A Suburban Two-story

((Back From -> The Chip Shop))

Her parents still weren't home when Jenny got in, fumbling with her keys and shambling to the kitchen to put the kettle on. She pulled her feet out of her shoes at the edge of the kitchen tiles without bothering to undo the laces and was already beginning to undo her clothes as she made her way upstairs to her room. Courser had gone quiet on the way home, and hadn't spoken up at all since they were in the shop, but Jenny herself was feeling too worn out to really pay it much attention. She paused at the top of the stairs to pull her socks off and rub her feet luxuriantly in the carpet.

There was more assignment work she ought to do, of course, and she really should study her science, too; there was going to be a test on transitional states on Friday, and she still hadn't fully grasped some of the finer points of it, but all of that could wait for a few minutes at least. By the time she closed the door to her room and let her satchel slip to the floor by her desk, Jenny was already pulling at zips and buttons, lazily shuffling out of her dress and tossing her underthings into the laundry hamper. For a change she barely noticed having left her PET on the desk where the screen had good view, but Courser wasn't watching anyway. She could rest for a few minutes, then do her work. With a long, finally relaxed sigh, Jenny spread out on her bed, enjoying the feel of the sheets against her skin, then with drowsy clumsiness worked her way under the top sheet and curled up with her pillow.

Downstairs, the kettle eventually boiled and clicked off, but no-one came to make the tea.
A couple of weeks had passed with relative calmness. School, study, assignments, complaining about each of those with friends in between. Jenny's day to day routine wasn't too scintillating, really, and most of her days were filled with thoughts about what work she had to do, what book she was reading, and a reasonable amount of inter-friend gossip that theorised and giggled, but didn't take things too far. It was a bright morning that saw Jenny up and showered earlier than usual, even for a school day. Couser had noticed that a few more weeks of his company were swiftly beginning to erode the young woman's extreme shyness around him, at least when she was in her own room.

This morning, for example, she had returned to her bedroom after her shower, mostly dried but still with her hair up and a large peach towel wrapped about her. Once the door was firmly shut, however, she hadn't bothered to avert the PET's screen like she used to before unfastening the towel and drying herself off the rest of the way. For his part, Courser did his best not to look, but his eyes still ended up wandering whenever she chatted to him. Now she paused with one foot up on the end of the bed, towelling down her leg, to glance across to her PET thoughtfully.

"I'd really hoped they'd let event assistants go in free dress today. I mean, I know all the athletes are representing and everything, but, we're not, not really." She continued drying off for a few moments, switching legs. "Though I suppose we are... I guess if someone was really rude to me, or something, I'd want to know what school sent them." Courser looked up just as Jenny switched to drying in between thoroughly and immediately looked away again.

"Well, um. At least your dress uniform is light and breezy. Looks like it's going to be a warm one out today. Forecast says it'll be a hot morning, and get humid later. Maybe break to rain in the evening, but you'll be home by then. Make sure you take a drink bottle." When his eyes drifted back again, Jenny was looking at herself in the mirror, with her back to him. He was caught between looking at the girl's rather too aesthetically pleasing rump, or trying to look past that to the mirror, where he was just as likely to end up accidentally staring at her chest instead. Jenny had her hands on her hips and was examining herself critically.

"I need to buy more razor blades. The blade was about done, in the shower, and it's my last one. Maybe I should call up Ella Baché and make an appointment... What do you think? It's as good a time as any to give it a try at least, don't you think?" Her hands shifted and Courser couldn't help but be aware that she was toying with some of the soft down at her groin, even if she still had her back to him. "Still kinda worried about it hurting a lot though. It's coming into summer, and I'm really starting to like what Katie was saying about being breezier, you know?" Just like the last time that line of questions had come up, Courser really had no solid answer to give. Instead he shrugged, though he knew she wouldn't see.

"It's your body, Jen, but you know your mum is going to put you to the question if she knows. She'll believe you if you say it's just for comfort, but you know she'll still worry that you're fibbing." She laughed. Halfway towards lying out on the floor to do her morning stretches, she paused to adopt a more suggestive position on her hands and knees, facing towards courser's PET and making a few lewd back and forth rocks. She'd faced him, so as to only really show off what could be seen of her breasts, from that angle, but had forgotten about the mirror, which was where Courser's gaze fell before he realised what he was staring at. Jen was still giggling.

