the words [CRITICAL OVERHEAT--ENGINE SHUTDOWN] on her HUD. Maji began to freefall helplessly, seemingly in slow-motion, as the massive mecha grew larger in her optics. Maji closed her eye and bit her lip. She always knew that someday, she would die in battle--but she could never had guessed in a million years that it could end this way.

Suddenly, a familiar voice burst through her comlink. "Maji! Go long!"

"What?" Maji's eye snapped open.

Joe had abandoned his post across from Katsuragi Plaza. One stood across the street, crouched on one knee, the rotary missle launch tube on its upper-right torso poised to fire. "Trust me!" yelled Joe. The missle, a 500-KG Goddard Banshee, burst from the launch tube, speeding towards its intended target--not one of the cloaked Mobile Suits, but Maji herself.

At the very last milisecond before impact, Maji grasped Joe's intent. He's trying to save me! As the rocket howled past her, she reached out and, with all her demonic strength, dug her fingers into its metal surface and held on tight. The missle, burdened with its new passenger, sped straight up into the open sky; removing Maji from the Messerschmidts' view.

Wind howled past Maji's faceplate as she rode the rocket into the pitch-black Megatokyo sky. She pulled herself up onto its metal body and checked her FlightSuit's systems--they were cooling down quickly, but wouldn't be ready for another minute or two. She got a clear view of the glittering Megatokyo skyline, which stretched to the horizon on either side, as the missile's fuel ran out. A few hundred feet more of unguided flight, and it would fall straight down like a rock, taking Maji with it. "Way to 'wing it,' Joe," she mumbled under her breath.

Wing? Wait! Maybe... Maji thought for a second, remembering her father's words. I guess I don't have a choice. This may be my only hope. Maji closed her eye and began to concentrate. In the maelstrom of her mind, she found a burning core of demonic rage and fury, fueled by years of pain, hunger, and fear. She stoked this fire, fanning the flames of her hatred. Soon, what had been a glowing ember was a raging bonfire, enflaming her mind and soul. "Yesssss...." she hissed into the wind as the missle reached the apex of its arc and began to fall.

Maji felt her body begin to change; her limbs and torso enlongated, became gray, taut and sinewy, engorged with muscle, flooded with adrenalin and fiery blood. Her hands stretched, revealing razor-sharp claws that dug further into the missile's sheilding. Her flowing, raven-black hair became streaked with white. Maji's face and jaw contorted, her teeth growing into a set of fearsome fangs. And a pair of jet-black, leathery wings burst from Maji's shoulder blades, fitting nicely in between the gaps in the FlightSuit's X-shaped verniers. Demon-Maji let out a high-pitched screech, the sound of her father's heritage bursting from her lungs.

Maji could still see the Messerschmidts in the streets below--their heat signatures suggested that they were moving as one towards Katsuragi Plaza. Maji switched to magnified optics--in truth, the Messerschmidts were chasing One, who tromped through the streets as fast as it possibly could. The Nazi suits were gaining, and by the looks of their heat sources, they were arming their weapons and training them on Joe's mech.

"HOW DARE THEY!" snarled Maji. She suddenly remembered that she was still gripping the Banshee missile as it continued on its speedy descent. Maji smiled devilishly and spread her leathery wings, beating them furiously in the cool night air. Soon, she and the missile had acheived a new trajectory. Maji laughed wickedly as she drew closer to her target.

It would be fair to say that the Messerschmidt pilot never knew what hit him. It would also be fair to say that, had he been told before the battle that he was going to be killed by an American missile guided solely by gravity and the determination of a laughing, winged demon-woman; the pilot probably would have called the teller crazy, and gone about his day without any sense of looming mortality hanging over his head.

Sadly--for him, at least--this was not the case.

The Goddard Banshee found its target dead square in the middle of a Messerschmidt's rear armor plate, obliterating it instantly. Two Messerschmidts had taken the brunt of the blast and had come apart at the joints, sparking and steaming. The shockwave scattered the rest of the Mobile Suits like bowling pins, scattering them about the street; partially uncloaked and temporarily immobile, but largely undamaged. Joe's mech screeched to a grinding halt at the entrance to Katsuragi Plaza and turned around. Joe's jaw dropped. "How in the hell?..."

Maji swooped down on her demon's wings and latched onto One's cockpit cage, giving Joe the fright of his life. She smiled at his very human reaction to her appearance as he squirmed in his seat. "Hello, lover," she said, flashing a wicked grin.

"Maji? Is that you, honey? What in blue blazes happened to you? You're all...yecch!"

"What's the matter, Joe? You found me beautiful once."

Joe raised an eyebrow. "Honey, you got reeeeeal ugly."

"Perhaps you'd prefer me this way, then..." Maji un-stretched, reeling her body back in to revert to its human form. Her wings furled up and disappeared, and the tough-yet-beautiful face that Joe had grown accustomed to returned. "Better?" she asked, smirking.

"Much, thanks kid. And thanks for the assist back there, that was quick thinkin'. I admire a dame who can think on her feet...uh...wings. Whatever."

"Consider it a favor returned." Maji glanced at her HUD. "My flight systems have cooled down, I'm good to go. Need some help with the hostiles?" The remaining Messerschmidts had begun to struggle upright.

"Nah, I can handle these mugs. Tell you what, though; I'm picking up some stuff on radar--looks like police helicopters. Th' Megatokyo cops are gonna be out of their depth here, they'd get in our way and probably arrest us, so..."

"Right. I'll take them down."

"Whoa, easy! They're civilians, don't go offing 'em!"

Maji laughed. "Of course not, you silly man. I will give them a good scare, though." She powered up her FlightSuit and primed the verniers. "Don't play too rough with your buddies, now."

"Aren't you forgetting something?" Joe asked, with a smile in his voice.

Maji's brow furrowed. "Uh...I don't..." she glanced around herself, trying to think. Joe brought One's arm around, which held her laser rifle delicately between its thumb and index finger.

"Awww, you remembered!" Maji leapt up and snagged her rifle, looping its strap around her neck. "You're sweet."

"Ah, it's just the kinda guy I am, is all." Smiling, Maji and Joe saluted each other smartly, and Maji launched herself into the sky. "Be careful," he called to her, and watched her blue flame disappear over the rooftops.

Joe settled back into his seat and whirled One around. He got a glimpse of the Messerschmidts re-cloaking as they followed him into Katsuragi Plaza. Their radar signatures vanished from his scope. One tromped into the center of the Plaza and stopped.

