The Firebrand Residence

A large, red brick building towers over the other buildings on Raina's street. It is three stories high and has belonged to the Firebrand family for generations. This is Raina's home, nestled comfortably on the divergence of two streets, seperating uptown from downtown.

"Hey old man!" Rania called out, heading for the door with great speed. "I'm off to practice netbattling. I just got my new navi a few days ago, remember?"

"Oh... er, yes dear. Yes, I remember," the man replied from his armchair, turning his head towards the door as she talked. "You two have gotten to know eachother then?"

"Ha ha! Of course!" Rania laughed confidently. In reality, though, she'd only turned the PET on once or twice. Each time she had, her navi had simply glared at her in silence, then turned his head away and let out a loud sigh. "W-We've gotten so close in such a short period of time!"

"That's good to hear! You're excellent at making friends, you know! Why, when I was your age, I had to make it on my own. Nobody ever had my back," he grimaced, stroking his beard. "There was danger around every corner, and-"

"Thanks old man, that's real cool and all, but I've got to go!" she interrupted, unwilling to listen to another one of his childhood tales which always sounded like a cheesy black-and-white action flick. "See you later! I'll be an ace netbattler my tonight, just you wait!"

"Ho ho ho! Great accomplishments take time, Raina. Don't be in too much of a rush for anything, okay?" he warned her, waving his hand dismissively over the back of his chair. He set his eyes back to the fireplace as his daughter left. "Netbattling? What was wrong with good old swords I wonder? Hrmmm..."

Raina smiled broadly as she ran for the Metroline. "Ha ha! Today's a great day to go to the park!" she laughed. Her mood, however, quickly startened to fade as she realized that she was going to have to activate her sour grapes navi again and get aquainted with him. "He looks so cool... but he's a real jerk! I'll have to find a way to relate," she thought. Suddenly, she realized that the train was beginning to leave the station for ACDC! "This isn't like the video games!" she exclaimed. "If I miss that train, I'm going to have to wait as long as... ten whole minutes for the next to take off!" Being that she was extremely impatient, she decided on a risky manuever. She picked up speed, running at a breakneck pace, then jumped onto the rail at the side of the bus. She inched along until she reached the door, then jumped inside and took a seat. "Phew!" she sighed, sitting down to a large, shocked man with a newspaper resting in his lap. "I don't care if my navi's a jerk! We'll get along fine when he feels the fire of my warrior's spirit!"
He'll feel the fire of my warrior's spirit... Is that really what I said when I first set out to start training with my netnavi? Rania thought to herself, entering her house and placing her jacket, wet from the pouring rain, onto a hangar by the door. Shaking her head furiously to remove the moisture, she walked into the living room to meet her grandfather. In reality, all this training has got me even more pooped than him, I'll bet! I need to get up to my room and rest! she thought, intending to idly wave to the old man than head up the stairs.

"Nah ah! Nah ah!" the old man cried out in a strange way, waving his arms and arching his thick eyebrows acutely from his place in his seat. "I've kept dinner warm for you, Rania, my girl! Come and eat with your sensai, won't you?" he beckoned, motioning her to the table theatrically with one arm. "Really, when's the last time we sat down to a good meal? I know you've got to keep your figure, but there's every warrior knows there's nothing wrong with a feast from time to time!"

Rania sat down tiredly, looking at her guardian with weary eyes. Still, unable to refuse, she cut herself a large portion of steak and took to it with surprising hunger, ripping into the meat and chewing it quickly. She wasn't sure if she was just hungry because she hadn't been paying attention to meals that day or if she was eager to get upstairs and hop into bed. "Now Rania, you must have met some friends out on your netbattling adventure. What kind of people are they, those netbattlers?" the old man asked, chewing his steak as he talked and guzzling sake like water.

Rania choked on her food momentarily, downing a quick swig of water to get it through. What can I tell him? That I've been out with a single older man in college and another who's at least 3 times my age all day? No, that's ridiculous sounding! He'll think I'm going mad! she thought, once again feeling guilty for some reason she wasn't aware of. Hesitantly, she started to explain her acquaintances slowly, starting with her allies in the Sharo battle, then moving to the navis MeleeMan had teamed with to fight Riccio, then finally concluding with her time in the Colosseum. She hoped she'd tried to be vague enough so that he didn't understand that she'd been with Suien nearly the entire time.

"So this Suien guy... did you say he was the one at the chip store who does the jazz arobics?" he asked, tilting his head and continuing to munch loudly.

"N-No father, that's Suitachi. Suien is still attending schooling of some sort, I think," she mentioned, smiling politely as she finished the food.

The old man laughed, arching his eyebrows in a knowing way, despite the fact that he'd understood the situation incorrectly. "You've talked about him a lot, you know. Does this mean-?" he started, only to be interrupted by the young operator suddenly.

"N-No, we spent a lot of time together, but that doesn't mean-" she continued, her face reddening as she began to defend herself for staying out so long with Suien.

The old man shook his head, however, dismissing the subject. "No, not him. Your partner! It seems like you're avoiding talking about him entirely. How do you like him?" he asked, smiling warmly. Rania's eyes moved down to the floor; it was hard for her to summarize things exactly. On one hand, his battle performance could hardly be held up to that of navis like Rass, and his personality wasn't nearly as likeable either. On the other hand, however, she didn't by any means disapprove of MeleeMan, and felt so close to him now that it was embarrassing to bring it up. "If you don't like him, we'll go get you a new one tomorrow," the old man nodded, drinking another swig of sake with a loud slurp.

"No!" Rania exclaimed resolutely, laying her fork onto the plate. "I... I'm very happy with him, Sensai," she answered, nodding eagerly. The old man smiled, accepting the answer with satisfaction.

"However, don't doubt the power of the people you meet in this world as well. Friendships you make in this life will be more valuable than you can imagine; believe me," he said knowingly, then added with a laugh, "it would have been awfully boring around here if I hadn't had someone to play checkers against while you were gone!" Rania smiled, giving the old man a bow before running off upstairs.

Moving into her bedroom, she quickly shed off her wet clothes and dressed into a pink night-shirt. With a smile, she picked back up the shorts off of the ground and removed the PET from her pocket. It's a new routine for me; I'll have to make sure that this thing never gets washed, she reminded herself, placing the PET by her bedstand. As she bent over to fluff her pillow, however, the PET flashed on, displaying MeleeMan's face, frowning intently. The curve of his mouth lowered slightly as he watched her form bending over in front of him.

Crossing his arms, he curled his upper lip and barked out loudly, surprising Rania and causing her to drop the pillow she'd been readying and turn to face the device. "Hey Rania, what are you up to? I remember getting hit with a bolt of lightning in the Colosseum, but I guess I've been out since then... What are you wearing? That's awfully pink," he muttered, rubbing his chin considerately. "You know I don't approve of pink."

"MeleeMan, you're supposed to be asleep! When do you programs sleep, anyways?" she asked, her face reddening as she fumbled with the PET, trying to turn it off with every dial she could get her fingers on to. MeleeMan simply laughed, grinning and returning quickly with an answer.

"Sleep? Sleep is for the weak, y'know? We net navis can get by with no sleep at all," he announced triumphantly with a thumbs-up gesture. "Anyways, quick, jack me back into the net. All that rest has got me itching for some action!"

Rania looked dumbfounded, her eyebrows twitching angrily as she held her PET tightly between her clenched fists. However, as she came to her senses, she realized that she really didn't have any problem with that at all; in fact, she really still wanted to be virus busting anyways, so the simplest thing to do was to submit. "Alright, but keep it down; I'd like Sensai to think I'm going to sleep," she said, whispering with one hand to the side of her mouth.

MeleeMan nodded, but frowned with a bit of surprise. "Good God, you look unmanly without the gloves. Promise me that whenever you go out with other netbattlers you'll wear those gloves, okay?" he asked, raising one eyebrow behind his thick metal visor. Moodily, Rania jacked him in before he had the chance to say anything else to her.
Rania sighed, turning off all of the lights in her room and lying down beneath the pink comforter onto the soft mattress of her bed. Just as she began to feel comfortable and doze off, her PET's screen lit up and MeleeMan's voice was projected. "Pfft, you netops and your sleep," MeleeMan grumbled, frowning distastefully. Sleepily, as one would grope the darkness to find an alarm clock, Rania reached out and pressed buttons on the PET until she finally made her navi's voice inaudible. Inside the netspace, MeleeMan simply lay down upon the ground with his thick arms crossed behind his head. "There can't be anything to this whole sleeping bit," he mumbled to himself, then fell sound asleep.


