User:Oddoneout/Ghosts: The Return

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FreeRIDErs story universe

Ghosts: The Return

Author: Oddoneout

Sam couldn't believe it she was going to be late for the rendezvous. She couldn't help it that she lost track of time whenever she started navel gazing. Three months ago the young human woman named Samantha Maiuri had integrated with her Malti-Poo RIDE becoming a single techno-organic being. It was only a few hours later that she was snatched up and taken to an Enclave at the edge of the Dry Ocean. For her it was horrible, she wanted to go back to Aloha, top her friends and family. But she wouldn't, she didn't think they would all be able to accept what she had become. So she stayed away from them and slowly began to accept the idea that she was better off that way, after all they were just mech and meat. Now that she was away she was free to fully indulge her guilty pressure of playing MMORPGs.

Which is exactly what she was doing. She crested another hill as the grass have way to stone and the sky grew cloudy, ahead of her the Tower of Dusk reached high into the air. Oz was a fairly new MMO whose servers where run and maintained by a group of Integrates living in Aloha. They were 'very' strict about not letting people use their Intie powers to tip the game in their favor. The game was in a high fantasy setting with a special set of mechanics and to allow for mech and meat to play as a fusing pair. They could be separate when they needed or wanted to be but fusing provided its own advantages and disadvantages.

To everyone in the game Sam appeared as a black furred Malti-poo Fuser dressed in an ornate white and gold robe. Last month she had found a good group of fellow Intie players and joined their clan. Today was important because it was her first true raid boss. She was ecstatic and very glad she had put in the extra time to learn some decent offensive spells. As she jumped to clear a trench she caught sight of a RIDE and its partner before she was yanked downward into the trench.

"Slow down Sam. Let the mechie get beaten, then we'll have our run." The speaker was a heavily armored grizzly bear Integrate in Fuser disguise with a massive sword strapped to his back.

"Dominic's right," a hyena rouge spoke up "this should be good for a laugh if nothing else. It's practically impossible for an Intie to solo The Bone Hoard. There's no way a mechie can manage it even if they were fused."

"Especially with how they've got their settings done." another member spoke up drawing everyone's attention" They have their system assist and feedback canceler's turned off."

"How can anyone play like that? Even we have to use the system assist and without the canceler on things feel a little too real for most people to be comfortable."

"I had a cousin who played MMOs like that," Sam said "but he disappeared years ago."

Dominic asked the obvious question "Did he Integrate?"

She shook her head "I don't think so. He got a government job and we heard from him regularly for a few months. His last message said something about a new assignment, then nothing."

"Have you tried hacking?"

She nodded "His personnel file is there but it’s all dead ends."

He frowned "I'll put out some requests; someone has to know more about what happened to him."

A rattling announced the awakening of The Bone Hoard. The powerful raid boss burst from the ground, a giant serpentine skeleton one hundred meters long with dozens of pairs of legs and a wicked set of pincers. Red light shone from the empty sockets of its triangular head. Equally massive horns adorned its head. The HUD displayed five health bars and with her scanning skill Sam should have been able to see its level. Instead all she saw was a skull, anyone trying to fight it alone would spend more money than they would make, assuming they managed to kill it.

The person was instantly in motion covering the distance to the boss in a matter of seconds. One of its pincers shot forward only to be knocked aside and quickly severed by a plain looking black broadsword. He kept moving and severed the remaining pincer taking out the boss's main weapons and a portion of its first health bar in the process. The Bone Hoard's AI refused to let it settle into a pattern as it constantly adapted. Normally this would give it an enormous advantage, even against raid groups, but ultimately it's ability was rendered useless by one thing, speed. The solo player had been fast to begin with and only got faster as the battle moved into its second minute.

"Look at the HP," Dominic said "Do you see it?"

Sam nodded "Whenever he dodges he uses his free hand for some kind of unarmed DOT counterattack."

In the space of three minutes The Bone Hoard's HP had been cut down to only one and a half bars. It lashed out with one of its remaining legs throwing the swordsman off balance, disarming him with a quick follow up. He jumped away, he had to be fleeing either to rearm or to give up. He did neither, with a shout he charged straight at its head ducking under as it thrust forward in an attempt to swallow him. His right hand shot up and struck the bone plate under its mouth and The Bone Hoard shattered into glittering iridescent blue dust, killed by a single unFused and unassisted player in just over four minutes.

He slouched as he shook out his wrists. His RIDE retrieved the fallen sword. They seemed...subdued, disappointed, like things hadn't gone the way they were hoping. Dominic, as be fitting his status as raid leader, was the first to recover from the shock they had all received. He clambered out of the trench running towards and hailing the mystery duo. Sam followed after him a moment later.

"That was amazing! I've only ever heard of people soloing The Bone Hoard and they didn't do nearly as well as you just did." All true but why was he kissing up to mechie?

Now that Sam was closer she could see their mystery man was actually a mystery woman. She stood about a meter and a half tall. Her white blonde hair was in short pixie cut. The woman's broadsword was indeed the black color Sam had originally thought it was. Her RIDE tags were very unusual. She had a feline nose, the rounded ears of a lion, white fur, goat horns and a black cobra for a tail. Sam shuddered as both pairs of green eyes turned to look at her.

The woman's RIDE was easily the most bizarre mythical Sam had ever seen. She was easily the size of a large horse, marking her as a Heavy class RIDE. Her she had the body and head of a lion with the horns of a goat. Her white fur was the same as her partner's and her black cobra tail was staring intently at Dominic. A large pair of dark iridescent blue bird wings completed her appearance.

Finally the woman sighed "I was nine point three seconds off."

Her ride giggled “Aren’t you the one who’s always saying that it’s just a game Claire?”

Claire frowned “I know but the benchmark gives us a place to start looking.” She gestured and several windows appeared “The more important question is why y’all are here. This area is supposed to be closed off for maintenance. There was a game wide announcement yesterday.”

Dominic stiffened “Um, none of us were on yesterday.”

“They sent out a memo to everyone just in case, you should have gotten it as soon as you logged in.”

“We were all busy prepping for this raid. When I got on I came straight here, didn’t have time to check my messages and since you said this area is closed what are you doing here?”

“Obviously we’re here to perform the maintenance.” Her RIDE deadpanned

“Thank you Mel. Now, I’m going to need your player IDs.”

“So you can ban us?”

She laughed “I could ban you even without them but it’s not my job. I’ll pass the info on to one of the other GMs, they might have given y’all open access to this area. If they didn’t and think you need to be banned they’ll contact you so you can appeal your case.”

“Oh so it’s just that you’re lazy?”