One wasn't equipped with thermal imaging, so Joe wasn't sure exactly where the other Suits were--but after years of piloting and fighting with mecha, Joe could approximate their number and location by hearing the vibrations their footfalls made on the ground. "Sounds like...seven...no, eight." Joe swung the mech around, facing the decorative fountain in the center of the park. He paused, hearing the footfalls slow down and stop. Joe took a deep breath and flipped on the loudspeaker. "So, you guys got some fancy-pants Miramoto tech. Good for you! I'm impressed, really. As a matter of fact...I'd like buy you all a drink, how 'bout it?" Joe shoved a lever down. One's fist slammed into the fountain, rupturing the water lines that ran underneath the park's surface. Seconds later, jets of water burst up from cracks in the concrete, spraying the Mobile Suits, and dousing the Messerschmidts under their invisibility cloaks. The jets of water shorted out the cloaking devices, leaving the Nazi suits visible and steaming. Joe could hear German shouts of confusion over the Messerschmidts' comm channel.

"Uh-huh. That's what I thought," said Joe, charging up One's dynamos. He swung One's massive arms around into his familiar boxing stance. "Let's get it on!"

The Messerschmidts charged towards him, But One was already advancing on his attackers. He dodged the first, rolling the Suit off his shoulder, delivered a stiff uppercut to the second, and grasped the third's midsection in the crushing grip of One's left hand.

"Time to try out the new toy," said Joe, flicking open a switch cover and yanking a nearby lever. A huge iron bulb--formerly one of the piledriver heads that had resided on One's forearms--slid smoothly backwards from its left elbow on a piston. "Two words--Impact Hammer," said Joe over the loudspeaker. "Say hello to the twenty-first century!" Joe thumbed the switch.

The bulb slammed forward on its piston, sending violent vibrations through One's forearm and shaking the trapped Messerschmidt almost entirely to pieces. Joe could hear the pilot scream as the lower abdomen of the suit collapsed, setting its internal power plant on fire. "Adios," said Joe, tossing the crumpled suit aside. One cycled back, ripping off one of the fallen suit's arms and using it like a club against the next Messerschmidt. It clanged off the plated steel, making huge dents. Joe brought up One's foot and high-kicked the bruised Nazi suit, knocking it flat on its back with an earth-shaking BOOM.

That's when the world began to glow, then spin violently around, sending One crashing into a nearby building, smoking and partially damaged.

Joe fought to keep consciousness and fought back a sudden bout of motion sickness as he struggled to stand One up. He could see the Suit that had fired upon him, causing him to fall--it carried some sort of shoulder-mounted beam weapon. Joe looked at the rest of the Messerschmidts in his field of vision, and saw that they, too, had shoulder-mounted beam cannons. The suits staggered back into a loose formation, covering the lone American mech.

"Okay...this is gonna be more fun..*oof*...than I thought." Joe kicked in the leg dynamos, sending One rocketing back into the fray to slug it out once more with the Nazi suits.
 
     
 
teadee 
  teadee
 
04:11pm 01/05/2004
  Heading towards Katsuagi Park Joe could faintly see Maji’s jet signature in the distant skyline. The pattern was evasive as if she was trying to dodge something, but his timer indicated that the Messerschmidts had 40 seconds left until immediate arrival, not to mention that she appeared to be all by herself.

“Maji?” Joe hailed over the COM line, “I know your expecting a full dance card darlin’, but what’s with the jig?”

“Joe!” What is your ETA?” Maji replied. In the background he could hear the rapid sounds of gunfire.

“ 60 seconds…what the hell is happening out there!”

“Approach with caution,” Maji let out a short gasp as she dodged an oncoming projectile, “ The Messerschmidts seem to have increased in speed and also have a limited, albeit effective, cloaking ability. They are virtually invisible unless they have to move at a fast rate or attack”

“How many?” Joe moved over One’s controls with deft accuracy.

“I sense 8 but only see 6 of them here while in thermal tracking mode.” As she relayed the information, Maji barely caught the slight distortion of background before seeing a grappling arm shoot out to capture her. With a mental command the suit responded by thrusting her back and strafing to the right as the hand and chain barely missed her midsection. Continuing on its projected course it fully lodged itself into the side of a nearby building. The operator of the nightmarish contraption de-cloaked to transfer all power in removing the weapon from the structure. Seeing her chance Maji moved in.

“Magnetic boots at 28% power, forward thrusters at full intercept, execute in 3…2…1…IGNIGHT!”

With a burst of power Maji sped toward the taunt chain boots first. Once in range the magnetic field surrounded the link catapulting her, with a slight spin, towards the cockpit of the Messerschmidt like a human rail toy. Spiraling down the extended chain Maji targeted her wing missiles on the now frantic operator. Extending his mechs free hand he aimed it toward the bikini-clad threat surfing down his immobile arm.

“Target acquired in 15seconds” Maji muttered steadying her trajectory “12…11…10…what?!” All of a sudden Maji’s thrusters started to sputter and cut off.

“Forward thrusters over heating,” the suit chimed “Shut down emanate.”

Just then the second grappling arm locked on to Maji and fired “Warning incoming projectile. Impact in 8…7…”

“Forward thrusters off!” Maji commanded. “On my mark fire targeted missiles, eliminate magnetic field, and activate boot thrusters in three full short round bursts!”

“5…4…”

“Steady. Stay on target” Maji readied herself.

“3…2…”

“MARK!” Maji yelled. Six missiles locked onto the Messerschmidts cockpit and exploded with a ball fire. Before the computer could finish the countdown, the boots magnetic field cut off and three powerful blasts of fire erupted at her feet. Maji pushed off the chain and executed an aerial swandive-backflip combination as the projectile hand passed under her head.

“Magnetic boots at full now!” Bringing her feet down Maji connected with a thud to the back of the moving hand. Glancing behind her she witnessed the main body of the Messerschmidt becoming consumed with fire. The heat wave illuminated a few of the other concealed mechs, and it seemed as if they were about to focus all of their attention on the bell of the ball.
 
     
 
hemlock_martini 
  teadee
 
04:10pm 01/05/2004
  “Mistress,” muttered Unagi, “we enter Meifumado.”

The formerly lush and lavishly appointed lobby of Miramoto Tower was blackened and smoky, like the inside of a charnelhouse oven. Fortunately, had been nothing living in the lobby when the explosion occurred; save for the now-smouldering remains of ferns and potted bamboo. A few lights still flickered on the receptionists’ control panel. Though there was little doubt that silent alarms were going off all over the place, the lobby was deathly quiet.

“This...is an evil place. I smell the presence of black magic,” continued Unagi.

“That’s just cordite, Unagi. And for the record, it’s supposed to smell like victory.” Trixie removed a ratchet-screwdriver from her kit and examined the walls. “Or is that napalm? I can never remember...ah, here we are.” She located a small air vent close to the flool and knelt by it, removing the screws from the vent face.

“Are you sure you can squeeze through that?” he asked.