The next morning, as Rania awoke, she was pleased to find by her alarm clock that she hadn't overslept. It was important that she rise early that day, because it was again time for her community service, tending patients at the hospital. She dressed quickly, slipping on a black t-shirt and dark orange shorts with a matching jacket. Her hands quickly glided into her fingerless gloves and she found herself out of her room without wasting a minute. Jumping down to the bottom of the stairs, she landed gracefully and zipped into the dining room, quickly fixing herself a plate of bacon and eggs. "Sleep well?" her grandfather asked, raising his eyebrows in curiosity of her speed.

"Slept fine, thank you, sensai," she answered between mouthfuls, wolfing down the meal at an amazing rate. Once she was done, she gave another bow, then raced for the door. Suddenly, she skid to a stop, raising a small cloud of dust underneath her bright orange sneakers. "Wait, I forgot MeleeMan!" she shouted, running to the top of the staircase and ramming open the door to her room.

"Huh? Morning already?" MeleeMan grumbled, rolling over as she turned the PET off of sleep mode. "What are you in such a rush for?"

"Yes, that's right, and if I don't hurry, I won't be early for my work service!" she cried, jetting off back towards the door and jumping once again down the stairs. Wasting no time, she dashed out the front door and rushed for the metroline to ACDC. Halfway into boarding for the hospital, however, she suddenly realized that she'd forgotten to spend the money she'd made from virus busting. "I guess I'll take a detour by Scilabs... They won't mind if I'm a little late," she said to herself, changing the ticket.
Returning home, Rania quickly dressed into her pajamas and readied herself for the night ahead.

Within the span of a single sleepless night, Rania and MeleeMan faced their toughest opponents yet, meeting new allies and testing their abilities like never before. When it was all over, MeleeMan achieved the only prize he could have hoped for: survival in what was set to be recorded in history as an event that nearly destroyed all balances of power within the very net. Rubbing her eyes tiredly, Rania reflected upon the events with a sort of dazed, dream-like feeling, then sunk into slumber as the sun rose.

MeleeMan, though frustrated over the loss of many good allies, silently praised himself for once over a job well done. As much as he liked fighting, order in moderation was not such a bad thing to have on the net.

Awakening and greeting her grandfather, speedily devouring her breakfast despite her previous lack of rest, Rania bolted up and headed out onto to do some netbattling. The excitement of the previous night was hot in her mind as she sprinted out the door to the nearest public net terminal in the park. "Well, I'm thinking the viruses around here are actually a little weak for your current level of power," Rania told her navi, frowning as she realized she was only feeding his ego.

"Well, I'm glad you realize this, but it's nothing new. These viruses have always been laughable opponents for me. I've yet to find a challenge worthy of my limitless strength!" MeleeMan guffawed, grinning widely. His expression quickly settled back into a stoic frown, however, and he crossed his arms across his chest concernedly. "But honestly, we're running out of opponents challenging enough for me to waste my time on, which is why I've considered..." he paused for a moment, bringing up an advertisement for an action flick on her monitor.

"A-A movie? You want to see a movie with me?" Rania asked, her eyes widening in surprise as she was caught off guard.

MeleeMan laughed rudely, shaking his head. "Dream on. No, my concern is this: the manly are only made more manly by fighting in the jungle. Observe this man: an epitome of manliness equal almost to myself, as visible from his physique and the laborious scars of his battle. Certainly the jungle is the most harsh, intense environment for him to fight his opponents in, and can only tone his body further!" he informed her, smiling as if he'd stumbled upon a really revolutionary idea.

Rania sighed, plugging him into the net. "Netfrica it is then. I hope you're up for it."
"Well, I personally think we would have gotten more excitement out of just seeing a movie," Rania pouted, withdrawing her navi from the net and heading towards the metroline. "You've got to learn to do some more casual things than just fighting all the time. You know, other people use their navis to help with their homework or to organize their music... All sorts of things! All you do is fight."

MeleeMan crossed his arms, keeping his tough frown. "I do one thing and I do it well," he defended.

Rania groaned, then hopped onto the shuttle. "We're headed off to the shop to buy you some upgrades. I've been thinking of some ways to improve your technical performance," she explained, holding onto one of the handrails.

"Great! Onward towards self improvement. My perfect body becomes ever more perfect," MeleeMan laughed as the bus whisked his operator off towards Scilabs.
Unfortunately for MeleeMan, the trip to the shopping mall that he thought he and his operator were embarking upon came to an abrupt stop as Rania realized that she had very pressing business to take care of. While her school break had given her a lot of time to bond with and train her new navi, that peaceful (if anything involving MeleeMan can be called peaceful) time was over and the hectic time of college preparation had begun. Rania's grandfather had been able to financially support her decision to attend a college, but was sadly limited by his own singular income. As a result, she was forced to choose from local colleges, with Dentech seeming the most obvious and sound choice. Rania made plans to attend Dentech along with a few of her good friends and stayed in her residence in Electopia, commuting back and forth from home to classes with her friend Amelie (who was happy to on account of the lavish new automobile that she wanted to show off).

A few weeks had passed since Rania began her first semester at college...

Wrapping her lips around the head of a condensation-covered water bottle, Rania drank deeply, enjoying the kind of refreshment which becomes exponentially more appreciable after an intense workout. Today she'd worked her arms and legs to a point sufficient to work up an intense sweat, the kind that her navi used to work up all the time. Even with all of this buildup of personal achievement, however, she couldn't help but feel that something was missing. Content to take a small break, she flipped open her PET to speak with her navi.

"Damn you to hell," were the first words that came out of the navi's wide, teeth-baring mouth. Rania may have been enjoying herself over the past couple of weeks, but her navi was in decidedly another frame of mind. Ever since college began, Rania seemed to have decided that it would be okay to assign MeleeMan to menial tasks like organizing school assignments and so forth on her PET. He'd been willing to go along with at the time, grudgingly thinking that he would make her train him twice as hard as payment in the future. He realized after a few weeks that if he didn't go ahead and spring that trump, it was going to burn in his hand; he would lose so much battle experience that he may ultimately lose his warrior's soul. He might even go mad.

"What's the problem?" she asked, raising one eyebrow and smiling. She'd become used to her navi's language and had begun to feel the kind of supreme power over another being that only comes from being an operator. Ordinarily, she'd think herself cruel for having settled into such a high-and-mighty state, but with the victim being someone as rude and inconsiderate as MeleeMan, it was okay to her. "You can train just like I am if you want to, you know. There's similar equipment stored in my homepage for you."

"Hey, if I wanted to look like a lean, slick little teenybopper 1/2 of my own age like you seem to, then sure, I'd adopt your training regiment. I don't," he hissed through his clenched teeth, bringing his face close to the monitor. "I need man-training. Real men only learn through real battle! There's only so much you can do fighting against a non-living target, Rania. You may be keeping your pretty figure, but when there will never be a time where it will come down to either you or the treadmill in a life or death fight. The sense of urgency is half the training, you-!" he roared, then was abruptly cut off as she cut the monitor back to blackness.

Rania certainly didn't believe all that her navi was saying (she happened to think that she was growing out of her teenybopper look), but his words did offer some points worth thinking about. It was true: since she'd come back, she had failed to get even a single sparring match against any of her old boxing team members, as all of them had become busy with other priorities. Amelie would be happy to do it, she considered, but they'd probably wreck everything in her father's training room doing it, and Amelie would be more than happy to allow Rania to draw her away from her studies if the opportunity was given to her. Rania couldn't have that on her conscience.

The message light began to flash on her PET; she was certain MeleeMan was hailing her for more of his ranting, but decided to let him blow off some steam all the same.