“Yup, now that I can afford to be lazy I’ve gotten to the point where enabling God Mode is too much of a hassle. Easier just to go without and fight my way through. That’s also why I don’t use the assist and have the canceler disabled.” She frowned “But y’all already knew that didn’t you.”

Sam was suddenly nervous. Claire was clearly skilled IRL, how else could she beat a raid boss alone, and she somehow knew they had peeked at her settings. On top of that she was a GM and, Intie or not, could insta-ban them on a whim. Sam had read the message she was talking about and just assumed it was wrong or meant for non-Inties, in hindsight she realized she had just been fooling herself. She liked to think that she didn’t buy into the whole Integrates Ascendant thing at all. But seeing a human deftly manage what would be an extreme and time consuming challenge in mere minutes and then subtly hint that she knew exactly what they were. Half a dozen members of the raid team suddenly disconnected and Claire shook her head.

“Apparently you people buy into your own press way too much.” Mel said

“What did you do?” Dominic asked

“It’s not what we did but what they tried to do. Which was hack us. Claire and I have had extensive time to prep for a variety of things, one of the perks of having a forward thinking boss. As such we can easily shut you out when you try and hack us.”

“Hey boss, let’s just give them our IDs and go. No need to start a fight.” The speaker was a burgundy Allosaurus.

“You scared of mech and meat, Durendal?”

“When the flesh alone can kick that much ass? Hell yeah, I’m scared out of my scales right now. Besides Mel's right, this is just a game and it’s supposed to be for fun.” There was a quiet round of agreement “If the other GMs are willing to trust these two then we should too. Since they got the job they must be exceptionally skilled.”

Claire quirked a smile as she received several data packets “Roland Durendal, you named yourself after the paladin and his sword from the Matter of France?”

He shrugged “I used to study medieval literature as a hobby.”

“Claire,” Mel said “I’ve just finished submitting our report.”

She nodded “Good, unfortunately this is where we all part ways. To everyone who has transmitted their data, thank you for your cooperation. We’ll do our best to make sure you don’t get banned because of your raid leader. Please, direct any further questions to this com code.”

As the two logged out Sam came to a decision, she needed to move out of her Enclave and get away from the supremacy ideas that governed it. Another mage used a group teleport spell to bring them all back to a safe zone so they could all log out. When she opened her eyes in the real world Sam came to a second decision. Rather than another Enclave she would go back to her family, everyone had seen the now famous reunion footage of the Munn family with its long absent Integrate members. So for the first time in months she accessed her lifetime mailbox.

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Claire Olivia Maiuri groaned as she got up from her cot and stretched after her marathon play session. Across the room Mel yawned as she carefully did the same, mindful of her wings. Their home was the cargo area of The Forward Unto Dawn. The Dawn was a D82-EST Darter, a single deck twenty meter sub-orbital, she bought after returning to Zharus proper just over three months ago. After five hard years her mission had finally ended and she had come home to Zharus.

At the time he had been Stuart Miles Maiuri, a person he no longer wanted to be. Luckily his bonus and hazard pay had made him a small fortune. If he was careful he would never have to work again. Because his dad had worked for Nextux RIDEWorks all his life, the first thing he decided to do was find a RIDE partner.

His post mission handler had suggested he try a small dealership in Nuevo San Antonio. He spent most of the day talking to the occasional RIDE who caught his attention. He had spent most of the day looking when he the owner said he wanted to introduce him to someone. In the back area was a RIDE named Melody, Mel for short.

She was an experimental unit, a Nextus RIDEWorks CMA(f)-ASA-001. The last of the half dozen produced and the only one who's RI had survived the program's termination. The original idea had been a variation on the one introduced by the Sturmhaven WLF-CSA-01As. A secondary RI core in the tail that would manage an extra sensor suite, long range communications, and point defense. The idea was for it to free up extra processing power to allow more accurate targeting and deliver artillery strikes from an unparallelled range. Unfortunately it ran into some of the same problems as the CSAs, the RIs wouldn't link.

In the end the secondary core idea had been scrapped when they succeed in producing a single RI core capable of doing the entire work load. That RI was Mel. The higher ups had been pleased with the results but not enough to overlook the price tag. Between the parts they needed and increased cost for the specialized RI core, it was less than a month after her First Boot that the project was scrapped.

She had honestly expect to have her core destroyed like her predecessors, luckily the RIDEWorks still "owned" her core, DE and weapons package. Rather than let Nextus destroy her, she had been discreetly sold her to their friend who owned the dealership. She had spent her weeks worrying about what would happen to her if Nextus found her. The owner introduced them and after an hour Mel and Stuart had begun discussing where they would live. She had made the suggestion that they get a sub-orbital as a starting point in case they had to run. After all, Nexts had been known to go to lengths to recover things, even if it never belonging to them.

As far as ASA's went she was on the smaller end of the spectrum, in Walker mode she stood at just over two meters and was half a meter taller in Fuser mode. The empty space in her tail's cobra head was retooled to house an extra set of sarium batteries. Her ASA chassis came equipped with two retractable plasma cannons and a particle beam cannon in her mouth.

They had just finished loading up their new D82-EST Darter when Nextus Material Recovery Service showed up. Stuart tried to talk them down and provided ample proof that he, and the dealership before him, had legal ownership over Mel and the weapons. When they refused to back down he sent a few messages and started stalling. It didn't take long for him to get a response.

The MRS Officers apologized for their mistake and attempted to make a very quick exit, promising that it would never happen again. Claire wouldn’t let them off that easily. She swore to them that if it did their boss would in serious trouble. Stuart was employed by the Zharus Planetary Authority and had, until recently, been conducting espionage, on Earth.

It was supposed to be a five year mission, seven counting travel, and everything had gone wrong from the first day off the boat. His cover had nearly been blown and it was only quick thinking and a quicker kill that had saved his life. He spent the next three years gathering Intel and practically living underground. After three years they were finally able to extract him. He spent a week being debriefed before they put him on indefinite leave and gave him a nice fat bonus. He had also been given a set of direct comm codes and told that if he needed anything to reach out to them.

Once cleared, she had upgraded her military cortical implant with quibitite. If she was in trouble she wanted to have the best chance of coming out on top. They spent almost a month traveling around Zharus. When they had been out in the Dry Ocean they ran into a group of Integrates who were looking to hire a temporary GM in their game, Oz.

It was an easy job. Mel and Claire were told to do their best to break everything in game and send their observations on to the Dev Team. Claire began checking her email and flagged several things for her implant to draft responses to before reading one from Sebastian, her ZPA handler. After five years and two months she would finally be able to see her family again. She sent out a flurry of emails letting everyone know she was in Aloha and would be flying to Nextus to see everyone at their family compound.

"Mel, I can finally introduce you to my family."

She perked up "I'll file a flight plan with ATC."