“Quite sure.” The vent face clattered to the ground. Trixie turned back to Unagi. “Andy and the rest should be here by now. We should wait for them.”

“Mistress, are you sure that is wise? I do not understand quite what it is that Fortunato-san needs, but I am to believe he requires your assistance in the lower levels of this place. Is this not true?”

“Well yeah, but I’m not leaving you alone till everybody else gets here. Miramoto should have security heading this way now--you know, badguys, heavily armed, really pissed off--I wouldn’t miss it.” She flashed Unagi a smile and wiggled her eyebrows.

“Nevertheless, I insist that you go ahead with your part of the mission. Time is of the essence.”

“No way! I’m not leaving you to face those goons by yourself. You could get hurt!”

“A true samurai lives by embracing death. I do not fear pain, Mistress. I only wish I could accompany you on your task. Instead, I will face Miramoto’s warriors on my own.”

“But--”

“Mistress, you forget that I once faced down and defeated sixty warriors at once. Destroying the house of my Daimyo is not something I am proud of...but it is something I would do again.” Unagi’s hands clenched into fists.

Trixie sighed heavily, her shoulders drooping. “I can’t change your mind, can I?”

“If such a thing were possible, perhaps I could try to change yours as well, someday.” Unagi smiled wryly.

She took a long look at Unagi. “Okay. Just be careful, you hear me, bushido-boy? I’m warning you, I give lousy eulogies.” She popped the ‘Silver Bullet’ out of its pouch on her belt.

“Have no fear, Mistress. We will drink sake together when this battle is over.”

“It’s a date,” said Trixie. She flipped the small electronic device up in the air and switched to fox-form. She deptly snapped up and caught the ‘Bullet’ in her mouth, then darted down the airshaft.

Unagi watched Trixie go, then crossed to the center of the room. He placed his lucky hisago on the ground, then sat cross-legged on the floor; laying his sword-hilts into the crook of his neck and resting the tips of the scabbards on the ground. Unagi closed his eyes and lowered his head in meditation.

Soon, Unagi became aware of a rustling, clicking sound all around him. He remained calm, keeping his breathing slow and steady. He exhaled and opened his eyes.

Ninjas--at least fifty of them--surrounded him. But these were not the faceless shinobi he was used to facing off against. These were metal automatons, not unlike Joe-san’s armoured beast; that stood as tall as a man and took the familiar stances of the black-clad shadow fighters. They stared at him silently, their glassy, dead eyes taking careful inventory of his body, his swords, his lucky hisago.

Slowly and steadily, Unagi stood, placing his swords in front of him on the ground. The ninjas shifted, taking up battle stances. Some drew ninja-to or tonfa, others withdrew manriki-gusari or machetes from hidden compartments. They remained silent.

Without taking his eyes off them, Unagi bent to pick up his lucky hisago. He popped off the cork and drank deeply, taking long swallows of sake. The hisago thus emptied, he cast it aside--it dropped with a hollow THUNK. Unagi began to laugh heartily, his laughter echoing off the scorched walls of the lobby.

“This...THIS is what you send to dispatch me, Miramoto-dono?” Unagi laughed again. “Truly pitiful. I see now that warlords like you have not changed in five hundred years. Always sending stinking, gutless shinobi to do your dirty work.” Unagi stripped to the waist, revealing his muscular, heavily-scarred torso. “I do not fear them any more than I fear you, fiend. Watch carefully as I dispose of your foot soldiers, Miramoto-dono. I want you to see this. HAAAAH!”

With a mighty grunt, Unagi bent down and whipped both swords from their scabbards. In the space of three seconds, he had sliced through twice as many ninja. Their sparking, sizzling robotic bodies fell to his feet as he sized up the rest of the horde. They had not retreated, nor did they show any sign of hesitation or remorse for their fallen comrades. They began to advance upon him, moving as one.

Unagi smiled. He was going to enjoy this.



***


Fortunato tapped his foot in annoyance and glanced at his watch. That is, he would have; if he had a foot to tap, anything solid to tap it on, and anything remotely resembling a “watch” anywhere on his person. Instead, he brought up “real-world time” in his HUD and scowled, his nerual receptors clicking in time to the seconds being ticked off.

“Damn! Humans are so *slow.* How did I ever stand being one?”

As far back as he could remember, even when he had still been alive, Fortunato had disliked the term “cyberspace.” It was overused and abused by people who couldn’t understand it and should never be allowed near a computer; thus it had lost all meaning. Still, there was no better word than “cyberspace” to describe where he currently was. Below him, the intersection of infogrids that composed the Megatokyo datastructure loomed, vast and unsettlingly complex; like a mountain range made of light and chrome. Fortunato found it much easier to work his magic here, instead of confining himself to a narrow avenue of “meatspace.”

Hovering just above Fortunato was an immense hypercube of power that represented all of his skills and techniques. It shimmered and throbbed, impatiently awaiting input from its equally-impatient User. Fortunato stroked its lowest side, his fingers sliding through the dense information and causing watery ripples to cascade through the cube.

Fortunato sighed. “I’d best get ready.”

[CMD LINE: OPEN TYPE STATUS
[Error: Irreparable invalid markup ('<null/i-o>') in entry. Owner must fix manually. Raw contents below.]

“Mistress,” muttered Unagi, “we enter Meifumado.”

The formerly lush and lavishly appointed lobby of Miramoto Tower was blackened and smoky, like the inside of a charnelhouse oven. Fortunately, had been nothing living in the lobby when the explosion occurred; save for the now-smouldering remains of ferns and potted bamboo. A few lights still flickered on the receptionists’ control panel. Though there was little doubt that silent alarms were going off all over the place, the lobby was deathly quiet.

“This...is an evil place. I smell the presence of black magic,” continued Unagi.

“That’s just cordite, Unagi. And for the record, it’s supposed to smell like victory.” Trixie removed a ratchet-screwdriver from her kit and examined the walls. “Or is that napalm? I can never remember...ah, here we are.” She located a small air vent close to the flool and knelt by it, removing the screws from the vent face.

“Are you sure you can squeeze through that?” he asked.

“Quite sure.” The vent face clattered to the ground. Trixie turned back to Unagi. “Andy and the rest should be here by now. We should wait for them.”

“Mistress, are you sure that is wise? I do not understand quite what it is that Fortunato-san needs, but I am to believe he requires your assistance in the lower levels of this place. Is this not true?”

“Well yeah, but I’m not leaving you alone till everybody else gets here. Miramoto should have security heading this way now--you know, badguys, heavily armed, really pissed off--I wouldn’t miss it.” She flashed Unagi a smile and wiggled her eyebrows.

“Nevertheless, I insist that you go ahead with your part of the mission. Time is of the essence.”