"Face it," he continued, raising a confident smile onto his face. He'd decided to approach the fight to fight from another angle. "You need combat just like I need combat. You're limited in your own life. You can't just go out and start dropping thugs and punks in your own town, can you? I think the cops call that vigilantism and don't take too kindly to it," he reasoned with his operator.

"Wow, big words there, I'm impressed," she jested, keeping her eyes focused on the screen. Her face was a poor mask for her emotions, however, and her interest was obviously beginning to return.

MeleeMan crossed his arms, now as sure of his words as he'd wanted to be from the start. "Well, here's your answer. Come with me into a world where there's always foes just waiting to be dealt with around every corner. We'll fight the sorts of monsters and weirdos you can only dream of fighting in your mundane outside world, and we'll do it all with the pure, unreserved strength of my muscle. Don't you know how good it feels, Rania? The rush that can only be obtained from giving your all without worrying about how exhausted you feel afterward... I haven't gotten to experience that in ages (more like weeks, but he couldn't realize that). Come on, help me out. Help yourself out," he finished, resolving his face back into a tight frown.

The operator paused to think, her eyes narrowing pensively as she combed her hand through the bob of her red hair, which still glistened with sweat from her workout. "It's tempting, but I really shouldn't, I mean my routine-"

"If I don't get to fight today I'm deleting your entire workout schedule that you've planned out for the next six months," MeleeMan threatened, although he wasn't really sure if it was in his power to do so. Still, he was more than capable of making a face that implied sincerity in his words.

"Okay, okay, sure, let's do it!" Rania babbled, not wanting to even think about losing the schedule that she'd spent countless nights obsessing over to perfect. "First, though, why don't we go to the shop in Scilabs and get you some upgrades that'll get you back up to speed, hm?" she offered, climbing back up to her feet.

"Now you're talking!" MeleeMan laughed, clenching his fists in anticipation. His grin lingered for a while, then gradually settled back down into an impatient frown. "Well, damn, what's the hold up?"

"I've got to get my shoes and sweatshirt back on," the operator sighed. She was dressing at a fast rate, but she was fully aware that nothing could be fast enough for her navi. After finishing dressing, Rania briefly stopped by her bathroom to get rid of some of the stink she was bound to have worked up from exercise, then jogged on down the hall. "See you later Sensai!" she called briefly, then headed out the door for the metroline, accidentally slamming the door on the way out.

The old man lifted his head briefly and looked away from the wooden temple sculpture he was assembling, then called back, "Return strong, young one," in an idle, shaky voice.
Rania returned to her house, humming a tune as she ran her thumb over the buttons of her PET, navigating through her files until she came upon her workout schedule. "Alright, today is the first day of my swim routine. It'll be tough giving up my laps on weekends, but I'm just going to have to bear it for the sake of swimming," she told her navi, assuming he cared. Normally he wouldn't have, but something was rubbing him the wrong way. He didn't wait long before expressing his problems with her training plan.

"Alright, two problems there, kiddo. One: I'm not going to sit around and watch you train for another second. Two: Why the hell do you need swim training, anyways? Only cowards use the sea for cover. The water is an unwholesome world full of spineless, slithering eels and useless, slimy fish. I like to avoid it at all costs," he explained with a grimace, shivering in spite of himself as he thought of the horrible, horrible water.

Rania laughed, waving hello to her grandfather as she proceeded up the stairs to her room. "Really? I'd think the code of manliness or whatever would require you to face your fears," she chuckled, imitating his stern expression and gruff voice as she said "code of manliness."

"We've been through this before, Rania. I don't FEAR the sea," he grumbled, knowing that he'd displayed to her on at least one occasion that he did, in fact, fear the sea. "I HATE the sea."

"Sure, sure," Rania replied with a smile, knowing that it wasn't a good idea to push him too far on the issue of his hydrophobia. "Don't worry, we'll move you into a different net once I get there. I don't really want to design you a swimsuit or anything like that anyways." The netop knelt to look into the bottom shelf of one of her room's wooden drawers, rifting through a few rather childish looking swimsuits. "I, on the other hand, plan to dress for the location."

MeleeMan drag one hand down his jaw, stretching his face out in an impatient fashion. "Oh, spare me. Who the hell are you going to try to impress? And with what?" he said, adding an inconsiderate laugh onto the back of the sentence. Ignoring him, she brought up the swimsuit she planned to wear, holding it in front of her and watching him intently. She had put on the most serious face she could manage, looking fully like she was intending to venture into battle. After a wait, MeleeMan's jaw hung again, baring his teeth in an uncomfortable frown. "What?"

"Do you like it? Will it make me look okay?" she asked, her eyebrows arching even more fiercely.

MeleeMan gave another muffled laugh into his fist, then examined it more closely. He'd been expecting something sporty like she usually wore, but obviously she was trying too hard to cement the "I'm eighteen and not seventeen" look. The swimsuit didn't look at all like something she would pick out. The color was right for her, a sunny orange, but the design had bright yellow streaks like flames over both sides of the front and seemed like less coverage than anything he'd ever seen her wear before (and he had seen her in a bath towel). Giving a number more muffled laughs, he finally broke into a hearty guffaw. "What, you trying to draw more attention to that last name? I wouldn't recommend it!" he cackled, having a hard time getting the words through.

"B-But how does it look?" she asked again, keeping her serious expression.

"You know the hourglass look women want to have? Yours is more like uh... what are those things scientists use?" he asked, thumbing his chin as he covered his mouth to hold back more laughter.

"An Erlenmeyer flask?" Rania suggested, half wishing she hadn't.

"Yeah, that! With the wide bottom and the skinny top!" he chuckled, lifting his helmet to wipe his eyes with one of his large fingers. While he continued to joke at his operator's expense, Rania left her PET stormed off into her closet and changed at blinding speed, throwing her things randomly onto the floor. Planting both feet firmly on the floor, she again glared back at him intensely. MeleeMan stopped to ponder a moment, looking her up and down. A goofy smile spread back across his face, then burst into a wide, open-mouthed laugh. "Bahaha! You're like uh... Damn... I can't think of anything else, but-!"

"Okay, okay. Well, at least all of the negative comments are about my figure and not about the swimsuit, so I know that it won't work to switch it out," she sighed dejectedly.

"Is the suit padded?" MeleeMan asked, a laugh sniffling out from between his fingers.

"How- Wha- No! It's not padded!" she roared, crossing her arms across her chest defensively.

"Good, cause it doesn't look like it. You're still flat as a board," he guffawed, holding his sides in pain. "Maybe you should just throw the sweatshirt back on, huh?"

Rania clenched her fists at her sides, looking 100% firm and resolute. "No, absolutely not. You may not have realized it, but I'm eighteen! I have every right to wear something like this now," she spoke in complete seriousness.

"What, a silly looking swimsuit with flames on it? If you had like... a model's body something, maybe, but uh..." he muttered, finally fed up with laughing. "Look, it's fine, nothing you wear is going to make you look like you have boobs. Let's just get out of here, alright? You haven't exactly done much to fulfill my end of the not-erasing-your-files bargain yet."

"Sure, okay. I'll prove to you that other people see me as an attractive, mature woman. You're just being stubborn, as usual," Rania replied, sounding like she was trying to convince herself rather than her navi. Grabbing a towel, a t-shirt (black with a neat green dragon design), and a pair of shades, she stepped into her sandals and hurried to the door. "So long, Sensei, I'm heading off to the beach!" she called back as she ran out. "I might eat while I'm there."

"Make sure to save room for dinner," the old man mumbled, distracted as he put the finishing touches on the same model he'd been constructing as she entered.
Rania returned to her happy home in Electown, not realizing that she had failed to do the swim exercises she actually set out to do or hit it off with any guys using her new "I'm eighteen and not seventeen" apparel. Her grandfather was right where he'd been when she left, admiring the craftsmanship on his amazing wood-carved temple model. "Hello Sensei. What was that call about?" she asked, giving a respectful bow as she entered out of habit.

Her grandfather stroked his beard momentarily, as if trying to bring back to mind what it was that he'd called her for. "Oh. Did you see my model here? It's quite extraordinary, isn't it? The articulation is just beautiful," he muttered, circling around it and moving his arms to cross his hands behind his back.