Claire stripped out of her underwear and went to take a shower while her implant began running the pre-flight checks. Everything checked out as she finished her shower, replies coming in as began to dry off. She sighed as she looked through her rather limited wardrobe. She ruled out her beloved combat gear, too many questions. After sorting through her crossover gifts she settled on a yellow sun dress Sebastian had sent her. His note had said she needed something she could 'actually' use instead of the usual gag gifts.

:Mel, we need something for you to wear. As much fun as it would be to show up in a metal bikini, I don't think my family would like it.

:Can it be black? I was thinking of a nice sweater skirt combo.

:Sure, it'll match your tail.

As they fused up Mel felt Claire's nervousness and did her best to comfort her. She reabsorbed the metal-kini anatomically correct RIDEs often wore for decency. Some of her hardlight winked out then came back up projecting her outfit of choice. She had chosen a knee length skirt and loose sleeved sweater complimenting her form and drawing attention up to her face and away from her chest. They stopped in the small kitchen and made a quick lunch of last night's take out before the lifters warmed up.

They sat down in the cockpit as they received a message from ATC approving them for departure. At twenty meters long the D82-EST Darter was a small transport craft. It had a lifting body design and top of the line heat shielding ensuring it could land without the use of its lifters. They had split the cargo area in half, turning the forward section into their living quarters/maintenance area with a bathroom and kitchen.

They taxied out of their hangar and into the civilian departure zone. No one would suspect that their modest little black and white craft was fully stealth capable…or armed. Claire had spared no expense in overhauling their home. The end result had been a ten percent increase in mobility and enough offensive power to take out a large military sub. Sebastian made sure what they were doing was within the letter of the law.

They dropped into virtual for a time compressed lesson as they waited their turn for takeoff. They walked through the basic stances of Claire’s duel sword style. She was critiquing her foot work on the first set of intermediate forms when they had to stop. They quickly began to pick up speed as the lifters’ output increased and the hardlight aero shielding adjusted for maximum speed and lift. The surface fell away beneath them as the sky gradually changed from blue to a star studded black.

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Even at top speed, Sam had a long flight to the Aloha aerodrome but it gave her plenty of time to check the outgoing flights. Finally she found one that she could slip onto unnoticed. She slipped into the lobby and boarded the high speed sub. She settled into her seat to wait. She had gotten a surprise when she checked her mail.

Her cousin Stuart had finally turned up and was flying out to Nextus from Aloha. She had already checked and couldn’t find his name on any of the passenger manifests. She had waited five years. She could wait a few more hours. Without a second thought she logged back into Oz.

She had a message from Dominic waiting for her. She read it a few times before deleting it and removing herself from the guild. Now that she realized her emerging bigotry she was going to work hard to get rid of it. Her next order of business was getting to Taft where new players arrived fresh from the tutorial. She had heard rumor of a dungeon hidden beneath the town.

She made her way to the western part of town and stopped at a player owned shop to sell her guild gear. Most of the uniform was inferior to what she had been using before. She smoothed out her red robe and settled its armored plates into place as she re-equipped. Her old Hound Saber was a welcome change from the stereotypical mage staff she had been using for two weeks. The bonuses to her spell were less because of the change but she preferred being a red mage anyway.

She made her way to a massive cathedral. If the rumors were true the entrance to the bonus dungeon was hidden somewhere inside. As soon as she stepped inside she realized that just finding the entrance would be a chore. You could have easily fit a Starmaster into the main worship area. She started by checking the dozens of side rooms for anything odd.

There were a lot more than she thought. It took her the entire flight to thoroughly check half of the side rooms. She sighed as stood up on the sub. If the bonus dungeon did exist the GMs were keeping information about the entrance tightly controlled. It was probably filled with exclusive gear unobtainable anywhere else. Once outside the aerodrome she lifted into the Fuser/scooter traffic lanes and headed for her family's compound on the southern end of city. Sam was ten and a half kilometers away when she got a nasty shock when a familiar grizzly Fuser flew up next to her.

"Sam it’s nice too finally meet you IRL." Dominic said

She stiffened "How did you know?"

He smirked "I didn't. I noticed you decided to leave the guild."

"You said I could leave whenever I wanted. You said that neither mech nor meat could beat us but that GM this morning, she opened my eyes.” She shook her head “In some ways we are better than meat, but they have us beat in other areas.”

He snorted “Here in the real world they’re nothing compared to us.”

She stopped “Get bent Dominic. I don’t want anything to do with people like you anymore."

He sputtered "I'm trying to help you!" he grabbed her wrist "We are the next step in human evolution. You don't need mech or meat for anything!"

"Let go." a pulse gun formed on her wrist "I'm not afraid to shoot you."

He laughed "Both of your halves were civvie." he whispered "I'm ex-military; your little pop guns won't scratch me."

"How about mine?" a woman's voice asked

A feline hand landed on his head and he heard the whine of charging capacitors. How had she snuck up on him? He instinctively reached out to hack them and had to bite down on his tongue to keep from screaming. He felt thousands of tiny burning bites all over his body before his DIN burnt out. Even without it the sensations persisted and he had to concentrate just to maintain his disguise.

"Ah, you're one of those people. Too bad your little tricks are less than worthless against us." The speaker was a two and a half meters chimera Fuser. "Now, you can let her go or I can cut you in half."

Dominic felt a chill down his spine. These two were extremely dangerous. The fact that they had snuck up on, not just one but, two Integrates was proof of that. Their tone of voice was casual, like they had all been discussing the weather. His military instincts were screaming at him to run. But his pride as an Integrate wouldn't let him.

"I'm not scared of meat!"

She sighed "Wrong answer."

She lifted her hand and tapped two fingers against his hardlight. His systems suddenly started blaring half a dozen different warnings at him. What had they just done to him?

"Here's a little physics lesson for you. Everything has a frequency where it will resonate. Under certain conditions it can cause things to build up energy till they literally shake themselves apart. That's what’s happening to your hardlight emitters right now. They’ll fail sometime within the next ten minutes. I suggest that you get as far from Nextus as possible before they do."

They had him backed into a corner. “This isn’t over meat!” He vanished and ignoring how the chimera’s black tail tracked his progress as he flew. He had been completely humiliated. Somehow he would get back that damn mechie.

Sam took the opportunity become invisible and leave as well. She still had ten klicks left to get to the family compound. She quickly covered the remaining distance and landed on the lawn in front of the main house. Her aunts, uncles, cousins, and her mother’s parents were milling about. Her cousin Joseph and Dexter, his coyote RIDE, were talking to her parents. Everyone stopped when she revealed herself.

“Sam? Maria?” her mother asked

Sam nodded “We…I, go by Sam, but yes. It’s me, I’m back.”