“No way! I’m not leaving you to face those goons by yourself. You could get hurt!”

“A true samurai lives by embracing death. I do not fear pain, Mistress. I only wish I could accompany you on your task. Instead, I will face Miramoto’s warriors on my own.”

“But--”

“Mistress, you forget that I once faced down and defeated sixty warriors at once. Destroying the house of my Daimyo is not something I am proud of...but it is something I would do again.” Unagi’s hands clenched into fists.

Trixie sighed heavily, her shoulders drooping. “I can’t change your mind, can I?”

“If such a thing were possible, perhaps I could try to change yours as well, someday.” Unagi smiled wryly.

She took a long look at Unagi. “Okay. Just be careful, you hear me, bushido-boy? I’m warning you, I give lousy eulogies.” She popped the ‘Silver Bullet’ out of its pouch on her belt.

“Have no fear, Mistress. We will drink sake together when this battle is over.”

“It’s a date,” said Trixie. She flipped the small electronic device up in the air and switched to fox-form. She deptly snapped up and caught the ‘Bullet’ in her mouth, then darted down the airshaft.

Unagi watched Trixie go, then crossed to the center of the room. He placed his lucky hisago on the ground, then sat cross-legged on the floor; laying his sword-hilts into the crook of his neck and resting the tips of the scabbards on the ground. Unagi closed his eyes and lowered his head in meditation.

Soon, Unagi became aware of a rustling, clicking sound all around him. He remained calm, keeping his breathing slow and steady. He exhaled and opened his eyes.

Ninjas--at least fifty of them--surrounded him. But these were not the faceless shinobi he was used to facing off against. These were metal automatons, not unlike Joe-san’s armoured beast; that stood as tall as a man and took the familiar stances of the black-clad shadow fighters. They stared at him silently, their glassy, dead eyes taking careful inventory of his body, his swords, his lucky hisago.

Slowly and steadily, Unagi stood, placing his swords in front of him on the ground. The ninjas shifted, taking up battle stances. Some drew ninja-to or tonfa, others withdrew manriki-gusari or machetes from hidden compartments. They remained silent.

Without taking his eyes off them, Unagi bent to pick up his lucky hisago. He popped off the cork and drank deeply, taking long swallows of sake. The hisago thus emptied, he cast it aside--it dropped with a hollow THUNK. Unagi began to laugh heartily, his laughter echoing off the scorched walls of the lobby.

“This...THIS is what you send to dispatch me, Miramoto-dono?” Unagi laughed again. “Truly pitiful. I see now that warlords like you have not changed in five hundred years. Always sending stinking, gutless shinobi to do your dirty work.” Unagi stripped to the waist, revealing his muscular, heavily-scarred torso. “I do not fear them any more than I fear you, fiend. Watch carefully as I dispose of your foot soldiers, Miramoto-dono. I want you to see this. HAAAAH!”

With a mighty grunt, Unagi bent down and whipped both swords from their scabbards. In the space of three seconds, he had sliced through twice as many ninja. Their sparking, sizzling robotic bodies fell to his feet as he sized up the rest of the horde. They had not retreated, nor did they show any sign of hesitation or remorse for their fallen comrades. They began to advance upon him, moving as one.

Unagi smiled. He was going to enjoy this.



***


Fortunato tapped his foot in annoyance and glanced at his watch. That is, he would have; if he had a foot to tap, anything solid to tap it on, and anything remotely resembling a “watch” anywhere on his person. Instead, he brought up “real-world time” in his HUD and scowled, his nerual receptors clicking in time to the seconds being ticked off.

“Damn! Humans are so *slow.* How did I ever stand being one?”

As far back as he could remember, even when he had still been alive, Fortunato had disliked the term “cyberspace.” It was overused and abused by people who couldn’t understand it and should never be allowed near a computer; thus it had lost all meaning. Still, there was no better word than “cyberspace” to describe where he currently was. Below him, the intersection of infogrids that composed the Megatokyo datastructure loomed, vast and unsettlingly complex; like a mountain range made of light and chrome. Fortunato found it much easier to work his magic here, instead of confining himself to a narrow avenue of “meatspace.”

Hovering just above Fortunato was an immense hypercube of power that represented all of his skills and techniques. It shimmered and throbbed, impatiently awaiting input from its equally-impatient User. Fortunato stroked its lowest side, his fingers sliding through the dense information and causing watery ripples to cascade through the cube.

Fortunato sighed. “I’d best get ready.”

[CMD LINE: OPEN <ACCESS> TYPE <THREAD:NEEDLE> STATUS <NULL/I-O> DESTINATION <220.65.98.128.356.42.23.4.55555X>] [CMD: ENGAGE]

A clear tube, as thin as a fiber-optic cable, burst from his fingertips and shot like an arrow into the heart of the datastructure ahead. It found purchase on an unlisted node close to the Miramoto structure. The node pulsed in Fortunato’s uncanny rhythm, tugging the line taut.

[ACCESS: AWAITING UPLINK]

“Disco.” Now all Fortunato had to do was wait for the fox-chick to plant the ‘Bullet,’ and he could go to work on Miramoto. He frowned. “That could take nanEons...I wish I’d brought a deck of cards or something. Oh well...”
 
     
 
berus_roth 
  teadee
 
04:08pm 01/05/2004
  The east alleyway was dark.

"Trixie's little stunt knocked out all the external lights on the ground floor," Michi explained.
"Andy, kill the headlights."

He complied without a word and the sports car crept along at a slow roll. The alley became eerily quiety. Andy switched his sunglasses to infra-red mode in order to guide his vehicle through the inky darkness.

Suddenly, Michi's right arm shot up, pointing across the car to a spot on the side of her uncle's building.
"There!"

"I see it," Nichiren replied softly. The wolf girl leaned forward, placing her face very near to Andy's right ear as they both scanned the spot Michi had indicated. The promised service entrace was clearly visible.

As Andy slowed the sports car to a stop, Nichi whispered in his ear, "But, why is it open?"

"Who cares?" Michi grumbled at Nichiren's apparent trepidation.
"This is our way into the tower. No guards to stop us, so quit complaining."

The three of them slowly exited the car, careful to close the doors as quietly as possible. Andy slid the keys into his jeans pocket and checked the holster under his jacket. Satisfied that his Glock was indeed there, he took a step towards the door as Michi did the same from the opposite side of the car.

Silently, Nichiren moved close to Andy, pressing her shoulder lightly into his back. She leaned hear head towards his ear. Hand tightly gripped around the hilt of her sword, she whispered a warning.
"Stay on guard, Andy-kun. Something doesn't... feel right about this."

Andy nodded his understanding.