Nodding patiently, Rania set down her bags in a cushy brown armchair and plopped down along with them. "Of course. But wasn't there something else?" she inquired, hoping to jog his memory of the real issue.

Pausing, he looked upward and knotted his brow, thinking hard to try to remember. Pressing one fist into his other open palm, he nodded and seemed to recall the subject. "Ah, right, right! You've been netbattling for a while now and I think I have just the present to help you out in the future. I think you should be well trained enough now to handle it, if I'm right..." he told her, smiling warmly.

Rania sat forward in her seat, raising her eyebrows in disbelief. "But hold on, I never heard you talk about netbattling. Are you saying you have old chips or something to give me?" she asked less patiently, sounding like an excited kid opening a birthday present.

"Ha ha ha! Yes, I was quite a netbattler back in my younger days. Of course, my navi might be a little outdated since then, but still... I want to pass it on to you," he finished. Rania's expression blanked, causing his grin to fade a little. "What's wrong? You're not interested?"

"N-No, it's just um... I already have a navi you see. I'm happy as I am. It's nice of you to offer though," she said with another bow, but her grandfather didn't look particularly disturbed.

Running his hand through his long beard again, he stared at the floor and paced pensively. "Ah! I think I've got it. My navi is sort of an outdated model anyways... what do you think of converting it into a support program for your own navi?" he asked, raising one finger.

His granddaughter's eyes perked up again. "Oh, that'd work. I just got an SPBase and I have nothing to use it on really. I'd been thinking of all sorts of ideas, but there couldn't be a support program greater than your navi!" she exclaimed, rising out of her seat. "Well? Where is it?"

Chuckling, her grandfather led the way through the kitchen. "This way, my disciple. How much do you know about ninhonto? Specifically nodachi," he asked, crossing his arms into his sleeves in front of him and looking straight forward. Keeping her own hands in her sweatshirt pocket, Rania racked her brain to recall her master's teachings from back when she'd practiced swordsmanship. Shaking her head, she indicated that she'd forgotten most of it. "Well that's fine. I know you're very busy nowadays, so perhaps your sword knowledge isn't what it used to be. The nodachi is a double handed variation of ninhonto," he explained, opening a secret bookcase at the back of his library as if it were nothing. Rania followed on slack-jawed as they stepped into her grandfather's sword collection.

Sheathed blades surrounded Rania, drawing her fleeting attention one by one as she struggled to take in all of the masterful looking weapon designs. Other weapons hung about her as well and she could not help kneeling down or standing on her tiptoes to observe them. "S-Sensei! I never knew all of this was back here! This is amazing!" she exclaimed, suddenly extremely depressed that she had dropped swordplay.

"And here is the most amazing thing of all," her grandfather replied, smiling and handing her a very long, thin box. The lid was engraved, seeming to match some of his other craftwork. "It is your sword."

Hands trembling, Rania opened the lidded box, all the time feeling as if she were being bestowed an honor that she did not at all deserve, having dropped swordsmanship along with her many other hobbies for her recent pursuit of boxing. Once the lid was off, however, she discovered that inside the box was a small, wrapped object, occupying much less than the box's full length. Unwrapping the item quickly, she discovered that it was a PET. It looked like a very old model, dark red but with no particular customization to speak of. The size was very large and unwieldy, but she still treated the PET reverently, taking it out of the case with both hands and then carefully laying the case down at her feet.

Powering it on quickly, Rania felt her breathing halt as the navi on screen stared back at her. A beautiful woman wrapped in a dark red shawl was sitting on screen, her form concealed by the cloak that wrapped her body like a sheath. Her eyes were war-like and scary, sharply peaked with a color like a smoldering flame. Somehow this navi had even more intensely striking eyebrows than her own, which she noted immediately. The navi's hair was dark and bowl-cut, coming from beneath an odd golden sedge shade, with a huge extension that at first seemed to be a ponytail. As she observed it more closely, however, Rania realized that the extension itself was so blade like that it stood outward and glimmered with a blade-like edge, indicating that it might itself be steel. "Th-this is your navi?" Rania asked somewhat dubiously. "I didn't think it would be a girl..."

"We had fun, back in our days," her grandfather laughed, nodding at the fond memories.

Rania's first thought was towards what lay beneath the sheath the navi was wearing around her body. If it turned out to be superior to her own body, MeleeMan would never let her live it down. "Er... Does she have a body beneath that sheath, or is she a sword herself?" Rania asked. "I notice she doesn't actually have a nodachi... Unless her hair really is a sword."

"No, her previous form was a nodachi. In truth, she possesses a body that can transform into weapons replicating fine damascus steelwork. Although I used her as a nodachi, you can actually transform her into any time of sword you choose," her grandfather explained, grinning with enthusiasm. "She's also got an amazing natural body. I enjoyed that feature of her a lot."

"Grand, er, Sensei!" Rania exclaimed indignantly, not used to hearing her master talk in a lewd manner.

Laughing harder, he attempted to wheeze out a reply. "What? I was a young man too once, you know!" he chortled.

"S-So, what kind of adventures did you guys have? It would be nice to know so maybe I can pick up some tips on how to use her," she asked, still feeling uncomfortable talking to the navi herself.

Regardless of Rania's feelings, the sword answered back anyways. "I killed many foes. I will kill all of your foes as well as you desire. A drink of blood is all that I ask," she answered coldly.

Rania's eyes widened in disbelief. The new navi sounded like some kind of villain out of a bad manga. She turned her eyes to her Sensei, searching for another answer. "Ha ha ha. She's a little overdramatic, but she's a good blade. We had our fun," he laughed, as if that answer was a cover-all for anything. Rania sat frozen, unsure of what to say next. The silence didn't seem to bother the new navi at all. Finally, a voice broke the silence.

"I'm not using a sword all the time. Tell her I want to use my fists," MeleeMan spoke up for the first time in a while, calling Rania's attention. "A sword's okay now and then, but there are times a man wants to go it with his fists. For me that fist portion is about 99% of the time."

Both Rania and her grandfather hushed, looking expectantly at the navi to see how she'd react. "That can be arranged. I will craft myself into the finest knuckles you have ever used. However, I have a request: you must use me as much as possible. I'm very thirsty for blood. My internal clock tells me that it has been some decades since my last activation," she spoke quietly.

MeleeMan snickered, pounding his fists together hungrily. "Oh, you bet," he answered firmly.

"Then it's settled! Hand me the PETs and I'll transfer," Rania's grandfather laughed, taking both of the hand-held devices before she had a chance to protest.


Rania was turned backwards in her comfy brown armchair, slung limp and lifeless over it with her reportedly chubby bottom extended outward. She couldn't believe that she'd somehow been muscled into turning an amazing damascus-steel, expertly forged nodachi into a pair of knuckles for her navi's giant, brutish gauntlets.

"I must warn you: it will take a lengthy period of time before I master my new form. Until then, I will only be able to attack with my sheath," Rania's new SP told her. Rania didn't want to listen. Wearily, she roused MeleeMan to answer the SP instead. "New master. I must warn you: it will take a lengthy period of time before I master my new form. Until-"

MeleeMan stayed her by raising one hand, shaking his head violently. "I heard you the first time. We'll get out there and train in no time, I'll make sure of that," he informed her. "What's your name anyways?"

"My name is Damascus. I would enjoy training immediately as well," she answered, bowing her head respectfully with a bob of her blade-like hair.

"Hey Rania, we're ready to train," MeleeMan sneered along in chorus with his new SP. "Two versus one, you're overruled. Let's get back out there."

Groaning, Rania clasped both hands over her face in exasperation. "Oh my God... what have I done...?" Rania cried into the chair, burying her face as deep as she could. She realized that now that she had two navis, opposing them both with be even harder than refusing MeleeMan had been. "Fine, I guess you have slept for several decades or whatever," she muttered, getting back up onto her feet and slipping on her sneakers.

"Thank you," the SP answered politely, bowing her head.

Rania smiled, creasing her eyebrows sympathetically. "I guess it must be a little sad, having being disused for such a long time. You're probably ready to get back into action," she sighed.

"Yes. I was made for a wilder time. Once that time was over, I had to be put away... And I've been so long without blood," the navi answered, looking up earnestly. It'd almost be charming if she wasn't so violent. Giving a very forced laugh, Rania pretended to empathize and headed for the metroline.

"Where are we headed anyways?" MeleeMan asked, still staunchly ignoring his duty to get acquainted with his new SP.

"I'm going to swing by the shops first. We'll up your arsenal at ACDC and then move on to Scilab from there to get you some upgrades," she answered, grabbing onto a handrail.

MeleeMan nodded, thinking that things were finally looking up. Strength, strength, and more strength: these were the things he wanted in his life and he seemed to be getting all of them.
A number of weeks had passed since MeleeMan's meeting with Anyis following the tournament. Rania had gone back to her usual routine: mostly exercise, investing in planning out her path through college, attending classes, etc. She hadn't done much busting, but not for lack of concern for her navi. After taking a small break, MeleeMan seemed to have developed some sort of strange fever. It was hard to imagine the big navi becoming sick with anything, but he was obviously in a degree of pain significant enough to the point that she couldn't imagine taking him out to fight. For that reason, she'd left him alone... but since then, his fever had only become worse.

Rania spent a lot of time worrying about her navi and consulting various online sources and even specialists, but hadn't found any useful information on how to handle navi sicknesses. Eventually, someone claiming to be a "professional navi/operator relationship counselor" had caught wind of her efforts and offered to help. Later in the day, she planned to meet with him, but for now she was busy speaking to her familiar friend, Amelie Demetrius.

Amelie's net navigator had been named GladiatorMan; a strong, devoted navi as long as Rania had known him. He seemed like the MeleeMan she'd idealized to begin with. In fact, it was GladiatorMan who had inspired her to go out and make her own navi using the same template system that Amelie had, although the semi-disastrous result was MeleeMan's creation. Recently, however, GladiatorMan was nowhere to be found... Amelie had laughed it off with her usual vigor for the first day, but now nearly a week had passed since her navi's disappearance. Her search for net detectives to solve the disappearance was even more vigorous than Rania's search for navi health specialists, but then again, she had more resources to do it with given her vast spending allowance, granted by her family.


As Rania and Amelie discussed their mutual woes, MeleeMan was still dealing with being a bed-ridden navi, something he'd never supposed could exist, let alone be him. He wouldn't literally allow himself to be confined to a bed, of course, but he'd been doing a lot of leaning and sitting without a lot of moving... sleeping too, whenever it was convenient. His pride had made all of this especially difficult, and so he tried to appear as active as possible when Rania was watching. He hadn't admitted how pained he really was to anyone; Rania could only tell he had some sort of sickness at all from the differences in his fighting behavior.

Damascus's face was a mask as always. Nobody ever knew what she was thinking. Her usual frown almost never left her face, but now, it grew more stern than usual. She'd been brooding over the fact that her new master was keeping her from the battles she craved with his weakness and her contempt had naturally grown. Damascus didn't figure she owed any sympathy; she was beginning to get to the point where MeleeMan seemed like nothing more than an impediment.

..... "Master," she muttered, standing over MeleeMan's reposed form and casting a shadow across his body with her tall figure. "I've had enough. The thirst for blood grows yet stronger... If you were to consider me the same as a human, I have been without water for weeks now. How can you deprive yourself of battle and drag me down with you?" she asked irritably, glaring at him with her spiteful red eyes. Damascus knew that it wasn't the SP's place to cross their master and, out of respect for her former operator (Rania's grandfather), she'd held her tongue. Still, she couldn't understand how MeleeMan could let something like this happen to him... sickness wasn't common for navis and certainly if another navi was sick, MeleeMan would have sneered at them and told them to walk it off.

MeleeMan's eyes were hidden behind his visor. He stared at the ground and grunted in response; he still didn't want to talk about the illness any more than he had to, especially not to someone as annoying as his SP. She persisted, however; for Damascus, this had been the most worthless few weeks of her life, even beyond the sort of cryogenic rest that she'd endured for 30 years. For MeleeMan, though, these weeks had been worse.

Unable to take any more of his SP's complaints, MeleeMan rose up to his feet and grabbed Damascus by the collar of her sheath-wrap. "What do you mean by that, huh?" he wheezed, obviously in pain from the exertion. "When you say you thirst for blood in that stupid, deep voice like you're some kind of damn cartoon character, what are you talking about? Do you really thirst?! Are you dying cause you can't fight?!" he growled. Even standing like this, he couldn't put his head over hers to sneer down at her. Damascus was still standing taller than he was even now.

Damascus kept her frown, but didn't know how to respond immediately. After thinking on it, she supposed she could, with some confidence, retort. "The sole reason for my existence is fighting. Although my body does not wither, I still feel a significant loss during these calm and uneventful times. I must say that without fighting, my life is somewhat meaningless," she answered truthfully, not fighting to break her master's hold.

The big navi grunted and released his SP, then took a few steps backward. "That's a good answer, but no, you're not really the kind of person that can see my side on this. I'm dying, Damascus... And I don't know what the hell I can do about it. I'm too weak to fight but... not fighting is why this is happening. I'll never be able to convince Rania of this... But I need to fight. The longer I keep up this lifestyle, the shorter this life is going to become. Something inside me is begging me to just find the nearest target and break lose with my fists," he muttered quietly so that only his SP could hear. He didn't want Rania listening to all of that or she'd think he was crazy. She'd probably say that he was trying to get back into fighting despite the illness and should just keep waiting to get his strength back.

"So you're saying you literally need to fight or you won't recover? I don't mind sparring with you, if that's what you desire," Damascus offered. MeleeMan grunted; it didn't seem like that was what he was looking for.

"Sparring isn't what I need... It's like my body won't recover unless I have a real battle. No offense, but ever since you became my SP, you're not really up to it," he replied, crossing his arms across his chest as he spoke. "I mean, there's a ton of crap all across the net that I can fight against with no reserves. It feels like I ought to be able to just live a life where I do that... Fight and fight some more, without having to deal with Rania sorting through her college and all of that," he sighed.

"Now you're being childish. Even in the glory days with my sensei, I was unable to live such a lifestyle of pleasure. No one in the world can spend the whole day doing only what they love," she retorted.

MeleeMan grinned in response, but with a bitter smile. "Hey, if I was saying this cause I was bored, I'd have to admit you're right. But I'm not like a kid trying to play sick to get out of school... I'm dying, dammit."


Having accepted some snacks from Rania's grandfather, Amelie and Rania were now eating while they discussed the situations of their navis. Rania was dressed in her usual sweatshirt and running shorts, while Amelie wore yellow tank-top with a matching skirt, bound around the waist by a white belt. It was the kind of outfit that'd draw a lot more attention than Rania could handle.

"Well, it's a shame about MeleeMan. I've never heard of a navi getting sick before and he's such a hearty guy. I wouldn't think it would happen to a guy like him. Are you sure he doesn't have a reason to just pretend? Maybe he wants more attention?" Amelie chuckled, speaking around a mouthful of crackers.

Rania looked at the graham cracker thoughtfully, then shook her head. "That's a pretty ridiculous idea. I think that he probably enjoys not having to put up with me so much, if anything," she responded. "Nah, he's really sick. I mean, really, can you imagine that guy trying to act? It'd be a fiasco," she laughed, feeling a little cheered up by her friend's presence.

"So hey, are you doing anything about it?" Amelie asked, raising her eyebrows with interest. "Nobody knows about navi diseases, really. If it came without explanation, it's probably not going to just leave on its own."

"I know," Rania replied, feeling certain she'd mentioned to her friend all that she'd done on an earlier occasion. Amelie was probably a little nervous herself, although she never showed it openly. That would probably lead her to be desperate for chat topics. "I've actually got a relationship specialist coming over today. He referred himself, kinda, after hearing about my trouble over the net. When you've got out-of-the-ordinary problems, you look at out-of-the-ordinary solutions, right?"