She was engulfed by her family. She was given so many hugs and asked so many questions. She had trouble keeping up for a second. She sent the details over to everyone’s RIDEs. After a few minutes of time compressed sharing everyone was caught up.

“So, where’s Stuart?” there was ping on Sam’s sensors

She turned around. Standing several meters behind her was the same chimera Fuser from earlier. She was wearing a loose black sweater and matching knee length skirt. Her wings gave a nervous twitch, like she was trying not to run away. It took a few seconds but RIDE and rider finally seemed to come to an agreement.

The Fuser slowly split open and a young woman in a yellow sun dress stepped onto the lawn. Her white blonde hair was in a pixie cut. She had feline ears, swiveling at every sound and matching nose was twitching at every smell. She nervously thumbed the end of one of her goat horns while her black cobra headed tail curled around in front of her.

She hesitated before saying “Tadaima.”

Sam stared at her in disbelief. She used time compression to replay everything a dozen times to make sure she reached the right conclusion. Since her family lived and breathed crazy it made perfect sense. After all only one person in their family would use Japanese. Claire was her cousin Stuart.

Only one way to be sure "Stuart?"

She grinned nervously "Hey," she sniffed and her eyes widened "Sam you integrated? Last time we spoke you refused to even think about getting a RIDE."

Now it was turn Sam to smile "A lot can happen in five years. Why don't we all go inside?"

"No," Sam's Aunt Cathy, the youngest daughter, spoke up "You can't be Stuart. You can't be my son."

"Cathy." her husband warned

"No Bill, I don't want to hear it! There is no way that woman can be our son!"

"Before I left I got you a sterling silver bracelet. The note I put on it said that no matter what I put you though I wanted you to know how much I loved you."

"This bitch has probably been spying on us." Aunt Gina said "I'll bet she's here to try and scam us."

What little confidence Claire seemed to have built up disappeared. “This was a mistake.” She said as tears began welling up in her eyes before she fused with Mel. Sam and Joseph recovered first. Dexter quickly fusing with his partner.

:Sam, I believe her. Only my brother, sister, would know that. Aunt Gina is just being a spiteful bitch.

:Normally she would lash out and bite right back. Do you think there's something wrong with her?

:Maybe, we’re lucky her RIDE wants her to stay.

:Yeah, it looks like Mel is trying to calm her down. You guys are with the Marshal right?

:We’re Diamond Stars, why?

:Can you find out what kind of RIDE Mel is?

:One step ahead of ya. I sent out an inquiry when we saw her enter the property and Dexter just got a match.

Sam paled :CMA(f)-ASA-001, skimmer mode is a high speed flier.

:I’ve read the report about them, project canceled due to quote unquote budget issues. I hope she isn’t still combat capable.

:She is. The only thing she’s missing is her hand carried weapon.

:Then let’s count that as a blessing.

Behind them Gina had continued to spout increasingly caustic and illogical words. At last her Aunt Cathy seemed to remember who was talking and ignoring her. Everything was starting to fall apart. What should have been a happy family reunion was turning into a feud. As they finally got close enough Mel there was a smack from back on the porch.

“Regina, be quiet.” Geosaffati said to his third daughter.

Geosaffati J. Maiuri Junior, Pawpaw to his friends and family, stepped down from the front porch. The family patriarch eyed his assembled children and grandchildren, eyes settling on Joseph/Dexter, Sam and Claire/Mel. At just over 100 he had seen more than his fair share of fighting, first on Earth and then during the Sturmhaven Nextus War. On Earth, his skills hheld a high level management position and made a fortune in investments.

He was a big broad shouldered man who worked hard to maintain his physical health. What little hair he had left on his head was wispy gray and going white. White furred simian ears twitched atop his head as his tail lashed behind him. Even with his face marred by a frown you could still see the lines etched into it from years of laughing. Behind him stood his RIDE, MKY(m)-LMA-009L, Vinnie.

“Welcome home.”

Claire blinked as she felt a pair of strong arms wrapped around her. She hesitated before she gently reached out and hugged her grandfather. When they separated she took a few deep breaths. She could do this. She ‘’had’’ to do this. After a few seconds they broke part.

“Thanks Pawpaw. Mel, you can let me go now.”

“Aw, does this mean I can’t keep you?” she teased before they defused.

Claire and Mel had obviously spent a lot of time fused. Her nails had begun to narrow and were curved to a slight point. She had the slight beginnings of a muzzle, complete with short whiskers. She even had a slightly feline tongue and her canines were definitely getting longer. The real kicker was the fine layer of white fur that had recently started to cover her; most people missed it because it blended seamlessly with her skin tone.

“We keep each other. We’re partners, equals, and don’t let anyone try and tell you otherwise.”

“I’m glad you found such a good match.” Joseph said “Now let’s go inside. I’m sure y’all have quite the story to tell about working for the Zharus Planetary Authority.”

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It had taken about an hour for Claire to finish telling her family about her job helping to bust a smuggling ring. That was the cover story she had been given. It would be in all the official records. It was also partially true. She was originally assigned to the Contraband Task force.

"You were on the Contraband Task force? Stu...Claire, that's impressive." Cathy said

"They wanted my eye for detail. You know better than anyone just how good I am at hiding in plain sight." Also true and she had been reassigned.

"So they wanted you to act as an observer?" Dexter asked

"Yeah." Also true.

"Then why have you changed so much? Everything I know about you shows that you were a lot more energetic. It's like you're a completely different person. What happened?" Claire looked away.

Joseph sighed "Sis, we're just trying to help. We can't do that if you won't let us."

Mel sheltered her with a wing "Its okay. Why don't we stay here tonight, hmm?"

"You'll have sleep in the family room. You're old room's been turned into an expansion of the workshop." Vinnie said

Mel started licking her ears "Come on Claire! You can't lie to me. We both want to!"

"Alright. Alright!" she said as she laughed "We can sleep here tonight! No more kitty bath! It tickles!"

"That's why I do it." she said and gave one more sloppy lick "It was more fun when you had long hair."

"Maybe for you."

Mel smiled "I know for a 'fact' one of your favorite pictures is the aftermath of the first tongue bath."

Claire blushed as she slid out from under the wing "Tha-that's because it was the first one! It was a special event."

"Is that why you're grinning like an idiot?"

"I'm not like an idiot."

"Oh? Let me guess you are an idiot." Mel narrowed her eyes as she got off the RIDE couch.

"Damn right I am." She crossed her arms.

There was a full minute of silence "Well," Bill said "it’s nice to see you acting like yourself again."

Claire blinked and went red, brushing a hand along her right horn. Mel purred as she rubbed up against her. Sam watched all of this from the kitchen as she helped Pawpaw finish preparing dinner. Spaghetti with a three meat sauce, his specialty dish and a family favorite. Mentally, her Maria half was fully expressing itself by worrying over her cousin's biometrics.