Michi was halfway to the open doorway when a sudden movement at the end of the alley caught their attention. Andy dropped into a crouch, hand fumbling for his gun. In a flash, Nichiren was in front of him, a little to his right, katana half drawn. She growled.

Further to the right, Michi sprang backwrards, calling out, "Andy!"

With a little effort, Andy was finally able to draw his gun. The tiny red laser sight flashed on and painted a ruby dot on the black wall at the end of the alleyway.
"I'm on it," he replied.

"It smells familiar," Nichiren whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
"Familiar... yet strange."

"Terrific," Andy mumbled sarcastically.
"Okay. Let's try the direct approach."

He stood, pistol still aimed ahead, and called out loudly.
"Whoever you are, come out now! We have you covered!"

At the end of the alley, a dark form rose from behind a pile of boxes and trash bags. It moved with an almost fluid grace, sliding out from its hiding place to a spot in front of the garbage heaps.
Faint light played across its smooth, shiny surfaces. From its head, two golden lights slowly burned to life, glowing with an eerie fire.

Recognition came suddenly, and unexpectedly to Andy. His eyes grew wide in surprise, and his spine tingled with fear.
"Oh sh!t," he whispered.

As if on cue, the alley erupted with a deafening roar of machine gun fire. Bullets flew at them from the shadowy form a few meters ahead. Red and yellow streaks burned through the air, ripping the asphalt and cement of the alley's floor and walls.
The sports car resounded with a torrent of metal raindrops.

Michi dove for cover behind the car, with Nichiren not far behind. Andy rolled to his left and tumbled into a small nook in the Miramoto Tower's wall.

"We have to get out of here!" he yelled over the maelstrom of bullets.

"Why?" Michi asked. "Who is that?!"

Andy ducked as part of the wall above him exploded in to a shower of dust and cement shards.

"It's the HardSuit!"
 
     
 
berus_roth 
  teadee
 
04:02pm 01/05/2004
  "That girl - unff - is far too reckless," Michi griped as she pulled herself up off the car's floorboards.

Beside her, Andy was grinning from ear to ear, something he had not done in quite some time. He stared down the hood of his sports car mumbling to himself, "That was so freakin' cool. That was so freakin' cool!"

"She made it!" Nichiren cried out as she peered through the back window. Her tail swishing anxiously, the wolf girl offered a quick round of applause for Trixie's miraculous stunt. "She blew up the main doors, too. Trixie-chan is a remarkable woman." Again she applauded.

"Right. So remarkable that my uncle won't have to worry about killing her." Michi lowered her voice when it became apparent that neither of her companions was listening to her. She pulled her seatbelt back on, adding, "Because she'll probably end up killing herself."

While Trixie and Unagi made their dash towards the gaping, smoldering hole that had been the main entrance to the Miramoto Tower, Andy switched off the hydraulics and dropped his car's tail end back to a more respectable position. Running a hand through his short blue hair, he readjusted his sunglasses and gunned the car's loud engine.

"This place is going to be crawling with security in about five seconds, Andy." Michi pulled out a small schematic of her uncle's tower and began searching for something.
"Here! On the east side there is a service entrance. Once Fortunato has the security systems down, we should be able to-"

"That wasn't part of the plan, Michi." Andy interrupted gruffly. He glared at her with red metallic eyes, a frown squarely on his lips.
"Once Fortunato takes out the computer systems, we all go in together. I don't like the idea of leaving Trixie and Unagi alone."

"They can take care of themselves, Andy." Michi countered. "We won't get in this way without fighting through an army of my uncle's security forces."

"But.." Andy searched for a new argument against leaving.

"I agree with Michi, Andy-kun." Both Andy and Michi turned slowly to see Nichiren's face peering back at them from between the two front seats.
"Trixie and Unagi are both capable fighters, and they had the element of surprise. We need to find another way into the tower."

Squinting, and with a very confused look on his face, Andy glanced back between the two women staring at him. Turning to Michi, he asked, whispering, "You're making her say that, aren't you?"

With a look somewhere between perpelxed and innocent, Michi just shook her head negative.

Slightly disappointed that no mind control had been involved, Andy sighed and turned back towards the road. With one hand on the wheel and the other on the gearshift, he hit the gas. As the car peeled out, leaving a twin trail of rubber on the asphalt and a cloud of smoke behind it, Andy grumbled under his breath, "Door number two it is."

In his office, Yasuke Miramoto frowned. Hundreds upon hundreds of shiny black cockroaches skittered back and forth across the floor of his office, obviously unsettled by their master's mood.

A small green light flashed on Miramoto's desk. The short, fat man stabbed a short fat finger at the comm switch, blurting out, "What?!"

"Um... ah... Sir? This is the armory. I just wanted to inform you, sir, that the... um... cat person has taken the battle suit. Sir."

Miramoto smiled a sickeningly self-satisfied smile.
"Excellent."

"Sir? Where... Where would you like us to send her... um.. now?"

Leaning forward, the portly buisnessman practically oozed his reply into the microphone.
"Take her to the East Service Elevator and send it to the ground floor. She has friends waiting for her there."

"Umm... okay then. Thank you, sir. Over and... ahh.. out."

The green comm light died. Miramoto folded his hands in his lap, staring off into the distance. In his mind he imagined the coming conflict. The thoughts made him practically giddy with anticipation.

With no visible command, a large swarming, undulating mass of cockroaches approached Mirmoto's desk.

"Go, my loyal servants. Help my new pet greet her comrades. Help her kill them for me."
 
     
 
hemlock_martini 
  teadee
 
03:56pm 01/05/2004
  A premature darkness enshrouded the streets around Miramoto Tower, causing the monolithic facade to seemingly fade into nothingness; its lights gleaming dimly in an artificial midnight. The streets seemed not only empty, but calm, deathly quiet as the team sped towards the Tower. Andy tried not to let this illusory nighttime bother him--it was probably just the sun setting, after all--but it was starting to freak him out a little.

“Keep your eyes peeled,” he barked into his headset. “And get set up...for your...attack run...” Andy blinked hard, his head swimming, his mouth suddenly cotton-dry. From his point of view, it appeared as if the car were driving through a tunnel backwards--the light spiraled away from his eyes, blacking out his view. Soon he could not see his hands. Andy slammed on the brakes, though he could no longer feel his legs. A static buzz filled his ears as the darkness overcame his senses. Eventually, the interior of the car faded away, leaving him in a dark, shapeless void.

Andy could make out shapes ahead of him--limbs, heads, torsos in strange arrangements; as his vision gradually returned. He could hear grunts, screams, scuffling--the sound of a fistfight, or something else?... He shook his head and tried to make some sense of the apparitions in front of him--and gasped as he came to realize what he was seeing.