"Oh? And what if she's right, huh? Grr!" Despite herself, the girl bloomed into a very fierce blush a few seconds later, then rolled onto her back and covered her chest with her hands. "I'm nearly sixteen, I'm ready to stop just looking from the sidelines, you know?" If he thought she'd see, he'd have raised an eyebrow to her; as it was he just waited the claim out. Sure enough she bit her lip a moment later. "Well... almost ready. Maybe. Sometimes I think I really do want to do more, but... it's not like there's anyone on the horizon or anything. And I'm totally not going to just throw it away at some party or anything like that." She sat up, back to him again, and grabbed her brush to begin doing her hair. "It's got to be romantic, and intimate, and private, and secluded.... and he's got to be cute, and strong. Tall, broad chest, and smiles a lot, but an honest smile, you know? Like you know he'd be grinning anyway even if you weren't there, that kind of smile. And he's got to be gentle, and considerate. The kind of guy who wants to look out for others and stuff. Like, a fireman or something." Here she giggled again, since that line of thinking was getting just a bit too absurd. "Oh I don't know... but I know I'm not going to just wait by the sidelines a stare at pretty boys forever. Mum knows that, doesn't she?" She finished with her hair and gathered it in a loose band to leave it until it was fully dry. Courser sighed and nodded.

"She does. She was your age once, as well. Honestly, Jen, I think you're lucky. You know what some girls' mothers are like. You should count your blessings; I think your mum will be happy for you just so long as it happens when you decide it's going to happen, and your own choosing, and you're not in any danger." He saw her head nod softly before the girl moved to actually begin her stretches this time.

"Now your dad... well, probably just better to let your mum handle your dad, when the time comes, right?" That got a small laugh, though it sounded strained while Jenny held a pose.
"I think I'd rather dad believe I'm a virgin right up until I've got grand-children."
"Good luck with that." Courser paused, picking his words more carefully. "Seriously though, Jen... don't rush into it, alright? You're a smart girl, and you understand that you're all hormones at this age. Just be careful, and be sure that you are, really, sure about it." This time his response was a derisive snort as she relaxed from a different pose.
"Yeah, I know. I'm not silly. It's all fantasy for now anyway... you know it's probably not going to happen until I'm, like, twenty something, right? I'm not just going to bed the first pretty boy that flirts to me, and you know how I am with actually talking to cute boys, so... yeah, let's be realistic here and admit it's never going to happen." He wanted to encourage the girl after a statement like that, but a part of him felt like doing so would be going against his previous advice.
"Don't go fishing now, Jen... you're a beautiful young lady and you know it. When it's the right time for you, and you find the right person for you, just make sure you enjoy yourself. For now, though, you should probably hurry up and get dressed. You got up early for a reason, remember?"

To her credit, Jenny wasn't exactly being lazy while she chattered. Done with her morning exercises, she had jumped up and pulled on some underwear, followed by her sport bra. She still hadn't gotten a new fit, and today was going to be a long day and comfort was important. Next came her school dress, and finally her pop socks and running shoes. The school summer dress was simple and came down to just above her knees, with a zip back. It was light and breezy, but Jenny often resisted wearing it because, on her shoulders, it paid an unfortunate price for its comfort; if the zip at the back came down, the dress would fall right off her with very little warning. The top of the zip was covered with a flap, of course, but there had been several times were pranks had been pulled. Jenny herself had never fallen victim to it, but she was cautious all the same. Still, everyone was going to be on their best behaviour today, and it was going to be a very hot day besides.

"Less than two months now..." Courser didn't need to look to know that Jenny was looking at her braces in the mirror again.
"What will you spend your time and energy fretting over and day counting for when they're gone, I wonder?"
"Oh shut up..."
"Just saying..." It was all in good humour; Jen was humming to herself as she brushed and set her hair properly, now that it was more dry. She opted to leave it out today, but slipped a couple of bands into a pocket of her satchel in case she wanted to put it up later. Even if it only reached her shoulders, it still got very hot on her neck when it was down on a warm day. Talk because more check-list oriented while she put together the rest of her things; a book to read, since it wouldn't be all marshalling and watching cute boys all day, a two litre water bottle filled with fruity cordial and stuffed with ice cubes, all safely wrapped in a cloth to help insulate an stop it sweating everywhere in her bag, lunch and snacks that she'd packed up the evening before, her signed day pass as a helper, purse, keys, PET, and a short list of other essentials, and then she was about ready to head out the door. The earlier rise had left her enough time to have a proper breakfast and say goodbye to her parents before she headed out.