"There's something wrong with her." Pawpaw said "Vinnie said her biometrics are wonky. So I know you can see it to."

Sam sighed "Maria thinks so too. I would've missed it if she hadn't split off to point it out."

He nodded "How is she?"

Sam frowned "That's part of the problem. We can't tell."

He chuckled "Not Claire, Maria. I don't know how Integration works but I know she's forever part of you now."

"Oh," she flushed at her blunder "never better, but she still wants a proper weapon. I've read some stuff about how it 'might' be possible to get one. But if get caught or something goes wrong I'd be in really deep trouble."

"Fritz, right?"

"How did you know?"

He smiled "Dear, I know people and he isn't as omnipotent as he wants everyone to believe. Besides that, there are other people you could ask for help. Especially if you're going back to live with your folks in Aloha. I know the Marshals have hired a lot of Integrates so you might be able to ask Joseph for some comm codes." he stepped into the doorway “Alright everyone time to eat.”

There is only one word that can be used to describe dinner with the Maiuri family, loud. Of the seventeen people, Joseph and Michael were the only two louder than the assembled mothers. It may have been louder than Claire liked but its familiarity was a welcome comfort. She noticed that Sam deliberately sat next to her. The paranoid part of her thought it was a statement about how she was probably going to be the next one to ‘ascend’.

"So Cous, I noticed you have some heavy fuse signs."

"Mel is a lot of RIDE for someone to handle."

“So…have you two considered…Integrating?” Sam asked.

Mel groaned from the other room “You know Claire killed the last person who asked us that right?”

“I only did that because she was trying to force it onto us. Besides we both know he probably survived.”

“Not for lack of trying on your part.”

She put her elbow on the table and rested her chin on her hand “If he had held still for another half a second I could’ve destroyed his brain and…what?” The table had gone silent “It was self-defense.”

“Based on the intel we have now I think pest control is a better term."

Sam couldn’t keep the disbelief out of her voice “Back up, you two walked away from a fanatic without being Integrated, how?”

“By frying his DIN port, shelling him from fifteen hundred kilometers and destroying sixty-seven percent of his body mass.” At Sam's incredulous look she shrugged and started twirling her loaded fork between her fingers "You asked."

Sam stared at the fork. "All things considered you are an excellent shot, but I recommend sticking to CQC." Mel said

She had seen before, it was a nervous habit. "So we should practice by taking pot shots at the Rodinian Nature Preserve? Aim for the deadest looking trees?"

Replace the fork with a knife. "Rohit would be pissed when she found out."

Claire had been telling half-truths "You mean if."

She was supposed to be on the task force but had done something else instead. "No, I mean when. Someone will notice and she would be able to trace it back to us. I'd rather not have ‘'her'’ angry with us, pacifist or not."

Sam cleared her throat "All of this is very interesting but you still haven't answered my question."

She sighed "We have thought about it. For now it's not for us, maybe someday but it'll be because it’s what we want."

Sam nodded "Glad to hear that you aren't planning on rushing into it. Being an Integrate is nice, but it has its drawbacks."

"Like the fact that your leaders are all the bad kind of crazy."

"Among other problems, yes. On the subject of supremacists I'd like to know what you did to Dominic."

"He a friend of yours?"

She snorted "Not anymore."

Claire blinked “Alright, you’ll have to be more specific.”

“When he tried to hack you.”

“Oh that," she ate her forkful of spaghetti "not much to tell, I have a special program called Cardinal.”

“And…?” Sam asked.

She shrugged “That’s all I know.”

Sam groaned “You’re kidding.”

“Nope, the rest of the information is above my pay grade.”

At this point the rest of the table had returned to normal conversation. Claire and her father got into a discussion about RIDE maintenance. He really wanted a chance to give Mel a once over. It was strictly out of professional curiosity. Mel accepted the offer on the condition that it be performed at their house with their tools, a perfectly reasonable request.

They asked about Claire's co-workers on the task force, more half-truths. They asked about her crossrider party and the gifts she received, most were surprisingly useful. Why she had waited so long to contact them, she had been told to by her handler. What Sebastian, her handler, was like and why she even needed one. She said to keep her safe, a straight lie.

Regina wanted to know if Claire would be moving back to Nextus, no way in Hell. Then she wanted to know if Claire was planning to live in Sturmhaven like her. This earned a string of words in a language no one could identify and a small rant about idiotic feminists. When Claire had first returned to Zharus a Valkyrie had tried to force herself on him. Marshal intervention was the only thing that had prevented a fight from breaking out.

Right now they were living out of their sub. They were usually docked at the Aloha aerodome since they were working for Oz. Sam and Bobbie wanted to know more about that. Bobbie was a programmer and as always interested in learning more. Bobbie's hare and Keith's deer were both on their way back from running out to pick up dessert.

“I heard there’s a dungeon in Taft.” Sam said

“That’s right. A hundred sub-basements beneath a church, each one is a microcosm unto itself. We just made it down to the seventy-fourth yesterday.”

“It took you two months?”

“I spent sixty hours power leveling before I could start that dungeon. You could make it pretty far at your current level, but it would be time consuming.”

“Do you have any suggestions?”

“Once you find the entrance there’ll probably be some people you can party with, or you can go with me. Though, you’ll still have to find the entrance on your own.”

She groaned “I spent my sub flight over checking the side rooms and found nothing.”

“Sorry Cous, that’s the way it is. I’ll meet you there later.”

She shrugged “Alright, it’s not like I have anything better to do.”

“You could find a job.” Her mother said

Sam harrumphed. If she was looking for a job her best bet a Fuser based establishment, like a Fuser bar. She didn’t mind going back into that line of work. She might even go back to school. Online classes had a lot more appeal to her now. But it wouldn't do her any good if she just cheated her way through.

A few hours after dinner Claire was finally able to log into Oz and meet Sam in Taft. One second the room was empty, the next Claire was sitting in one the pews with Mel sprawled in the aisle. Sam had spent the entire time searching the church's remaining side rooms. She quirked an eyebrow but didn't say anything as she went back to searching. Half an hour later she sat down and leaned back against the alter, only to yelp as it slid backwards.

Sam sighed "Beneath the alter, how cliched."

"The entrance is different for everyone, but it’s always literally in the last place you look. That's why I couldn't help you find it."

"So I have to search this place every time?"

"Once you reach the first town it gives you a teleport spell. You can also use it to travel between the various floors."