The soldiers from his nightmare were back, armed to the teeth and dressed in grimy fatigues, stinking of napalm and bloodlust. They were everywhere--grouped into circles, brutally kicking and punching, fighting--not one--but a hundred Keomis, a thousand weakened cat-girls who cried out in soul-shattering pain with every blow. Unlike his previous dream, not only were the Keomis outmatched by sheer numbers, they seemed utterly incapable of fighting back. They stumbled and staggered between combatants, bleeding and bruised, drunk with pain and fear. The soldiers dealt blow after blow to the weakened cat-girls, until one by one, they all toppled to the ground, sobbing, motionless.

As one, the soldiers turned to look at Andy. He could see in their sneers, in their sweat-soaked skin, the burnished steel faceplate of a Messerschmidt mobile suit, its unseeing, unfeeling red eyes burning into his soul. They laughed at Andy, throaty, metallic laughter that rung around him like a shotgun’s report; hurting his ears and bringing tears to his eyes.

And then, moving as one, the soldiers converged on the prostrate Keomis, smacking their lips and grunting...some removed their grisly fatigues, others stood leering
and drooling...and...and then...and...oh God...oh God...OH GOD NO GOD NO DEAR GOD NO YOU BASTAAAAAAAARDS!!!

Andy drew his Glock and fired round after round, pumping the soldiers full of lead. But where one fell, three took his place, guffawing and jeering at Andy’s pathetic attempts to kill them. Soon, there were more soldiers than Andy could have counted, laughing their monstrous metallic laugh; lining up for their turn.

Andy hung his head and screamed.



*****


Unagi sipped his tea carefully, contemplating the early frost that had come this year. A bad harvest could mean poor sales for his uncle’s farm, which meant that Unagi
would have to let one of the servants go--but who? Gohei, the faithful old man who had tended his family’s crops for nearly forty years, or Jubei, the sturdy young man who seemed to never stop working? He sighed and set down the cup, frowning.

Unagi’s wife, Mayuka, sensed her husband’s concern; and demurely placed her hand upon his. “Husband,” she said, “Do not worry so. Perhaps this frost will pass quickly, and if it does not; we will simply choose the best way to proceed. The farm is in good hands.” Her gentle smile gave him comfort and reassurance.

Unagi smiled. “Honored wife, I thank you. Of course, you are right. I only hope that--” Unagi stopped, the smile fading from his face. This...is somehow not right. Mayuka is not my wife. She is my brother’s; I have no wife. But why--and how?...

Suddenly, the shoji to the sitting room slid open. A samurai in full battle armor and a wooden mask--the face of a horned oni--stepped inside. For a moment, all was still.

The samurai moved. Unagi suddenly felt a searing pain in his chest--the samurai’s sword had pierced his flesh and sliced open his ribcage. Unagi turned to block the samurai’s second blow; but he was too late. A red ribbon blossomed across Mayuka’s pale white neck, spraying crimson upon her ivory silk kimono. A keen whistling of air escaped from the gash--Mayuka’s final, silent scream.

Unagi fell to the floor, his life ebbing away in a pool of redness. With his last ounce of strength, Unagi turned to face his killer, his eyes wide, his lips twitching.

The samurai wiped the blood off his sword and sheathed it. He removed the mask and dropped it unceremoniously by Mayuka’s fallen body. The samurai gazed down at Unagi, hate burning in his eyes like infernal cinders.

The face of the samurai was Unagi’s face.

“I killed them,” muttered Unagi with his final breath. “Gutuza and Mayuka...it was I who caused their deaths...it was me...it was me...”


*****


Nichiren blinked hard, tried to raise her groggy head. She had been drugged, that much was obvious. Finally, raising her head, she was able to open her eyes fully and take in her surroundings. She yelped in fear when she realized where she was.

She was in a small, windowless metal chamber, no bigger than one of the bedrooms at the old safehouse had been. Her arms and legs were shackled, cruciform, to the wall by crude metal manacles and heavy, rusted chains. Across from her, on the opposite wall, Tatewaki was similarly hung. He was unconscious, and by the looks of the angry red stripes across his chest, he had been beaten severely.

“Tatewaki! Wake up! Wake up, please!!! TAKI! Wake UP!” Nichiren struggled against her bonds, rattling the chains. The hollow reverberations made her wince in pain and bare her teeth; and the rusty manacles had begun to cut into her skin. “Damn it, wake UP!”

Nichiren smelled something familiar--something that reminded her of a battle, long ago. She could feel it rumbling beneath her feet, hear the pipes around the chamber expand and contract as it was pumped around. Salt water.

A jet of cold water burst into the room from a vent in the ceiling. The chamber slowly began to fill with icy sea water as Nichiren struggled against the chains. Try as she might, she was unable to muster her demonic strength, and the rusty filings from the shackles dug deeper into her flesh. “Tatewaki, PLEASE! Wake UP! I need you! I don’t want you to die! PLEASE!...”

It was then, with mounting horror, that Nichiren realized that Tatewaki had been shackled to the wall a few feet below where she had been hung. As the water quickly rose past her ankles, it was already to Tatewaki’s waist. She would be forced to watch him drown, and then the water would take her as well...

The salt water reached Tatewaki’s neck. Nichiren screamed and struggled, blood streaming down from wounded wrists and ankles. Tatewaki finally awoke, thrashing and
pulling with all his might against his iron bounds, but for naught--the water covered his head, silencing his defiant roar. Nichiren’s mournful howl echoed off the metal walls.


*****


“Nngghh...mmmnnphhh...no! NOOO!”

Michi struggled against the straps, the leather cuffs that confined her to the narrow and uncomfortable bed raising welts on her arms and legs. The metal bedframe rattled and scraped across the floor as Michi railed agains the straps and moaned in fear and panic. The
room was featureless, save for the rambling scratchings of is previous inhabitants, etched with blood into sheet-rock walls. A grinning cheshire cat carved in rusty ochre stared down at her from the ceiling--the words “NIGHTY-NIGHT” in jagged, uneven lettering directly below.

“Please! Let me out! I am not insane, do you hear me? I am NOT INSANE...dammit! Take off these straps! PLEASE! Can anybody hear me?”

Michi could hear the scrabblings and scribblings of her insect friends, hiding inside the walls, talking to each other fearfully. She tried to reach out to them with her mind, but could not. She was weak, dizzy...her powers were fading. “Please...please hear me...please!...” she whimpered, squeezing her eyes shut and concentrating.

It was no use. Soon she could not hear them at all, their rudimentary intelligences sparked no psychic register in her mind. Michi was all alone, back in the
Howard/Yamasaki institute.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see through the observation slit in the door. The nurses were conferring, muttering to each other, whispering in hushed tones. They turned towards the slit and opened it wider.