"Oh ho? Relationship specialist? I didn't know that you two were on that level," Amelie giggled with her usual teasing attitude. Resolved back into their usual moods, the two joked back and forth for a time. Once they were all talked out, Amelie mentioned needing to check her PET privately; understanding the severity of the situation with GladiatorMan, Rania allowed. With that, Amelie headed upstairs, leaving Rania sitting by herself.
After waiting alone for a while in her large living room, Rania finally heard a knock at the door. She was curious as to why the counselor wouldn't use the doorbell, but she'd been close enough to hear, so it all worked out. She quickly rose and scurried to get the door.

The man who'd come to see her was something of a giant, standing at nearly six and a half feet. His head was mostly bald, but he had thick eyebrows and a small, neat beard. He was dressed somewhat eccentrically in a white suit with literally rose-tinted glasses. "Hello. This is the Firebrand residence, isn't it? You must be Ms. Rania Firebrand," he muttered; a big smile spread across his thick, pale lips. "May I come in?"

Rania nodded eagerly, closing the door behind him as he nearly stooped to get through the doorway. Even the man's shoulder breadth had seemed to conflict with the prospect of him easily fitting through a human-sized door; she felt somewhat relieved when he managed to squeeze through, as though the door frame was going to pose yet another obstacle in a long string of things preventing her from healing her navi. "Thank you so much for coming. My grandfather's lying down right now... Why don't we have a seat in the living room?" she asked, hurrying towards the big center table.

"That sounds lovely," he replied in his heavy but comfortingly soft voice, following closely behind her with his gloved hands crossed behind his back. Once they'd found a good place to sit, the man removed his scarf and set it on the armrest of his chair. "My name is Hector Goodall. You may call me Mr. Goodall or Hector as you prefer, little girl," he introduced himself with a smile.

Rania raised one eyebrow. She'd liked the guy at first, but now he nearly seemed to be intentionally stepping on her toes by referring to her as a "little girl." "Er, sure, Mr. Hector," she responded, replying deliberately with a name that wasn't on the list he'd given her. Taking a seat across the table from him, she crossed her arms in front of her and rested her head on the sleeves. "Well, I'm not sure what we're supposed to do exactly... Do you have some kind of routine?"

"Hmm hmm hmm.... I've got a routine, yes. It starts with some simple quandaries. First, however, we must take measures to ensure that the process is not tainted with navi/operator tension so early in. Please take your PET into the next room and leave it somewhere. You can pick it back up when we're done," he offered, waving one meaty hand towards the door into the kitchen.

Nodding, Rania rose from her seat and went to lay the PET down. As she walked into the kitchen, the tile floor was comfortingly cold against her bare feet. She reminded herself that she really should have asked Goodall to remove his shoes when he came in, as was her house's tradition. Slowly, she placed the device upon the counter, as Goodall had instructed her. "Sorry MeleeMan... Hopefully he'll give me some useful advice that can get you back into shape," she whispered, then turned her back and returned to the previous room.

"Very good. Now, please take your seat," the big man muttered. Rania was fairly appalled as she walked back in to discover that he'd lit a long, fat cigar and was puffing away on it inside her own living room. It wasn't natural to do that in anyone's house, let alone a traditional Electopian one. Although she'd begun to unconsciously glare at him, she took her seat as he instructed. "Now, let's go through some simple questions. First, you are Rania Firebrand and your navi is MeleeMan.EXE, correct?" Rania gave a quick nod in response. "Do any words on this list fail to describe your navi: violent, battle-hungry, combat-adept, self-assure?"

Rania was very surprised to see that the words so closely resembled her own impressions of her navi. "Well... yeah. That's exactly him," she responded, leaning forward a bit.

"I see... How would you describe your relationship with your navi?"

"We were a little at odds when we first met, but we established a friendly relationship. We like to tease each other a lot. He's er... a little insulting at times, but he means well... I think. Anyways, I'm fond of him."

"Let me ask the question differently: what is your day-to-day routine with your navi? How does he spend his days under your care?"

"Oh. Er, hrm... We spend a little while busting whenever we can; unfortunately, the sickness has largely put him out of that," she responded. A smile spread across the man's face, but she couldn't figure out why. It didn't seem particularly benevolent or malevolent, but more so an expression of understanding. "I get him to help me with some standard functions like scheduling and net-surfing too, of course."

"I think I understand. And how does he feel about this routine?"

"Oh... He um... He'd spend all of his time fighting if he could, I'd imagine," she laughed, scratching the back of her head uncomfortably. She was prepared for the man to start arguing that she needed to see MeleeMan's side of things, since she imagined that operator over-control was pretty common in the world of navi/operator relationships. "But really, I let him fight a lot!"

The man chewed at the tip of his cigar for a moment, then lowered his thick eyebrows. "How about you? How would you describe your physical condition?" he asked cryptically. "Do you get into fights a lot?"

Rania looked confused, but answered regardless. "I practice boxing and a little bit of wrestling with my friend. She's on the women's wrestling team and likes to give me a hard time... If you mean like a brawl, uh, I haven't gotten into one in a while. I'm in pretty good condition though; I exercise a lot."

"Ha," the man snickered crudely, then took another puff of his cigar. "Sounds like you've been living like your navi, but one of you is happier with that arrangement than the other. What we've got here is a classic lack of synchronization between the navi and operator. This MeleeMan is strong and loves to fight. You are weak and would rather exercise in the gym. Do I understand this correctly?"

"Excuse me? That's a weird way of putting it. You can't really expect me to go looking for viruses and things like that to fight with myself, can you?" she asked jokingly. The therapist was really ticking her off now, and she'd begun to try to think of reasons to get him out of the house more quickly.

"No, not exactly. There may be limits to your ability to gain strength. You are a young girl after all," he sighed, then rose from the table abruptly. "A scrawny thing, really. A little naive too," he chuckled, moving around the table behind her. Rania looked back uncomfortably with sharp, gleaming eyes, but she was seconds too late to stop the man from grabbing her by the back of her vibrant red hair and smashing her face into the table. "A person like you doesn't really fit with a navi like him, if you ask me," Goodall sneered, rubbing her face into the smooth wood of the table harshly while using his other hand to lock her arm behind her back. She began to struggle, but all she could do was knock the chair over and rise to her feet.

"People still do this? Commit fraud and bust into people's houses?!" she growled, trying to lift her face from the table.

"You know what the stupidest part is? You probably don't have a phone anywhere nearby at all. You probably use your PET for that, don't you?" he whispered, pressing her cheek down harder. "Well, it's in the next room. If I were on the net, doing this to your navi, he'd break free and use his superb physical fighting techniques against me, wouldn't he? It's the operator's duty to have the strength to fight as well, and I'm afraid you're not cutting it. The cause for is sickness is you, Miss Firebrand."

Rania didn't understand the meaning of the man's words, but right now she was only panicking and trying to figure out how to free herself. She was pretty strong for an 18-year-old girl, but Goodall would have been a challenge even for a large man with firm muscles and extensive training. She felt almost as though some enemy had ended up in the real world looking to challenge her navi and accidentally run into her instead.

Rania sweated and couldn't help crying out as her arm was twisted more. She remembered that Amelie was upstairs, but the house was very large and the rooms well insulated. It was quite possible Amelie wasn't hearing any of this. Even if her sensei did hear it, he was in the back room and couldn't move quickly. He might even be asleep. Furthermore, if any of them did hear it, could any of them help her out? Her grandfather was too old and Amelie, while possibly tougher than Rania, would be unlike to do much against such a large and hearty opponent.

"Your navi is probably receiving a very important message right now. I'll hold you here until he finishes up. Know that your ever meeting him was a mistake; treasure fondly the memory of the last time you saw him, because you will not see him again," the man muttered, lurching in and keeping his head close to Rania's own. "Of course, you can also break free at any time and go to stop him. This is all fate, after all. Fate is the path that one is put upon by one stronger than oneself. I've decided your fate and that of your navi now because I have the power to do so. His is a fate of blessing, while yours... I'm not taking your life away from you, exactly. I'm just putting things how they should be."

"Rrr....!" Rania groaned. Tears started to well up in her eyes as she kicked out against the man's leg, but the attack returned no results. The man's body was unyielding... it was as if she had been made to beat a punching bag intended for a professional boxer, so weighty that she could barely budge it.

"Fate's a powerful thing, Miss Firebrand. Don't feel too bad. There's no way a little girl like you could fight fate, so it's not that you've been lazy, exactly," he grunted, moving his arm to grab her other arm as she began to grasp onto his coat. He pressed his pelvis up against her buttocks in an alarming way, but he hadn't done it to be lewd; he was merely keeping her body locked tightly in place. "Let's be happy for your navi. His future is bright."


MeleeMan was unaware of everything happening to his operator. His PET was set to a very low level of outside reception, with the intent that he would be able to relax and recuperate. Therefore, he was unable to hear the sounds of struggle coming from the living room. Right now, he was in a state very close to sleep. His intention was to ignore the ache in his body and dull it with a lack of exertion, but as usual, it was having almost the opposite effect. "Rrrgh, damn it all. Rest isn't rest if it hurts," he groaned, struggling back up to his feet.

"Master," Damascus addressed him, bowing with feigned politeness. "It's good to see that you're awake. A message has come in that I think you should see."

The navi stumbled to his feet. It was quite likely that this was related to that specialist he'd heard Rania was going to talk to. He thought a specialist was likely to just sponge her out of some money without providing results, but she'd seemed set on it, so he hadn't argued too hard. Still, this message could mean he needed to get involved...

The message was from GladiatorMan. Grunting with surprise, MeleeMan squinted his eyes behind his heavy visor and tried to read the virtual message. He'd only ever met GladiatorMan a few times before, and surprisingly, they'd never fought. He'd seemed like a fairly respectable guy, at least compared to some of the bozos he'd seen around the net. GladiatorMan had good priorities; that is, priorities close to his own. The message read:

Quote ()


I left Amelie a week ago and my apologies go out to her. She was a good and sincere girl, but I cannot deny my programming, nor can you. By now, you probably realize that your body is deteriorating. This is due to the source of our creation. I've learned so much, but I would rather share it with you in person. Please meet me at these coordinates in Electown Net. I'll describe everything in clear terms to you. Do not tell Rania that you've left; if she knows, she may inform Amelie, and if that happens, we will not be able to meet in privacy. This is well worth your time, as the information I have obtained may not only save your life, but enrich it as well.


MeleeMan's lips curled into a frown as he finished reading the letter. GladiatorMan made it sound like he'd discovered some cure, but damn if it didn't sound like there were strings attached. He just hoped it wouldn't be some kind of crazy religious cult or something. The whole thing smelled fishy.

Regardless, he realized he couldn't bring Damascus either. The letter would have mentioned something if he'd wanted her along too. "Sorry, I gotta go alone," he told her in brief terms, crossing his arms across his chest in defiance reminiscent of his stronger self. "Don't tell Rania where I am. Delete the message."

"Understood, Master. I hope that you will return safely. And if perchance you have a battle and fail to bring me along, I hope that you're impaled painfully," she responded with a bow, then busied herself with deleting the message.

Nodding, MeleeMan jacked into Electown Net through a nearby access point in the kitchen.

((Entering Electown Net))
((Continued from Electown Net))

Tears of exertion were now ruining Rania's face. She'd struggled all she could against the man's talk of fate, MeleeMan's new life, and her own powerlessness, but she couldn't fight back against such a large opponent. He was now holding her so that her face was buried into the familiar leather sofa of her living room, pressing down on the backs of her legs with his own knees in a hunched position while keeping both of her arms behind her back.

"I know it hurts now... But I'm careful. You won't suffer a bruise or a cut, no fracture or ligament tear. This will hurt only for a moment. The only alteration of your 'fate' is that you will find MeleeMan gone. If you conquer this fate, feel free to. But you cannot... so you should simply calm down and accept it," he assured his captive.

Rania thought back to all of the times she'd been lazy or carefree in the previous weeks. She thought to how foolish she'd been to trust a stranger over the internet and let him into the house. She'd basically done a million things that her navi could rightly chide her about... but never would. After she'd finally come to accept MeleeMan as her navi, he was going to be driven away from her to some other purpose, never to be seen again.

She thought back to Goodall's words: "the cause of the sickness is you." She was beginning to understand what he'd meant. Her ignorance and her weakness made it impossible for her to keep the blessed lifestyle she'd led up till this point. How many operators think of being unworthy of their navis? How many times had she thought to herself that she deserved better than MeleeMan? She wished she could go back now and give all of those Ranias of the past some insight into what was happening now.

"Please... Don't take him..." she muttered through tears, trying to speak around the leather of her couch.

"It's not in my hands. This is not a "fate" entrusted to me, exactly; I'm merely doing a job I chose to do. You see, my power gives me a certain lack of accountability," he droned on, grabbing his cigar from the table with one hand and chewing it thoughtfully as he continued to restrict her body. "You can't really blame my organization. We're simply giving him a better offer than you can. It's common business practice."

Rania's sobs began to grow heavier, not out of pain, but from regret. She hadn't given MeleeMan what he wanted, exactly, but hadn't she given him a good life as a navi? He couldn't really hate her for all of this, could he? Did he hate her? "Are you... saying that he... that he's going to leave me willingly?" she asked pitifully.

"Yes. I'm afraid so. Again, quell your tears. Fate. It's all fate. The easiest thing for a good little girl like you to do... good but powerless... is to blame your God for not allowing you to be born strong like me," he chuckled, obviously taking some pleasure in delivering the harsh answer.

Why did it have to be so unfair? If she'd known this would happen she could have done so many things differently. She could have grown stronger or anticipated this man's arrival so that she could fight back. She could have played by their rules and given MeleeMan what he wanted. Most of all, she could have... given him a reason to care. She could have told him how much he'd grown on her... She could have told him that he wasn't just a navi to her.

"Please... Can I just speak to him...? One more time..." she cried, no longer feeling the pain in her arms or legs. The only pain she could feel now was in her heart.

"That's not possible. His new life should be beginning right about now. Why don't we cheer him on?"

"I don't... want...!"

"Yes, let's cheer him on! I with power say this to you, so you must obey!"

"He won't... He won't leave..."

"I'm not trying to be mean. I want you to understand power. I don't want this to have to happen to you again," he cackled maliciously, then pressed the burning tip of his cigar down against the back of her neck. Rania cried out with new pain. The man couldn't help himself, so excited was he by this perfect chance to flaunt his own strength. "Do you think that's cruel? I could do much worse. Any measure of mercy by one with power is just that: mercy. I am being nothing but kind," he giggled childishly, pushing down harder on her head.

Rania's head was swimming now between all of the physical and emotional anguish. None of this would have happened if she'd been more open and receptive to her navi. She didn't believe that the man's description of "power" and "fate" was correct, necessarily... Or rather, it wasn't the main issue. He could do this to her because he was powerful, but what justified it?

It was really a fitting punishment that she deserved for being so prideful. She even imagined now that MeleeMan might be going through a similar trial. Because she couldn't admit how much he meant to her, she was now being punished. And perhaps... the only way MeleeMan would overcome his trial was if he could admit the opposite end. Perhaps he already had... Perhaps he would save her.

((Continued in Electown Net))
((Continued from Electown Net topic))

MeleeMan appeared back in his PET, stretching and giving a fond, healthy smile to Damascus. "Yo," he greeted her, raising one hand. Damascus raised one eyebrow, unsure of how he could have recovered so quickly from such a serious seeming disease. "Oh yeah, I talked with GladiatorMan... It was kind of embarrassing, honestly."

"Oh ho? You, embarrassed, my master? That's hard to imagine," Damascus chuckled dryly, giving a wide, goading smile.

"Nah, not mushy or anything. I was just sort of embarrassed for that guy. He thought he'd gotten so strong, but he was really aging backwards... You know, he's become convinced that by playing around all the time, he'd learned some kind of secret," MeleeMan mused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "It sounds like a good life, but it's one I can't really have. I have to be around for Rania... That's what I learned."

Damascus nodded, seeming empathetic for one of the first times since MeleeMan had met her. "It's true. A navi's life may seem like it's all about servitude, but it's not. My sensei guided me and gave me a sense of purpose. We shared many fond days together. A sword on its own is but a length of metal, after all... It needs someone to wield it."

"Yeah, but let's expand on that a little further," MeleeMan muttered, trying to work out his complicated and somewhat embarrassingly sentimental thoughts. "It's not just anyone who needs to wield it. Some people benefit more from wielding it than others. And that kid in there... she's practiced a lot with swords, right? I guess what I'm getting at is," he mumbled, stumbling over his ideas, "that she really needs me."

"My master was a strong, dependable, yet somehow hopeless man as well. I suppose it runs in their family," Damascus responded. "At any rate, what are you going to do now?"

"I've gotta be a man about things. I'll tell Rania I've recovered and that I've cleared my head too. All I gotta do now is ring and hope she picks up," he laughed, then started the alarm mechanism on the PET. He couldn't wait to see the look on that stupid counselor's face when the guy realized that he'd fixed himself. He might even enjoy a good laugh at Rania as well. He'd make it up to her with some sincerity after that.


The PET rang, but nobody could pick it up. The giant man was practically drooling onto Rania's back now, so enthralled was he in the process of exerting his strength. He'd long since forgotten his promise not to bruise her. Rania felt like her arms and legs were going to pop out of their sockets and was now wailing with anguish. "Fate! It's fate!" the man cackled.

Rania had thought once before about what sort of person could stand to work for the Mafia. Furthermore, she'd thought about the Bloodhounds division. How could anyone put up with killing as a profession... with being a card-carrying killer? She knew now that it must take a certain amount of personal philosophy... and possibly madness.

She managed to tilt her head enough finally to hear the PET ringing. "Melee... MeleeMan?!" she cried out. Only her navi could have made the PET start ringing; even Damascus didn't have the ability to do that as an SP.

The giant man frowned, then pushed her head further into the couch cushion so that she couldn't speak. She felt her own drool covering her lips as she failed to keep it in. He was infuriated that he'd been proven wrong about MeleeMan converting. "Really now... I thought we weren't going to have to do this. Still, this is within the hands of fate and I have the authority to change it. We'll simply take the navi. Did you know: a navi's personality is harder to modify than one might think. In an effort to make navis more like people, technology has become hard to tamper with. It's a fairly expensive procedure to transform one of these navis we've cultivated into a soldier against his will. I hope you're happy with yourself," he lectured Rania, bearing down harder on her head. "I don't know what you did, but you've cost us now. I think you still need to learn a few things. I think I see hope in your eyes. Knowing what I can do, your navi's foolish choice to stick with you shouldn't mean terribly much."

Despite his cool talk, the man was growing increasingly frustrated with the fact that he'd been incorrect. That sort of mistake really undermined the whole point of his fate speech; fate wasn't exactly fate if it didn't go according to the plan of the one bestowing the fate. Reaching down sloppily, he made to pull down Rania's shorts and loosen his own belt. "I didn't want to do this, believe me. But I'm going to make you believe about fate. I'll give you irrevocable proof that the will of the strong is what counts," he smirked, clamping his hands onto her buttocks and feeling the cotton of her panties.

Rania was creeped out, but more so, she was wide awake and keenly aware of an opportunity. He'd had to move both of his hands off of a securing position to get ready and had also spread his own legs, probably to allow more freedom to his own... she didn't want to think about that part so much. Still, it was a good opportunity, and she took it. As quickly as she could manage, she kicked one leg back furiously into the man's groin and then took off from the couch, knocking over a desk lamp in the process.

The man seemed surprisingly unaffected, but he was now even more enraged. As quickly as she could manage, she ran for the kitchen, pulling up her shorts as she went. She would have headed for the front door, but it was quite likely he'd locked it when he came in, and fiddling with that lock would take more time than she had.

As she scurried through the kitchen, she couldn't help but search for and grab up her PET. She had to confirm that it really wasn't a dream... that MeleeMan really was still waiting for her. MeleeMan had been prepared to see her stare gloomily into the PET; he was clutching one arm as if in pain. He was planning to release the arm and tease her with a "got you good" laugh.

He hadn't been expecting to see her red, panicked, tear-ridden eyes stare down at him. Dropping the act, he felt the sense of urgency that he'd known when GladiatorMan had been speaking with him increase. "Rania... what-?!"

"Thank you MeleeMan, I was so worried that you-!" she interrupted him, crying now with joy rather than sadness.

"Hey, calm down! What did you think? Is that... wait, you're bruised! What the hell is happening?!" he demanded. Rania started running again, but had no time to explain. MeleeMan realized that he'd gotten out of one crisis and into another. "The Mafia are really playing dirty, huh? I never thought they'd do something like this to get to me..."

How could he apologize to Rania now? He'd said all that stuff about her wanting him, but could she really after all this?

Wait, what was he asking? Hadn't he seen those tears? She was just as connected to him as he was to her. Shaking his head again to clear it, he got his mind back into the game... and took action. "A navi can do more than just fight. We perform a variety of functions. Right now, I'm going for one of the simplest..." he muttered.

Rania continued running, but she couldn't bring herself to go to the back room where her grandfather was resting. Not only would she corner herself, but he could be put into serious danger if he tried to jump in to help her. Instead, she ran back around the kitchen and came out in the living room. She ran to the door, but found it deadbolted, just as she'd expected. She started to work with the lock, but before she could get very far, the huge guy clubbed her over the back and sent her to her knees. She cried out with frustration, but couldn't stop him from dragging her away from the door.

"You don't understand mercy, do you? It's not the same thing as grace. I don't have grace," the man huffed, holding her up to his own face by grasping his hand tightly around her neck. "I don't mean to simply forgive you every time you disgrace me. I had mercy, but that's gone now. You're going to feel fate at its harshest," he laughed, pushing her up against the door's body. To her disdain, it didn't yield and held fast. "Now-"

In the past, Rania often surprised her grandfather by jumping down from the second floor steps and emerging unharmed. Amelie had seen the trick before too; now the time had come to emulate it. Doing her best impression of her friend, Amelie sprang down the steps and behind the giant man. With both arms, she grasped around the man's waist...

And unleashed a devastating suplex, landing the man sprawled behind her. His glasses fell off to the floor and his arms flailed crazily. He was in disbelief of what had just happened. "Alright, Rania! I evened things out! You can take him!" she urged her friend on, pumping one fist as she helped her friend back to her feet.

Rania was too proud to admit that she'd rather Amelie finished the job or that she'd rather just run. She knew MeleeMan had been through a fight just now and was determined to finish her own. "You're right, Amelie. This is for belittling my relationship with my navi!" she growled, running for him as he tried to get up.

Goodall was no sucker, however. Roaring, he charged forward and smashed her into the door frame. Still, with precise strikes, she was rattling his bald head back and force, furthering the dizziness he already felt from losing his glasses. Rania could see that that wouldn't be enough...

Hadn't she learned anything from all of this? Relationships with her friends were important! "Amelie, let's tag-team him!" she called out, clapping Amelie's hand in a make-shift tag.

"My pleasure," Amelie laughed. Together, they each grasped under one of his arms and with their combined strength lifted him up. Lifting up his weighty body reminded them of their time together in cheerleading, when they'd worked on the bottom of the pyramid to support the top. They heaved him powerfully towards that oppressive wooden door... the only thing separating the sane, rational world from the fate-crazed madman...

Goodall sailed through the door and fell down the steps. Neighbors who had heard the commotion saw him come out and hit his head. "You know, when you get right down to it," Rania laughed, finally feeling like the tables had turned, "aren't we the ones with the most power here? A criminal has to work a lot harder in this kind of situation. We've got society on our side, at least."

The huge man hadn't anticipated a fight and certainly didn't see any of this as worthy of being turned in for. As quickly as he could, he made a run for it, leaving Rania and Amelie to move back into the house and share a final, relieved laugh. "Did you have your headphones on or something? How did you not hear all of that sooner?" Rania huffed, slumping down in the couch she'd been pressed to moments before.

Amelie was busy calling the police, but she stopped and pointed to her PET with a thoughtful smile. "Your navi called me. Navis can do other things besides fight, you know."

((Continued at Beach Street Hospital))