They were able to start off on the fiftieth floor dungeon. Claire played as the forward guard drawing in the attention of the mobs and letting Sam get bonus xp and special items for killing them. The few times she attacked her blade would cut down groups at a time. When they reached the fifty fifth floor Claire took her to a blacksmith for new gear and upgrades. They spent the next several hours traipsing through the floor dungeons until they reached the seventy fourth floor.

By the time they got there Sam was several levels higher and had replaced most of her gear thrice over. They met up with other players along the way, several of which made no attempt to hide their Integrate status behind disguises. Sam soon joined them reveling in the new found freedom. The others shared stories about various raids, trades, duels and integrations. They made it halfway back to town before she noticed Claire and Mel were gone.

She dropped back into the real world and noticed her internal chronometer said it was close to four in the morning. They had probably logged out to go to sleep and she just hadn't been paying attention. She quietly stretched as she went down to the kitchen to get a snack. On her way back she peeked into the family room. Mel was lying awake in the middle of the room, her head resting on her paws. Claire was fast asleep on her back, half her face buried in Mel's scruff like it was a fuzzy living pillow.

As she turned to go back upstairs she heard the faintest of whimpers. She looked back and saw Claire start to twitch in her sleep as she whimpered again. Mel looked concerned as she shifted, trying to make her more comfortable without waking her up. When the whimpering continued, a part of Sam realized that she was intruding on something very 'very' private. The instant Claire began to thrash Mel fused up around her, staying on hands and knees as she interrupted whatever figment was tormenting Claire.

Sam watched as the Fuser took several deep breathes before curling up on the RIDE couch and seemingly going to sleep. She quietly returned to her room, never once noticing that the eyes of the cobra tail had been watching her the entire time. Everything about her cousin's odd behavior confirmed her theory. Something terrible had happened to Claire.

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The first thing Sam noticed when she came down for breakfast was the twenty meter sub-orbital parked in the backyard. A quick query showed it was registered to, and owned by, Claire. She grabbed a bowl of cereal to eat as she went outside to take a closer look. When she stepped outside she could hear the voices coming from inside it.

"It's good to see you, I would've been here last night but I got caught up at the office."

"It’s okay, thanks for the crossover gift."

She laughed "I bet it got some strange looks when you opened it, but I always thought the traditional gifts were a little dumb."

As she stepped into the sub Sam recognized her older cousin Heather. The petite wolverine tagged ZPA employee was still half a head shorter than Claire. Her brown ears were almost completely hidden by her shoulder length dirty blonde hair. Sam heard the end of the comm discussion the two of them were secretly having as Heather broke the hug she had on Claire.

:I'm sorry, if I had known where they were sending you I wouldn't have put your name up as a possible for The Ghosts.

:It’s okay, from what I heard I'd be dead if I had stayed with the task force.


"Heather allow me to reintroduce you to our cousin Samantha and her RIDE Maria."

Before she could blink Heather had wrapped her in a bone crushing hug. "Look at you two, all Integrated and furry!"

She returned the gesture "Thanks, what are The Ghosts?"

That wiped the smiles off their faces "Classified, and don't even try to dig up information on it. Integrate or not you won't find anything."

"Alright, alright you don't need to go biting my head off. Where are Mariko and Mel?"

"Over here." Mel called from the other room "Your Uncle was just finishing his inspection."

Bill shook his head as Mel was released from the cradle "You have an excellent chassis, looks like it could take just about anything. Like those wings, they weren't in the original design. At least not any of the drafts I’ve seen."

"I felt like I was in the wrong body. We tried a bunch of things but it wasn't until we were in Rodinia that we found an answer. They used a winged lioness as one of my bases."

He nodded recognizing the symptoms of body diaspora "Installing micro solar panels for solid state feathers, pretty clever idea."

"Glad you like, it was Claire's."

"It’s nice being on indefinite leave, lots of time to travel and just relax." Claire turned to Heather "Earlier you said there was some sort of convention I might like to go to?"

"That's right; it’s a convention for people with ASA RIDEs. Kind of like a RIDE or skimmer show, you can meet lots of people and learn more about maintenance and stuff. I thought it might do you some good to spend time with people you aren't related to."

"I do that in Oz."

She gave Sam a pleading look "You've been having nightmares."

She looked away "Maybe."

"There might be people who can help you."

"Claire," Heather put a hand on her shoulder "you're not alone anymore. If you're still having nightmares let us help you. At the very least let Mel help, she's your partner for crying out loud."

"I know that." she snapped "At least, I do intellectually. I'm trying but it’s not easy, it’s a hard habit to break after three years."

Sam sighed "Let's make a deal. I had planned to take you shopping today, that dress is probably one of the few outfits you can actually use." Claire's blush confirmed this "So we'll go to the Con with you and, when you want to leave, we'll take you shopping for some real clothes. Deal?"

Claire groaned "Fine, you've got me backed into a corner."

Sam waved at her "And that's why I'm your favorite."

"Besides," she smirked "I could use proper pair of sweats anyway."

Now it was Sam's turn to groan as she punched Claire's shoulder. Stuart had never understood the appeal of being fashionably dressed. Ironically this had an incredible fashion sense, he could look downright amazing if he wanted to. But he would much rather run around in comfortable clothing regardless of whether or not was in style or matched.

Within an hour the five of them were on their way to the largest convention center in the polity. Artillery Support Armor was a bit of misnomer. The classification included everything from gunships and indirect fire to low orbit bombardment and sniper style direct fire units. This broad range meant they were also produced in an equal large range of sizes, mostly on the larger end of the scale. Thus they needed a convention center whenever they wanted to gather in large groups.

There were thousands of people and RIDEs packed into the center. They were even able to spot a few Integrates taking advantage of the crowd to wander around exposed to the world. They ended up meeting up with a few veterans of Nextus-Sturmhaven war. Whenever Mel was noticed she immediately became the center of attention and received everything from sympathy and comm codes to death threats.

Claire had just sat down in the food court when a hand landed on her shoulder "Excuse me ma'am," a feminine voice said "but it’s important that I speak to you."

Her tail hissed as it examined the woman behind her. She yanked her hand back in surprise, badger ears flattening. The fact that she didn't step away from Claire said she was used to getting what she wanted. Her accent marked her as belonging to the upper levels of the Nextus government.

Claire sighed "About what?" Why did Sam and Heather have to get food now.

"That RIDE belongs to you right? My superiors in the MRS want me to demand its return."

Mel growled "We're partners, we belong to each other. A few months I ago I had to send some of your co-workers packing."

She snorted "I heard about that."

"Lieutenant Colonel Steele, how nice to see you again." Heather, Fused with Mariko, walked over with a tray of food.

"D-Director, I...I didn't see you there."

"Oh course you didn't,” she sat down "I just got back with our food." she pushed out a chair "Please, sit down." It wasn't a request. "This is the second time Nextus has harassed one of my operatives. I thought I made it clear what would happen if this continued, regardless of 'who' was doing the harassing."