Michi’s flesh crawled as nausea overtook her body. All three nurses bore the face of Yosuke Miramoto. Although she could not hear them talking, she could read their lips well enough to tell what the left-most one had just said to get the other two nodding in agreement--”necessary full frontal lobotomy.”

Michi screamed and screeched as the nurses entered her room, still chattering and conferring. One seized a syringe from a filthy tray and tested it, squirting sickly blue phosphorescent fluid from its rusty needle. She seized Michi’s arm and jammed in the hypo, plunging the liquid into Michi’s bloodstream as she howled and thrashed in protest.

The nurse leaned in closely and whispered in Michi's ear. "Don't struggle so, child. Soon, all those nasty memories will be wiped clean from your mind...and you will be ours...forever..."


*****


A dull stomping throb echoed through Joe's ears as he raced through the burning hospital. It's my heartbeat, he thought, that's all. He dodged flaming debris, scrambled past toppled desks and beds, his mind racing. "ALICE!" he shouted as he ran. Smoke flooded his lungs, making him cough and sputter.

"ALICE! WHERE ARE YOU?" he yelled, leaping through a wall of flame into what had once been a obstetrics ward. The walls had caught fire. Soon the floor would go as well--a gaping hole had opened in the center of the room and was quickly growing wider. "ALICE!"

Suddenly, a figure burst through the smoke, running towards him from the other side of the ward. The tall, well-muscled Nordic woman with long, braided hair struggled forward, limping severely. Her face was covered in soot and ash, her left leg badly burned. But Alice ran as fast as she could from the advancing flames, wheezing ragged, tortured breaths.

Joe reached out for Alice, to catch her as she jumped across the flaming maw--but in mid-jump, Alice's body dissolved into a cloud of ash that blanketed Joe from head to foot. He stood, transfixed, staring at his blackened hands. Joe dropped to his knees, silent.

The throbbing sound grew louder, and louder, until Joe had to cover his ears to keep his eardrums from bursting. It didn't help. The flaming hospital dissolved before his very eyes, revealing a massive military parade marching towards him, thousands of Messerschmidt mobile suits goose-stepping in unison before a cheering crowd.

On a massive elevated dais behind the mobile suits stood huge Nazi banners, red-and-black-and-white, fluttering in the blood-soaked wind. General Kraken addressed the cheering throng with a straight-armed salute--they screamed, blood-curdling shivers running up Joe's spine. And behind Kraken, looking smug--the old man himself, the object of pride for his bloodthirsty minions. Hitler had been elevated to the status of a god.

Joe tried to stand, but was knocked aside by the foot of a Messerschmidt. The terrible noise of their stomping metal feet pounded in his brain. Joe rolled over and tried again to stand--only to see the shadow of a Messerschmidt's foot enveloping his body...


*****


Maji opened her eye, and quickly jumped up, feeling the familiar crunch of human bones underneath her feet. Acting on instinct, she ducked behind a mound of dirt as the sensor beam of a Daywalker unit swept the ground where she had slept. She fought for breath in the toxic air.

It was just a dream...all just a dream... Maji tried to process this fact as she felt for her rifle in the dirt. She found it a few feet away--its power pack removed, the targeting system ripped out. Her gun, her only chance for survival on this blasted earth, had been sabotaged beyond any chance of repair.

Maji cursed to herself, and whipped around--the spidery Daywalker had climbed the mound of dirt and had spied her, its optic sensors glowing red, its grasping claws reaching for her. She grabbed her dead rifle and slammed it into the Daywalker's optics, shorting them out. She scrambled away from the robotic executioner and made her way through the wasteland as the wounded Daywalker howled its alarm.

Maji ran as fast as she could, traversing the streets of the ruined city. Ragged shards of glass and cracked concrete sliced the bottom of her bare feet, leaving telltalle crimson footprints behind her. She could hear the Daywalkers getting closer, hear their metal limbs scratch along the hardtop, feel their inquisitive scanners pass over the implants in her body. Lightning burned a zigzag in the rust-coloured sky, and thunder was not far behind.

Maji stopped for breath, hands on her knees. Looking up, he found herself in a box canyon--hemmed in by the hulks of collapsed buildings. Behind her, a silvery wall of deadly robots quickly advanced upon her. Maji furtively scanned the area for a means of escape, but could find none; there was no way out. Two Daywalkers leapt from the edges of the canyon to the ground, effectively covering Maji in every direction. She curled her hands into fists and set her jaw; knowing full well that there was no way for her to win this fight.

The Daywalker's limbs twisted and reconfigured, emerging with spinning Eviceration Saws. Maji gritted her teeth and defiantly stood her ground...


*****


"Brian!" Trixie cried, fighting her way through the dead cornfield; gray, decaying husks of corn surrounded her in every direction. Withered, tasseled stalks smacked her face and arms as she struggled past them. Her lungs burned and her feet were tired. "Brian!" she cried again. No answer. She could just see the top of Brian's head over the next row of dead corn--but as Trixie moved closer, he just moved farther and farther away from her.

She could hear the Nunnehi bandits rummaging through the stalks close behind her, hungry for the blood of the interloper. Brian's wild-eyed, maniacal doppelganger was leading them, hacking away at the stalks with his sword, laughing and whooping demonically, leading the charge onwards. Trixie pushed herself through the dead cornstalks, tears streaming from her eyes. Just a little more...just a little closer...

A leathery hand snaked out from behind the cornstalks, snatching at her ankle. Trixie screeched and kept running, adrenalin and fear coursing through her body, keeping her from collapsing. The cloudy, charcoal gray sky had given way to a terrifyingly empty moonless night. The cornfield was cold, dusty, and slimy-wet.

Trixie tried to burst through the final row of cornstalks--she tripped and fell, scraping her knee. Hurt, she hobbled into the clearing between fields, where she could see Brian; facing away from her and walking into the next cornfield.

"Brian, wait! Help me!" She caught up with him and pulled on Brian's tan trenchcoat.

Brian's body swiveled around to meet her, having been mounted on a stick like a scarecrow. His throat had been slit from ear to ear.

Trixie recoiled in horror. "No..." she fell backwards onto the slimy, dusty grass and curled up into a ball, weeping. She could hear the bandits growing closer. She could hear them unsheathing iron knives from buckskin sheathes...she could hear the doppelganger's ragged breath, feel his evil presence near. She shut her eyes and awaited the inevitable.

"You know the drill, don't you." said a voice, softly, drifting through Trixie's mind almost subliminally. "This is just another con...you know what to do...you know what to do." It couldn't be...is it?