((Heading To -> Dentech University All-School's Athletics Meet and Open Day))
((Returning From -> Dentech Uni, via the Navi Shop))
----

Steam curled out of the crack in the bathroom door on the upper story of Jenny's home while the over-bright glow of the heat lights filtered out into the hall. It was only mid afternoon, but the shower had been Jenny's first top after putting her things down and getting her damp gear in the laundry. Courser hadn't bothered to ask what was on the young lady's mind on the way home from the navi shop; she'd been staring out the window without really looking, a slight smile at one corner of her lips and a blush on her cheeks. She hadn't taken the time to actually install the upgrades she purchased yet either, but there would be plenty of time to ask her about it once she was ready and more relaxed.

----

It was substantially later that saw Jenny sitting on the side of her bed wrapped in a large, fluffy towel with another holding her hair, sorting through the upgrades and working out which order they needed to be done in. Courser was keeping his eyes closed for the most part, in case she decided to get dressed, but he couldn't help giving a small prod anyway.

"So. Should I ask? Did you enjoy the volunteering today?" He was resting against the wall of the space he used for practising in, arms folded and legs crossed, but rather than look down at the PET, Jenny paused what she was doing and looked up instead, glancing at herself in the mirror, and then blushing furiously all over again.

"I.. Ah, I had a, a um good time, yeah. I met some," There was a very slight hitch in her words, though she didn't actually stumble this time, but it was enough for Courser to hear it. "Nice people. I twisted my ankle, but they helped me take care of it." Inside the PEt, Courser smirked to himself.

"Oh? Is that why you were wearing someone else's swimsuit when I came back?" The girl gasped softly, and he heard her drop the packet for the upgrade she was holding and grab the PET looking into it more directly.

"N-No, I mean, yes, but, ahhh! It's not like that, I mean, well... oh gods... No, look, I slipped and fell in the pool, and they had to give me something to change into, ok, that's all." He looked up at her, opening one eye enough to raise an eyebrow at her.

"That sounds like an answer you'd give your mum. Come on Jen, what happened." He as rewarded by more furious blushing and the PET being thrown back onto the bed beside her. there was quiet for a few more moments as she busied herself opening several more packets and laying out the upgrades more neatly in an effort to buy time.

"So, uh... I might have gotten changed in the same change room as a guy. Uhhh... he might also have been naked at the same time." He couldn't see it, but he heard the sound of Jenny covering her face with her hands. "There was another girl there too, so it was ok. Well, sort of. She was still fully dressed, it was jut me and him, and... that doesn't make it nay better does it? Oh gods, I don't really know, why, I just... it felt like.... I shouldn't have done that, I know I shouldn't have. I don't know why I did." As more of the story unfolded, courser frowned to himself, a bit more concerned than he had been.

"There wasn't pressure was there Jenny? Who was the other girl?" On the bed, Jenny lowered her head and mumbled something into her chest that Courser couldn't hear clearly. "Jenny? I'm serious, if anyone was trying to pressure you to do things you didn't want to, that's not on." she shook her head and mumbled more, and only managed to speak clearly after further prompting.

"It was all me. The other girl was really nice. I think I made her uncomfortable. We didn't, you know, do anything, or anything. He didn't even see me, I don't think. We were just there, and I had to change, and I made him strip off, so I could get a peek, and said it was only fair. Gods that was so mean. I'm terrible... I don't know why I was thinking any of that!"

"Let me ask you a question then. Be honest. Was he pretty?" Without really thinking about it, Jenny bit her lip and closed her eyes, leaning forward slightly with a soft moan.

"Mm, gorgeous..." She put a hand to her mouth a moment later, but Courser was already chuckling.
"Let's call it hormones then, shall we?"
"Hey! I... well, what did you get up to then?" The sudden switch aught him slightly off guard, and when he took a moment to think about exactly what he had gotten up to, Courser hesitated.