“I understand, but my superiors obviously don't." she pinched the bridge of her nose "This was supposed to be my weekend off, got it approved months ago. I just wanted to come here and enjoy the time with other people with ASAs. Then I got a call an hour ago and was told that facial rec placed you here and was given orders to try and convince you to hand you RIDE over to me."

"How long have you been partnered?"

She smiled tiredly "Fifteen years now, she’s a BDR(f)-ASA-014W. She ran into some of her friends who’ve already mustered put. I think this whole debacle is a sign that we should tender our resignation.”

“Any idea why your top brass is so interested in Mel?”

“Not a clue, someone in the military or one of the upper tiers might be putting them up to it. You know quid pro quo.”

Claire grunted “I ‘hate’ career politicians.”

There was a murmur of agreement “Well, I’ve bothered you enough.” Steele offered her hand and Claire shook it. “I’m going to find Cressa and get back to enjoying the convention.”

Sam showed up shortly after Steele left and they ate their late lunch. This time when Claire said she wanted to leave there were no objections. The trip had served its purpose which was to get introduce Claire to other people. A handful of the RIDEs gave Mel advice on how to help Claire deal with her night terrors.

Compared to everything that was happening at the convention shopping was uneventful. However Sam’s idea of shopping hadn’t included the half a dozen specialty stores Claire dragged them into. That aside, it was easy to find clothes for her. Convincing her to buy some of the more feminine ones was impossible. It took a while to talk her into defusing to actually try on different outfits. Her pragmatism about clothes had clearly crossed over with her.

They caught a lucky break, one of shops was run by an Integrate and Sam was able to try on real clothes for the first time in months. Claire refused to entertain anything that had frills or lace. Just about the only feminine clothes she bought were sundresses and a pair of sunhats. Everything else was t-shirts and shorts. As far as she was concerned indefinite leave was the same as retirement, just with better pay.

The entire time they were shopping Claire was doing something on the net. Sam’s fear of the mysterious Cardinal System was the only thing that prevented her from taking a closer peek. After all, just because she could look in on everything digital didn’t mean she should. Everyone was entitled to just as much privacy as she was. Then again, she could always ask.

“Claire, are you going to share the reason you’ve been on the net for the past six hours with the group?”

She was silent for a bit "Swear not tell anyone?"

"On pain of death."

"Therapy," she was blushing "you know I had a nightmare last night. The problem is I've been having them for several months now. They're less frequent now but I'm still having them. Cardinal was helping at first but now its doing more harm than good."

Heather swore "Nobody said you were given a copy of Cardinal."

"They probably didn't think it was important."

"Like Hell it isn't. Who authorized it?"

She shrugged "Romulus something or other."

Heather groaned "Romulus Mengsk?" a nod "That power hungry idiot. Cardinal is designed for rapid tactical analysis not psychiatric care. Do you at least have control over it?"


Sam frowned "I'm guessing this Mengsk person didn't tell you that you could adjust it."

Claire snorted "He didn't say much of anything about it. I could probably hack it."

"Don't," Mariko said "I'll pass over the control codes so you can disable it, take an image before you adjust it."

"Hopefully Tassidar will throw him out on his ass, politics be damned."

"Um, are you sure its okay for you guys to discuss this in fornt of me?"

"Its useless to anyone else you might know."

Sam briefly thought of Fritz "I'm not sure about that."

"The Bosscat wouldn't be able to do anything useful with the information. Even if he wants Mengsk to stay in power he knows better than to try anything."

"Wait the ZPA knows about Fritz?"

"We've had contact with certain individuals who brought him to our attention. We've been...monitoring the situation ever since."

"We understand you're scared of him but he's just a person. If it came down to a fight the odds are stacked 'against' his favor."

"Easy for you to say." Sam muttered.

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Claire, stilled Fused with Mel yawned as she woke up the next morning.They had a very productive night in OZ, lots of level grinding with Sam. The boss room had been found and its raid was currently in the early planning stages. Depending on the information the scout teams gathered they might be able to clear it within a few days. But that was just wishful thinking on her part.

With most of Cardinal disabled Claire had been able to download a lucid dreaming app for her implant and get a direct look at her subconscious. If she ever saw Mengsk again he would be subjected to a swift and unbearably painful death. That bastard had tried to use Cardinal to brainwash her into becoming his obedient little puppet.It was easy enough to fix what he had changed and Mel kept meticulous notes on what they found. It was damning enough that he would probably be locked up for the rest of his life.

For the first time since coming back Claire really felt like herself. At breakfast she had a pointless argument with her brother (she lost), pounced on Vinnie, and generally made a minor nuisance of herself. Though she didn't say anything she could feel Mel's approval of the return towards her true normalcy. She knew she could never go all the way back, too much had happened, but she could get close.

Last night they had flown to Cascadia to visit one of Keith's friends and do a little sight seeing before heading back to Aloha. It had been going great until they announced that they were going to let some of the rain through the domes. It wasn't really dangerous, more of a minor annoyance, but it did force them to cut their tour short. They were almost to the aerodome when Claire put a hand on Sam's shoulder.

:We're being followed.

Sam checked her sensor :Doesn't look like it.

:Trust me we are, take your parents and get back to The Dawn. I, we, will handle this.

Sam noticed the hesitation with the pronouns :Alright.

It took only a few minutes for them to be out of sight "You can come out now."

From under a nearby awning stepped a red panda Fuser "Corporal Mort and Private Eugene," she shook the offered hand "its a pleasure to meet you ma'am."

A fellow Ghost "Likewise, now let's get down to brass tacks. Why were you following us?"

He offered he a tablet "Emergency orders, direct from Colonel Tiger himself."

"I'm supposed to be on leave. Why didn't he just comm me?"

"He's been trying to."

Claire swore "I bet its something Mengsk imbedded in that copy of Cardinal. We're gonna have to get a full work up done on my implants."

Colonel Tiger Sauer was the founding member and commanding officer of the Ghosts. It had been he who sent her on indefinite leave, after approving her new partner. He was also an Integrate and gave every Ghost a special encryption key. There was no doubt in her or Mel's mind that he was fully aware Claire had family with her right now. If he was giving her direct orders there were no other options.

The mission was a simple extraction operation that required them to stop at the southern end of a mineral formation called the Towers. She wouldn't be required to fight anyone. All she had to do was fly in pick up the fire-team and fly them all out without attracting the attention of the local Enclave.

If Sam hadn’t been watching the entrance she would have missed Claire and Mel’s return. She could tell something was different as soon as they stepped aboard. Her parents didn’t notice Mel’s hardlight fur had become smooth armor.