Trixie stood on shaky legs and looked towards the cornfield. Something was about to emerge--lots of somethings. The rustling and shaking grew louder. The ground beneath her feet shook, and Trixie fought to keep her balance. She planted her feet and drew Aingeal, the green irridescent glow bouncing off the dead cornstalks. Wind whipped the dead stalks around, and thunder rolled from all corners--it was now or never. With a war cry, Trixie plunged Aingeal straight into the ground as far as it could go.

A howl erupted from the earth, seeming to echo from everywhere at once. The ground shook even more furiously as lightning split the sky. Deep cracks appeared in the earth, spreading out from where Trixie had plunged her sword. Huge chunks of the world broke away and were carried off by the wind, pelting Trixie with rocks and clumps of dirt. Within a few seconds, the world had torn itself apart.

Trixie screamed against the maelstrom--"Fortunato! HIT IT!"



A thunderous three-chord guitar riff ripped through her consciousness, backed by heavy snare and laviscious cymbal hits. A plodding bassline hammered underneath the guitar licks with thuggish cruelty and the precision of a cluster bomb. It sounded more like a chainsaw starting up than music, but it did the trick.



Andy's eyes snapped open--all the way open. He was no longer in the nightmare world. He was back in the stopped car, hands on the wheel; with the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" blaring in his ear. Glancing behind him, he saw Nichiren and Michi returning from unconsciousness as well, blinking and gaping.

Andy rubbed his head, trying to erase the horrifying imagery from his head and return to the task at hand. "You two allright?"

Michi was too stunned to speak. Nichiren exhaled. "Yes...I think."

"Were you just?..."

"Yes...in the middle of my worst nightmare. Were you, as well?"

"Better believe it." Andy shook his head.

Michi swore. "Yosuke...you bastard..."

"And once again, the day is saved, thanks to...the powers of punk rock! Fortunato, pause it!" Trixie's voice chirped over the headsets as she and Unagi pulled up beside Andy's car. The song stopped.

"What the hell was all that? And what was that, uh, music?" asked Andy.

"'That' was a psychic attack by my uncle," said Michi. "He found a way into our minds, found out our deepest, darkest fears; then made a world out of those fears and placed us there."

"No wonder there are no ground troops," said Nichiren. "Miramoto figured he wouldn't need any--he'd stop us before we even reached the building."

Unagi crossed his arms. "The warlord, Miramoto, has failed. Our resolve is stronger than his, for ours is the path of righteousness."

"Freaky. Hey Joe, Maji, check in; you two okay?" Andy tapped his headset mic.

Joe's voice squawked over the headset. "I'm okay now. Felt like I was watchin' a bad Flash Gordon serial. Maji, you copy?"

Maji's voice was masked by the sound of her FlightSuit's engines. "I copy. I'm still airborne. Got a little off-course, but I'm allright. I don't see any approaching ground troops yet, but my sensors are picking up unusual heat signatures approaching from the southeast--looks like Messerschmidts. ETA two minutes."

"Joe, start towards Katsuragi Plaza before those two minutes are up. We're gonna continue with the raid."

"You got it, slick. Good luck out there." In the distance, they could hear One's steam pistons begin to chug as Joe warmed up the mech's hydraulics.

"Same to you, Joe." Andy double-tapped the com switch. "So what was with that song we heard?"

"Oh. Uh, I asked Fortunato to play that over the headsets while we were storming the castle." Trixie smiled meekly. "You know, like, theme music? For whatever reason, I remembered it when I was having that wacky-ass dream; it must have snapped us out of Miramoto's control. Neat, huh?"

"I don't know much about music, but I know what I like," said Nichiren.

"Agreed. Shall we?" Andy fired up his car's engine.

"Let's." Trixie's motorcycle roared to life. "Miramoto's had his fun screwing with our brains. I say it's time we drop some science on this d*ckwad! Music, maestro, please?"



The grinding throb of the Ramones returned to the headsets as Trixie and Andy burned rubber, speeding towards the heavily-armoured front gate of Miramoto Tower. Andy pulled ahead of Trixie, his tailpipes spewing fire. Trixie carefully estimated the necessary distance to hang back as Unagi's grip on her sides grew tighter. The stripes in the road became strobe-light dots.

They reached the gate, still driving at top speed. An instant before the sports car would have slammed right into the gate, Andy performed a perfect handbrake turn; spinning the car in 180 degrees. The rear of the car butted up against the gate as Andy manipulated the car's hydraulics; thrusting the rear up and forcing the front down, making the car a wedge-shape. "In position!" shouted Andy as he ducked below the dashboard. Nichiren and Michi took crash positions as well.

"I'm on it!" Trixie yelled back to Unagi, "When I say 'go,' you GO, got it?" She took out a grenade, ripped the ring out with her teeth, and jammed the grenade into the engine cage of the motorcycle. "Hang ON..." Trixie reared back the bike into a wheelie and turned the throttle to maximum, speeding directly towards Andy's car.



The bike rode up the makeshift ramp formed by Andy's car, clearing the front gate. "GO!" yelled Trixie. Unagi leapt off the bike-bomb, tucking and rolling; but Trixie stayed on as the motorcycle cartwheeled in the air haphazardly towards the facade of Miramoto Tower.

"YEEEE-HAAAAAAH!" she screamed, finally leaping off the doomed bike right before it slammed into the steel-reinforced doors and blossomed into a huge, fuel-injected fireball. The Tower's entryway was ripped open by the explosion, clearing out the foyer and shattering glass all along the north side of the building.

Trixie, blown back from the force of the explosion, rolled on the ground, finally tumbling and landing before Unagi's feet. She was giggling and smiling, like a twelve-year-old after riding her first rollercoaster. She still had the grenade pull-ring in her mouth. "Hey," she gasped giddily, "can we do that again?"

High above them, Yosuke Miramoto was cursing under his breath. "How dare those fools!" He smashed a fist into a piece of office scuplture, which instantly disintegrated into a pile of cockroaches. "They were lucky to evade my powers. But soon...soon they will know the true meaning of pain. Here, in my Tower...where my will is LAW...and my power is BOUNDLESS! HAAAAAAHAAHAHAAHAAAA...."
 
     
 
snowelf 
  teadee
 
03:55pm 01/05/2004
  *In the backseat, Nichiren suddenly clasped her head. Something felt so wrong...

All Andy saw was Nichiren's eyes rolling up in her head as she slumped back.

Confused, Nichiren stared at the trapped demon she remembered so well. His purple eyes were filled with pain as he looked at her. "Careful, Nichi-chan. They know you are coming..." Nichiren nodded. "I know. But I can't get them to believe me..." "Take care..."

Meanwhile, Tatewaki was pacing to and fro. "Nichi-chan..." he thought. "I CAN'T betray you." He looked more torn than ever. No matter what he did, someone was going to get hurt.