"I... Had a good time, and I met some nice people." The PET flicked around as Jenny brought it to her face again, looking at him much more squarely.
"Really. And just what did you do with these nice people?"
"Ask me no questions, Jenny, and I'll tell you no lies." She made a small indignant sound, and bounced on the bed briefly, slapping the quilt beside her with one hand in frustration.
"That's no any answer! Come on, tell me!" Courser sighed and shrugged his shoulders.
"Suffice to say there's a couple of ladies who would probably very much welcome me writing them a note."
"So will you?"
"Don't know. Maybe. It was a fun game."
"You're no fun."
"I'm glad you had a good day, Jenny, and I'm relieved that nothing got out of hand." The more quiet, serious tone settled her back down and she nodded, still blushing delicately.
"You won't tell mum?"
"Of course not. Just, be careful, alright?" She nodded to him, then finished installing the last upgrades.
"I'm going to have some afternoon tea, then give Rach a call." As with other recent times, she only checked that the door was properly closed before shedding her towel and finishing drying off, without taking any measures to prevent courser himself from seeing. Even so, Courser didn't watch as she got dressed again into some light afternoon clothes then headed downstairs.
"Oh, shut up, that's not true! Hey, I don't! No, but seriously, I don't. I haven't ever... I mean, I've though about it, and you know, I guess I... Hey, no, no, be serious, come on, that's not fair. Everyone's done that, but I don't... Oh hush... Not like that! Ok, ok, so you're going to tell me everything, right? Like, tell me about the shop first, I've only ever looked at it down the street when I go by..." Courser listened to Jenny lying on her bed, phone to one ear while she squirmed and rolled in embarrassed glee over whatever conversation she was having with Rachel. It sounded harmless enough, from what he could gather, but the ever flirtatious navi had more than the tittering of teenage girls on his mind at the moment.

He was resting in the homespace of his PET for now, but small moments to do extra reading and research in between his other responsibilities had left him more certain than ever that whatever iceberg he'd scraped the tip of a few weeks earlier, people were suffering because of it, Mafia or not. He was sure enough of that, at least, that he was finding it harder and harder to justify doing and saying nothing, and contenting himself with the excuse of looking for more information. He knew full well the only way to get better information was to go to the source.

"Ok, ok, here's the deal; Movie night. Thursday, your place, and I'll bring the snacks, deal? Your folks are going to be away until next Tuesday, so it's perfect, and you can even show me." When he glanced her way, Courser could see Jenny had blushed a scarlet shade across her cheeks and he couldn't help a small smirk to himself. While the two worked out the extra details, Courser began drafting a quick posting for what he wanted to do, then cleared his throat as Jenny hung up.

"All planned out, Jen? Might I suggest you be sure to pack your classic lit. books, and I'll clear it with your mother. That's a class you and Rach both share, and you're moving towards the end of your current module in it, so I'll let her know that it will be a study evening, and promise to make you both stick to it, if she'll let you make it a sleep-over without a fuss." Jenny sat up, still trying to hide her blushing, and fanned at herself.

"Hey, you make it sound like I'm planning something naughty. It's just a movie night!" Courser looked back at her and raised an eyebrow silently. After a second she sighed and fell back on her bed looking at the ceiling. "Do you have to come? No offence, but... kinda hard to have a girls' movie night if..." He chuckled softly.

"Who said I was doing this out of the goodness of my heart? I haven't had a chance to talk with Nara in weeks." Jenny pushed herself up enough on an elbow to look across at the desk where the PET was propped up. She was smirking now, which told him he'd won.

"What ever do you mean? You can email her whenever you want to."
"And of course, by 'talk' I mean, in person, in Rachel's PET. In private. Without being disturbed."
"Right. Talking. Alright, alright, fine."
"So, Jen, that means you're not doing anything tonight, right?"
"Hmm?"
"Bit more serious, but I want to be sure you're home and safe tonight, and not doing anything you might need me for." He'd been wondering how best to ask, but just going ahead and saying it was best, now that he'd promised to cover for her with her mother. Jenny rolled over and turned around, sitting up to look at the screen properly once she caught his more serious tone. Courser continued once he had her attention.

"You remember, a few weeks back, I mentioned that I'd accidentally stumbled on something that I needed to look more into, but I didn't want you involved? Well, knowing what I know, I can't put off not doing anything, when other navis are getting hurt. I'd rather I hadn't found out, honestly, but now that I have... Anyway, I need to speak to people who are associated with net crime, and I am absolutely not going to involve you in it, so, I need you to jack me in tonight, and leave me be until I let you know I'm done." He watched as her expression shifted through a few feelings, settling on a dissatisfied pout.

"I guess I did promise. Alright. I was thinking of catching up on that series Rachel wanted me to watch. The one about the sports school for girls that has the werewolf cult in it?" Courser rolled his eyes.
"I still think that that's nothing but a thinly veiled excuse for soft core girl-on-girl material, you know."
"There are a lot of bedroom and change room scenes... but, I mean, it's a private boarding school for sports, so dorms and change rooms are going to take up a lot of it anyway, right?"
"If you say so. Happy watching, and ah, Jen? Lock your door. Just trust me, even if you don't think it's questionable, I'm sure your mum will." Now it was his operator's turn to roll her eyes at him, before she clambered off the bed to close her door and retrieve an external drive from her bag. She took the extra moment to jack him in as requested before settling down to her show.

((CourseMan jacking in to -> Teksqp Jail House))
((Courser Returning From -> A Rather Strange Diplomatic Mission))

Courser returned to Jenny's PET to the sounds of two female voices speaking in husky tones and sounding both confused and out of breath. It was coming from a computer screen, displaying the suspect anime that Jenny had been recommended by Rachel, and Courser glanced out to see what looked like a locker-room, half full of steam from the adjoined showers. Jenny was watching in rapt fascination, her cheeks bright scarlet. Courser arched an eyebrow towards no-one in particular, and kept silent, muting the sound on the PET from his side as he left the silly girl to her show. Yes. Totally innocent show about young teens at an all-girls school. Of course.

Several excessively flesh-toned episodes of young girls investigating werewolf cults and 'accidentally' exploring their budding sexuality with each other later, Jenny retired for a shower that Courser wagered had only a tangential relation to getting clean, and then sleep while he continued to ponder exactly what he was doing messing with Mafia affairs and potentially altering the course of several navi's lives with his meddling. He wondered if Mime would thank him, or resent him, for his actions, and he wondered the same about Shok. When he rested at last it was with the sneaking feeling that some of his decisions were going to bite him, somehow.

====

Life continued with the same sense of comfortable normalcy it had taken on for the next few days as he put the more complicated matters out of mind and settled back into school routines with Jenny. The evening of her arranged sleep over crept around and he made the requisite promises to her mother and ensured that all of the various study books they'd almost certainly not end up using were packed in her bag. As they left the house, he thought to ask the girl to swing by SciLab on the way, and work through some of the previous mission rewards; the chance to do so hadn't yet come up, but he knew he might as well, once they were out of her mother's supervision.

((To -> The Navi Shop))
((From -> The Navi Shop))

By the time Jenny arrived at her friend's house, she was feeling sorely tempted to make an immediate start on some of the snacks she'd brought with her. There was enough movie food in her back pack to last both of them all night and ensure that neither of them wold really be interested in eating anything substantial all evening. More responsible people would disapprove, but they weren't here. Well. One was, but he was going to keep his pretty face quiet anyway.

Rachel's home was very similar to her own. Beyond a certain stage, the suburban sprawl led to sets of houses that were functionally carbon copies of one another, at least at a basic level. Rachel's family had opted to focus on the hyper modern design aspects, and the facade of the home was all white panels and silver fittings, with a sleek modern feel, even if it was structurally not very different from her own. The garden had been replaced with a raked gravel bed, with artsy rocks dotted about it in various places, and the steps led up to a broad verandah that jutted out above the two-car car port with its sliding door closed, beneath.

The doorbell was a simple buzzer that replicated the sound of an old pull-ringer, complete with the ratcheting sound behind the rotary clapper and the retraction of the cord; it was an odd piece of 'ye olde' juxtaposed with the refined, modern design of everything else.

Inside the house was more of the same, and Jenny had never ceased to find it amusing. Smooth, clear, almost futuristic settings, remarkable for their minimalism, dotted about with the occasional ancient brass or steel relic from ages long past. Rachel followed after her father in terms of tech smarts and a fascination with the marvels of modern design and programming, while her mother enjoyed mocking them both with her tinkering projects, pulled wholesale out of some hidden time portal.

Today was not the time for tours, however, and before long Jenny and Rachel had ensconced themselves in the latter's bedroom, surrounded on the bed by bowled-up selections of corn chips, jelly snakes and a half a dozen other foods that they both knew they really oughtn't eat in the amounts they were probably going to. Between them a spread of cases for different movies made a messy nest of titles.

“...and I hung them on a peg at the other end of the change room! It was hilarious. I really don't know what came over me, hehe!!” Jenny was already working up a blush from simply sharing the embarrassing story, bouncing slightly where she sat cross-legged on the bed, but Rachel only waved a hand at her as she smirked back.

“Yeah, but did you at least get a good look... you know? Don't tell me you did all that but you didn't end up peeking?” Rach had leaned in, eyes dancing and grin bright as she hung on the details.

“No! Of course not!! I mean... Well, I thought about it, but...” She waved her hands in a futile attempt to communicate the feeling. “No! Anyway, that was it! I got dressed after hat and we got out of there!” More laughter filled the bedroom as their chatter moved on. Eventually a movie was selected and started, while neither girl paid too much attention to it in reality. After about half an hour of snacking nad chatting, a lull in the conversation prompted Jenny to throw a jelly snake at her friend.

“So, come on. You went to a sex shop. And you bought something. I want you to tell me everything. Properly, this time.” It was during the nervous giggles that courser finally decided it was time to clear his throat.

“Ladies, as much as I'm aware you aren't going to be studying much, I did promise you mum that I would be sure to remind you to do your work. So. I'm reminding you to do your work. Promise discharged. I think it's about time I left you both to your girls' night though, don't you?”

At the sound of a male voice in the room, both girls jumped and gasped, and Jenny rolled her eyes while Rachel giggled. Jenny rolled over and fussed with her bag for a bit, retrieving the PET and tossing it across to Rachel, who snagged it out of the air.

“Right, right, I'll send you over. Have fun with Nara, she knows you're coming!” Rachel pulled her own device out of her bedside table and quickly fiddled with both of them to handle the transfer, before dropping both into the top drawer and closing it again. She turned back and bend over the edge of the bed, searching for something else, before she returned with a small black bag, bearing a stylish red logo, a mischievous grin plastering her features. “So...”
====

As fascinating as it might be listening to his charge and her equally teenage friend giggling over naughty excursions into adult shops, Courser himself was somewhat relieved to find himself landing at the entrance to Nara's personal homespace, inside Rachel's PET.

It was a familiar space; softly lit aquarium-lights showing a myriad of platforms of different heights and shapes, each with their own functions. There were no walls here, and the floor was make of gently flowing spring water that seemed to come up from below in the centre of each platform, connecting back to the ground via thin, gracefully curving conduits.

The navi herself was waiting for him, leaning with her arms folded and a small smile, in the curve of one of the supporting curls of water. Nara was the first navi he'd ever met, and his most formative memories were of spending time with her, getting his bearings and testing his capabilities. Today, she was dressed in a short jacket made of damp material that slipped easily across the dark brown of her skin. A chest band preserved her modesty, while still showing off the impressive definition of an athletic, slim build. A thin sarong was tied about her waist, sheer enough to show short, blue swim shorts underneath, but revealing the rest of her otherwise bare legs.

“Hey there, pretty boy.”
“Hey, scary lady.” Courser shrugged and let himself glide across to her with a small bow. “My thanks for allowing me to visit you in your most elegant abode.” A short peal of laughter was followed by a hand down to shove his shoulder lightly.
“Shut up, you...” He stood and spread his arms in helpless gesture, before Nara grabbed him into a brief hug. He gripped back and they laughed for a moment before parting. Her expression turned serious and soft as they calmed. “How you doing? I heard you were getting into some serious business...” She tilted her head and raised an eyebrow, and Courser just nodded back.

“Yeah... Got some real worries.”
“Boss-man's been tweaking the nose of organised crime!” A decoy hung off his shoulder, smirking as it piped up.
“And joining them too!” Another slipped out of shadowy curls on his other side. courser grimaced and waved the errant thoughts away.
“That's not even the big news!” A clone slipped up from the waters, lying on its front and kicking its heels behind it playfully.
“Hush you!” He banished it, but Nara was already looking at him with a measuring eye.
“You sure you're okay?”
“It's complicated.” She nodded and walked with him back to the centre of the main platform before making a small gesture with her hand. The water rose, swelling at first, then splitting into rising streams that carried the two navis up and around to one of the smaller platforms set with furniture. Courser let one hand slip into the column as it guided him, the rest of his body free, until he could drop down into one of the watery cushioned blob-chairs. Nara slipped down beside him, one hand on her chin as she watched him. It took him a few moments of of focus to pick his words and ensure no errant thoughts became mouthy decoys.

“I'm worried. I don't know if I'm keeping this together as well as I'm pretending to.” Beside him, Nara ran a spare hand through her hair, flicking water out of the long blue-black strands as she pulled two cups of a faintly blue-green drink from the ether.

“From the beginning then...” She handed him a mug and Courser took it, along with a deep breath.

===

Talking to Nara was always calming for him; it made talking about the honest things easier, when he couldn't with others. As much as Jenny and Rachel both assumed they were spending the time in intimate activity... and they were... but their relationship had never actually been like that, and courser felt strangely more comfortable that both girls thought he was just making a house call for sex. It was an illusion he and Nara both maintained.

Despite his best efforts, frequent slips from decoys rushing ahead in his story, or spilling indelicate descriptions of things that he had wanted to explain more tactfully. It was a comfort, in way, that her eyes never wavered from him as they spoke, and she never paid his clone slips any direct attention. A few times, they even complained of her ignoring them, which was new since they'd last spoken, but she kept a straight face all through it. Eventually he reached the end of his story.

“I don't know what I'm going to do about this 'blesser' problem, but I'm involved in it, and the mafia, now beyond any really getting out of it.” He shook his head, “and beside that, I... there are people who will get hurt if I step away now.” Here, Nara leaned back and contemplated him with a turn of her head.

“This isn't your normal flirt-and run behaviour, is it? You like these girls? It sounded like you got quite serious about it.” Courser let his head drop and looked down at himself for a few moments.

“Navis bond quickly, I know. I've known them barely any time at all, but... it's been fun, and I've enjoyed spending time playing with them, teasing them, flirting... but... but I think I would be upset, if something were to happen to them.” He stood and stretched, rolled his shoulders and took a walk around the platform they'd rested on. “I've actually...”

“Pretty-boy's got a Daaaate!!” From off to the side, a clone lounged in another chair, holding both hands under his chin as he teased. Courser ignored it.

“There's a celebration, for Mime being exonerated and free. It's tonight.” Here, Nara just grinned at him.
“Well you'd better get going then, sport! You don't want to be late, do you?”
“It's... also where I'm supposed to get formally accepted into the net mafia...”
“Ahh...”
“Yeah...” Courser ran a hand through his hair and focused on straightening his already straight jacket. Nara stood and stepped in behind, putting her arms around his shoulders. He relaxed and closed his eyes, leaning his had back against the woman's shoulder in response.
“Listen... you'll be fine. Just be you. All of you. I know it's gotten worse, and I know you're scared, but you're going to be okay.” She gave him a squeeze then stood back and turned him around.

“Now go be dazzling, pretty boy. I can handle the jack-in from here, and as long as you're back before tomorrow morning I doubt the girls will notice.” She winked at him and courser grinned back.

“Right. How do I look?”
“Roguish and dangerous, you tall glass of water.”
“Thanks Nara. See you later!” He straightened properly and gave her a last salute as she brought up a touch screen and managed the permissions, before the navi sank back into the shadows and disappeared.

((To -> TaxidermyMan's Museum))
((Returning from -> TaxidermyMan's Museum))

Courser felt mentally and emotionally exhausted by the time he returned, first to Rachel and Nara's PET, and the soft, water-bed cushions of her living area. The other navi was nowhere to be seen initially, but after a moment she arrived, sliding down one of the curving water columns from a platform above. She dropped into a seat across from him and folded her arms, raising an eyebrow.

“You look wrecked. Rough couple of hours?” Courser nodded, then sat up and stood, rolling his shoulders and shaking himself out.

“Yeah. Everyone is safe, for now. I'm... 'accepted' into the mafia now. It certifiably is a mess, but I think I understand more about some of the angles. My new boss thinks I'm mouthy. Don't know where she gets that impression from.” Here he paused and glanced to Nara with a weary, but wry expression while she smirked. She stood again as well after a moment.

“Well, you can tell me more about it later. Right now, a certain someone is desperate to talk to you about an odd message you sent her, so you'd best get going.” Courser just nodded back, then hugged the other navi when she stepped in closer. After a few more seconds, they parted and courser gave her a lazy salute, before stepping off the platform and disappearing into shadows.

==

He arrived back in his own PET a moment later, and was immediately treated to a sudden swing in view as Jenny scooped it off the table it had been resting on. Out of the drawer, then, he noted. Her face appeared before the screen, eyes bright and curious, with with a false suspicious narrowing that he tried hard not to be amused by.

“There you are! You didn't tell me you were going out! What was with that message? Nothing happened, after it anyway, and Nara wouldn't tell us where you were!” Edging in beside her, though less obviously energetic, Rachel cast him a more amused eye over her friend's shoulder. Courser just shrugged.

“Well, Jen, a person has to have their secrets, don't they? Do you think you dad would like it if he knew what sorts of movies you two were watching tonight, while not-studying?” Jenny pinked in the cheeks very quickly, but he raised his hands to placate her before she could object or take his comment poorly.

“Don't worry, don't' worry. I'll tell you some, but not all. It was more of that business I told you about, which I can't get you involved in... and that goes for you as well, Rachel... I know Jen's probably told you everything by now, enough to know it's serious stuff. I'm not going to put either of you at risk.”

“And what about you, hmm?” Rachel has crossed her arms and sat back on the end of the bed, with a frown. “The mafia uses jack out barriers, you know... you need to be careful, and someone else needs to know where you are and what you're doing, just in case.” Here, Jenny turned to look at her friend with a startled expression.

“Barriers? You mean, like, so he won't just zip back if he gets zapped or something?” The other girl nodded.
“Murder is a bit harder in the net world, but the criminal element has its ways... and looking at your expression, CourseMan, I'd say you're very aware of that already. Just what were you doing? Come on. Answers, now.” There was a more serious sense of command in Rachel's tone, and it was hard to directly deny the one responsible for his existence. Courser shook his head and sighed.

“Alright, alright. Just settle, both of you, and I'll tell you what I can. but you've got to promise me, neither of you are getting involved, and neither of you are going snooping on my behalf. Understood?” When they both nodded in response, Courser relented and began to fill in the details of his excursions for them.

==

It was a few days later before Courser took the opportunity to actually use the reward payments he'd been given.

((Courser, Branch to -> The Navi Shop))
((Courser, Branch Back from -> The Navi Shop))

A few days passed in relative normalcy for Courser, after the events at the museum. No urgent notifications or mail messages came from anyone, and he spent the time contemplating his own unstable mental condition. It wasn't too bad, most of the time. It only got pressing when he was conflicted, or his underlying thoughts were at odds with his actions.

Jenny was being good other word, at least, and hadn't prodded any further after he'd given them both as much of the story as he could. As much as he played it off, he was still uncomfortable about how close he had probably come to getting several people killed – and how a single errant thought escaping through a decoy could have changed everything in very undesirable ways.

It was a rainy afternoon, a few days later, when Courser gave up on serious meditation and practice with his clones – one too many under-the-radar heckles and they had started to get on his nerves enough to more or less ruin his concentration. He banished the remaining clones and stood with an aggravated sigh.

“Hey Jenny, are you up to much this afternoon?” He called out, glancing across at the screen. It was facing her bedroom, from her desk. Jenny herself was lying in an awkward position on her bed, skimming through internet videos with a bored expression. She perked up at the sound of his voice.

“Nah. New episode won't come out until tomorrow. I really don't need to do any more study or homework though. Really. Like, my lit assignment isn't due for two weeks, and that's the only thing I've got right now. No work tonight, Courser... please?” She groaned and flailed in an ineffectual manner, waving her tablet about. This was supposed to lend weight to her please, he supposed. fortunately, Jenny was in luck.

“Alright, alright. Listen, I actually wanted to go shake some of the rust off and stretch myself out a bit. I need to get out of my head for a bit, and clearing out a few viruses would be a good way to do it. What do you say? Feel up to manning the chips for a while?” He began to stretch out before she answered anyway, moving through to the exit pad of the PET's internal home page.

“Oh! Yeah, that'd be fun. I'm tired of watching these super ancient minecraft videos. Can you believe that that's what 'good' game graphics used to look like? Let me just get a snack, then I'll jack you in!” She bounced off the bed with all the enthusiasm of a teenager who felt like she'd dodged homework, and Courser waited until her footsteps on the stairs had retreated, and then returned, and the girl had settled herself again, PET in hand.

((Courser, Jacking In -> The Bounty Shop))

Only a short while into operating for Courser, Jenny found herself looking out the window and imagining the cool breeze that she could see blowing in the trees outside, as they swayed their branches in the warm afternoon sun. She sighed and kicked her legs as she lay on her bed.

“I don't want to be inside...” On the screen, courser was carefully scouting the scenes of his latest battle and checking for remaining threats, while data spoils were channelled into the PET's storage. Jenny absently fed it a blank chip to print onto.

“Hey... There was that terrace cafe that Rach was telling me to try out, wasn't there? She said she takes lunch there any time she's swinging by SciLab for parts. I keep promising to check it out. We could go there!” On screen, Courser did one final pass of the area before relaxing for a moment.

“If you like, Jen. Just let your mum know that you're going out. I think I'm okay here. Probably lose you in the transit for a moment or two, but there's nothing her I can't take care of, I don't think. Bring a coat, I know it's sunny and warm now, but you know it gets cool quickly in the afternoons around SciLab.” Jenny was already clambering off the bed and pulling open her closet to get changed.

((Jenny, moving to -> SciLab))