“There’s been a slight change in our flight plan. Claire and I need to make a work related detour.”

“I thought everything Oz related was in Aloha.” Bobbie said.

“This is ZPA related. Need to pick up a survey team we have out in the Towers. They’re probably going to be tired. So, I want y’all to try and stay out of their way.”

“There might not be anyone for you to pick up. There’s an Enclave in the Towers and they have been known to forcibly remove tethers from RIDEs and they sometimes…encourage Integration in others.”

“Trust me the Enclave has no idea that they’re there. Its more towards the central section so they won't notice us either.”

"I don't know..."

"Sam we were able to sneak up on you and Dominic."

She winced "There's going to be a lot more than just two this time."

Claire/Mel shrugged "Two or 2000, numbers are only important if they're paying attention. Now, I'm going to grab something from my room and then we'll be off."

The trip from Cascadia to the Towers was very short. A straight line flight instead of an parabolic arc. Sam couldn't believe how fast The Dawn was Claire had done some major upgrades from its stock configuration. It was only very strict self-control that kept her from running a deep scan to find out what made her tick. That and Sam was worried that she might expose them if she did.

Claire had the loading ramp open before they even landed. Everything was still and it would have been eerily quiet if the wind stopped. They sat there for ten minutes before she kicked on her stealth and went to go talk to Claire. Except the cockpit was empty. A quick search proved both she and Mel had left The Dawn.

Throwing her worries aside she reached out and pinged Mel on the sidebands. Several seconds passed before Mel pinged her back letting her know she had met with the survey team and they were on their back. Sam walked into the back area and stood right in the entrance her sensors on full alert.

She stood there for fifteen minutes and was about to walk back in when an arm wrapped around her neck. She would've screamed if the a hand hadn't clamped over her mouth. She was quickly dragged backwards into the main cargo area as the ramp closed sealing up the ship.

A man's voice growled in her ear "If I where an enemy you'd be dead." she was released "Come on Probie, Mike and Aug need help with Mosley."

Mosley turned out to be a wounded Bandicoot Integrate being tapped on cheek by a Wombat Fuser "Come on Mosley stay with us!"

She caught the wrist before it could tap against her cheek again "Hit me again and I'll break your wrists."

The Fuser gave a sigh "Thank God you're alright. Ajax, Probie, give me a hand getting her to kitchen."

Ajax turned out to be an LSA black lab Fuser. When Sam made no move to follow he grabbed her wrist and dragged her forward. With a combination of lifter control and hand support they got Mosley settled on the kitchen table. Ajax opened a cabinet and gave a spare sarium battery to Mosley. Why had he called Sam been Probie?

"Where's Claire?" Sam asked, the quiet hum of the lifters answered her question.

"The LT is making sure we get out of here in one piece." Mosely answered "I know we asked for emergency evac but I didn't think they'd send the Ace of Aces herself." she looked over at Sam "Probie, front and center. I thought I knew every female Ghost and recruit we have."

Claire's voice came over their comms' : Neither, she's my cousin.

"That explains her lack of reflexes." Ajax said.

"I'm standing right here you know."

:Where are y'all going to stay when we get to Aloha? Mel asked.

:No idea. We were supposed to be out here for another week.

"Um you guys can stay at my house." They looked at her. "Well its technically my parents house. But we've got plenty of room for guests."

"You'll have to run it by them first and I don’t think there is anyway they’ll let us stay for a week."

It was the second night after they arrived in Aloha. Ajax (Andrew and his RIDE Jackson), Mosley, Mike and Aug had spent the first day busily preparing their reports and getting some much needed rest. They had most of the day in Oz being brought up to speed on the raid strategy and gathering supplies. They had already spent most of the night out on the town, slowly going from bars up to clubs with Claire getting progressively drunker, probably because she was lounging on Mel’s back when they traveled, her hair now shoulder length.

“I had no idea Claire was a happy drunk.”

“Let’s just hope she stays that way.” Ajax said.

“What do you mean?”

“Pray that you never have to find out.” Mosley muttered as Claire babbled to Mel.

“What language is she speaking anyway?”

“No idea, she must have picked it up on her last assignment.” Aug said

Sam shook her head "We have about two hours till the bars close up for the night, any suggestions."

"Loch Ness, its on 32nd Street." Claire giggled as she motioned its general direction.

Mosley patted her head "No more for you."

Loch Ness turned out to be a rather upscale bar staffed only by marine Fusers. They grabbed seats at the bar proper, Claire half slumping over in hers. The place was surprisingly full for its location and the time of night. They were on their second round of drinks when a musk-ox Fuser walked over and started talking to Claire.

"What's cookin good lookin?" Sam frowned at his Cape Nord accent. "How about I buy you a drink."

Claire giggled "Sure, Edradour on the rocks."

What was she doing? She had agreed she wouldn't have another drink and why was Ajax smirking? Sam looked at the others. Mosley looked resigned while Mike and Aug just looked confused. Clearly the three of them were missing something. Claire's Scotch sat there for a minute before the Fuser said anything.

"Well aren't you going to drink it?"

"Nope, Mosley said no more for me so no more will I drink." she grinned.

He spluttered "But you said I could buy you a drink!"

"And you did, you didn't ask if I could drink it, which I can't." she shrugged.

He frowned "Well, then why don't we go somewhere else and you can have a drink there."

"She said no more so it doesn't matter where. I can't drink any."

"Then how about I take you over to my place. I got a nice hotel room just down the street." He gave her a winning smile.

Claire let out a laugh and patted him on the cheek "You are just to cute, but I'm not that kind of crossrider."She winked at Mosley.

"Then your friend can come to." his grin widened "How about it?"

"Mm, no."

"Aw come on it'll be fun."

Mike/Aug grabbed his arm as he tried drape it around her shoulders "Dude, she said no.

"Stay outta this." The man sneered, jerking his arm free and spilling Claire's Scotch.

Sam blinked and almost missed it. There was a massive crash as Claire slammed the Fuser face first into the bar. They all heard the crunch of metal as his muzzle deformed. He stumbled backwards as Claire stood up. Gone was the happily giggling drunk from a fraction of a second ago.

The man took a swing at her and she just seemed to slide out of the way. He swung again and she slipped around behind him grabbing his tail and yanking him into a spin towards the front. Mosley pinched the bridge of her nose while Ajax was laughing so hard he had fallen out of his seat. She slipped past his strikes again and again before counter attacking. This time Sam missed it because of Mel, but she still heard the rending crash as the man broke through the wall and landed in the street.

Before Claire could take another step she was engulfed by Mel. She put her hands over her heart, eyes closed, as she took deep breaths. Sam could hear the blaring of police sirens as the APD showed up.

Preceded by:
Ghost's of Zharus Succeeded by: